About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hell of Bra Shopping

NOTE:  If you're a guy, you might want to skip this one.  If you read it anyway, nice comments would be appreciated.

Blogging about personal experiences runs the risk of exposing one's soft underbelly and making one far too vulnerable to ridicule.  I've worried all night about this blog topic, but have decided to post it anyway because boobs are ubiquitous (50 percent of the world's population has them!) and I'm sure I'm not alone in hating most of my bra-shopping experiences.  And, as the 1960s showed us (if not earlier), the personal is political.

Yesterday, I went bra shopping. This would have been a completely un-blog-worthy experience had it gone as I had hoped (go in, find bra I like, find it in my size, buy it, leave).  It, of course, did not.

I walked directly to the dressing rooms, asked to be put in one, and for the women to bring me bras to try on (this is standard operating procedure at Victoria's Secret).

"Can you bring me some bras to try on?  I'm a size 36A."

"Oh!" (Skinny chick with big breasts and perfect skin stares at me.  Her eyebrows go up to hairline.)  "That is a really unusual size.  We don't have much to offer you."

For a second, I felt like a creature from Ripley's Believe It or Not.  I'm that unusual?  Really?

Now, I wasn't *completely* surprised about hearing this, only because the last time I went bra shopping (also at Victoria's Secret) the woman tried to convince me that I couldn't really be a 36A; I must really be a 34B.  When she measured me, she said, "Oh, you really are a 36A."

She said that in the same voice that, I imagine, she would use to say, "Oh, you really do have leukemia."

In other words, how disappointing that a) I've got small boobs and b) I've bot a "big" rib cage.  My body should know that if it has the former, it should not have the latter.

The woman had then gone on to reassure me:  "We can find something to help you."  Again, the same tone in which one would reassure a cancer patient that chemo will save her life.

I found myself, in the dressing room, actually fighting tears.  Yes, I know.  An overly emotional moment.  We all have them.  Move on.

Then, I found myself fighting anger:  who the hell trains these (buxom) twenty-somethings who work at Victoria's Secret? And why has the industry decided that it will only cater to the bell curve (pardon the pun) of bra sizes?  (I say "bell curve" because I fully realize that my sisters at the other end of the spectrum -- with very large breasts -- aren't served well by Victoria's Secret, either.)

Three of the six bras I was given to try on were immensely padded, giving the clear message that I am not good enough.  While there is a trend currently for all bras to be padded (just walk through a lingerie department if you don't believe me), many of the ones in my size had tags on them claiming to give me two extra cup sizes.

I didn't ask for that.  And the bras look ridiculous on.  It's like trying to wear a pillow across a flat chest.

I bought the two (plain -- one white, one black) that looked the best on my body and which were the most comfortable, regardless of whether they "enhance" me in any way.

When I got home, I went online.  Roughly 15% of the American population is my size.  To be perfectly frank, more women would be if there was not such an obesity epidemic in our society.  The average breast size among American women used to be 34B; now it is 36C -- attributable to obesity, the increasing presence of hormones in our environment, and the numbers of women seeking breast implants.  Reputedly, the percentage of women seeking breast implants rose an astounding 39% between 2000 and 2010.  (Of course, the more women think they "need" implants and seek them, the more the bras will be built for the "ideal" woman and not for the variety of us that actually exist out here.)

In any case, when more than 10% of the population is similar to me, it means there are MILLIONS of women with my size boobs (and rib cage).  There should be more than three choices of bras at Victoria's Secret that are for "us".

I asked if there were any of the "cute" ones in my size.  You know -- the striped ones, the polka dotted ones, the lacy ones, the ones with little bows, the ones that come with matching panties.


There are HUNDREDS of bras in Victoria's Secret.  Any of the ones that might be described as "cute" or "sexy" are not available in my size.


I went to another store to see if it had what I was looking for.


"I want a kinda sexy lacy bra in a size 36A."

Older (busty) lady with lapel pin which reads, "Certified fit specialist," looks at me, raises her eyebrows to her hairline and declares, "That is a tall order."

I sighed and gave up.

There are a million funny things about bodies.  Your tummy is fat.  Your thighs are too big.  Your eyebrows are too thin or too bushy.  Your ears are too big or they stick out.  You have an uneven skin tone.  You have acne.  Your teeth are yellow.  That hair on your upper lip is a little too noticeable.  Your breath is bad.  You are too tall or too short or too sound or too skinny.  Your hair is too curly or too straight or too wild.  That cowlick of yours is a bear to handle.  Your nose is too prominent.  Your eyes are too close together or too small.  You have weird toes.  You have fat feet.  Man, you have BIG feet!   Those varicose veins are ugly.  Your ass is WAY too big.  It really isn't attractive to have your crack show.

Some of this attention to our bodies might, arguably, be good:  we should take care of ourselves, exercise more, show some pride in appearance.  A certain degree of civilization demands that.

But when an entire fashion industry essentially shuts out  more than 10% of the (normal) population, it's time to make the personal public.

Lingerie manufacturers:  we are not all a "C" cup.  And the answer to that "problem" is not to tell us to get implants to fit your image of the ideal, or to wear hugely padded, uncomfortable, ugly bras.  We would like to, once in a while, have the same bra style options as our sisters have with their "ideal"-sized assets.

