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My Misadventures with Bras or a 38E? Are You Serious?

Like many women in the US, I wore the wrong size bra for many years. In fact, a quick perusal of the internet shows that an estimated 80 percent of women wear the wrong size bra. The most common problem, they say, is wearing the wrong cup size. I am in my mid-forties now, and “the girls” have changed dramatically over the years.

When I was young, I wore a 36B. I have no idea of how it was determined that was my size; I was certainly too shy to let a saleswoman measure me. Perhaps I did it myself or let my mom do it. I do remember the urban myths surrounding bras at that time. First there was the “pencil test,” to see if you even needed a bra. According to this method, if you put a pencil under a breast and it stays there, then you need a bra. But this tells you nothing about which size you need. Lucky for me I had a friend who swore that if you put your knee in a bra at the store and it fit, then that was your size. Simple enough, and best of all, you didn’t have to get undressed to try it on!

Oh, but I do remember those first bras—beautiful light blue, lavender, pink (of course,) yellow and white—non-padded and simple, certainly with no underwire and with pretty lace trim. They had small straps and two hooks in the back. Wearing a bra was rite of passage, a sign that you had become “a young woman.” Even girls who flunked the pencil test wanted bras.

I stubbornly stuck with that size, even when I grew more and gained weight in my twenties and thirties. But when I noticed that my cups runneth over, I bought several the next size up—the 36C. I ordered several in beautiful colors and different styles, underwire this time, but I was horrified when I had to stretch and contort to close them. Hmm. Perhaps a 38C? Yes, that seemed right. I ordered several more in that size and wore them. Case closed, I thought.

A few months or maybe it was years later, at a family picnic, my mom noticed that I had the dreaded quadra-boob effect and she pointed this out in a loud stage whisper, as if something were dreadfully wrong. Embarrassed, I went home and ordered a bunch of 38Ds from a chain store in beautiful colors. These too produced the dreaded quadra-boob. But what to do? I had reached the limit of their size range. Oh yes, a 40C. But that wasn’t right somehow, either.

So I experimented with 40Ds and even 42Cs (a disaster!) and finally settled on a 38DD. And they were rare as hen’s teeth in the local stores. I never once looked at the larger sized DDDs in discrete boxes in the “big ladies” section, if they even had them. Those were ugly beyond imagining with the boring colors, absence of trim and multiple hooks on a broad band. In desperation I got braver and got measured by “professionals” who hemmed and hawed and told me a 38 was right, but they didn’t know about the cup size because their lines didn’t have larger cups than the DD. I felt like a freak.

I spent hundreds of dollars and bought ugly white and beige bras that looked like medical devices with three, four and five hooks at the back. I was miserable and I felt bad about myself: I am too fat! I am too big! I had to buy blouses that were a size up so they wouldn’t gap, but the shoulders hit me in the wrong place and they looked funny.

Then I went to Italy. I had some romantic notion of buying European lingerie and I went into store after store, only to be disappointed because they didn’t have anything approaching my size. But one day in Florecnce I found a store that changed my life and the way I see myself. It was a little boutique on a side street of the old part of the city and they had breath-taking bras in the window! Periwinkle and rose and turquoise with the most delicate embroidery and ribbons. I went in, half-certain of yet another failure, yet still hopeful.

The proprietress looked at me in my new, expensive, and ill-fitting Wacoal and said in Italian, “Throw that thing away!” She then demanded that I strip behind a flimsy curtain and she measured me with an assistant. ”You are a 38E,” she pronounced. Lord! An E? Are you serious? Do they even make such a thing? “Oh yes,” she said. And she produced stacks of boxes with the most beautiful French and English and Italian lingerie I had ever seen. I was astonished. She and her assistant helped me get into them. “A bra must be seated properly,” she said while pushing and pulling the girls into place and adjusting the straps. I’ll tell you right now, there is nothing like have two Italian women arguing about what style looks best while pushing your boobs into position. But the bras fit. The middle part sat flat against my chest and the band didn’t pull and the cups did not run over. Finally!

I was transformed from a hunched-over “fat” woman to a slim woman with big boobs. It changed how I felt about myself and how I carried myself. And best of all, the bras were beautiful! Navy blue and rosy pink lace and black with dramatic blue embroidery and even the coveted periwinkle blue lace from the window. They were underwires, but they only had two hooks in the back! A far cry from the ugly, plain medical devices from before. These were beautiful.

I bought four bras and nearly fainted when the bill was nearly $500. I went back to the hotel and thought about things. I threw away the new Wacoal. I looked at the brands of the bras and googled them. That is how I discovered companies that cater to large-busted women. And the bras! Delicate, lacy, and normal looking! Sure they were British companies and special orders, but I knew I couldn’t waltz into the mall and just buy a bra off the rack. Thank goodness for the internet! Thank goodness for the proprietress of that boutique in Florence.

When I got home, I ordered every bra those companies had in my new size. My credit card company even flagged it as potential fraud. But I tried them all on (it took hours!) I returned 75 percent of them. But the ones I kept made me very happy. And they made me feel good about myself. I felt beautiful again.

Finding the right bra size is one of the most important things a woman can do for herself. For me, it took a trip to Florence to figure this out, and I was well into my thirties when it happened. But I have a feeling, looking at that 80 percent figure, that there are a lot of woman who are still searching and guessing and sticking their knees into bras at the mall.

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