The joke that goes “I can’t come out tonight – I already took my bra off” has reached the kind of often-repeated meme status that sees us repeating it without giving the words much thought. Should a bra really be so uncomfortable that taking it off is one of the day’s highlights?

The answer is a pretty definite ‘no’, which leads one to wonder why so many women are putting up with pain that could very easily be avoided. 

It’s widely known that a lack of support can lead to back pain and that it’s important to switch to a sports bra for vigorous exercise, but could the effects of ill-fitting underwear also be interfering with your productivity, general level of activity (think step count in general, not just whether you head to the gym), your social life and even your happiness?

If you’re already experiencing pain from wearing ill-fitting underwear, it’s time to head to a doctor who can help you to make very necessary changes before the problem gets worse. Martine Cohen, a Cape Town physiotherapist, starts off her treatment of new patients with a postural analysis in front of a mirror, allowing her to show and explain how the body is taking strain.

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“Depending on her symptoms, I would do an objective examination where I assess her movements and muscle strength,” Martine explains about cases that require further attention: she’s seen patients experiencing everything from lower back pain as a result of poor posture to neck pain as other parts of the body attempt to compensate for a lack of support.

“I’d then decide what treatment modalities I would use: soft tissue mobilisations, stretching techniques and rehabilitation exercises to help improve her posture and strengthen weak muscles. If my patient does not respond to my treatment and her symptoms persist, I’ll always refer them to a specialist who will be able to assess the patient and advise on further management.”

If you, like many, are looking to your bra straps for support, keep in mind that it’s it’s the band under the breasts that primarily performs this function.
Penny Parolis, co-founder of Inner Secrets Lingerie

If you suspect that a professional fitting is what you need – and most women would benefit from one – keep in mind that they’re offered as a free service at some stores like Inner Secrets Lingerie. Penny Parolis, Co-founder of this lingerie specialist boutique chain, explains that, “With a bra fitting, the back size and cup size represent two different functions.”

Many women are looking to their bra straps for support, but it’s the band under the breasts that primarily performs this function, with the cups also providing significant support – and straps coming in third – so all parts of the bra need to fit correctly to prevent cutting straps, poking underwires or a too-tight fit.

“Women appear to confuse bra sizing with clothing sizes,” Penny says. “If a garment of clothing doesn’t fit then they go up or down a size. Many woman think if the bra doesn’t fit they must go up a back size. This is how they either have straps that are far too tight and don’t support the bust or back straps riding up their back because the cup is holding the weight of the breast.”

If you, like many, are looking to your bra straps for support, keep in mind that it’s it’s the band under the breasts that primarily performs this function. Cups also provide significant support, so focus on getting these two measurements right before considering thicker straps. 

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The first part of a fitting is having two measurements taken – one just under your breasts, where the bra’s band and back strap will sit, and another, parallel measurement at your nipples, which will determine your cup size.

These measurements will indicate your starting size, and then it’s advisable to try on a number of bras to find the ones that just feel right – and to address the potential problem that Penny mentions, wherein women shift up one size instead of taking a more thorough approach.

Roxy Johnson is a professional corsetiere who works at Inner Secrets providing fittings to the store’s customers and consulting them on the best bras types to suit their lifestyles. For her, the most memorable effects of ill-fitting underwear that she’s seen have been psychological: she speaks of improved confidence in women who discover the right fit, but also more dramatic cases such as the talented teenage hockey player who thought that the only solution for her larger breasts was to tape them down – but found that she was easily accommodated by the underwear on offer.

Once Roxy’s taken your measurements she’ll provide a range of bras in your size to try out, all the way from an A cup up to a size K. If, for example, a 34B felt too tight, your experience in clothes shopping might lead you to try a 36C next. Instead, it would be advisable to shift down to a size 32 band if you need to increase your cup size to a C – or, if it’s the band that’s too tight, to try a 36A. 

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Once you’ve found your fit, bra shopping – particularly when you need to know ahead of time what you’re after, as would be the case when buying online – will get a whole lot easier. If you’re trying a completely new style, however, it’s still always advisable to be fitted for it the first time round: there’s little likelihood that a strapless bra will fit you in exactly the same way that a full-cup style with straps would, and there’ll still be some differences between the fits of various brands.

So, why do we put up with so much discomfort?

For one thing, it could have a lot to do with the fact that for women, pain and discomfort has been so normalised that we’re often taught to grin and bear it rather than seeking relief. On a more practical level, there’s simply a lack of education around how a bra fitting should work – so that many belief that it’s just as helpful to ‘self-diagnose’ their size as it is to talk to a professional – and a fear that having an in-store fitting could be costly.

If that’s your very understandable concern, simply call ahead and check, asking whether the service is offered and how much it’ll cost. If you’re feeling shy about treating the process just as you would any other medical or technical assessment, you’re doing yourself and your body a disservice. 

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