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The truth about bras

Monday, October 30, 2006
I must, I must improve my bust were the watchwords for every teenage girl.

But as women, are our bras a boon or a bust? A lot of women love lingerie, in particular, beautiful underwire bras. The thing is just because they look nice doesn't mean they're the right bra for you.

Our reporter Brooke Hanson wants to know how important a well-fitted bra is, how you can tell when it's right and, while she's at it, tackle the myth that underwire bras give you cancer.

A recent survey by one bra manufacturer found 70 percent of us are wearing the wrong size bra. Sometimes that's because the right one is just not out there.

Alisia Simmons knew all about that — as a teenager with a bra size of 12G, there was just nothing on the market.

"I was getting stuck with the grandma bras because they were the ones that they made that big," she says.

Big breasts were getting in the way of Alicia's active lifestyle, so they had to go. She had a reduction to drop form a 12G to a 12D — and she still has trouble finding the perfect bra.

"I'm sure a lot of people have trouble finding the right bra, everybody is a different shape and size," says Alisia.

The test

We thought it'd be a great idea to get Alicia to join Brooke in finding the right fitting bras since she's had so much experience with bad fitting ones.

It's hard work and Brooke needs some help. Luckily professional bra fitter Karen Ashley has come to her rescue. Her first step is to take Brooke's measurements. For years Brooke's been wearing a 14C.

Guess what?

"Well, I've measured you now as a 14B," says Karen.

To show just how important it is to get the size right, Karen puts Brooke in a 12A bra: "this bra's way too small — you can see all the spillage on the side of the cup, you can see that it's digging in on that part of the cup, it's feeling really, really tight I bet. You can see from the back it's so tight it's cutting in through there. It's just way the wrong size and very uncomfortable to wear," says Karen.

So Brooke's size is sorted. Now what we want to know is, should you choose the soft cup bra or the underwired one? Which one is best for you?

To find out, Alisia and Brooke visit the Victoria University in Melbourne where Biomechanist Russell Best has devised a special test for the two of them.

"We're going to do a comparison between the underwire bra and the soft cup," says Russell.

The sensors attached to Brooke's body measure the up and down motion of her breasts, showing how much support each bra is giving. Support is vital because without it, tiny tears occur in the muscle and tissues above our breasts. And that causes sagging.

Results

The results are in. A yellow line shows how much bounce Brooke's breasts had while running in the soft cup bra, which is then compared to a pink line which reflects Brooke running in an underwire bra. The yellow line has much higher peaks and deeper troughs, showing Brooke's breasts moved a lot more in the soft cup bra. That bounce weakens the breast's supporting ligaments.

"There's a lot more jarring effect happening with the soft cup compared with the underwire bra when you're running," says Russell.

When we look at Alisia's graphs, there's an even bigger difference between the yellow soft cup line and the pink underwire one, and her up and down motion in the soft cup was double Brooke's. That's because she's a D and Brooke's a B cup. So what does that tell us about the bra we should buy?

"The main difference between the two is that the underwire does tend to give more support, especially for larger breasted women. For smaller breasted women there's a much smaller difference between the two types of bras and for normal everyday activities either bra is probably okay," says Russell.

Seventy percent of Australian women buy underwire bras. But how do you know you're getting a good fit?

Professional bra fitter Karen Ashley takes Brooke through her checklist.

"It's important in an underwire bra that the wire encircles your breast completely … you've got no spillage over the top of your bra or at the side there. The centre front is sitting nice and flat on your chest wall and your diaphragm is nice and firm round your back and so are your shoulder straps," says Karen.

Underwire checklist:

  • Underwire encircles the breast
  • No spillage
  • Centre front is flat
  • Firm back and shoulder straps.

And it's not just about comfort. Wearing the wrong size can cause neck and back pain.

But are there other ways bras can harm our health?

"I've read a myth on the Internet that underwire bras can give you cancer," says Brooke. So she heads to the Cancer Council to find out if there's any truth in that.

The helpline's director Doreen Akkerman says it's a common question. The theory behind it is that the wire squashes the lymph nodes at the side of your breast causing a build-up of toxins that lead to breast cancer.

"I think when people are concerned about breast cancer they want to look for reasons why it happens and certainly myths like this do crop up, but there's really no evidence to suggest that wearing a tight bra, or a bra, will actually cause breast cancer," says Doreen.

Whatever your style of bra, it won't give you breast cancer. No-one really knows what does — 12,000 Aussie women are diagnosed with it every year.

Risk factors include:

  • A family history with a mother or sister diagnosed
  • Age — most cancers happen in women over 50
  • Lifestyle issues, like being overweight.

But as Kylie Minogue's recent experience shows, it can strike any woman at any age. So we should all be breast aware.

"The sorts of changes to look for would be: any changes in the nipple; any discharge from the nipple; any sort of extra lumps in the breast that aren't normally there for you; a change in shape in the breast, particularly in one breast and not the other; any pain in one and not the other that doesn't go away," says Doreen.

Conclusion

Your bra is not a cancer risk. But an ill-fitting one can cause discomfort and pain and lead to saggier breasts. If you want to feel uplifted, then an underwire style is probably best. Though any bra is better than none.

"A good-fitting bra, whether it be a soft cup or underwire, will slow down the process of saggy breasts. It will happen, it's just gravity, but a good bra definitely slows down that process," says Karen.

A little professional help in picking the right bra can have real benefits for your health. So when you're shopping for a new bra, don't go for the looks — take your time and find the right fit.

Fast facts

  • We're told to wear a sports bra when exercising but how effective are they? Very, because they reduce bounce by up to 78 percent — and too much bounce leads to saggy boobs. A 12B bust will bounce eight centimetres for every step taken on a treadmill. So wearing a proper sports bra to stop that happening is essential.


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