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Posted by pocochina on December 10, 2011

AKA, everything the nice or not-so-nice lady at Schmedrick’s of Gollywood or Michelina’s (In)Discretion didn’t tell you and you didn’t know to ask.

The first rule of fight club bras is that “standard” sizing is bullshit. If you paid attention to department and famous name brands that will remain nameless, you’d think there was about a four-inch range of female chest cavity sizes, and that all women could be neatly divided up into A-D cups, with a few freakish outliers wearing the dreaded DDs. Crap, just as much as the notion that “standard” “straight-size” dress sizes represent most/all women. A 30 back size is not particularly uncommon; neither is a FF cup size. Most women wear a back size that is far too large for them, and a cup that’s too small, which lets the bra move around and is a recipe for back pain, chafing, pokey underwires, worn-out straps, and the aesthetic horrors of quad boob.

Take the tastefully-lace-lined pink pill, or, if you prefer, the fierce leopard-print one, and leave all that behind.


Ideally, fitting would be a measuring-tape-free experience. If you’re in the UK, get thee to a Bravissimo. Otherwise, I don’t really know, look for a local boutique. BOUTIQUE, not department store or giant brand name store. Get fitted – which mostly means “someone eyeballs you and brings you a pile of different sizes and styles, and tells you which fit you’re not used to is actually perfect” – and then go home and order that size and style from Brastop or Bare Necessities for a more reasonable price.

Notes on fitters: A good fitter is usually humoring you with the tape measure. It’s a prop to look clinical and objective and like they are helping you with your bra size while keeping up the pretense that neither of you are acknowledging the distasteful truth that you have breasts. Also! Sometimes people suck at their jobs, and sometimes people are dicks. If someone body-shames you in any way, or argues with you by waving a measuring tape in your face, she’s a dick; consider this your dispensation to JUST LEAVE. Don’t add to your Bra Baggage. (But, um, she isn’t responsible for the woefully limited sizing options? Or she might be new? Or she might have just closed the store like, six hours before she came back in to open even though she has been very clear about her scheduling needs for SEVERAL YEARS? So, you know, be firm about your requests, but be cool.)

That said, online ordering cold is the best option a lot of the time, and even if you are more organized than I am (you are) and will remember to send back the five out of six bras that won’t fit if you order everything and send most of them back, you still need a place to start. Chances are good that that place is not where you think it is. The rough and dirty best-guess method is:

STEP 0: Assume the position. You generally want to measure standing up, wearing your best-fitting bra. (If you need to measure sitting down, I’d advise scaling down a size, especially for your band size, though I admit I’m not entirely sure.)

STEP 1: Find your back size (band size). The number in the number/letter formulation. To do this, wrap the measuring tape straight across your back behind your breasts. Pull as tight as you can make yourself over the top of your breasts. This is, roughly, your back size. If it’s an even number, roll with that. If it’s an odd number, round up an inch.
STEP 1A: Do not add five inches. Do not add three inches. Do not multiply by the square root of pi. Do not do the hokey pokey or turn yourself around.
STEP 1B: You can do the Macarena if you want, though. It’s been long enough.

STEP 2: Cup Size. Put down the measuring tape and deal for a second. Cup size is relative to band size; our attachment to someone “BEING an X Cup” rather than “wearing an X Band Y Cup” is culturally-ingrained inept male exoticization and commodification of female reproductive orgaaaaablah blah blah, you know this. People get really hung up on this “cup size” thing that, even more than everything else in life, is meaningless without context. Let it go. Light a candle or exhale or whatever, before you measure.
STEP 2A: Measure loosely around the fullest part of your bust. Subtract your back size from that. Each inch = a cup size. A 1″ difference means you’ll probably want an A cup, 2″ is a B cup, and so forth.
STEP 2B: If you’re getting more than a 5″ difference and feeling a terror of the unknown creep through your belly, this is your moment. Stare down the existential angst, out there in the unknown territory of DD+ sizing. My boobs aren’t that big, a little voice in your mind will probably say. “Plus size” bras are only for HUGE BOOBS. I have normal-ish boobs. I probably need a C cup. C cup is normal, right? Fuck it, I’m just going to go make a grilled cheese. Quell that voice. That is the voice of Natty-lite swilling dudebros who think yelling “D CUP!!” at passers-by shows them as Stinsonesque connoseurs of the female form. That is the voice of teen magazines that convinced you, at one point in your life, that light denim frayed-hem pedal pushers were flattering. That voice is untrustworthy. Except the grilled cheese part, and even that can wait. Does the alphabet stop at the letter D? No. And neither do you, champ. Embrace it.

However, you’re going to need to be aware of the pitfalls of DD+ sizing.

As far as I can tell, DDD is not a real size. Do not trust a store that is trying to sell you or anyone else a DDD bra, or at least approach with extreme skepticism. Yeah, yeah, your mom’s BFF’s dental hygienist’s former sister-in-law swears she “is” a DDD. LET IT GO. “DDD” is lazy-retailer-speak for “most women with DD+ bazongas have never had a bra that fits anyway, so they’ll eat this shit up with a spoon.” This is an expression of the arbitrary, fictitious “D-cup”-sized chasm between “normal” and “THE GREAT BEYONDDDDDDDDD.” (Nordstrom’s may be an exception, but I remain skeptical, and in any event, if you get fitted there, you’ll have to do a little cup size conversion to shop online.)

