Walk into a Victoria’s Secret, and the hundreds of colorful, lacy options lining the walls and piled upon tables — bralette, demi-cup, wireless, racer back, sport, strapless — will swallow you. But before you grab a few bras to try on, you need to hedge your bets on what size you wear.
The staff at Victoria’s Secret, along with many scientists and even, famously, Oprah, say you have a 20 percent chance of choosing right. That number — the idea that 80 percent of women are wearing the wrong bra size — has been ingrained in the minds of shoppers for decades, becoming a puzzle that no one can seem to solve.
That’s because the statistic is bunk.
There Are No Size Standards
Researchers and retailers acknowledge that the 80 percent number isn’t foolproof, but they often use it to illustrate a widespread problem: ill-fitting bras.
“We were actually encouraged to talk about that statistic,” said Carrie Gergely, who worked as a Victoria’s Secret bra fitter and store manager from 2003 to 2008. Ms. Gergely recognized that the size on the tag wasn’t the real issue. Knowing how to look for the right fit was.
Women, she said, didn’t know how the cups were supposed to fit. They didn’t know where the chest plate between the breasts was supposed to lie, she said, and “they didn’t know how the straps were supposed to rest, or where it should hit on their back. They just had no concept of how they were supposed to wear the bra.”
Regardless, the “wrong size” became a mantra. One man, the plastic surgeon Edward Pechter, gets credit for it.
Dr. Pechter first published the statistic in small 1998 study, writing in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery that 70 percent of women or more were wearing the incorrect bra size. The article outlined a new method for measuring breasts, with which he hoped to standardize sizing for augmentation and reduction surgeries.
But Dr. Pechter didn’t reach his estimate through surveying a large and diverse sample. Instead he used anecdotal evidence from publications like Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and the Playtex Fit Guide. (He also studied only women who reported wearing cup sizes AA through DDD. Today you can find bras in sizes up to an O cup.)
Jenny Burbage, a sports biomechanist at the University of Portsmouth in Hampshire, England, has made studying breasts (and how to support them) her life’s work. In one of her studies, “Evaluation of professional bra fitting criteria for bra selection and fitting in the UK,” Ms. Burbage noted that “it has been suggested that 70 to 100 percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra,” citing Dr. Pechter’s work along with few other small studies to reach that range.
“There aren’t many scientific papers available which have effectively looked at issues of bra fit and the number of women who may be wearing the wrong size bra,” Ms. Burbage said in an interview. Anecdotally, she sees “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of women” who come through her lab struggling with fit issues.
Like Ms. Gergely, Dr. Burbage said the issue was not that people were simply wearing an incorrect size but that they often didn’t know how to check for the best fit. “Women are going to be different sizes in different bras,” she said. “I might have three or four different bra sizes based on what bra I’m wearing and what manufacturer that comes from.”
The lack of standardization can be frustrating, but it also gives women more opportunity to find styles and shapes that work for them.
The ‘Right’ Size
If fit is relative, why are retailers still fixating on the idea that the right size exists?
Online companies like ThirdLove and True&Co. promise that shoppers can find the perfect fit from their bedroom instead of a fitting room. Both ThirdLove and True&Co. call attention to their inclusive sizing and encourage women to shop via Fit Finder (ThirdLove) and Fit Quiz (True&Co.) tools, which recommend bras based on one’s breast shape, with names like “teardrop” or “bottom happy.”
It’s a new approach for the lingerie industry, with gender and size inclusivity outpacing hypersexualized marketing. But, like Victoria’s Secret, they insinuate the same thing: that you’re wearing the wrong size and that they can help you find the right one.
“We’ve always focused on this idea, ‘Are you wearing the right size?’” said Heidi Zak, the ThirdLove co-founder and chief executive. According to Ms. Zak, the company has consistently used the concept that people are wearing the wrong size in its marketing. She considers the statistic an invitation for shoppers to find bras that work, not an admonition.
“I think that we’re actually trained as women to be like, ‘If you don’t wear a cookie-cutter size, then there’s nothing for you,’” she said. To combat that sentiment, ThirdLove sells bras in cup sizes AA to I, including some half-cup options.
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Cora Harrington, the author of “In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie” and editor of the Lingerie Addict blog, eschews the oft-repeated 80-percent-plus number in her book. She couldn’t verify it, and she is not interested in repeating a figure that makes people feel as if they’ve failed before they even start shopping.
