About three years ago I learned how bras are supposed to fit and my life changed forever. After over a decade of smushing my boobs into 38/40 D/DD cups, my first properly fitted bra was a revelation.
The right size looked comically large at first. Though these days, when I see my old size, the cups look comically small for my chest! I don't know how I wore them for so long!
Anyways . . . when I started wearing bras that actually fit, I noticed aesthetic things, like my boobs actually being lifted and separated and my tummy being a bit flatter (because of the lift). And I noticed comfort things, like less tension in my shoulders and chest and less pain in my back.
And the first time I sang in a bra that properly fit, I noticed that my breathing was quieter.
According to the American Posture Instituete, "cup size B and upwards increase stress on the spine and distort posture." And, as we all know, poor alignment has all kinds of adverse effects on our singing. (For more details on the alignment-voice connection, check out this article by Dr. Claudia Friedlander - voice teacher and NASM certified personal trainer.)
Statistically, 80% of people who wear bras wear the wrong size - mostly bands that are too big and cups that are too small. So, if you're not 100% sure your bra fits as well as it could, read on, and thank me later.
HOW BRAS WORK:
Bra sizes are meant to be proportional. The band size (32, 34, 36, 38, etc.) is supposed to correspond to the wearer's rib cage measurement. The cup sizes (A, B, C, D, etc.) represent the difference between the wearer's rib cage and bust measurements. For example:
If your bust measures 38" and your rib cage measures 36" - you are a 36B.
If your best measures 38" and your rib cage measures 34" - you are a 34D.
Bras are designed to fit snugly around the underbust. The band provides 80-90% of the bra's support. (Don't worry, singers, since bra bands are stretchy, you will still have plenty of give to expand your ribs when breathing.)
The other 10-20% of the support is provided by the straps - which can also be adjusted to tweak the fit of the cup.
TROUBLESHOOTING YOUR BRA FIT:
There are many factors to consider when identifying a proper fit.
Your band should fit snugly around your rib cage. It should not ride up, nor should you be able to pull it down.
If you can fit more than a couple fingers between your bra band and your back, or if your band rides up or can be pulled down in the back, it is too big. The band should fit snugly against your back, and it should extend in a straight line from the root of your breasts. When the bra is new, it should fasten snugly on the loosest hook (so you can still tighten it as you wear it and the elastic stretches out).
Your bra straps should fit comfortably on your shoulders.
If your bra straps tend to fall off your shoulders, your band is too big. If your band is the right size, even a loose strap is unlikely to fall of your shoulder. If your straps dig painfully into your shoulders, it is likely that your cup is too small and/or your band is too loose, and your straps are supporting too much of the weight of your breasts.
All your breast tissue should be contained in your bra cups.
If you have quad-boob, armpit rolls, if your breasts pop out the bottom of your bra, if you get additional or exaggerated back rolls when you wear a bra, or if your underwire pokes into your breast tissue, your cup is too small. When the cup is too shallow to contain your breast tissue, it creates rolls either by digging into your breast tissue or by displacing it. The underwire should curve fully around your breasts and rest against your rib cage at all points without digging in. There should also be no space between the root of your breasts and the underwire.
The goring should tack.
When your bra fits properly, the goring (that bit between your bra cups) will tack (rest fully against your sternum), creating the "separate" part of lift-and-separate. If the goring doesn't tack, the fit problem could be with the band or the cup. When your cups are too small your breast tissue can displace the goring. When the band is too big, the goring will fall forward a bit, even if your breast tissue isn't displacing it.
The fabric of your bra cup should lie smoothly, and your nipple should be centered in the cup.
If there are wrinkles in the fabric of your cup, it is too big. Your breast tissue should completely fill the cup of your bra and smooth out any wrinkles in the fabric. And while breast shape and bra shape can be a major factor in fit, it is likely the bra is not right for you if your nipples aren't more or less centered in the cup.
*It's really hard to wear a bra with a band that's truly too small.
While you can sometimes squeeze yourself into a band on the small side, it is unlikely that you will be able to fasten a band that is too small. Very often, when bands feel too small it is actually because the cup is too small.
