bras · fitness

So I’m wearing the wrong bra size? It’s not me, it’s you

How many times have we seen articles about how 70% of women are wearing THE WRONG BRA? Answer: A LOT. If you haven’t, you can start here and here and here and here. One brand decided to up the percentage for maximum stern effect:

Bra, with obligatory stern comment about how 85% of women wear the wrong bra size. Argh.
Bra, with obligatory stern comment about how 85% of women wear the wrong bra size. Argh.

How can this be? Let’s break this down.

  • Women want bras that feel supportive and comfortable and look the way they want them to.
  • Women spend time and money and effort shopping for bras, which come in a variety of non-standard sizes, shapes, materials and structures.
  • But 70–80-85% of them get it wrong. They’re walking around in the wrong bra size.

Yeah, that’s about it. We’re wrong. Our bras are wrong. Our bra sizes are wrong.

Maybe wearing the wrong size bra is even bad for our health:

Please don't worry. The people who wrote the article saying that there are dangerous health effects of wearing the wrong bra totally made this up.
Please don’t worry. The people who wrote this article totally made it up. I’m not linking to it, as it’s irresponsible and wrong. More than 80% wrong, even.

So where did this myth about women not understanding/appreciating/accessing the correct bra come from?

This New York Times article hunted down the source:

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.)

But it is true that good-fitting and comfortable and supportive bras are hard to find. Ask many women (me, for example) and they will tell you about spending loads of money on expensive bras that were uncomfortable, unsupportive and just not wearable. The NY Times article identifies several problems:

  • There aren’t any industry size standards for bras
  • Women’s breast sizes fluctuate over time and cyclically, during pregnancy, etc.
  • Women whose breast sizes are outside the standard cookie-cutter sizes have more trouble because of variations in bra design
  • Maintaining a steady supply of well-fitting bras requires advanced tape measure proficiency and twice-annually reassessment, followed by more bra shopping

Women do have more buying options now. We are being deluged with ads from newer bra companies on social media. But once again, women are being told they have to shoulder the burden of more labor just to be able to go out the door in decent chest shape and comfort and appearance. More shopping. More returning. More trying on. More outlay of money. More attention and fuss to manage a part of us that is not weird or troublesome or surprising to anyone– it’s just our breasts.

Okay. I’ll check out loads of bra types, research and calculate my sister sizes and carry a tape measure in my bag, always at the ready should my breast sizes change suddenly.

But stop telling me it’s my fault. It’s not me, it’s you, bra industry.

Readers, any good bra/bad bra stories you want to share with us? We’d love to hear from you.

bras · fitness

Calling all engineers: would you please make functional bras for all breast sizes?

Last week, the New York Times ran an article on how breast size affects how women exercise. Yes, a new study came out on this subject, and here’s what they found:

Breast size should be acknowledged as a potential barrier to women participating in physical activity. Strategies to assist women with large and hypertrophic breasts participate in all types and intensities of physical activity are needed so women can enjoy the health benefits associated with an active lifestyle.

I had to look up “hypertrophic”, which for our purposes means “very very large”. But the upshot is this: the researchers think we need “strategies” to “assist” large-breasted women so they can participate in physical activities.

Strategies? As in, a series of detailed plans, put together by crack teams of experts, collaborating across sectors, partnering together in service of a common goal?

People busily strategizing at a conference table, with lots of paperwork.
People busily strategizing at a conference table, with lots of paperwork.

Strategies? We don’t need strategies. We need functional sports bras for women with larger breasts. Why? Let’s go back to the NY Times article for more info.

Women with larger breasts, whatever their B.M.I., exercised less on average than those with smaller ones and were more likely to feel that their breast size interfered with moving.

The upshot is that women should be encouraged to learn how to find and fit a high-quality sports bra or swimsuit with adequate breast support, says Celeste Coltman, now an assistant professor at the University of Canberra in Australia, who led the study as part of her doctoral dissertation.

Some large-breasted women may need to wear two bras simultaneously to gain enough support for comfortable running and high-impact activities, Dr. Coltman and her collaborators say.

