WOMEN’S BREASTS ARE GETTING BIGGER - BUT NOT EVERYONE IS CELEBRATING
THREE months ago Lyn Russ woke up, looked down to her belly and breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long time since she had seen her stomach from that angle; since she was a teenager she had looked down and seen only her J cup-sized breasts. After years of worrying about the possibility of not being able to breast feed, deferring to a “real boob guy” (now an ex-boyfriend) and suffering constant back pain, the 23-year-old had 3.2kg of tissue removed from her chest.
Her transformation to a 14C – now Australian women’s standard bra size according to the multimilliondollar lingerie industry – has been dramatic, physically and psychologically. Jogging, shopping in department stores rather than specialty bra boutiques and a new wardrobe are now all on Russ’s to-do list. “It’s amazing, my whole outlook has changed,” she says. “Before it didn’t matter what I wore, I always felt really frumpy, whereas now I can wear more fitted things and I feel like a real girl. I always felt like such a tomboy. I went and got hair extensions the other day, just because I felt like I could and I’ve stopped eating chocolate and all that kind of stuff, because now I feel so much more pride in my appearance.”
Large breasted, newly average or small, wherever women sit within the breast weight spectrum of somewhere between about 300g and 9kg a pair, the standard rule is that they just want to be looked in the eye. Discreetly break that rule on a stroll down Rundle Mall, however, and it seems that what the bra companies have been saying for years is true: Australian women’s breast size has increased.
Men haven’t wished this fact into being. Women today eat a wider variety of food, including more fruit, vegetables and protein from pork and chicken, than we did 50 years ago. Our diet is a foundation for growth, which is fine to a point, Dieticians Association of Australia spokeswoman Melanie McGrice says. The problem is that like men women’s overall size has grown, with 62 per cent of our population now overweight or obese. McGrice says a range of social, economic and environmental reasons have led to poor eating habits. “Overweight and obesity in Australia is a complex issue and there are a quite a few reasons why obesity rates are increasing, but some of them include the fact that our portion sizes are increasing, the food we’re eating tends to be higher in kilojoules and people are becoming less physically active.”
Calories aside, many people believe the foods they eat bring an overload of hormones into their system. Chicken is often blamed for passing hormones and steroids on to women, but that’s simply a myth, McGrice says. “It’s much more likely that it’s the weight gain in women that’s contributing to increasing breast size as opposed to hormones in food. The government regulates the hormones in chicken very tightly and it hasn’t been allowed in Australia for decades. Chickens are often bigger now because they’re bred that way.”
Eleven years ago discount department store lingerie brand Hestia commissioned the University of Newcastle to compare women’s body sizes in the late 1990s and the 1920s. Researchers used a survey that Hestia’s parent company Berlei conducted in the 1920s and found that women in 1999 were 3cm taller, 5kg heavier and have a 4cm larger waist circumference.
If bra companies’ sales figures are any indication, women’s figures have continued to change. Triumph spokeswoman Phillipa Nina says in 2000 the company’s most purchased size was 12B. Today, it’s an even split between 14C and 14D. “While these sizes certainly aren’t at the larger end of the market, it does indicate Australian women are increasing in size,” Nina says. “I can also say that our sales of cup sizes D, DD and above have increased in the past five years by approximately 11 per cent . . . and there are more full-figure bras, both fashionable and functional, available. This is due to market demand and also to the fact that developments in fabric technology and advances in design capability are allowing fashionable, pretty and sexy bras to be manufactured into larger sizes and still provide the support and comfort these women need.”
Nina says the most popular size sold varies from maker to maker depending on the size ranges they produce, and also varies among retailers, depending on their customer profile. So all this talk of bust size
increasing could simply point to lingerie companies seeing a market for larger-busted women that extends beyond the awful beige minimiser bras that were the only choice about 10 years ago.
