Short version: American bra sizing is wack and should be ashamed of itself.
Short version Part B: The alphabet doesn’t end at D.
Short version Part C: Do not trust Victoria’s Secret; that bitch will most likely lie to you.
Long version: Heeeeere we go. Sorry. I think lots of thoughts about bra sizes, and I need to get them off my chest (chest! zing!), so y’all grab a drink and a comfy chair and settle in. Ahem. So. Jeez, there’s so much misinformation and confusion amongst women and amongst manufacturers that I don’t know where to start.
Okay, so, most of us have seen a “bra size calculator” like this one, correct?
Note: this is an old calculator that has since been removed from the Playtex website (thanks to the work of Busts4Justice et al!) because SPOILER ALERT it doesn’t work.
Notice how the band size is significantly larger than the actual underbust measurement? We’ll come back to that. Myfirstbra.us still has a similar calculator. I’ve entered the measurements of a woman of my acquaintance who generally wears a 34G in UK brands: 34 inches as an underbust measurement, 43 inches as a bust measurement. The calculator returned the following:
Your bra size is 40H or larger.
THANKS FOR BEING SO SPECIFIC, CALCULATOR.
Okay, so the calculator is a loser, let’s look elsewhere. Oh, sweet, this same mysfirstbra.us website, to which I shall not link because it is useless, gives you a do-it-yourself method! How helpful for women are, in fact, looking for their first bra. I’ll try again. So we all know that we measure under our breasts and then add 4-6 inches and then subtract the circumference of our boobs sans bra, wait, I mean with a bra that fits, and then divide it by your over boob under arm measurement, and . . . wait, what now?
Are you confused? Of course you are. You are confused because the system is hooey. It wasn’t always hooey, and most likely back in the day before the invention of Lycra, glorious Lycra, it was accurate. Your bra didn’t stretch, but you did, so you wanted something that would accommodate your stretching and moving and stuff throughout the day without pinching you and making you want to die. So you measured your underbust, and then you added a couple of inches to allow for movement. Lycra, glorious Lycra, however, will stretch and move and stuff with us, so it can fit more snugly and perfectly. So the first thing that usually blows people’s (cough Americans’ cough) minds (as it did mine) is that the best starting point to finding your band size is the exact measurement of your underbust. No adding inches. Measure (yes, measure! The measuring tape, while not the absolute authority, is not the absolute enemy. See the excellent Brittany from Thin and Curvy’s explanation here) your underbust in inches, and try on a bra in that band size.
Disclaimers still apply: It comes down to what’s comfortable for you! If your measurement is an odd number, yeah, you’ll need to go up or down a size, or get your bra tailored perfectly. Full-busted ladies, and to some extent full-figured ladies (difference between Full Figure and Full Bust explained here, and retailers need to get on board with more offerings for both groups) will most likely prefer a snugger band, because the band is where most of your support comes from. If you’re slim, and your bust isn’t terribly full, you may actually feel more comfortable in a slightly looser band, because otherwise the band will dig directly into your unpadded ribs, and it will hurt. Also, your band size will totally vary from brand to brand, and sometimes within a brand itself (oh, the joys of online shopping).
Wait, back up, because I need to repeat myself: The band is where most of your support comes from. Not the straps. If your bra is digging into your shoulders and you have permanent dents etc., it’s most likely because the band isn’t pulling its weight. If you’re testing a bra to see if it fits, the band should fit firmly without cutting painfully into you, and it should lie level and parallel to the ground across your mid-back. Do you find yourself reaching up and tugging the band down throughout the day, because it’s riding up? That band is too big for you.
You should be able to fit two fingers easily under the band, or tug it just about an inch or so away from your body. ALSO: when you buy a new bra, it should fit snugly on the loosest (outside) set of hooks. Lycra does stretch out after a while, so as you wear it, the band will loosen a bit. The additional hooks are there to tighten the band back up again over the course of the bra’s life.
Okay, so, now you have a band size that’s feeling good. Yay! Is it the same one you started with? If not, you’ll most likely need to adjust your cup size. Your band size and your cup size work together to describe your breast volume, and they’re not independent. When one changes, the other generally does too. Let’s say your old bra was a 38D, and now you’ve discovered that 34 bands fit you best.
Since you’ve gone down two band sizes, you will most likely need to go up two cup sizes to achieve the same cup volume. The cup volume of a 38D bra = the cup volume of a 34E (sigh, DDD in American). Wait, E is two cup sizes bigger than D? Yep. Behold, the English cup sizing system (and the system I think everyone should use, for reasons I’ll get to in another post, because this one is already ridiculous):
AA, A, B, C, D, DD, E, F, FF, G, GG, H, HH, J, JJ, K, KK, L, LL.