No, you should see some letters past D. The most common sizing scale seems to go: D, DD, E, F, FF, G, GG, and so on. Letter is one size, Double Letter is the next size up, Next Letter is the next size, then Double Next Letter, except for vowels which don’t get doubled (or “I,” which sometimes gets skipped). Sometimes US retailers will call this UK sizing and UK retailers will call it US sizing. They tend to sell the same brands, though, so this is YET ANOTHER MINDFUCK. If the sizing for the bra you want doesn’t fit this pattern, look for the sizing conversion chart on the website and it’ll give you a good idea. Really, your best bet is to look at a chart for the particular bra. It’ll have letters across the top and back sizes down the sides. Then just count out the inches you calculated back in Step 2A. (If you’re bargain-basement shopping and there’s no chart, do a search for whatever the particular style name is, a la “Panache Plunge Push-Up” or “Freya Deco bra” on Figleaves or Bravissimo to check.)

All of this gets you to the starting line.

Let’s say Susie Knockers measures herself. Her Step 1 measurement is 35″ and her Step 2 measurement is 42″. Her best guess is probably going to be a 36F. Let’s be optimistic and say it usually works out for her. But in some bras, the cup fits fine, but the back is big. She needs to go down a back size, and up a cup size in order to keep the same amount of space in the cup. The cups on her 34FF bras will be roughly the same size as the cups on her 36F bras. She’ll probably have some of both sizes, which will not lead her to any bizarre boob-based identity crises, because you are not your size.

Another note: this is all in sizing I’m familiar with, that is to say, brands that are common to US and UK retailers. The principles are the same for European and Australian sizes, but obviously not in metric or…whatever the hell your weird koala shit is, Australians. This is mostly because I’m American and most familiar with that, but also because for whatever reason, UK retailers seem to have the widest size range and the best deals, and are good about shipping abroad. Practically speaking, your inch-based measurement is likely to be the most useful. Brastop has a great conversion guide for international sizing (scroll down a little).

Several online bra retailers, whatever else their issues, do an excellent virtual fitting room, and tell you how your bra should and shouldn’t fit. If you’re happier with something that’s not marketing, which is fair, check out this post by [info]darthfox. And yes, in this case, you should listen to the experts over what you think is comfortable, because what you think is “comfortable” with a bra is actually what’s familiar, and what’s familiar, aside from being old and stretched-out, is probably the wrong size, because of the OLIGOPOLISTIC TYRANNY of fast fashion. (RIGHTEOUSNESS!!!!)

Things to check (yes, there are exceptions to all of these generalizations, but assume you’re not one):

  • The band should sit straight across your back, slightly below your bust. If it pulls up a little, go down one band size (and, if your cups fit, up one cup size). If it’s really shifting and riding up your back, go down two back sizes (and up two cup sizes).
  • New bras should be tight, and fit on the loosest hook. The support comes from the band, not the straps. We’re used to fattist judgment about people who are “in denial” about when it comes to any sort of numbered sizing. Always gross! But you should actively work to stomp on that line of thought while bra shopping.
  • Especially as if the band of a bra is too small, you’ll know because it will FUCKING HURT, if you could even get it fastened.
  • The loosest hook is the one you want because elastic stretches a bit with wear, even if you do take good care of your bras. If you have to fasten on the tighter hooks, you need a smaller band size.
  • The center – “gore” – of the bra should lie more or less flat against your sternum. If it’s pushed out such that you can fit more than a finger underneath it, you need much bigger cups, and probably a smaller band size. (Technically, it should lie entirely flat, but a small bit of space can be good. If there’s any space at all, try the next cup size up, but make the judgment call between those two sizes based on comfort.)
  • There should not be tissue sticking out over the cup underneath your arms. (This, after too-large back size, is the most common fitting atrocity with lingerie ads.) All of that tissue you check during your self-checks? That is BREAST TISSUE, it goes in your BRA. If it doesn’t fit in the cup, try on a bigger cup size.
  • Eyeballing cup fit, fortunately, is pretty easy, aside from mental block about size. You shouldn’t have gaping or quad boob. If the material puckers but the fit is otherwise pretty good, try on the next cup size down, or a less-full style (see below). If the material puckers a lot and the gore is far away from your sternum, however, go up a couple of cup sizes, probably a few cup sizes.


  • If you want to compress, for whatever reason, I would recommend staying away from minimizers (WHAT EVEN IS THAT) and going with the best sports bras you can afford.
  • Speaking of! Good sports bras, though they don’t need underwire, will still be labeled in traditional back/cup sizes. If your only options are the S/M/L sized Target-brands, get the stiffest Ultra Maxi Runner Crane Lifter Support ones and double-bag it.
  • If you really want some BLAMMO cleavage for a dress, go down a cup size in a plunge bra you like. Do this with extreme caution, though. And draw giant red X’s over the cups so you don’t go around wearing it on non-dressy days like you know you will.
  • If one boob is noticeably bigger than the other, fit the bigger one. Most people will adjust the right and left straps a little bit differently, so there’s a little more cup space on one side or the other. If there’s a big difference you’re self-conscious about even under clothing, there’s nothing wrong with getting a pair of gel pads to fill in for the smaller boob. (If that’s your plan, you’re probably best off with a molded bra. See below.)


