If you wear bras, you’ve likely got a few in your drawer that you avoid because their fit is a flub. Or maybe you’ve resigned to wear them anyway, even though they pinch or squish your precious parts.
Having a stash of bras that you find uncomfortable or unflattering can be frustrating. You might convince yourself that a good fit doesn’t exist, or that something’s wrong with your shape. We promise you, there’s not. Instead, something’s off about the way we’ve been conditioned to think about sizing.
In a 2010 study, 85 percent of participants were found to be wearing bras that didn’t fit right.
These fit issues are often a result of traditional measuring methods. Another 2011 study shows that the old tape measure tactic usually performed in lingerie or department store dressing rooms often overestimate band size and underestimate cup size.
Plus, the clothing industry doesn’t have a standard bra sizing system, meaning one brand’s C cup will be slightly different from that of another brand.
On top of all that, many brands sold in big chain stores don’t carry sizes above a DD, leaving their bustier customers unsupported.
To find the best bra, lingerie experts recommend focusing how it fits you instead of the size on the tag. We’ll show you how, bust some myths about boob bulge, offer specific fit tips on sports bras, and tackle the topic of going bra-free.
Although bra sizing based on the ABCs and beyond isn’t going away anytime soon, we can stop slurping the alphabet soup we’ve been sold. Finding a comfortable, supportive bra is about trying it on and checking some key factors, according to the Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth. This cohort, dedicated entirely to studying the mechanics of our boobs, has outlined five steps to determining if a bra fits you.
1. Check the band
A properly fitting band should stay level around the rib cage during your day. That means no riding up in the front or around your spine.
To test if your band fits properly, use your fingers to pull the band away from your torso. You shouldn’t have more than a 2-inch gap.
Next, to make sure that the band stays level as you move, get your groove on in the fitting room. Lift your arms up a few times and try a twist or two. Don’t be afraid to test your bras with vigorous movements. It needs to stay in place during your day!
2. Check the cups
The cups should hold the entire breast with no bulging or gaps at the sides, the top, or below. To get your full breast in each cup, employ the “scoop and swoop” technique. Take your hand and scoop the opposite breast upward and then tuck it into the bra.
Your breasts should stay in your cups when you bend over, so do an Elle Woods bend and snap in the fitting room to test it out.
3. Check the underwire or cup seam
If the bra has an underwire, make sure it follows where your breasts naturally crease, and that it does so all the way to your underarm area. The wire should not rest on top of your breasts at any point. If the cup fits, but the wire doesn’t follow the crease, try a different style of bra. If the bra lacks a wire, use the same method for checking the bottom seam.
4. Check the center front
The middle of the bra should rest flat against your breastbone. If it doesn’t, go up a cup size and see if that helps.
5. Check the straps
The straps shouldn’t slip or dig into your shoulders. If they do, try adjusting them. Many of us have asymmetrical breasts, so don’t worry about making the strap adjustments even.
If you run through these steps and find that you’ve got an awkward fit, the research team suggests trying “sister sizing.” For example, if you’ve got a tight band but the cup is a pretty good fit, try going up a band size and down a cup size — for example, if you’re a 36D, try a 38C.
If you’ve gone through the five steps for a perfect fit and have diligently performed the scoop and swoop but your cups still seem to runneth over, the problem may be your axillary tail of Spence.
“The tail of Spence is a normal part of the anatomy of the breast, and it is a normal extension of the breast tissue into the armpit,” explains Dr. Constance Chen, a board-certified plastic surgeon and breast reconstruction specialist. “Some people just naturally carry more of their breast tissue in that area than other people.”
Although the tail is an extension of your breast, a typical bra cup isn’t built to hold it. If your tails are more prominent, you may find that bra straps cut into them or smoosh them outward.
To fix: Aim for bras with straps that angle toward your neck rather than perch straight up on your shoulder. If you’re a fan of bralettes, try wide-strapped versions that extend the cup upward or opt for halter styles.
Many bras have meant-to-be-seen detailing for peeking out of tank tops and dresses. Extra trim, like lace along the sides or straps, can offer coverage if you want to tuck your tails. But, again, the tail of Spence is a normal part of our anatomy that begins developing around puberty.
The tail of Spence is often mislabeled as armpit fat or even “side boob.” In reality, this area is part of the breast structure, and it contains lymph nodes that are important for our health.
