Most women have a good idea of what size clothes they wear. There might be some variation in labels or if weight is lost or gained, but overall, they know what size to buy. But ask a woman what size bra she should be wearing and she’ll probably give you the wrong answer. In fact, at least 80 percent of women in North America are wearing the wrong size bra.

A pro weighs in

Trained bra-fitter Debbie Donelle sees an even higher number of ill-fitting bras among the women who visit her Montreal boutique, Lingerie DEBra. “I would say that 9.5 out of 10 women who walk into this store are wearing the wrong size bra,” she says.

According to Donelle, to appeal to the average woman, most stores carry band sizes starting at 34 and ending at 38, with cup sizes from B to D. But in reality, there are women who need bras as small as 28 inches around with double A cups to as large as 52 around with N cups. So if a woman is presented with such a limited range and doesn’t know her actual size, she is likely to be stuck with an uncomfortable, too small or too large bra.

Starting off on the wrong foot

Most girls and adolescents start to wear a training bra when their breasts start budding, but they aren’t usually taught how to choose a bra that fits their own unique body. Part of the reason is the easy availability of mass-produced one-size-fits-all products and part is that many mothers don’t know about the importance for all women, including developing adolescents, to be fit properly. “Part of our mission here is to educate,” says Donelle. “We’ll have a mom come in for a fitting and after say, ‘I have to bring my daughter here,’ and she does.”

The importance of a good fit

A properly fitting bra can do wonders for a woman, both physically and psychologically.

A size 38D breast, on average, weighs about 600 grams or 1.3 pounds. That’s a lot of weight focused on one area. If a woman is wearing a bra that doesn’t support her breasts properly, the weight can pull on her shoulder straps and could cause upper back, neck, or shoulder pain. On the other hand, if she is wearing a properly fitting bra, 80 percent of the breast weight is supported by the bra’s band, leaving no strain on the shoulder straps.

About 70 percent of women suffer from some sort of breast pain and 40 percent of women who haven’t yet gone through menopause suffer from cyclical breast pain, says Vera Rosolowich, RN, a certified lactation consultant.

For many, the simple solution is to wear a properly fitted bra. “The bra gives the breasts stability, so the breast tissue isn’t moved around,” she explains. Your breasts, if unsupported, can move as much as 12 centimetres while you are jumping or running. “This breast movement can be quite uncomfortable, even if you don’t usually have breast pain,” explains Rosolowich.

The change is good

Angela West, a writer in Nipissing, Ontario, understands this breast pain. After years of buying bras from department stores and not getting the support she needed, West visited a bra-fitter recommended by a friend. Her old bras didn’t feel comfortable, she says. “My straps would slip down. They would feel too tight around the bottom but loose on top. I was definitely getting pain in the muscles above my breasts.”

West bought a sports bra and a regular bra during that visit almost three years ago, and she was pleased with the results. “My breasts used to ache quite a bit at the gym, especially when I was doing some heavy cardio, but they didn’t ache at all when I got that properly fitting sports bra.” An added benefit? Her clothes looked better on her because her bra was fitting as it should.

After losing weight, Linda Bell, a communications professional in Montreal, also had trouble finding bras that fit her. “I had gone into a big box store and tried on several different bras. I wasn’t able to find anything that fit, no matter what size I tried on,” she says. “So I decided to go in for a fitting.”

Bell, who was served by Donelle in her boutique, found the fitting a bit unsettling at first. “It was certainly a bit weird to have a woman look at me and say, ‘This is the size you are,’ and for her to actually be right!” But at the same time, it was comforting to talk about bras with someone who was so knowledgeable, Bell adds. “She explained the process from start to finish; exactly where she wanted the band to fit properly, why the band’s fit was so important. There was a lot of confidence that I was going to find a good fit.”

Getting the right fit

Anyone can measure their breasts (there are even YouTube videos to show how), but the best way to be fit is by having a bra-fitter work with you. Word of mouth is how most women find reliable bra-fitters.

You can ask the fitters where they have been trained, if this isn’t mentioned on their website, and what they are looking for when measuring. Those who work in independent boutiques, rather than in brand or label stores are often your best bet for a good, objective fit, suggests Donelle. While they would like to sell you a bra, they don’t have a vested interest in you buying a particular one.

Donelle acknowledges that boutique bras may be pricier than others, but she feels that the cost balances out. West agrees. She says it’s worth the investment for a bra that will last at least twice as long and will support you properly. “I think it’s worth making that investment in yourself.”

Glossary

Adjuster: ends of the band where the fasteners are located

Apex: section where the bra cup meets the front shoulder strap

Band: fabric that goes around your body, measured in inches or centimetres

Centre gore: fabric that joins the two cups in the centre of your chest

Cup: part that holds the breast

Hook and eye: traditional hook closure on most bras

Underwire: flexible wire inserted into the bra

Wing: part of the band that runs from the cup around to the back, under the arm

About the Author

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, is a Montreal-based health writer who is passionate about taking complicated medical information and translating so anyone can understand it.