The lingerie-clad model, oozing sex, is a familiar sight. She fills massive billboards on busy roads, and you’ll find her nestled innocuously among the pages of store catalogues, wearing bras and undies that perfectly hug her curves.
And the audience for these perfectly supported curves is other women. The bra, once burned in effigy, is now a symbol of empowerment.
Renee Mayne, owner of Bra Queen, a lingerie resource for women, says bras and lingerie are more than a fashion item or necessity – women, she says, have a “bra personality”.
“Your bra size is one half of your bra fit,” says Mayne. “We’ve done extensive research over the years that tells us that the lingerie you wear can help define your freedom of self-expression.”
This “self-expression” is a profitable, multibillion-dollar business. But while the industry traffics in female empowerment, a more significant consideration is getting the bra size right, says Dr Deirdre McGhee, senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong, and researcher at Breasts Research Australia, who is also a sports physician.
McGhee believes the desire to feel sexy can be at the expense of comfort.
“If you put it to women, and say, ‘How do you choose a bra?’, number one is price, number two is how they think they look in the bra, and number three is comfort. So they will put look above comfort.”
An everyday bra should give support, McGhee explains, which may mean ditching the sexy, lacy piece suggested by a fitter. Women wishing to look good should worry about it looking good with their shirt on.
McGhee’s work at Breasts Research Australia is a combination of research, education and clinical guidelines for breast health, in women of all breast types, including breast cancer survivors.
“Our focus is on breast support and bra fit to promote physical activity.”
And for the active, the sports bras market has expanded.
"They’re basing these decisions on is the emotive part of their sexuality."
“You have women who come in and say ‘I can wear anything, I’m small,' and I say, ‘But you’re running three hours a week.’ So that’s tens of thousands of times that your breasts are bouncing every week,” says McGhee.
Meanwhile, it'll hurt for larger-breasted women not wearing a supportive bra during physical activity, though McGhee says they’ll put up with the discomfort.
“When you talk some common sense, I’m able to convince women to change to a higher supportive bra ... I’m talking to them as a clinician, saying this is what your problem is: you’ve got neck pain, you’ve got back pain, your breasts are large, you need to lift them up so that you can stand up straighter and that lacy number is doing nothing for you.
“But the problem is, they don’t have the education, and all they’re basing these decisions on is the emotive part of their sexuality. It’s sensitive. It has to be handled delicately.”
Measurement isn’t the method
McGhee’s research at the University of Wollongong, with fellow academic Julie Steele, has covered bra sizing by surveying bra fit.
“The bra fit was a disaster,” she says. “I’ve now tested hundreds and hundreds of adolescent and adult women, but 85 per cent of them are wearing the wrong-sized bra.”
McGhee says the right bra fit isn’t based on measurements.
“Bras are not standardised by bra companies. You have to assess the fit of each individual bra.”
The value of a good-fitting bra
While Mayne and McGhee warn of the damage from not wearing the right-sized bra, not wearing one at all is worse.
Some argue for not wearing one, a point of view supported by a 15-year study from French sport science researcher Jean-Denis Rouillon. He and his team studied the effect of bras on 320 women aged 18-35, finding they led to droopier breasts.
But despite the widespread attention the study received, McGhee criticises the research – which even Rouillon conceded was provisional and didn't apply to a “45-year-old”.
McGhee says there isn’t really a debate on whether a bra is necessary.
“I think the question is: how much support do you need, and are most women getting that support? And I think the answer to that question is, no, they’re not.”
"We’re not getting bigger boobs."
Mayne agrees, noting an absence of well-rounded research.
“Our research shows that long-term use without wearing a bra can cause excessive damage to your back, your neck and shoulders.”
She adds that studies use a small percentage of bra sizes, despite an ever-expanding cup rating. According to Mayne, the majority of women are now wearing a size over a DD+ cup, and among them, the majority sit between an F cup to a H cup.
“Five years ago, a DD cup was classified as really big breasts, but now … a DD cup is quite small in comparison to what we deal with in this day and age,” she says.
“And we’re not getting bigger boobs. What’s happening is that we’re able now to offer a variety of bra sizes and shapes to accommodate all shapes, all sizes, so we actually perfect the bra fit much more than we ever have been able to.”
To find out more about determining your bra size, visit Breasts Research Australia, which offers a free sports bra web-based app