Dr. Coltman also suggests that large-breasted women who have not been exercising consider trying low-impact activities like walking and, perhaps even better, swimming, if they can find a comfortable swimsuit with a built-in bra.

Let’s take a moment to think about this advice. I’ll take each in turn.

1.Encourage women to learn how to find and fit a high-quality sports bra or swimsuit with adequate breast support

I’m taking a breath right now so I don’t break something. As a large breasted and physically active woman, I don’t need “encouragement”; I need a bra that is 1) my size; 2) fits me; and 3) preferably doesn’t cost a fortune. Recently, I embarked on my latest search for a sports bra that fits me, because I’ve gotten a bit larger-breasted and broader-backed in the past few years (thanks, menopause!), and my old bras just don’t fit. My size is now 42DD, which is means most sports bras don’t come in my size. But I am lucky to be in the position that there are (out there in internet shopping land) more options for me than there are for lots of women who have larger breasts and/or broader back sizes.

So what did I do? I went to some bra websites and ordered a total of about 10 different style and brand sports bras. I tried all of them on, and am thrilled to say that I found two models I really like. YAY! However, this took time and money. Lots of people don’t have the privilege of either. I managed to return the non-fitting ones (whew!), and, for the moment, am feeling happy and supported in my physical activity. But for women with less time, less money, larger breasts, larger bra size, or other features that I don’t know about, this isn’t a strategy open to them.

Let’s move on to the next piece of advice.

2.Some large-breasted women may need to wear two bras simultaneously to gain enough support for comfortable running and high-impact activities.

I’ve never tried/had to try this, and am grateful, because lots of women who commented on the NY Times article have tried this and do this. And it’s not comfortable– think sweating, chafing, etc. Finally, it doesn’t even work for many women. So no help there.

Now, the final piece of advice:

3. Large-breasted women who have not been exercising should consider trying low-impact activities like walking and, perhaps even better, swimming, if they can find a comfortable swimsuit with a built-in bra.

So, the researchers are trying to tell us (the women) that we should give up on higher impact physical activities in favor of walking? Not that there’s anything wrong with walking, but sometimes you just gotta run and jump and dance and spring. And why should these delightful movements be denied to anyone who wears more than a C cup? Then there’s the swimming comment: “if they can find a comfortable swimsuit with a built-in bra”. Passing the buck to the swimsuit manufacturers is flat-out disingenuous. I’ve never found a swimsuit with a built-in bra that was comfortable. I wear ones with minimal shelf-bras, which I happen to find comfortable. But not everyone does. By the way, I blogged about swimsuit designs here. So there is some progress being made, but there are still the issues of limited size ranges, limited options, and cost.

So, where does this leave us? We need some entrepreneurs and engineers to team up and provide us with more sports bra options for women with larger sized breasts. Also, we would like more sports bra options that don’t cost $80. Or, come up with other options for supporting us in our physical lives. What do I mean here? Innovation in breast-support designs. It just seems to me not to be an intractable problem.

Does anyone know of companies/startups that are working on interesting or new designs for breast support/sports bras for larger breasted women? Let us know– we’d love the information.

body image · bras · clothing · Fear · femalestrength · feminism · gender policing · men · objectification · running

Again?! Women at Rowan University are Serena’d

This article in Odyssey about how women runners at Rowan University were forbidden from running in only their sports bras seems like it should be a spoof in The Onion. It’s real. The university’s response was half-hearted, though ultimately the no-sports-bras-in-practice policy will be rescinded.

How much longer will we be having these conversations? After the brouhaha this summer over the ridiculous outfit policing by the tennis powers (which we wrote about on this blog), causing grief to Serena Williams (Let Women Wear What They Want and Serena Williams and the multiple ways of policing black women’s bodies) and Alize Cornet (Is Tennis Trying To Win a Chauvinism/Misogyny Award?), how is it possible the university administrators at Rowan forgot? Or did the news never even reach their ears?

Every time this happens, I am grieved by the lack of respect for women and their bodies. Men are responsible for their own lack of decorum and inability to contain their impulses, not us!

A sports bra is not provocative. It is comfortable. It is practical. It makes us feel strong and capable and empowered.

Oh … maybe that is provocative … because it provokes fear?!