“I’ve heard that stat for at least as long as I’ve been writing about lingerie,” Ms. Harrington said. Phrasing bra fitting as a chore, she said, or as something women are doing wrong, or that they don’t really know their bodies very well, doesn’t “invite people to come in and learn more about bras.”
Think Beyond the Size on the Label
Ms. Harrington recognizes that shopping for a bra can be difficult but said there has never been a better time to do so. Online shopping means that people aren’t limited to the options in their neighborhood, and lingerie brands are now introducing lines in a greater range of sizes beyond D cups. (Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line is doing it.)
Ms. Harrington recommends reading reviews on blogs or forums, trying on as many bras as possible and going to specialized shops where expert fitters can provide feedback and new options. She said that once you find a style you like, you can look for discounted colorways from previous seasons, but she also encourages people to support boutiques when they can.
Finding a bra that fits well is tricky not only because sizing varies by brand, but also because of how sizes are related to one another.
LaJean Lawson, a scientist and consultant for the Champion sportswear brand, explained that the cup size is usually based on the difference between the band and bust measurements (below the rib cage and over the fullest part of the breast). The cup is measured by volume, and, confusingly, that volume can stay the same as you move down a band size and up a cup size, or up a band size and down a cup size.
This is called sister sizing, and it means that, theoretically, a 34C could have a similar volume to a 32D or 36B. But bras may fit differently based on the shape of the bra and the band measurements, how your breast volume is distributed on your body and, again, by brand.
With all of those variables at play, you may be surprised to find that the size that works best for you is pretty different from what you’re wearing. To ease label shock, the site What Bra Sizes Look Like, an offshoot from a community on Reddit called A Bra That Fits, displays photos submitted by visitors to show how different sizes can look. When you’re shopping for yourself, stay open to trying various sizes.
Because there are so many variations in bra styles and sizes, finding a comfortable and supportive fit involves trial and error. (Wirecutter, the review site owned by The New York Times, has recommendations for how to shop for bras and check for fit.)
But it may also mean accepting that as your body changes during menstruation, pregnancy or regular weight fluctuations, your bra size may change. Experts like Linda Becker, the fitter at Linda’s bra salon in Manhattan, recommend rechecking your bra fit every six months to a year.
Ultimately, there is no shortcut to finding a good fit. But if your bra doesn’t fit, Ms. Harrington said, “the fault is not you.”
”I feel like if more companies and more brands were saying that, it might be easier for people.”
Let Us Help You
Finding a bra that fits well is tricky. Staffers at Wirecutter, the review site owned by The New York Times, spoke with a variety of experts, including lingerie shop owners, professional bra fitters and even a biomechanics researcher, to try to make sense of it all. Here are some tips and tricks they’ve learned in reporting about different kinds of bras. — Anna Perling
Most of a bra’s support comes from the band, and as such, the band should be snug. You want a few fingers’ worth (half an inch or so) of room at the back. If you can stretch a band farther away from your body, try a smaller band size. Fit the bra initially on the loosest setting so that you can tighten the band as the material stretches over time.
The band should sit parallel to the floor and not ride up. You can raise your hands above your head to check for fit here. If the band rides up, it may be too big, and if it feels uncomfortably tight, it could be too small.
Straps should be reasonably snug, not digging in or falling off. You can adjust the length accordingly.
Wires should not float off your chest, sit on the breasts or dig into your sides. If they do, try a larger cup size.
For underwire bras, the gore (the center piece joining the two cups) should lie flat on the center of your chest. If it’s floating off your body, your bra may be too big or too small (you can look for other fit signs to determine whether to size up or down), or you may just need to try a different style or brand.
Cups should contain the breasts evenly, without creating spillage or cutting into your sides or the top part of your chest. Gaping means you may need a different cup size or a smaller band size. Baggy or wrinkled cups are a sign that a bra is too big. Spilling over the top and sides means a cup is too small.
To make sure everything is sitting in your bra correctly, Iris Clarke of Iris Lingerie in Brooklyn recommends that you use the “scoop and swoop” technique. Once you have a bra on, lift a breast with your hand from the side, situating it in the cup and above the underwire, and then tuck or smooth the top of your tissue into the cup to let it settle. It sounds weird, but it makes a difference — breasts are dead weight, so you need to nudge them where you want them.
Because a person’s breasts can be of unequal size, Ms. Clarke suggests fitting based on your larger breast so that you aren’t spilling out of a cup.
For extra-tricky fits, some stores and tailors offer simple alterations for bra straps, bands or cups. Fees vary, so we recommend requesting a quote (or two).
A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.