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Reflections on Buying a Bra

by Karen Ackland

The other day my husband said that I have been talking about my underwear a lot. I wasn't aware of it, but he may be right. I've always felt there was something missing in my knowledge about underwear, and I decided recently to take a more proactive approach.

I blame my hazy understanding to coming of age during a time when bras were a political statement. Although I have worn a bra on a daily basis for many years, shopping for one always makes me feel slightly inadequate, as if I had missed one of life's lessons and been left to improvise.

My mother bought my first bra, a garment folded in a small, rectangular box, at J.C. Penny's. The experience was embarrassingly public. She had talked to my father about it the evening before, and then she and I went down to Penny's after I got home from school. The bras were on a table at the front of the store, and I was nervous that my mother wouldn't complete the purchase before someone we knew came in and noticed what we were doing.

During that time, grown women shopped for their undergarments in Foundations where they were mysteriously measured and fitted. Over the years the department has changed to Lingerie, which is presumably softer and sexier. In contrast with foundations that were meant to shape and contain the figure without being seen, lingerie has become a garment in its own right. Lingerie connotes black satin, lace, and the unfastening of hooks.

Don't get me wrong. I would like to look sexy in my underwear, but I would be even happier if I could find a bra that didn't poke into my ribcage or slip off my shoulders.

During my annual trip to the lingerie department, I am hopeful that I will finally find a bra that is right for me. I identify several styles that seem comfortable without looking institutional and for several weeks I am optimistic, until I find myself reaching inside the neck of my shirt to pull up my bra straps and realize that I still have a problem.

The impetus for my new interest in underwear was an article about a woman who in the process of being fitting for a wedding gown discovered that she was wearing the wrong size bra. The correct size was more comfortable and made her look better. Maybe I've been wearing the wrong size, I thought, and that is the reason the reflection in my mirror looks more like my mother than like me. I knew that the alphanumeric combination that represents a bra includes several measurements and some basic arithmetic, but I didn't remember the formula. I thought the Internet might give me the answer without exposing my ignorance and I decided to Ask Jeeves.

The first site I came to promised to help me find the right bra, but it didn't provide the formula. It asked for my measurements and lifestyle preferences and then the Bra Wizard would mail back her recommendations. I was looking for information, not merchandise, and moved on. On the third try I found what I was looking for.

There wasn't anything that indicated whose site I was on so I backed up a level. In addition to "How to Determine Your Bra Size" there was a list of nine other helpful hints including how to apply make-up and how to walk like a woman. I assumed that this was a site for teen-age girls and self-righteously hoped they were being exposed to more than this information. But when I scanned down to the last item I knew that the site was targeted at neither teen-age girls nor middle-age women. Completing the list of charm school topics was "How to Hide the Bulge."

I nervously jerked my hands off the keyboard. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed what had happened, but I was at home alone.

I didn't feel confident taking fashion advice from transvestites, and I still wasn't sure about my bra size when I went shopping with my friend Cynthia. I had recently bought a sheer linen dress and needed to get something to wear underneath it.

I found a beige body slip - basically a bra with an elastic skirt - and looked around for Cynthia. She was at the checkout counter with a tape measure around her ribcage. Now isn't that just like Cynthia, I thought. I'm the one that has been wondering what size I am and she just goes and gets the job done. She told me later that she had been looking at the sale bras. The clerk asked her size and Cynthia replied, "38."

"No way you're a 38. At best you're a 36 and you're probably a 34." And then the clerk, a petite woman who had probably never heard about bra burning, took the tape measure from around her neck and started measuring. Cynthia pointed to the cotton stretch bras and said that is what she usually wears. "Those are what we call sleeping bras," the clerk said firmly and directed
Cynthia toward a dressing room.

Cynthia is one of my best friends. She offered to loan me money when I was without a job, and she brought me lunch every day for a week when I was sick with a kidney infection. But I know that if I am going to contradict her, I need to be sure of my facts. I wondered how this was going to go.

The clerk followed Cynthia to the dressing room and handed her a selection of bras that were two sizes smaller and two cup sizes larger than what Cynthia usually wears. Minutes later she knocked on the dressing room door and came in. She reached across Cynthia, pulled up each breast, adjusted the straps, and created an effect that was almost cleavage.

"You need strong hands in my business," the clerk remarked. "A lot of people don't appreciate that."

I asked the clerk to measure me and, as it turns out, I have been wearing the right size.

I bought the body slip and wore it under the linen dress to a garden wedding. Sometime in the middle of lunch I realized that it had rolled up around my waist. Clearly a woman uncertain about her bra size is not ready for more complicated undergarments. When the dancing began, I backed myself into a shady corner.

"What are you doing?" my husband followed, hoping this meant that we could leave.

"It's my slip."

"What about your slip? Do you need me to do something?"

At times like this I wonder if my husband is going deaf.

"Just stand there in front of me." I was trying to unwind the thing and wiggle it back down over my hips.

That is when my husband remarked that I have been talking about my underwear a lot. I suppose I have. Buying a bra provides moments of hopefulness, offset by spells of embarrassment. In between there are long stretches of time when everything is OK, except that the straps keep falling off my shoulders.

"Well, I have been feeling unusually optimistic."

Editor's Note: I clearly remember my mother holding up what was to be my first bra in a five and dime department store. I was mortified and my mother, as usual, was unfeeling about my early teen embarrassment. Do any of you have similar stories to share? Email Karen or SeniorWomenWeb with them.



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