DETERMINING YOUR SIZE
As with most clothing, you may need to adjust your bra size slightly depending on factors like brand, design, and fabrication materials. However, as with most clothing, it's still a good idea to have a starting size to work from.
The most straightforward way to determine your starting size is to measure yourself.
Step 1: Bend at the hips, keeping your back flat so that your torso is as parallel to the floor as possible. This allows gravity to keep all your breast tissue forward, where it belongs.
Step 2: Wrap your measuring tape around your rib cage in a straight line consistent with the root of your breasts and take a snug measurement (bra bands stretch; tape measures don't - and, again, this is where 80-90% of your support should come from). This measurement is your band size.
Step 3: While you are still bent forward, comfortably measure your bust.
Step 4: Subtract your rib cage measurement from your bust measurement. The difference between these two numbers corresponds to your cup size.
If the difference between your bust and underbust measurements is larger than 4" (D cup), your size will vary based on the origin of your bra.
The chart below shows US, UK, and EU cup sizes based on the difference between band and bust measurements:
Once you have a bra size to work from, your options are to go to a store near you that carries your size, or to shop online. If you are a DD+ cup, though, there may not be a store near you that carries your size.
Both in-store and online bra shopping have their pros and cons.
Shopping In-Store: The biggest pro to shopping in-store is being able to try before you buy. However, the bigger your boobs, the less likely the store will stock a wide variety of options in your size. Stores may also have knowledgeable shop assistants who can help you find the best fit, but not all shop assistants are created equal. Some don't really have the knowledge and expertise they should, while others may try to sell you on the best thing they have in stock, even if it's not truly a proper fit. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself in the fitting room, and don't settle!
Shopping Online: Online shops tend to have great selections and will have discounts and deals more frequently than brick-and-mortar stores (which is great because bras are EXPENSIVE!). But shipping charges and delays can increase the cost and draw out the process of finding what you need. If you can, order multiple sizes in a few different bras with the intention of returning most of them. Many online shops will offer free shipping on orders above a certain dollar amount, but charge for return shipping. Spending more upfront will ultimately save you time and money over constantly exchanging smaller orders.
Whether you're shopping in-store or online, they way you put on your bra will ultimately affect how you perceive the fit. For the best idea of how a bra fits you:
Step 1: bend forward so your breast tissue fills the cup.
Step 2: stand upright and fasten the back snugly.
Step 3: reach into each bra cup and scoop the breast tissue from the root and around the side so all of your breast tissue fills the cup.
Step 4: adjust the straps to a comfortable length.
Step 5: check for signs of a proper fit (and readjust the band/straps as needed).
MORE TIPS AND TRICKS:
I know this post is already really long and full of information, but I have a few more tips I want to share:
Get A Second Bra That Fits: It's important not to wear the same bra two days in a row. The bra elastic will need time to recover between wears if you want proper support.
Invest in Proper Bra Care: Especially if you wear an extended size, your new bras will not be cheap. Make sure they last by washing them properly with the right kind of detergent, letting them air dry, and storing them safely.
Get Refitted Annually: Our bodies are constantly changing, so it's important to check your bra fit at regular intervals. Also, if you've been wearing a small cup and big band, it's likely that some of your displaced breast tissue will begin to migrate back to where it belongs once you start wearing a bigger cup and smaller band, so you may need to check your size again soon.
Watch for Sales: Especially in the DD+ world, bras rarely go on sale, but it is possible to find more affordable bras from time to time. Many shops, both in-store and online offer deals and rewards as well.
Bras Can Be Altered: Just like with any garment, minor alterations can be the difference between a good fit and a great fit. Taking up to 1" off each side of the band, shortening the straps, and even lowering the cups a bit can be done affordably and may be totally worth the extra time and money. In fact, the bra store near me offers free minor alterations on bras purchased there at full price.
Donate Bras That No Longer Fit: While consignment stores don't tend to take undergarments, there are charities that do. Many of them will donate gently-used bras to breast cancer survivors or women in under-served communities.
Having bras that fit properly is important for all women who wear them. For singers it is even more so. Now go forth, get some bras that fit, and spread the word!