Women up to a D cup aren’t the only ones who want lingerie that’s pretty, sexy and functional. They’re not the only ones who want to mould their busts into different shapes for certain occasions – like minimising for sports, simplicity and comfort for work and push-up for a night out.
That’s where Sue Bowman steps in. Four years ago while working in plus-size fashion she constantly encountered women seeking pretty underwear to go with their new dresses. Like the bigger lingerie companies, she saw a niche in the market and pounced. Now she owns lingerie boutique Cheeky Curves, selling bras, bathers and all kinds of naughty underwear accessories to match. With a kind of evangelical zeal she says her customers are all natural, with an average cup size of H from sizes six to 24. Bowman will have bras altered to accommodate large cup sizes with small back sizes – just as she does for her largest customer, a 14N. “I see more big boobs than anyone in SA,” she says. “By the time our customers find us they’ve had the worst experience, or they tell you that bra fitting is a horrible chore. So we try to boost confidence and make them feel fabulous and feminine. Quite often people leave laughing rather than being in tears, so it’s very rewarding to leave them feeling happy and empowered.”
Bowman’s employee, Ellen Gava, was anything but happy before she came into Cheeky Curves to buy a bra for her school formal dress. The 19-yearold recalls being teased when she was in Year Seven for being a size 12D, hating PE class in high school because she couldn’t find a comfortable sports bra and only fitting into styles designed for older women. “It was awful in school, because you don’t get harassed just by girls, you get harassed by boys,” Gava says. “Going shopping was awful because the only bra that fitted was black or nude and really grandma. It came right up my chest, so I had to wear shirts that were really high. That’s bad when you have big boobs because it makes you look bigger. I pretty much hated myself.”
Bowman sold Gava an age-appropriate bra for her formal dress that made her feel comfortable, voluptuous and happy. Now she’s a Cheeky Curves convert and employee, happily explaining that she has finally been fitted as a 10G and enthusing about the latest styles and technology. “It’s bad wearing the wrong size bra,” Gava says. “I went from an E to a G in three months or something. The weight was so bad, I used to have to lie down on the floor
HAVING LARGER BREASTS IS
NOT FUN AT ALL. IT’S A
FAIRLY BIG HEALTH PROBLEM
at school because I couldn’t sit in a chair any more. Once I got a bra that fitted it got better. It’s nice not having to just get minimisers . . . my boobs were in the way of my arms, but now I can swing them.”
Cheeky Curves isn’t alone in recognising the bucks in busts. Department stores have also caught up. Walk into any lingerie section and the bras for larger women are no longer at the back of the store and on the bottoms of racks. The Triumph section at Harris Scarfe’s Rundle Mall store places full ranges of bras to their new J cup in fashionable lace and satin at the entrance to their section.
Triumph fitter Jean Hamilton has seen thousands of breasts in her 22 years working for Triumph and says she’s fitting girls earlier for their first bras. “When I first started they only had pure cotton bras with no stretch in them at all,” she says. “Now everything has changed. There are so many beautiful styles for all shapes and sizes.” Hamilton says being fitted correctly for a bra that doesn’t cut in, ride up or slip down can lessen the pain and discomfort large breasts can cause.
Adelaide University Professor Maciej Hennenberg knows all too well the impact larger breasts have on the body. His anatomical research is helping a Flinders Medical Centre study determine the qualifications for breast reduction surgery. Professor Hennenberg has measured the chest circumference – the measurement around the body, rather than just the cup size – of hundreds of women to determine that body circumferences are increasing faster than height.
“Some women, for a number of reasons, end up having breasts that are disproportionately large compared to their bodies,” he says. “This is where the problems occur, simply that the body weight is distributed in a way that is not anticipated by our skeleton. In other words, our bones and our muscles do not grow to carry so much weight in front of the chest. This big weight pulling the front of the trunk, which our skeleton is not adjusted to, produces shoulder pain, back pain and tiredness. Also, large breasts usually are heavy so they hang down on to the chest or sometimes even on to the skin of the stomach, and rashes are produced, which is extremely uncomfortable. So having larger breasts is not fun at all. It’s a fairly big health problem.”
