Small Waist, Large Breasts, Big Problem

I may have your ideal figure, but just try shopping for a bra.

Sofia Vergara attends Glamour Women of the Year Awards 2012 in May.
Sofia Vergara: the unofficial spokeswoman for the small percentage of petite Americans with big busts

Photograph by Stuart Wilson/Getty Images.

Two months ago I walked into Neiman Marcus’ lingerie department in San Diego and asked the saleswoman if she had any bras in my size, 28G. Like a deleted scene from Pretty Woman, she treated me as if I was a pair of Lucite platforms away from a highway strip club.

“Oh, we don’t do that here,” she said with a hint of embarrassment. She then proceeded to fold the dime-sized A-cup she had just sold to a normal customer.

In theory, the United States likes large breasts. In practice, the United Stastes likes large breasts as long as they’re on the right body. That means bigger women have bigger chests, smaller women have smaller chests. The average American bra size was once a 34B, now it’s a 36D, according to Tomima Edmark, founder of online lingerie retailer HerRoom. (There is some dispute on this: Women’s Wear Daily cited the median in 2010 as 36DD.) Breasts have grown and so have waistlines; bigger women, bigger chests.

But then there’s me. And then there’s Sofia Vergara. In the September issue of Allure, the self-satirizing Colombian and resident Modern Family babe inadvertently became the spokeswoman for the small percentage of petite Americans with big busts when she admitted she has difficulty finding bras in her size, 32F. Vergara sometimes has to settle for a more common 34DD because of the dearth of lingerie in her dimensions, which, according to intimate apparel professional Moira Nelson, the bra industry calls “full-busted”—defined as a small band size (36 and under) with a large cup size (DDD and over). (Full-busted as opposed to “full-figured” or “plus-sized,” which both refer to 38 bra bands and up.)

“Nobody with real boobs usually has those measurements,” Vergara told Allure. And she’s right. In the context of the American bra industry, being “full busted” is about as unusual as Gloria Pritchett’s argot.

As I learned that day in Neiman’s, full-busted bras are often associated with plastic tits. Even feminist website Jezebel once quipped, “it’s important that we separate the woman with a 28-inch band and G cups from the woman who wears a 36C, because one may be a hot porn star with implants, while the other is just a fatty.”

Nelson, founder of lingerie industry website Bra La Mode and the Lingerie Alliance, an online community made up of intimate apparel industry pros, confirmed for me what I already know:  “Most of the brands that cater to the full-busted market are in the UK and Europe,” she told me. “Very few American brands carry full-busted sizes at all and only a handful actually caters to this consumer.”

Though there appear to be no definitive statistics on the average bra size in the UK, in 2009 British department store Debenhams concluded the average bra band was 34 after polling 250,000 women in the country. Meanwhile, British lingerie manufacturer Triumph conducted a survey in 2007, which revealed that more than 50 percent of UK women need a D cup or more. These results together suggest that British women are slightly more full-busted on average than American women (with Liverpool boasting an average size of 34E and Newcastle 34DD).

The few homegrown brands that do service the full-busted American woman—such as Aviana, Glamorise and Lunaire, which can be found at JCPenney and Macy’s—rarely offer bands below a 32 or cups bigger than a G. I know this from experience as well as reporting. Like I said, I’m a 28G and there are only two U.S. bras I could conceivably wear in a pinch: California brands Parfait by Affinitas, which sells 30-40 D-G sizes in specialty stores and online (I can wear a 30FF if I have to), and Claudette, which also offers 30G bras online and in various boutiques across the country. This year Claudette is looking to add sizes up to 28K (the fullest bust the bra market appears to sell), according to an interview on the Full Figured Chest blog. But those brands are only a tiny drop in the Unites States’ swelling ocean of lingerie.

Americans spent $5.23 billion on bras in the past year, with specialty retailers—Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle’s Aerie line, Chico’s Soma Intimates and Abercrombie & Fitch’s Gilly Hicks—leading the charge at $3.51 billion, according to NPD Group’s analysis of the June 2011 to July 2012 bra market. Though NPD would not go into further detail, Business Insider reported last year that in fact Victoria’s Secret was the leading American lingerie company, beating out the rest of the private labels and major brands like Hanes. The panty powerhouse that markets its half-naked models as “angels” declined to comment for this article, but their online selection of full-busted bras includes the new triple D range (but no larger), which starts at a 32 band (but no smaller). (That same size is also the cutoff point for Bali, the third highest-selling major brand in the U.S. in 2011, according to NPD, and the only one among the top three that supplies full-busted fare.)