Bras are not “padded” and “unpadded.” There are padded bras, unlined bras, and lined or molded bras. Lined bras are my favorites – they offer a little more support and a nice shape, and they’re especially good for the self-conscious because they can be made seamless and also give a little bit of nipsulation. Lined bras are SRS BSNS for people, for some reason. It’s PADDING! All that PADDING! I don’t NEED more PADDING, didn’t you just tell me to wear, like, A FF CUP? Folks, no. First of all, nobody needs padding. Bra padding has never SAVED ANYONE FROM BEARS. Sometimes people like it and sometimes they don’t. More importantly! The two-millimeter-thick lining is not what makes your hypothetical 34FF boobs look bigger when you put it on. The fact that it is a bra that fits and supports you, rather than squashing your boobs down around your waist, is what makes your boobs look different. That is a question of comfort, not vanity.

Which is not me knocking vanity! Bras should be the mostest fun if you get joy out of feminine stuff, because you have space to play that you don’t with professional wear. But the self-effacement too-cool-for-school dance is completely irrelevant to whether your bra FITS.

Common styles and suggestions:

Full-Coverage: is what it sounds like. Excellent comfort, and your tricked-out lacy matched sets will have a glam-retro look like you stepped out of a Beyonce video. But purchase with caution, because it does limit what you can wear over it, and becomes virtually useless in the summertime.

Balconet: those are the square-necked kind of bras. They tend to be cut lower than full-coverage but higher than a demi, and straight across. A balconet is a good style to try if full-coverage bras wrinkle a bit at the top of the cup but otherwise fit perfectly. They’re also great for under crew-necked shirts, or when you’d like a rounded look. Style-wise, these are the bras that, when lined and fancified up a bit, look like the bra part of a corset. BA BOOM.

Demi: sounds like “half,” means “half.” That doesn’t mean they need to be super-tiny (though if you get a super-tiny bra, GOOD ON YA). What it really means is that there’s just less of it everywhere. The gore doesn’t come up so high as the balconet, and there’s not as much material along the top as full-coverage. A well-fitting demi can be worn under pretty much anything. If you can only get one bra, you probably want it to be a plain, lined, seamless demi bra that matches your skin tone as closely as possible.

Plunge: what it says on the tin. Most push-ups will also be plunge bras. Plunge bras make the shape they do by having a lot of cup construction off to the side – this is a great bra for button-downs and V-neck shirts, but not so great for other basic necklines.

Then we ice it with colors. If you’re after a non-distracting look under light colored shirts, you want to match your skin tone as closely as possible. (If you are into bold bra colors under light shirts, YOU ARE DOING GOD’S WORK, say I. This “bras exist to hide your shame-lumps and be hidden NO EXCEPTIONS” thing drives me nuts. But if you don’t like it aesthetically or don’t want to pick that battle, the issue is about blending to your skin, not the shirt.) White bras are a waste of money for everyone except people who like the color white. And, of course, be wary of “flesh tone” or “neutral” labels, because your neutral is not necessarily the same neutral as someone else’s.

Notice my lack of concern about underwire. That’s because underwire is not usually a big deal one way or the other. It gives a little bit more support, but isn’t necessary; when people think underwire is super-uncomfortable, it’s usually because they’re wearing the wrong size and anything would be super-uncomfortable.  I wouldn’t recommend, say, a no-wire unlined bra, because then you’re down not one but two parts of the bra that help with support, though they work for some people. Wireless bras are mostly a specialty for: people who are or have recently received treatment for breast cancer (increased sensitivity), people going places where they are likely to be searched (if you’re a criminal defense attorney, or if you fly often), people who are pregnant and plan to stay that way (obviously no-wires gives a little more margin for error as your body does its fabulous thing), or teens (all of the above).

Bra Care:

  • Don’t wear the same bra two days in a row, because it wears out the elastic faster. One bra will last a few months before it becomes too loose to be worthwhile; two or more bras together will last well over a year.
  • Don’t wash every time you wear, this also wears out the elastic. Once a week should do. Handwashing is best. “Handwashing” doesn’t mean “get out the scrubby board AS ONCE DID THE PILGRIMS,” it just means “swirl it around a soapy sink for a little while and then rinse.” It is faster than the washing machine. If you must, on extra-delicate, with each bra clasped in the back the way you would when you’re wearing it, and in a bag.
  • BIG NO on the drier.

It also helps to remember that bras are not even strictly necessary. They’re a practical necessity socially, and they’re a huge improvement in comfort for a lot of us. (Exception: sports bras are necessary if you do medium-to-high impact. You can tear a tendon in your shoulder or even break a bone.) But NO, THIS IS NOT LIFE OR DEATH. If bra shopping or retailers get you into a NEEEED frame of mind, it’s probably time for a break.


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