It’s a problem that many women also link to breast cancer, with larger breasts rumoured to be more susceptible. Not so, Adelaide University breast cancer researcher Dr Theresa Hickey says. She points out the difference between breast size and breast density. Breast size is concerned simply with cup size; breast density is about the structures within the breast: fat, connective tissues that give
the breast structure and hold the glandular tissues, and the glandular tissues themselves, which produce milk. “It’s the glandular tissues that become cancerous,” Dr Hickey says. “You can have very dense breasts but they can be small, and you can have very large breasts, but if a lot of that large breast is fat, they might not be dense. Breast cancer risk really depends not so much on the overall size of the breast but the overall composition of that breast.”
Dr Hickey says US researchers have been investigating the link between the early onset of puberty, which includes precocious breast development, and larger breasts. Children are entering puberty at a younger age, sometimes because of increased energy levels associated with obesity. Breasts begin to develop in puberty when oestrogen production kicks in and stimulates breast ducts. When puberty starts early, at about 10-years-old, women can average more than 40 years of oestrogen production before menopause in their mid-50s, possibly increasing their risk of breast cancer due to prolonged oestrogen exposure. The contraceptive pill and the fact that women are having children later also play with hormone levels and determine the degree of oestrogen exposure. Even the everyday plastic bottle has been caught up in the breast debate, given that many are made with the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), which has a similar structure to oestrogen.
With so many environmental factors at play it’s difficult to pinpoint just what is the culprit, Dr Hickey says. She also believes breast augmentation rates skew the perception of increasing breast size among women. “Of course hormones are one of the main things that drive breast development. People with abnormal hormone profiles, you can see that in their breasts, that’s true for men and women. Men who have too much oestrogen develop breasts. As a scientist, I would say: ‘To what degree does this larger breasts idea reflect women having breast augmentation?’ You’d be surprised by how many people do have their breasts increased.”
Plastic surgeon Dr Gwyn Morgan wouldn’t be surprised by the numbers having breast implants. Or reductions, for that matter. About 80 women each year sized from about a DD cup to a J cup go under his knife to have their breasts reduced in operations that last about two and a half hours and cost about $10,000. The most requested size is a large C – which can mean at least 1kg of tissue removed from each breast. “I think there probably are more people with large breasts now,” he says. “But that’s because I see lots of these women with them. It has probably biased my view a little.”
There are several ways to reduce breast size, but Dr Morgan prefers to tuck the breast tissue back under the skin envelope, bringing the blood and nerve supply to the nipple from above. In this way he’s able to preserve much of the glandular tissue and give his younger patients a better chance of being able to breast feed.
Russ, one of Dr Morgan’s patients, won’t know if she will be able to breast feed until she has children. That’s just one of the issues couples talk over when a woman is deciding whether to have a breast reduction. Dr Morgan says he often sees couples at odds over the procedure when the man wants his wife to keep her large bust. “The men come out and say, ‘I don’t want my wife to have this operation’. My reply is, ‘Well, you don’t have to wear them’. I think a lot of the new-age men are more sympathetic to their wives’ problems than in the past.”
They might also find that reduction gives their wives a new outlook on life. Pre-operation, some women roll over in bed at night and find that the motion of their breasts from one side to the other wakes them up; others have deep grooves in their shoulders from their bra straps; and many can’t find clothing to fit their topheavy figure. Post-operation – like Russ – Dr Morgan’s patients often find the change is more than physical.
“I like doing it because you always get grateful patients,” he says. “A patient said something to me the other day that no one has ever said to me before. I said to her, ‘What’s the best thing about having a breast reduction?’ She said, ‘Men now look me in the eye’.”
Being fitted for a big bra need not be painful.