Again, there is this weird understanding in the general American consciousness that the boob alphabet ends at D, and if a woman is so inhumanly sized that she needs something beyond this, she just has to keep adding Ds until she gets where she needs to be, because it’s all that’s left to her, poor helpless circus freak. Say it with me: BULLSHIT. This would mean that a woman who wears a UK 30JJ, a totally non-freakish, naturally occurring, and completely lovely size, would wear a US 30DDDDDDDDDDD. Y’all, that way madness lies.
The general rule is that when you decrease your band size by 1 increment, you increase your cup size by 1 increment to compensate, and vice versa (again, see diagram above). It’s not exact, but it’s a good rule of thumb to get started.
What are you looking for to indicate your cup size is a good fit? The wires shouldn’t rest on any breast tissue, either under or surrounding your breasts. If you’re fuller busted, you’ll be able to scoop your breasts into the cup and kind of let them settle in, and the wires will lie directly against your ribcage. You also shouldn’t have any breast tissue squished out the sides of your bra near your armpits (sideboob, blah), although if you’re used to wearing the wrong size, your breast tissue might be used to heading east and west, and you may actually need to train it back where it belongs. If you feel like your underboob (underboob, boo) is getting pinched, sizing up a cup size or two might help, so that the wires lie against your chest, not your boobs. If you’re a small-bust customer and the fabric of your cup is puckering, gaping, or wrinkling, it may indicate that you actually need to go UP a cup size instead of down, so that the wires can circle the breast without compressing it, thereby smoothing out the fabric of the cup. The tops of the cup shouldn’t cut into your breast tissue (“double boob”). One of the single easiest ways to tell if your cup is the right size is the center front: those wires should lie FLAT against your sternum. Completely flush. If the center front’s pulling forward at all, it’s because your breasts are pushing against the wires, and you should go up a cup size.
It’s going to take a few tries to hit the right size, and a few more to discover what style/shape you like best. Everyone’s boobs are different shapes, so even if you’re the same size as another woman, you may each prefer different styles. Many women have one breast that is bigger than the other, sometimes by a whole cup size (joy). When we lose weight, gain weight, get pregnant, have babies, breast feed, get older, exercise, and pretty much live our lives, our bra sizes change. Women are always in flux, and our boobs are along for the ride. An experienced fitter who’s familiar with the different markets and customer needs will be able to suggest styles and sizes that will work for you.
Further reading: the women who have preceded me in raving about lingerie on the internet have covered the topic of fit, sizing, and the horror of bra calculators with humor, grace, and thoroughness. I particularly enjoyed reading the bloggers below:
• The lovely, stylish, and hilarious Georgina: The link goes to her exhaustive fitting archive, covering everything from online calculators to in-store fitting experiences (including some great instances where she deliberately allows a fitter to put her in the wrong size, just to demonstrate the differences between good fit and bad). As a full-figure and full-bust blogger, her eloquent voice is one we passionately need over here in the USA.
• The beautiful ringleader Brittany: Brittany is a pioneering full-bust blogger who wears a 26” band. She offers excellent tips and resources about fit and measuring, as well as where to find bras and retailers that will fit her and her fellow thin and curvy women.
• The wise and pretty Sophia: Sophia offers the perspective of someone who sometimes falls into a black hole in terms of size: 30GG/32G. Some brands don’t make bands below a 32, and some don’t go over a G. Her voice is warm, sensitive, and heartfelt, and she has wonderful opinions and analyses to share.
• Bras I Hate: does not actually hate bras. But I really enjoy reading her eye-opening discussions on different breast shapes, and how to find bras that suit your individual shape. She reinforces the idea that even if the bra is the right size, if you don’t like it, the problem still isn’t you. Her voice is an empowering one, especially as she’s on the lower end of the band sizes (28-30), shopping for GG+ styles. She’s also written some truly awesome, detailed full-bust brand descriptions, highlighting each brand’s offerings, aesthetic point of view, styles, and size range.
• I have not followed Catherine closely, because we are shopping in different lingerie markets, but what a breath of fresh air for every adult woman who wants and deserves beautiful, sophisticated, adult lingerie, only to be handed training bras or massive amounts of padding. She has some wonderful reviews and brand recommendations, including for the difficult to find plus-size-small-bust size ranges.