Imogen, a 32-year-old museum employee from Philadelphia, knows how hard it is to find a good bra at the mall. In the past, she’s resorted to stuffing her 32G breasts into Victoria’s Secret’s 36DD. High school senior Myranda Rubio did the same thing, folding her 28K breasts into Victoria Secret’s 34DDD bra before she knew her real size.

“When the sales people can’t seem to fit me ‘correctly’ or make a sale, they can often get rude or snappy and just overall unpleasant,” says the 17-year-old from Phoenix, Ariz., who now prefers to buy the UK brand Curvy Kate online.

“Stores cut off the tails of the bell curve of bra sizing because you can sell a heck of a lot more 34Bs then you could ever sell of a 28G,” says Edmark, whose Texas-based online store HerRoom skews toward larger sizes. Numbers from Wal-Mart, which Business Insider named in 2011 as the U.S.’s second biggest lingerie retailer behind VS, confirm this: Wal-Mart’s rep tells me that 38C is its most popular bra and that 60 percent of the women who shop at the discount department giant are average busted.

Unsurprisingly, plus-sized women are more valuable to the bra industry than the porn star. In the seminal article (if you follow these things) “Bigger Bra Sizes Bolster Sales,” Women’s Wear Daily explained that the obesity epidemic and Oprah’s Bra Fit Intervention episode back in 2005, in which a Nordstrom’s bra fitter helped each woman in the audience determine her ideal bra size, are the two reasons for the market’s recent surge in plus-sized bras. And, according to Edmark, the trend is paying off.

“These women really need bras and they wear out their bras in six months,” she said. “They buy more bras in a year than the average sized woman so that’s a good customer.”

As a result, though focused on larger cup sizes, less than one percent of HerRoom’s merchandise is geared toward full-busted women. Edmark admits that she recently got rid of her 26-band bras and is currently culling 28 bands since petite women return them at a rate of 50 percent.

“They tend to go to our website and just buy everything then return everything,” she said. “Unfortunately, I can’t make money doing that.”

I myself have fallen into this buy-and-return cycle. After my ill-fated trip to Neiman’s, I went on a Web-shopping guessing game, which became all the more confusing for the European brands inundating the U.S. market. Though the flood of European fare is welcome in the desert, foreign bra sizing can vary dramatically. Also, the European brands may carry the size, but the construction isn’t necessarily great: Finding what Imogen calls the “holy trinity”—large cup size, three hooks, front-tightening straps—is like finding the Holy Grail.

If I’m in the UK, at least I can actually get measured and then buy these bras off the rack in ubiquitous department stores. Jennifer Powers, who wears a 32F and favors Freya for its style and support, can attest to that. She is a 32-year-old journalist from North America who now resides in England.

“I could walk into a La Senza or even Marks & Spencer’s and get a bra in my size quite easily,” she says. “In North America you just couldn’t do that.”

In the U.S., we are doomed to bypass malls filled with slivers of flimsy diaphanous material that pass for Calvin Klein brassieres, ill-fitting push-up Wonderbras and cheap pink Victoria’s Secret soft cups. Instead we have to take a detour to specialty stores with quirky names like Sugar Cookies that offer these European Marie Antoinette-style confections, many for more than $80 a pop. For me, lingerie is an investment and to gain weight is to risk going broke. As Imogen puts it, “Despite theories to the contrary, having a voluptuous figure does not mean we earn more money.”

I wasn’t always like this. I used to be an A cup. I remember at 13 buying that white training bra owned by every other North American tween with the little crossed tennis rackets in the middle and no under wire. I remember being so flat that in high school that one boy actually asked me if I was anorexic. Then I went to university where unbeknownst to me, a microscopic helium tank was invisibly attached to my chest, and slowly increased my breast size each month until I emerged from my freshman cocoon looking like the kind of butterfly that belongs on the prow of a ship.

No one asks me if I’m anorexic now. I have, however, been asked if my breasts are real. They are. If they were fake, I wouldn’t need a bra.