Monday, July 29, 2013

More heartache in the underwear department

I had some free time before my first MIFF film on Friday, so I went to Target where they are currently having an underwear sale. I urgently need to buy a plain, everyday pale-coloured bra – white, cream or pale pink – because mine are so old their elasticity is almost gone and they are that sad grey colour. I came away empty-handed, of course.

You can see from this instore display that Target is buying into that oft-cited statistic about the percentage of women who wear ill-fitting bras. I tracked down the journal article they cite; I can't read it without an institutional subscription (paywalled academic publishing is a GODDAMNED RACKET) but it charmingly says in the abstract: "women were found to have a poor ability to independently choose a well-fitted bra, which was not improved by trying on several bras or using bra-sizing measurements."

Women's ignorance is the key message conveyed by this "wrong bra size" statistic when it's cited in the popular media. We are portrayed as idiots who blithely squish or flop our boobs into ill-fitting bras, and who need the assistance of 'expert' bra fitters and extensive how-to literature.

Here is Target's 'checklist' for well-fitting bras:
1 The band sits horizontally around the body.
2 The centre front panel sits flat against the chest.
3 The cups are smooth and wrinkle-free.
4 The breasts are fully contained within the cups – no bulging or spilling out of the top or sides.
5 The underwires surround the breasts without digging into the breast.
6 The straps are secure but not tight – the main support comes from the body of the bra, not the straps.
Women are not idiots. We know all this stuff. We know it because we are constantly reading a bazillion media articles telling us we're doing it wrong.

Here's an alternative view: what if women just want to come home with a new bra? Like other heartache-causing garments including swimsuits and jeans, bras are something women go on missions to buy, knowing it will be no fun but suffering through it because they need the garment and don't want to go home empty-handed.

What if women get so fed up with the poor selection available that they pick the best of a bad lot and learn to live with it?

I really want to hammer home that so many of the problems we face with clothing size and fit are retail issues. For instance, negative experiences with customer service (and my survey unearthed some heartbreaking stories) deter us from seeking 'help with sizes', and poor stock replenishment means we can never access a complete size range in the one store.

So many times I'm forced to settle for a bra I don't really like because they don't have a suitable size in the one I do like. On Saturday I went to Big Dubs, where I tried on various styles of bra in four different sizes. The store didn't have my preferred size in any of the styles I liked, and none of the ugly bras I tried on fitted me either.

I turned myself over to the 'expert' advice in Target's 'bra book', and measured myself according to the instructions. The size chart tells me I should be wearing a size 22B. That is interesting, since Target does not make such a size and nor does anyone else. I am not the only one to call bullshit on Target's bra sizing.

Target recommends solving fit problems by trying larger or smaller cup or band sizes, or trying on a style of bra you wouldn't have picked yourself because it's frickin' ugly. For instance, if underwires are jabbing you, they recommend "a minimiser style as they are designed for a wider breast shape." Too bad if you don't have big boobs that you want to minimise, or if you like to wear low-cut tops.

Target also advocates 'swing sizes' – rather than a 12C, try a 14B or a 10D. Good luck trying to find those in the store in the style and colour you want. But swing sizing only works if you stay within the conventional 10A-16D. If a 16C doesn't fit, you can't try an 18B because there is no such size.

Indeed, it is very hard to find bras with small cup sizes in relation to the back size. I'd be interested to see the percentage of women who have this body shape because I imagine it's quite low – too low for brands to be bothered trying to market to it.

There is, however, a market for fashionable lingerie for small-bodied women who have comparatively large breasts for their size. Culture is beginning to normalise (rather than fetishise) this body shape, although large-breasted women get slut-shamed and female politicians including Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel have been criticised for showing cleavage.

Yet there isn't a complementary bra market for large-bodied women who have comparatively small breasts for their size. They get the obesity stigma of plus-size, yet they lack the bountiful 'curves' that plus-size women often use to combat obesity stigma by associating themselves with retro-styled pinup glamour.

Judging from Target's plus-size range, fat chicks must clamour for either nanna-beige minimisers or 'sexy' bras in bold prints and bright colours, doused in cheap-looking machine lace. Target did not stock any plain, pale-coloured bras in sizes outside 10A-16D. They were black, red, purple and leopard-print vampish styles with lots of lace and satin.

My search for a plain, pale-coloured bra that doesn't make me look like a trussed ham continues.


Fashion Hayley said...

OMG Yes. My bra size simply does not exist ANYWHERE. There are no 16B's or 18B's (ha, size 18 bra's simple don't exist at all) or 20B's anywhere so I'm left with 14C or 16C which are too damn big in the cups so my breasts don't fill them. It's like they think fat woman always have big boobs & it drives me crazy. I just buy Kmart's $9 t-shirt bras now which are crap but at least they don't break the bank for something that also doesn't work.

Jessica said...

Bra availability is indeed incredibly annoying, but I just had to let you know that the grass is not really always greener; I have a very narrow ribcage and breasts on the large end of regularly sized, meaning I need a 10G - another size which it is also pretty much impossibly to find. Something like a 12B or C, which manufacturers claim to be the average size, seems to dictate availability, and anything which differs greatly from that proportion just isn't available. I have had saleswomen tell me that I am wrong or lying because I can't need such a large cup size - 'your breasts aren't all that big, sweetie' - because my shirt does not necessarily reveal that my ribcage is very narrow, and even the so-called professional fitters don't seem to understand that it is a proportional measurement. I am brought a 14C or even a 16C to prove that my breasts are merely C-cups, never mind the fact that it is then the cups holding up the band and not the other way round.

Mel said...

Yes, volume is the key to bra sizing and it's something that a 2D fitting system on two axes just can't account for. I wonder if there's been much research using 3D body scanners.

I read another account of a woman who had quite small but wide-set breasts – she had to choose a D cup for the width, even though she only had about a B-cup of volume. The bra fitter could only recommend she find a padded bra, use inserts, or get a custom-made bra.

This is a lot of work and expense to go to, considering women are also frequently lectured that they should replace their bras every six months to a year – having to spend the money and do the work so often is not an appealing prospect.

melanie said...

Oddly enough I on a random whim went to get fitted for a (MUCH NEEDED) new bra on Friday - random because if I thought about it too much I got anxious, so the best way was just to suddenly decide to go - and was completely surprised to have a very positive experience. I've not had great experiences being fitted before and I have pretty much zero confidence in selecting the right bra for myself, but this time it was pretty much textbook what I think it was meant to be. Admittedly I don't think I'm very hard to fit or find bras for (apparently I am a 10B) but if the service I got on Friday could be guaranteed for every time I need a bra, I'd have very little fear having to do it in the future. But I know better than to expect that.

elsewhere said...

Mel, you have hit the nail on the head for me! I have a large torso (thanks to genes and the Sydney swimming childhood), which means I'm some weird bra size like a 16A that doesn't exist. I usually wear a 14B with a bra extender, tho recently I found a 16B bra that wasn't too big in the cups...however, too expensive for me to buy any more than one! Generally finding clothes that are long enough for me are a problem: I swear that larger sizes are not made for people with large frames but small people who've put on weight (a 14 is often a 10 with more material). I sometimes wonder if I would be better off shopping in Scandinavia or Germany where there are perhaps more large framed people.

Kai Jones said...

I'm in the US and our sizes are apparently quite different from yours-I wear a 40G in the Elomi brand. I found my size using a questionnaire on the website, which asks about things like whether your breasts are full at the top or droopy, whether they point out or forward or down, etc., and then recommends specific models in specific brands for each situation.