The Impact of Bras
Like most women in America, I've been deeply enculturated to wear a bra. Bras are big business. Wearing them has become the
pinnacle of high fashion. And indeed, braless women are often referred to in derogatory terms.
As a tween, I remember relishing the right of passage of my first "training bra." However, I immediately commented to my mom that the bra felt tight and itchy. "Well, maybe you're just not ready for a bra." she retorted. I in no way wanted to relinquish my bra-wearing status. I remained tight-lipped about my discomfort.
By the time I was eighteen I was diagnosed with fibrocystic breasts. Was there any connection?
Bra-wearing is a thoroughly researched topic. It turns out that most bras have a significant impact on breast health, and not in a good way. I say most bras because then health or harm of a bra depends on how the bra treats your breasts. I'm not here to tell you to burn your bra. I love my bras. But do your breasts a huge favor, read on...
A study published in the European Journal of Cancer found that, “Premenopausal women who do not wear bras had half the risk of breast cancer compared with bra users.”
A popular book entitled, Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer & Bras explains how bras suppress the lymphatic system and cause toxins to build up in breast tissues, leading to many health problems. After studying more than 4,000 women, the authors concluded that women who do not wear a bra have a much lower risk of breast cancer.
Women who wear a bra 24 hours a day had a 75% chance of developing breast cancer.
Women who wore a bra more than 12 hours a day, but not to bed, had a 1 out of 7 risk.
Women who wore a bra less than 12 hours a day had a 1 out of 52 risk.
Women who wore a bra rarely or never had a 1 out of 168 chance of getting breast cancer.
Within one month of ditching their bras, women with cysts, breast pain, or tenderness found their symptoms disappeared.
This slide-show is a quick way to digest the historical, scientific and cultural issues surrounding bra wearing. It perfectly illustrates why breast massage, and removing the bra as often as possible, is imperative to the breast health of bra-wearing women.
Choosing A “Healthier” Bra
All this gloom and doom about over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders doesn't necessarily mean you have to get rid of your bras. As I mentioned, my breast health mentor and I certainly aren't bra burners. But it is important to continually re-assess and revamp bra-wearing habits toward ever-better breast health.
Baby steps/booby steps. First, if you're going to wear a bra, consider these important guidelines:
A correctly fitted bra should:
not leave red marks anywhere on your body after you take it off: around your ribs, back, chest or underarm area;
not leave shoulder indentations–also a sign that your breast support is coming from your shoulders rather than the bra cup itself, where it belongs; and
have a cup size which fully and comfortably cradles each breast without breast tissue spilling out from the side or top, or compressing or cutting into the breast in any way.
A bra should not “push your breasts around.” It may be difficult to find a bra that does not squeeze the breasts together, as most bras are made for the fashion of cleavage, rather than comfort, health and support.
Compression of the breast by a bra inhibits the flow of protective lymph fluids. Lymph moves through the mammary space, from front of the breast to ribs. Bending over without a bra on allows the breasts to lift off the ribcage, and is a good example of a natural movement that benefits breast health by decongesting lymph drainage channels. See our massage page for more.
Update Your Bra Size Every 3-5 Years
Breasts change in density every 3-7 years, as well as throughout the month during your menstrual years. This means the bra you purchased five years ago is likely not the correct size for you today. And the bra you have on today may not be the size you need before, during or after your period or pregnancy. Your rib measurement and cup size can change, sometimes both.
A number of international surveys and studies show that between 70% to 100% of women wear incorrectly fitted bras. The most common mistake: too large a back band and too small a cup. However, the bra industry has been less than helpful in their labeling practices. On a bra feild trip one year, we found back bands are as much as 5" shorter than the label. The assumption is that the elastic will stretch and make up for it.
But the expected elastic stretch is often far too tight and constricting, right where you don't want it to be, at the lymph drainage sheds for the breasts. See our page on breasts for photos. The next time you shop for a bra, bring a measuring tape and measure the band, comparing that to what the label claims.
There are "vanity" mislabeling practices that evolved after WWII to try and fool women about their body image. Other manufacturers simply have arbitrary labeling practices. Measurements are extremely helpful to get you started, but don’t rely on what the tags say.
Instead, have a relationship with and feel what your girls say when you are wearing a bra. Bra fitting is an art, not a science. There is simply no quick hard and fast rule to be sure a bra is perfect for you. You must try it on. You must move in it. You must be honest with yourself if it feels compfortable, regardless of how gorgeous you think it looks.
Alternatives to Bras
(Because Bras Aren't Mandatory For Anyone)
Bras can be costly garments. And it's a financial bummer to buy an ill fitting bra, which makes your girls feel stuffy, cranky and frustrated, not to mention even make your girls sick. An ill-fitting bra will rub off on your mood and attitude as bad as a pair of uncomfortable shoes. You just might transform your personality going braless...
Going braless will be a different experience for everyone, as it should be. Here are a few ideas to help liberate the girls.
Rock layers: Wearing layers is a very easy way to make sure that no one can tell the difference between you wearing a bra and you not wearing a bra. You can layer with anything. Vests, jackets, scarves, shawls and tanks make this easy. Layering can be harder when it's hot out; in this situation, a sleeveless vest or two crop tops can work.
Nipple Shy: The biggest concern when going braless is nipple exposure. There are several concealer adhesives, some like band-aids for smaller nippels, and some are washable silicone, for larger breasts. There are even special lifting adhesives to prevent sagging. If you don't mind putting stickers on your boobs, these will certainly allow the natural healthy breast movement desireable for breast health.
Cupped Tops & Dresses: Many shirts and dresses come designed with bra cups built in, including shelf bras. But be aware of how tight they are, because they can be just as bad as a bra. Cupped tops in particular is a great option if you also don't want to wear a lot of layers, but still have some sort of bra-like appearance built into your top. Just make sure your boobs actually fit into the predesigned cups.
Camisoles: A camisole or thin tank top underneath your clothing is usually a lot more comfortable than a bra and still gives you good coverage.
Bralettes: Bralettes are a great happy medium between wearing a bra and wearing a camisole. They give support, but are much thinner and more comfortable than your everyday bra.
Sweaters: Sweaters of decent quality, made of thick material, make it so you can't really see the boobage that's underneath them. Try just wearing a sweater in the winter time and see if you feel any different. Of course, if its wool, you'll likely want a cotton undershirt.
Halter Tops & Dresses: You can tie these yourself, so especially if you are bigger breasted, you can decide on the level of support you're getting.
What I've Learned
Neither my “breast health guru” Cheryl Chapman nor I are bra-burners. But I will say over time I have drastically decreased the amount time I wear a bra, and radically changed the style of bras I wear. This has all happened over a period of six years. But if you are at high risk for breast cancer, or in remission, you'll probably want to make a change faster than that.
Just like breast massage improves your awareness of your breasts, changing your bra will do the same. I now notice very markedly how much different bras affect the way my breasts feel--for the better and the worse. And increased awareness is exactly what you want in order to guide you toward a healthier bra...or none at all.
Women have used a variety of garments and devices to cover, restrain, reveal, or modify the appearance of their breasts.