Do you workout in sports bra only?

body image · bras · fitness · sex

Lingerie: the final frontier

It took me ages to be OK with my body.

I was 26 when I realized I was unhappy with how I looked, and always had been, and that my unhappiness had been normalized by me (and by some of those who love me). Things hit a tipping point one autumn day at the Gap: I realized I couldn’t fit into the maroon corduroys (a size up from my already-plus-size) I’d brought sheepishly into the change room with me. I decided that was it: I wanted to look – but especially to feel – differently about my body.

Fast forward 17 years, and I weigh only marginally less than I did that day. Though my body is now fitter, stronger, and – most importantly – makes me feel proud and strong and happy every day. I celebrate regularly by buying clothes that I think look amazing, no longer believing they are not “for me.” ALL the clothes are for me, and for my beautiful body, yo.

But lingerie. Man, oh man, lingerie. The final frontier.

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(An image of a thin white female torso and upper thighs, wearing low-rise panties with an image of Deadpool giving the thumbs-up and a word bubble that says “approved!” Basically all lingerie trauma in one handy meme.)

To be honest, I hadn’t much considered lingerie, ever. Once I’d become more fit and shifted my body image, I bought dresses of all kinds and enjoyed admiring myself in mirrors everywhere; I embraced versions of the feminine that fit me and that felt like me. But lingerie: well, it felt like a thing you buy so you can get sexy with someone you also find sexy, and I didn’t have that in my life. For a while I pretended that was totally fine, until I just couldn’t anymore.

Some of you may remember my adventures in online dating – a challenging place for a feminist to seek satisfaction. I’m pleased to report, though, that I met a really wonderful human on Tinder, of all places; I marvel every day at what it feels like to be treated with tender, supportive respect by someone who also really fancies your body and wants to see you in lingerie.

Wait… say what?

D told me early on that he was very keen on lingerie, if I was into it; I was flattered but also daunted by the prospect of purchasing the goods, so I let it drop for a while. Then, as our relationship progressed, and as we got more invested in one another, our sexual connection became more intense. I realized that, yes, I did really want to buy some lingerie: for him to celebrate and enjoy my body, but also for me to celebrate and enjoy it with him.

But lingerie shopping! Man oh man, the shopping.

Here’s what happened when I dove into the lacy capitalist fray.

maiden.jpg

(A vintage, sepia-toned, “western”-style poster featuring a white woman sporting a cowboy hat, tassled black gloves, a gun in a holster, and a bra with seriously pointy boobs. She gives us a sly, full-on look as she reaches for her weapon. The poster reads: “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”)

Take one: the pressure cooker

I was having lunch at my favourite grungy diner with a good friend and his son, in an upscale shopping area in downtown Toronto. I trust P and know his queer sensibility jives with my feminist one, so I asked him about good places to buy fun, sexy, lingerie. He had lots of advice, but it was more involved than I’d hoped: it included a trip across town, some recon in the gay village, and perhaps more conversation about preferences with (admittedly amazing and sensitive) staffers than I imagined I’d want to have. (I felt like I was in a hurry, though maybe I was just scared.)

After we parted, I remembered a shop I’d been to in the neighbourhood with another friend, years before. She was practiced at the lingerie thing and it seemed to work for her, so I headed over on a bit of a whim.

This was my first mistake.

The shop had a kind of “foyer,” with stairs leading up to the main retail area; there were a number of older, well dressed, white women milling about, and I could tell quickly that they were staff – and that they outnumbered customers, most likely on purpose. I smiled but tried not to make eye contact with any of them; I was immediately and completely uncomfortable. I felt myself trying to make myself shrink a bit, sort of disappear. I should have run for the exit, but my feet felt like lead. I didn’t want to be rude.

Just as I began fingering a few lovely-looking slips, discovering to my horror how expensive they were, one of the well dressed women approached me.

Did I know the majority of their selection was in drawers? She asked. What was I looking for? How much time did I have?

Anxious, I mumbled maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. (A lie: I had, like T-minus-get-me-out-of-here.)

