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Here's why your bra doesn't fit (Part I): Bra sizes are hard

Bra sizes are confusing. If you're not convinced, try naming another type of clothing where finding your size in a different country looks like this:

International bra size conversion chart. Image courtesy of Upbra.

Yup. For those of you who want to understand the modern phenomenon of Women who Hate Bra Shopping, this series discusses the peculiarities of the lingerie industry and why finding the right bra can be a herculean task. Today we'll introduce the modern bra sizing system so that we can then explore its problems in greater detail.

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A bra size usually has two components: a number and a letter. (These conventions may vary around the world, but the basic logic of how to derive this size is the same.) The number and the letter reflect, respectively, two pieces of information about the bra: the length of the band and the volume of the cup.

To find your bra size, bra fitters generally measure once around your underbust (the circumference of your torso where your breasts meet your chest), and once around your bust (your torso including the widest part of your breasts). The difference between these two measurements to tells you your cup size, like so:

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Cup sizing methodology. Image courtesy of HerCampus.com.

This sizing methodology has many imperfections, which we'll get to later in this series. But even assuming that bra fit was simply a matter of finding your size, the fact is that the range of possible sizes is very large. Below you can see a (partial) list of bra sizes, which totals more than 200 combinations between band and cup.

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Available bra sizes, according to UK sizing. Image courtesy of Ample Bosom.

Why so many sizes? Well, to be clear: the size range isn't always this varied for all brands and countries. Italian brands for instance, generally offer six band sizes from which to choose (0-5), while UK brands offer up to seventeen (26-58).

This discrepancy in sizing array is meaningful if we analogize with shoes: imagine trying to buy shoes from a brand that only offered you S, M, and L options. The greater the range of sizes available to you in a brand or store, the more precisely you can find something that is both functional and comfortable. A bra has weight-bearing, shape-forming, and supportive functions. Therefore, a small variation in measurements from one woman to another can make a big difference in comfort and utility.

The problem is that it's virtually impossible for a lingerie brand to produce and stock so many different sizes. Most household lingerie brands limit their production to a limited range of sizes that are statistically common, while excluding huge swathes of the female population.

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Sizes available in Victoria's Secret online shop.

If you happen to fall outside this range (and clearly a lot of us do), you've likely been 'dealt with' in one of two ways: 1) Being told that your size is not available, or 2) being incorrectly fitted into one of the available sizes. Both of these experiences are frustrating and unsatisfying. If there is any truth to the statistic that 80% of women wear the wrong bra size, brands are partially responsible.

All of this is to say: if you have trouble finding a bra in-store, first try shopping with a multi-brand retailer, ideally online, where the selection of sizes is larger and therefore more customizable than you would find with a single brand. Some good places to start: FigLeaves and HerRoom.

Finally, there's a lot more that goes into bra fit that the size can’t tell us. By knowing the width, position, density, and shape of your own breasts, you'll be much better equipped to look for the features in a bra that best correspond to your unique morphology and preferences. If that sounds intimidating, fear not. We're here to break down all of that for you, so check back soon for more tips.