Keep in mind that our bodies also have natural curves and fat deposits. Some incorrectly claim that armpit fat, back fat, and the like is actually tissue that’s moved from the breast to other areas as a result of wearing ill-fitting bras. They also incorrectly claim that the right bra can help permanently push these bulges back to your boobs.
“Breast tissue does not migrate,” Chen explains, putting the myth to rest. “Breast tissue is where it is, but it can be molded and shaped with lingerie just like the abdomen and thighs can be molded and shaped with elastic garments like Spanx.”
If your bra is too tight, she says, your excess breast tissue may spill out of the bra. A supportive bra that’s better suited to your body shape may lift your breasts into the shape you want. But Chen emphasizes that the breast tissue isn’t actually migrating in any of these situations.
Although a great-fitting bra can enhance breast appearance and an ill-fitting one can be unflattering, a bra can’t actually change the shape of your body.
Finding the right sports bra that’s supportive but not constricting presents another battle for those of us with breasts. One study found that if we don’t have the right fit, we may avoid exercise altogether. In fact, breasts were the fourth biggest obstacle to physical activity.
The steps for finding the right sports bra fit are the same as the everyday bra fit. But the process can involve a little more trial and error across different brands.
Finding your fit
- Many sports bras come in small, medium, and large, rather than offering a wide range of sizes. If you’re a D cup or larger, consider brands that offer sports bras in cup sizes, like Chantelle or Bare Necessities. And while you don’t have to do burpees in the dressing room, do try a few movements that mimic your exercise tendencies.
- Consider the type of activity. If you’re a multisport fan, you may need several different options in your activewear arsenal. Many bra companies rate how much impact their bras are meant to take, so be mindful of that while shopping.
Low-intensity sports means a low-impact bra. You should find one with a combination of coverage when in Downward-Facing Dog or inversions, but not too much restriction in the straps or the band during binds and twists.
|If your size is…||Then try…|
|straight sizes, under DD||Vida fit bra by Jiva|
|prominent tails of Spence, straight size||Luzina bra by Lolë|
|prominent tails of Spence, plus size||Adjustable wire-free bra by Glamorise|
|small rib cage and large bust size||Active Balance convertible bra by Le Mystère|
|plus sizes, under DD||Lite-NL101 bra by Enell|
|plus sizes, larger bust||Black Strappy Wicking bra by Torrid|
For runners, HIIT fanatics, or high-intensity exercises, you’ll want a high-impact sports bra that uses compression to lock the breasts in place to reduce painful bounce. It also needs to do its best to prevent chafing during repetitive movements. Choosing a bra with sweat-wicking material, such as nylon and polyester blends, and a wider underband can help.
|If your size is…||Then try…|
|straight sizes, under DD||Kara bra by Oiselle|
|prominent tails of Spence, straight size||Flyout bra by Oiselle|
|prominent tails of Spence, plus size||High Impact Sculpting no-wire bra by Cacique|
|small rib cage and large bust size||High Impact Convertible bra by Chantelle|
|plus sizes, under DD||Sport-NL100 bra by Enell|
|plus sizes, larger bust||Longline bra by Torrid|
Aye, there’s the rub
You may experience some chafing regardless of how great your bra fits, especially during high-impact or endurance sessions. Before your workout, apply a lubricant like Un-petroleum jelly to your underarms and along your bra lines.
Just as bra styles are a matter of choice, so is wearing a bra. Going braless won’t hurt your breast health. The American Cancer Society states that there’s no scientific evidence showing that bras cause cancer by obstructing lymph drainage.
If bras leave you feeling restricted, hot, or just generally uncomfortable, or if you’re tired of dealing with an extra garment when you get dressed, feel free to ditch bras altogether. You can also just wear them as wanted or needed or for high-impact activities.
If you’ve been a bra wearer all your life but you’re now curious about going bra-free, you can ease into the lifestyle by trying bralettes first or wearing camisoles with a built-in shelf. Or you can try these nine tips for feeling secure without a bra.
Of course, the right fitting bra can make all the difference when it comes to body confidence too. The choice is yours.
Jennifer Chesak is a medical journalist for several national publications, a writing instructor, and a freelance book editor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill. She’s also the managing editor for the literary magazine, Shift. Jennifer lives in Nashville but hails from North Dakota, and when she’s not writing or sticking her nose in a book, she’s usually running trails or futzing with her garden. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.