Why I have a problem with bras and what I’m going to do about it.

By Mona Zhang

I have a serious problem with bras.

Unfortunately, for half of the population, this problem isn’t easily understood. This is understandable. We don’t really talk about boobs, so if you don’t have a pair of your own, it can be hard to relate.

If you fall into this category, bear with me and try this exercise.

We could all use a little practice in empathy, and what better way to understand others than to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes–or in this case, bra?

(As for the other half of the population, let’s see if this sounds about right to you.)

They bounce when you move and they are in a constant fight against gravity. They are topped with this thing called the “nipple,” and to some it is a cardinal sin for the fabled “nipple” to show itself in public. They also look awesome!

But you are expected, if not required, to put on an article of clothing that:

  1. Hides your nipples
  2. Provides a rounded, lifted shape (this expectation varies with time, but you live in 2016 when bullet bras are not as in vogue)
  3. Does not show seams, bulges, or wrinkles

Still, aesthetics is a preference, with a normative standard set by examples you see in TV, movies, and pornography. And you don’t have to follow those standards! In terms of aesthetics, the world is your (oyster) mermaid-shell bra. For example:

You could rock the bullet bra.

You might even want to show off your nipples because why not?

If Batman can do it, so can you!

But no matter your aesthetic preference for shape and style, you also have your own set of functional expectations for a bra:

  1. You would like your bra to at the least stabilize the movement of your breasts
  2. You would like the bra to do this without extraneous movement of its own

This is because you know the consequences if your chosen bra doesn’t fit.

Best-case scenario: the mild embarrassment, discomfort, or distraction of muffin-top-like boob spillage, strap-sliding, etc.

Worst-case scenario: sternum pain because there is a metal underwire giving you a hug all day (imagine if Batman had a breastplate with metal grooves that dug into his pectoralis major), neck pain, back pain, etc.

For better or worse, you want a bra that maybe shapes, maybe lifts, but definitely fits.

You’re down to your last ill-fitting, graying bra from your last shopping excursion.

There’s a reason for that.

Remember that the last time you went shopping for bras, you spent an hour of your life trying on bra after bra, in a fitting room with the decor of a “sexy jail cell”.

Photo and “sexy jail” quote credit: Kristin Chirico for Buzzfeed

A fit specialist lassoed you twice with a tape measurer and proclaimed you 34B. Your first 34B made your boobs look like this from the side:

An empty space in the cup means that the cup is too big. Size down to a 34A.
There’s excess double boob spilling over the top. Does that mean the cup is too small?

Was the bra too big, or too small? What does that even mean?

You didn’t know.

All you knew was that you had tried on bras for an hour–alternately shoving yourself into things until you got the equivalent of boob muffin-top or feeling inadequate in the gaping maws of a cup. Every so often, it was punctuated by a cheerful, “May I come in?” from the hallway, and always when your boobs were halfway into or and out of cups.

In the end, you bought a single bra and wore it for four years straight until it finally gave up against gravity and time.

Okay, by now you’ve been through enough.

You can stop imagining yourself in a bra. (That is, unless you wear one, and go through this every four years.)

Whew, doesn’t that feel better? (That’s how a lot of us feel at the end of the day.)

Boobs are a little more complicated than “small” and “big”.

A fit specialist might tell you to size up for a bra, like getting a baggier T-shirt if the tighter one doesn’t fit right.

The theory behind sizing up goes something like this: an orange might not fit into a martini glass, but it’ll fit into a bowl. So can’t you just size up?

The short answer is: no.

Bras function best when they’re an exact fit. You wouldn’t be very happy if you could only get shoes in sizes Small, Medium, and Large.

If you wouldn’t shove your feet into a general solution, you wouldn’t want to shove your boobs into a general solution, either. Breast tissue is malleable, but your sternum isn’t.

Let’s think about that for a second. The band size parameter, 34, refers to the circumference under the bust. The cup size parameter, B, refers to the difference between your full bust and under bust measurement.

These are all busts that can be classified as 34B. In these diagrams, the blue circle measures to 34″ and the pink circle measures to 36″.

Cross-sectional view from top down. Blue indicates under bust measurement, pink indicates full bust measurement, and yellow represents actual breast tissue distribution.

Imagine that we try to put this 34B bra onto them all.

If you happen to match what lingerie brands think of as the median bust, congrats! You’ve hit the bra jackpot. Otherwise…ouch. Remember, purple means metal wire and yellow means soft tissue.

So… why are people talking about bras in terms of one dimension, like “too big” or “too small”?

Why are people even talking about bras in terms of two dimensions, like 34B?

Isn’t the thing… three dimensional? Aren’t YOU a three-dimensional being?

People are complex. Boobs are complex, with a lot of variations along the possible parameters: 1) rib cage angle between top of boob to bottom of boob, 2) rib cage softness, 3) position of boob on rib cage in the vertical axis, 4) position of boob on rib cage in the horizontal axis, 5) separation between boobs, 6) width of each breast root, where it is attached to rib cage anywhere between underarm and sternum, 7) height of each breast root, where it is attached to the rib cage anywhere between collarbone and abdomen, 8) projection of tissue, 9) tissue density, and 10) shoulder width.