Oh, that’s plenty of time! my WDW cooed. She began locating more slip options for me. (I have no idea why I told her I was interested in slips. I wasn’t. I was interested in sexy, hot, amazingly bodacious shit. Yet telling her this seemed, somehow, both impossible and gross.) Before I knew it I was in a change room.

I put on the first slip – a beautiful sky-blue number that was, admittedly, elegant and fell prettily over my waist and hips. WDW asked if she could have a look; I opened my change room door awkwardly, just a bit. Oh, we’ve cracked it! she cried. It was made for you! (NB: this is WDW-speak for “spend $300 on this now.”)

Other WDWs then crowded around to look at me, up and down from head to toe, as my mortified soul left my body and slid between the floorboards.

Now you need panties, my WDW told me, and she was off; she returned moments later with a thong made of polyester with a funny little flower at the back, right at the top of the butt crack bit. It seemed SO TYRA BANKS, but without the RuPaul irony. I could not imagine myself in it. It was $95.

Try them on over your own, go ahead, she instructed. I did what I was told.

il_570xN.717086497_fyr0

(Another vintage magazine image: this is from a French publication circa 1950, and shows a white woman from behind. She is dressed in netted stockings and a corset, lacy panties and evening gloves. She has curly shoulder-length blond hair and a neutral expression. Though she appears to be posing with hands on hips for effect, the image is structured to suggest she is dressing, or being dressed, and has only just reached the part with all the trussing.)

Then, something odd happened.

I realized that I did not want to buy these two items – even though part of me actually kind of liked these two items – but that I was definitely about to buy these two items. I would purchase them for reasons I could not quite fathom in the moment, but which had a very clear and firm hold on me nevertheless.

The feeling was overwhelming. It was not rational. I thought a lot about it afterward, as I clutched my shopping bag sadly on the train ride home.

Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, with Cate and with my friend Natalie, I tried to get to the bottom of why I seemed to have lost all of my agency in that funny bi-level store, among those well-dressed older white women.

I realized that the entire experience had reminded me of the shame I used to feel when shopping for what felt like my bad, wrong, ugly body.

Of how I would find it easier just to be swept along by the maternal figures throwing fabric at me. Of how my mom – bless my mom, and all her own tricky body issues, and her best of intentions –would begin every one of our visits to clothing stores when I was a teen by demanding of staffers, “do you have this in an extra large?”

That feeling of being judged – it cascaded over me, got into my pores and seams, began to crush me.

That feeling of being looked at, constantly looked at, but not being seen. Not being even remotely seen as the woman I want to be.

The WDW was not my mom, but she might as well have been; she might as well have been all of the well-meaning women in all of the stores that litter my ugly-body history. I realized I would have done anything, anything, both to please her and to get away from her, as quickly as I could.

Take two: the feminist local

Natalie said: that experience sounds horrible! Did you know, though, that R’s friend’s wife runs a great lingerie shop just up the road from here?

We were having coffee in her neighbourhood, and I put two and two together: the shop I’d passed on my way to meet her – the one with the hot mesh body suit in the window, the one that seemed so welcoming and warm from the street – was the shop she was talking about.

898E98B6-6FDE-4349-A3A1-9B6053EA43C7

(This is a photo of a sexy black mesh body suit on a mannequin in the window of Stole My Heart, an amazing west-Toronto feminist lingerie store. I took it through the glass storefront window on a cloudy afternoon, and we can see an apartment building, some trees, and sky reflected in the window, as well as some big red peonies. I have no idea where they came from, but they totally rock the shot.)

Let’s go together, Natalie said. And one Saturday afternoon in March we did. This time, the experience was remarkably different for me, in every way. For one thing, it felt safe. Natalie is loving and supportive and I knew she had my back. But also: the shop was small and all on one level; there were sexy, fun, come-what-may pieces on mannequins and hangers all over the place. Ashley was tending shop on her own, and greeted us right away as friends (and, I suspect, not just because she knows Natalie.) Instantly I felt at home. In fact, I felt protected.

The shop is called Stole My Heart; co-founders Amy Pearson and Ashley Holden opened it precisely in order to counteract the kinds of experiences I had with the WDW. They write:

Lingerie has the ability to make women feel confident, beautiful and unique, but those aren’t often the feelings we experience while shopping for underwear. Having braved many a lingerie store together, we’ve been pushed up and sucked in, all the while struggling to find flattering pieces that we could get excited about trying on. We decided that we all deserve better and Stole My Heart was born. (Click here for more.)

