I used to assume that the oft-cited statistic about 80 percent of women wearing the wrong size bra was a scare tactic by the lingerie industry to sell more goods. Then I got measured on a whim recently and realized I’ve been wearing the wrong cup and band sizes for years. Others I know also found out after being fitted that they’ve been wearing too-small cups and too-large bands—no surprise, since experts say this combination is the most common mistake women make when bra shopping.
How is it possible that so many of us are walking around in ill-fitting undergarments? In a word, ignorance—we don’t know what indicators to look out for, so we opt for bras that fit somewhat well instead of seeking out comfortable ones that also flatter our bodies. If you suspect that your bra isn’t doing everything for your breasts that it could or should be doing, see if you recognize any of these telltale signs of an ill-fitting bra.
The center panel in the front doesn’t rest against your skin.
Again, this means that your breasts are too big for the cups you’re trying to fit them into, which results in the whole bra resting against your breasts instead of against your upper rib cage and sternum. “The front middle of the bra should sit firmly against your skin,” advises Madeline, a bra stylist based in Australia. “This means that your bust will be lifted and separated.”
And if you can feel your underwire—as in, it sits on the bottom part of your breasts rather than fitting comfortably underneath them—you have the same problem. “Underwire should not sit on the breast tissue at any time. If you see skin pinching from under the wire, you may need to go up a cup size,” she says.
You’ve got four smaller breasts or a uniboob.
If your breasts spill over the cups, you definitely need to go up a cup size. After trying on a bra, put a T-shirt on to see if there are any obvious bulges (the kind that look like you’ve got smaller breasts growing out of your other ones, or “double boob,” as my friend calls it) over the top of the cup.
The same goes if your breasts are so squished together that it looks like you’ve got one wide boob. A heaving chest looks fabulous on Victoria’s Secret models in catalogs, but the sexy effect is lost the minute they put on shirts. Since we all have to cover up in public, get the right cup size for your breasts and banish the uniboob.
The cups are wrinkled and/or there’s space between the cups’ edges and your breasts.
This indicates that your cups are too big and you should go down a size. While your breasts shouldn’t spill over the cups, they shouldn’t leave much room within the cups, either. The edges should lie flat against your skin; if they don’t, it means you need a smaller size.
Your bra causes back fat.
Many women mistakenly think that back fat is caused by bands that are too small. (I know I did.) But bands that are too big are actually to blame. According to Madeline, when they’re too big, they don’t stay in the right place on your back, which is parallel to or a little lower than where it is in front; the bands ride up and create dreaded back lumps.
Not sure if the band size is right? Hook the bra on the loosest hook (“We fit on the loosest hook because when the bra gives and stretches with wear and tear, you still have two rows of hooks in the back to move in,” Madeline explains) and put two fingers underneath your band in the back. If you feel like you can fit more, or if you can stretch the band more than a few inches from your back, try a smaller size. If you can’t fit any fingers back there, you might be wearing a size too small. You can also lift your arms or lower the straps to see if that affects band placement. “If you raise your arms in the air, the bra shouldn’t move on or away from your body,” Madeline says.
The straps dig into your skin or fall down your shoulders.
According to experts, straps should do only 10 percent of work; the band is responsible for 90 percent of a bra’s support. So if you have to keep straps super tight to lift up your breasts, that means your band’s too big to give you proper support. Straps become loose and fall for the same reason (the ride-up factor), though it might also mean that the strap hasn’t been adjusted for your height.
You’ve got armpit boob.
Some call it armpit fat, but I think armpit boob sounds kinder. But either way you say it, if you’ve got it, that means your cups are probably too small. Cups digging into your skin, whether it creates bulges over them or to the side, indicate a need for a bigger cup size.
Here’s something important to remember when bra shopping: going up or down a band size makes a much bigger difference than doing the same with cup size. According to HerRoom.com, a lingerie Web site started by industry expert Tomima Edmark, going up a cup size with the same band size (for example, going from 34B to 34C) increases the bust line by an inch only. But if you raise the band size within the same cup size (switching from 34B to 36B), it raises the band circumference and the bust line by two inches.
Women should get properly fitted in a lingerie shop every one to two years, especially if they’re on birth control, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or have lost or gained a significant amount of weight. That much bra shopping sounds like torture, but it’s worth it to find the right one. During particularly low moments in the dressing room, it’s easy to assume that there’s something wrong with our bodies when the bras don’t fit well. But bras should work for us, not the other way around. The right bra should make you feel as beautiful as you are, and lift your breasts—and your spirits—up high. Well, your breasts should go about as high as the midpoint between your shoulder and elbows. Your spirits can soar as high as they want.