How “Average” Are You When You Buy a Bra?

Jordan Clapper

I think it’s my wife that best captures the trials a woman with an atypical body type can expect when buying clothes. One day, we walked into a Victoria’s Secret, the expected standard when it comes to women’s lingerie. An employee asked her, “Can I help you?”

With a smile, she answered, “Probably not.”

Women with an atypical body can expect to face a number of challenges, but what do I mean when I say “atypical body?” A typical body would be one that fits into society’s expectations, so in America, that would be one of two categories: the anorexic Barbie-doll standard (the hyper feminine) or the more realistic obese standard. In truth, our society is evolving to the point where it is including more than one body type. However, rather than having one impossible standard, we’ve merely set two. So, to hark back, an atypical body is one that does not fit into either of these roles.

First, the subject of women’s undergarments, as it blatantly sets the subtle standards by which women can judge their place on the spectrum of expectation. Again, we’ll use Victoria’s Secret as the model. In the US, their bra sizes range from 32AA to 40DD. For most, when they look at this range, this is not a problem. It seems that they offer a wide range, yes? It is not range that women need, but options that exist outside of a spectrum.

In an article by the Huffington Post, the writer makes the claim that the average bra size has increased from 34B to 34DD. Now, for a quick explanation, the number refers to the chest measurement of a women, measured under the breasts, and the letter refers to the cup size, the difference between the measurement of the chest and the breasts. The reason I describe this is because Intimacy, the taker of this survey, explains this increase very oddly. Katy Therune, spokeswoman for Intimacy, claims that breast implants and weight gain have factored into the increase, but this presents us with a problem.

Presumably, if an individual gains weight, they do so somewhat roundly. That is to say, weight gain, while sometimes centered on certain parts of the body, tends to occur all over the body, which means that if a woman gains weight, she should follow a similar pattern. We’ll ignore the implants claim for now. Nevertheless, an increase in cup size without an increase in band or chest measurement would lead to an assumption: with a claimed increase in the average from 34B to 34DD, Intimacy is inferring that all of women’s weight gain is going specifically to her breasts.

But weight issue is not entirely the problem, as even Victoria’s Secret, though still relatively restrictive in its assumptions about women’s sizes, is still attempting to offer options, albeit a small range. The biggest problem here is the matter of options. Victoria’s Secret has a set range. If you fit into it, great! If not, too bad; we have some panties you might want to shell out money for. At Intimacy, the company that did this survey, assuredly, they have a range of bras that their stores carry specifically. However, upon first shopping there, they give you a complimentary measurement. Aside from often educating women about the proper bra that they should be wearing, they can order a bra catered to fit the individual woman who needs it. Though I would disagree slightly (without more information right now) with their claims about why bra sizes are increasing, I would side with Intimacy and other stores like it that offer this service and this option to their customers. This article seems peppered with “howevers,” but I must use another. However, then there are the issues of price and proximity.

The last bra that my wife bought cost her (with a 30% discount) $70. That’s ridiculous. For one bra, this would have cost upwards of $100 after tax. Even at inflated Victoria’s Secret prices, that’s an immense investment, and a woman needs more than one bra. The argument can be made that there are cheaper options online, but let me ask this: do you typically buy your shoes online? No, because you need to go to a store and try them, make sure they fit; no two companies size shoes the exact same way. So why would you ever buy a bra without being able to try it on? This is especially true for large breasted women, as a proper fit is essential to comfort and mobility. So while some places offer options, they are plagued by placement and price. The nearest lingerie store that could help my wife might be in Spokane, and we’ll have to shell out the gas money, time, and bra money to give her what she needs.

Atypicality of expectation also ventures into the a-feminine; in other words, the realm where a woman does not meet the expectations of size and body type contingent on the fact that she does not fit into the standards of womanliness. If a woman has masculine traits (in the case of my wife, a more muscular frame, especially in the shoulders), clothes shopping equally becomes a problem. Having to buy sizes not suited for the rest of your body just so that your more distinguishing traits can exist in comfort, it does not make for a positive self-image. Having to turn down a nice outfit because your arms are too muscular is not fair; needing to buy a size up because your breasts take up too much space in a shirt is not conducive to a positive feeling about oneself; pants that fit around the waist but not the legs show that society expects a certain level of petiteness from women. To contrast, I’m a man (most of the time), and my shirts fit, my pants fit, and I can get them in any given store.

From a business standpoint, certain sizes need to be kept in stock when they are the ones purchased more often. From a feminist standpoint, options need to be offered and expectations evolved, lest we group women into one or two categories with which, if they do not fall into them, they are labeled outsiders or atypical. From a realistic standpoint, these things need to intersect at a price that is affordable. The lack of availability, the inability to offer an accessible space, and the unfair price with which essentials can be purchased only serve to force these unrealistic labels and expectations on women.

I’ll leave you with one more example of my wife. She decided to make a bra to match a pair of panties she purchased, as she would never find a style (as they are incredibly limited for her size) that would adequately, or even remotely, match it. The fabric cost $7.65 in total (using higher end fabric) for twice the fabric of an “average” bra. A comparable bra at Victoria’s Secret costs around $25 to her $100 bra. Inflated prices notwithstanding, why is my wife paying four times the price (more than ten times for what the materials cost) for a bra that has barely twice the fabric of an average bra?

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