Amy and Ashley’s aim in building the space and curating its collection was to celebrate body diversity, to support women designers and sustainable brands, and (this is my favourite bit) to “speak to the many definitions of femininity” that women inhabit daily.

store_interior_large

(Stole My Heart from the back looking at the window: lingerie on hangers, a brown wicker light fixture, black and white furniture signalling laid-back Victoriana. The writing on the wall literally says: “take your own breath away.”)

I knew none of this going in, note: I had not looked online, not Googled a thing. I had Natalie’s word and a glance through a window to go on. And yet instantly I could feel how different this vibe was: I was ok to be myself, to be honest and to be awkward if I needed to be. It was all good.

Emboldened, I said to Ashley: I want something sexy, for me and my partner to play in. But I’d like it to be comfortable, something I can wear and enjoy anytime.

Nat and I grabbed change rooms, and Ashley brought us all manner of things: stuff I’d picked out with her on a go-round the shop, stuff she’d remembered she had in a drawer, stuff from up high and down low. (The body suit, natch.) She thought I should start with mediums, but instantly I knew those were too small. I called out: could I have the mesh body suit in large? from behind the curtain; Yup! she hollered cheerfully back. And try this one, too!

She measured me and confirmed my bra size, then presented me with an array of gorgeous options I’d never have looked at myself. The one I least expected to want stole my heart.

I bought it for me, and I bought the body suit for me and D. (Bonus: it’s made of recycled fabric! It’s eco-lingerie!) Nat bought herself her first-ever proper nightgown, to celebrate an amazing new job.

As we paid (no sales counter – just an iPad along the wall, next to a comfy sofa and a table laden with chocolates, to which I helped myself, OF COURSE), we chatted about the experience I’d had with the WDW. Ashley commiserated. I mentioned what an utter delight this experience had been, the polar opposite – enough of a pleasure to make me want to come back, again and again, kind of just to hang out, actually.

Neither Nat nor I wanted boxes for our purchases; instead, Ashley wrapped them beautifully in tissue paper, and then put them into bespoke cloth bags, with “Stole My Heart” on one side, and a strong-ass bitch in a body suit on the other. (I like it almost as much as I like the new bra.)

fullsizeoutput_f81.jpeg

(Best. Tote. Ever. This image is of my Stole My Heart cloth tote bag, which is black and features a white drawing of an ordinary-sized female body with long hair. She is flexing a bicep and looking at it admiringly.)

The take-away

Shopping is hard, my friends; we know this. But it’s not hard because there’s anything wrong with our bodies, or anything wrong with being firmly, proudly, openly sexual – even in public. It’s hard because of the structures that shape our consumption. As women, we’ve long been coached to hide our bodies, demure about things sexual, even despise ourselves for spending money on ourselves. Lingerie shops often reproduce this vibe – because they are usually heteronormative spaces that institutionalize a particular kind of femininity-under-patriarchy, but also because they know that shame sells. Once caught in the net, I’d spend anything to be free.

So let’s seek out spaces that resist this vibe, that challenge our received body norms by making structural changes to curate a different kind of shopping feeling. Not shame but joy. Not fear but pride. Not the long, judging look of the matriarch, but the supportive and generous vision of the friend, the peer, the equal.

The look you give yourself, when you take your own breath away.

Thanks, Ashley!

Kim

accessibility · athletes · body image · bras · clothing · Sat with Nat

The Proliferation of (Some) Plus Sizes

I’m seriously stoked that it is easier and easier to find clothes that fit, especially workout gear.

One clothing retailer, Reitmans Canada, I’ve frequented for having Plus Petit now simply carries all clothes up to size 20. Now that is not going to cover all the sizes people wear. I’m fortunate I hover in the 18-20 range for North American sizing.

So now I can walk in and look at a whole store of clothes instead of one, picked over rack.

I’ve been able to find great workout leggings on sale for under $20 CDN.