There's nothing wrong with us; there is something wrong with you.


  1. Hi Elaine. How awful! You might enjoy this article from the fashion section of the New York Times how women of smaller sizes are embracing and celebrating their bodies:


    After years of wearing padded bras, I've started wearing ones that aren't, and am so much more comfortable.

    What's really horrifying is that the fashion industry is selling these padded bras to younger and younger girls. Pre-teens with a push up bra? Just as horrifying is that statistic about women seeking breast implants rising 39 percent over a decade.

  2. Catherine -- Yes, I was with my 14 year old and the bras that they gave HER were all incredibly padded (and, cough, she doesn't need that). I commented that why would anybody put a padded bra on a teen girl and was told "so that nipples don't show". I kinda get that, but the amount of padding in these bras is FAR more than what would be required to hide a little nipple. As if (gasp) people don't know that women have breasts AND nipples. (Eyeroll.)

  3. I hear your pain, Elaine - At one point I was a 42A, and then a 44B, and those sizes are just not easily found in conventional bras - somebody seems to have decided that if your # is large, then the cup is too. (Not that I think a 36 is large, mind you.) The only bras I used to be able to find were Playtex, but that was years ago. I also spent a lot of time wearing bra extenders to make smaller # bras larger so they'd kinda fit. It's amazing though how they can make one feel like a freak of nature when there's absolutely nothing wrong with either of us.

    I started having my bras custom made from decentexposures.com - they're not sexy bras, but more like sports bras. But they have cute colors and they actually FIT! If you're in Seattle they'll custom fit you, but you can do it through mail too - you just might have to keep sending it back for customizations - making the straps longer, armhold cut out lower, stuff like that. And they're fully returnable if you don't like it. If you go that route, their sizing is a bit unconventional - I wore a 44B conventionally, but a 44D in their sizes - don't really care what they called the size as long as it fit. Just follow their fitting instructions.

  4. thanks so much for posting. I get your dilemma about whether this was too personal, but I really think you're doing something important in helping dispel the shame here. I have had this same experience--in fact, I am sometimes too embarrassed to even ask the store ladies for any help! but i loved realizing that lots of other people in lots of walks of life are the same size and shape as me and there's nothing to be ashamed of. it doesn't mean anything about my personality and it's definitely not something i can control. so thanks!

  5. Glad you posted this after the hesitation you experienced-most personal things these days have political undertones.
    Although your post deals on the surface with society's issues with body image and ideal shapes, I was intrigued at the consumer linkage. It seems these days the corporate-retail sector is moulding us more than we think by only offering certain products. Some of us fight it, but others give in and eventually can't remember what their life was like without a padded bra, for instance (reminder:itchy bulky and uncomfortable). Just another way in which others determine who we are/look like without us really paying any attention.

  6. Oh, I hate shopping for bras. And I'd never go to Victoria's Secret. Nothing about my body meets their standards of perfection. Since you know your size, I think you might like shopping online. HerRoom.com has lots of bras in your size, and they're easy to deal with. They offer a great return policy and lots of advice on how to fine tune your fit.

    Figleaves.com also offers great fitting advice.

  7. I really liked this post. While I think it's great that those of us who are not a "normal" width and "normal" cup size can be accommodated online, there's something depressing about the thought that we're not properly enough endowed to shop along with what the fashion designers have decreed as the normal range.

    It's hot here in NY, so I'm not going to wear a bra today at all. If my nipples are too scary for polite company, well, that's their problem, not mine!

    Julie (who is a small A!)

  8. Hoo boy! I have had EXACTLY this experience, and also at Victoria's Secret. When I announced to the clerk that I needed a 36A, she said I must be wrong. After she measured me, she said, "Oh my God! You ARE a 36A!" I kid you not. Then she tried to back-peddle, apparently realizing she had been insensitive, and said, "My best friend is your size. This (pointing to a padded bra) is the bra she wears." Ever since I buy my bras at Fred Meyer. I agree -- the padded ones usually look ridiculous!

    But do not lament. Michelle Obama has small breasts (and huge hips!). And Lord knows, people find her gorgeous!


  9. Haha! I'm sorry they gave you the shabby treatment at Vicky's. All of my clothing comes from thrift stores. (I get into the "reuse" thing.) Since the selection is slim, I don't always get bras that exactly fit but I go for what is comfortable and in excellent condition. Next time, order your bras online (V Secret has a website for ordering). You can find your size and style! Love your blog. I'm a new reader.

  10. This guy enjoyed your post. I'm an anthropologist, and I'm working with a team of women anthropologists and researchers at (wait for it!) Hanes (who bring you Bali and Playtex and Wonderbra and BarelyThere and some others! The women (and a few men, too) designers at Hanes "get it," and I think your post speaks to the experience of many, many women out there. Finding something that respects who you are, and feels good, should not be such a challenge. Thanks for sharing this!
    ken erickson

  11. Denae and Ken -- Thanks for joining the conversation! Ken -- Glad to hear that a guy read this and "gets it". (I suspect more did, but have been chicken to comment.) :)

    Denae -- I like second hand shopping too!


Politeness is always appreciated.