In the 1970s, North American bra manufacturers and industry professionals attempted to convene and put a stop to the madness of not having a universal standard. They came away without a system.

Can you guess why?

It’s the same reason why a lingerie store doesn’t have enough stock to address the entire population (and the same reason a pharmacy doesn’t sell prescription glasses). If each of the above 10 variables can be described on a scale of 1 to N, we end up with N^10 bra combinations.

There are too many boobs in the world, with more variations than two variables can account for.

Even if we could define bra sizes with a bunch of variables like root width and height, how can you collect this data with a user experience that is non-invasive, quick, and accurate? Imagine this:

“Hello there, welcome to Bra Jail. Let me measure your tissue density”.

We live in a world where we squeeze our chests into a N x M matrix of available bras. While the beauty of boobs is that the softness of tissue moderates the difficulty of fitting a bra, for many, N x M is not enough.

In response, lingerie brands have been recognizing the need for more bras and more sizes. In recent years the bra matrix of 32–38, A-DDD has added many more sizes: 28, 40 or letters through K.

The industry’s answer is more numbers, more letters. With this solution, variations in what sizes mean is actually a good thing because customers can try different brands to get different fits. It makes sense, right? If enough lingerie brands start designing for different demographics, we’ll eventually have enough saturation in the market such that all types of shapes and sizes are provided for.

In other words, today’s solution is to have lots of bras and variability.

The onus is still on the people to find a bra that fits, which involves trying on bra after bra in the fitting room, not knowing all the variables to the problem.

How do you match bras to customers when we don’t have the terminology to talk about it? Do brands even signal to their customers what shape and size they cater to? Can you imagine a Lingerie Store turning you away at the door, telling you that they don’t stock your size of 26F? Or is it more likely that the store will measure you to a size that they do stock?

It wouldn’t be so bad if more people understood that N x M doesn’t provide for everyone. But what does it mean to a young woman, when she doesn’t fit into anything at a store? What is she to do, but think that her boobs are “weird”?

But what does it mean to a young woman, when she doesn’t fit into anything at a store? What is she to do, but think that her boobs are “weird”?

An entire community has rallied on Reddit’s /r/abrathatfits to provide a more accurate size calculator, measurement guides, shape guides, store guides, recommendations, and fit checks to anyone on their quest for a bra that fits.

You can find bra whisperers who work their magic in places that look like Ollivander’s wand shop. Also known as boob witches and bra fairies, these experts will be able to tell you your size in the specific brand and model that will fit you, given your shape — no measuring tape required.

But finding a bra shouldn’t require wizardry.

For many, finding a bra that fits can still take over 100 tries. My own journey included over forty bras to find bras that fit.

The Bra Tax is real.

And we deserve more than that.

I started this journey where you probably began.

How hard can it be to find a bra?

It couldn’t be that bad. So I did my homework and found the online calculators. Forty bras later, I realized that there was more to bra-fitting than met the eye. The above is only the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even gotten to the fun technical stuff that drives everyone bonkers, like differences in sizing by country (30DDD in the United States = 30E in the UK = 30F in France) or relative cup sizing (volume of a 30C = 32B = 34A, volume of a 30C < 32C < 34C).

I used to feel pretty miffed about it. Now, I feel bad for the bra professionals who, years ago, tried to convene and decide how to better represent size and shape. They probably sat together, thought about all the complexities of boobs, and said:

That’s how I felt too.

I found myself saying,

“It’s one of those problems that you want someone else to solve because it’s too hard.”

But that’s exactly the type of problem that deserves attention.

In November of 2015, I left my job as a software engineer at Switch, a mobile application that helps people find jobs, to help people find better-fitting bras. I’ve spent the last five months 3d-modeling boobs and engineering bras. I’ve also been researching the status quo of bra-fitting in the industry today, visiting bra whisperers, subjecting myself to a lot of sexy jails, talking with industry professionals, and learning how to sew.

I’ve learned a lot on this journey towards a better bra solution, and I thought–hey, this knowledge is worth sharing. So without further ado:

My goal in Bra Theory is to understand someone’s bust with more precision and empathy than two standards of measurement, to celebrate the complexities of the boob, and to construct a bra that fits a real person instead of an industry size.

This is my left boob in 3d.

Bra Theory will cover:

  • problem-solving
  • the physics of bras
  • mathematical solutions to netting a curved solid
  • an outsider’s look at the fashion industry today, and applying technology to new fields (and to surprising effect)
  • fun articles about the magic of bra-fit
  • and more.

If you had to imagine yourself in a bra for the majority of this blog post, kudos! If you wear a bra, N^10 times more kudos!

If you liked what you read,

  1. Subscribe to Bra Theory for future updates about bra engineering
  2. Share what you’ve learned (remember to be empathetic).
  3. Get educated about bras with the good people at /r/abrathatfits.
  4. Contribute your bra specs to Bratabase, or if you feel comfortable, the Breast Shapes Gallery that shows non-sexualized, everyday boobs.

Thanks for the read, and for the practice in empathy.

This is a problem that we might trivialize because it’s about boobs, but let’s face it–this is a very real problem, and real problems deserve solutions.

Let’s solve bras!