A photo of a person from the waist down wearing Lycra leggings with a purple pattern on black fabric

I’ve also noticed my favourite thrift stores are now carrying more plus size clothes, especially pants.

I needed to upgrade my wardrobe and found several pairs of dress pants that fit. Partly this is due to some stretch being in all dress pants these days.

The biggest surprise was when my sister gifted me pajama pants for Christmas that were sized XL. I was very nervous trying them on as I usually need a XXL or bigger.

Turns out the pants were sized generously and did relax & have lots of stretch. They have crabs on them and read “Crabby in the morning”.

Natalie stands on one leg with the other foot drawn up to pelvis level with a silly look on her face

I’ve no doubt this change in availability of sizes up to size 20 is due to the agitation of activists and women insisting on more clothes being offered in more sizes.

That being said there are very few places I can find that offer sizes beyond 20. Let’s keep insisting and agitating until with have greater proliferation of more plus sizes.

bras · Sat with Nat

My latest sports bra

I was so sad in September when my 5 year old high impact bra suffered a catastrophic failure during a soccer match. I loved that bra. It contained and supported my bust in this lovely engineered unpadded bra. It was so lovely I save it only for running and soccer. Goodbye Old Faithful.

Cycling I can get away with the department store Lycra compression bras. For yoga and cxworx I use a thin shelf type top. When it comes to high impact sports I prefer a lot of structure and support.

I’m not overly busty but because I’m plus size I rarely find the 40 F at athletic wear shops. So I went back to the bra shop I had gotten Old Faithful. Since it has been so long the designs were different. Now everything is lined with foam cups. I’m round and sweaty at the best of times and I was skeptical of all the padding.

The shop attendant quickly eyed me up and down and grabbed the perfect size. She assured me this was the bra she sells to the university rugby and soccer players.

A close up photo of Natalie’s chest invaded in a navy blue band of padded Lycra

The cut is comfortable and my chest is neither compressed nor tucked under my arm pits.

Natalie faces the camera looking skeptical as you see the reflection of her back over her right shoulder

Unlike other sports bras that have zippers and complex mechanisms this is a simple triple eye and hook closure with an adjustable clip to form a racer back. It’s super comfy, I like the lines and I can breathe.

My new boob buddy is made by Chantelle and is a high impact line.

Bras are a funny thing. In the 90s the Canadian military tried to design a combat bra. After years of research they concluded no one design would provide support and comfort for the wide array of breast configurations.

Some of us are set wide apart, others close together. Breast density changes over time. There’s a lot to consider. The military decided to give members money for bras so we could buy what worked for ourselves.

All that to say, I’m super happy with my $95 bra but your mileage may vary. It also took me two months to have the cash on hand. I can’t run without it and some running is an important part of my fitness routine.

bras · equality · fashion · fat · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · men

Liberation, two nipples at a time (Guest post)

When all the fashion magazines featured women with hands (their own or others’) covering their breasts, a thought flickered that hands are much more comfortable than the average bra. Hiding women’s breasts, one way or the other, is standard media fare, and of course in some places women aren’t allowed to go topless in public, a clear gender disparity.

Fashion in the last few decades has even come to erase to nipple that might protrude from a shirt — again only for women like Serena Williams, not for men like Andy Murray.

It’s become really hard to find a non-padded bra, even for sports. Yet it’s seriously unpleasant to exercise with sweaty padding. Does anyone really believe in “breathable padding”? Sorry Victoria’s Secret, but my skepticism was well placed.

However, in recent years fashion has shown glimpses of the saucy braless 70s, including the bralette and bandeaus, all pleasant options for small-breasted women. The news even declares that bralessness is in fashion.

Many of us may sneer “how nice for you!” Bralessness and even lightweight bra alternatives are not realistic choices. Many heavy breasted women are simply not comfortable and even experience back pain without support from a bra. Sizes small, medium, and large rarely do the work we need them to do either. Sports bras tend to be sized that way and create a special kind of hell. We end up pinched and unsupported on top of being sweaty.

So I suggest the new move away from bras and padded bras may be good for all women. It marks a greater diversity in the types of breast support and sports tops available for women. The less women are expected to hide our breasts the easier it will be for us to demand comfortable functional support.