Finding a Bra that Actually Fits: Solutions to 3 Common Bra Dilemmas

by | Aug 28, 2019 | Uncategorized | 22 comments

How do you find a bra that actually fits?
Merchandise is Here!

Lots of us have challenges finding a bra that actually fits.

I wrote last week about how much fun I had fitting bras in Kenya – it was amazing to see how much getting a bra means to the girls we meet in Kenya. Our fittings were done over top of our t-shirts and we had to move quickly. But it’s often a bit more complicated than a short fitting can manage.

On Wednesdays this month we’ve been talking about lingerie. We started out talking about choosing comfortable lingerie, then we moved on to finding panties that fit your body type. Last week was bras for different body types or different purposes, and today I want to turn to specific challenges when finding a bra that fits. And I hope you all took my challenge to purge your lingerie drawer, too! 

So let’s turn to unique bra fitting challenges. (Again, I’ll be linking to Amazon for some products, so some of these may be affiliate links). 

How on earth do bra sizes work?

In the US and Canada (and elsewhere I believe, but you can correct me if I’m wrong), bra sizes are a combination of a number (band size) and a letter (cup size). The number in a woman’s bra size is the size of her ribcage, just below her breasts, in inches rounded to the nearest even number. This number is also called the band size. If the measurement is an odd number that you had to round, recognize that you can use either of the two band sizes closest to your measurement (a circumference of 31 could wear a 30 or a 32 band, for example).

The letter, or cup size, is a measurement of the difference between the circumference of a woman’s chest around her breasts and the circumference of a woman’s ribcage. The difference becomes the cup size. A difference of <1″ is AA, 1″ is A, 2″ is B, 3″ is C, 4″ is D, 5″ is DD, 6″ is DDD or F, and 7″ is G.

Figuring out your bra size at home with a soft measuring tape is really easy and if you’re having trouble getting it by yourself, feel free to get your husband to help. I’m sure he’ll be more than willing.

What is my bra sister size?

When you’re trying on bras in a store, sometimes it can be nice to try two similar sizes to see which one works best. But here’s the odd thing – if you’re normally a 34B, the closest sizes to you are NOT 34A and 34B. Instead, to figure out your “sister sizes,” as they are sometimes called, just move up one measurement and down the other – up a cup size and down a band size, etc. A 34B, then, is actually closest to a 32C and a 36A. Especially when trying a new brand, it can be nice to try on bras of your sister sizes to see which one fits the most comfortably on.

How does the shape of my breasts affect bra sizing?

We got a really helpful comment last week from a woman about how breasts being either top or bottom heavy can affect sizing that I wanted to be sure to shape.

Use your hands to lift/shape your breasts into the position they would be if you were wearing a really great bra. Now, is the majority of the breast tissue above or below your nipple? Because you will need a different style depending on which it is. She comments that based on what’s available for sale, it seems the majority of women are ‘bottom heavy’. So if you’re ‘top heavy’, even if you get the correct ~size~, chances are, it’s always going to just not-really-fit. Plunge is NOT going to work, balconette probably isn’t either, and nor is anything with a seam across the top of the cup, like for a lace/ribbon trim, etc. Darts in the cup, however, are your new best friends!! And a bra-fitter who actually knows what they are talking about (rather than following a script — you can often tell these in the shop), few and far between as they may be, should be able to get you a bra that fits the top half of your breasts, even if the bottom part of the cup is still too big, because darts can be taken in easily. Pray about finding a good one before you go into the shop. (I’m serious. And in fact, given how complicated bras and fitting can be, I’d recommend doing this whoever you are!) Also, top-heavy ladies, you’re the ones out of everyone who least need a push-up bra, but you might find that the support in a push up bra is ironically actually where you most need it!

Why update my bra?

One major reason to invest in new undergarments is if your bras are causing you pain or if they are making you uncomfortable. Additionally, bras also wear out and will need to be replaced after time. I really recommend handwashing bras to keep them from wearing out, or, if you’re pressed for time, at least hanging them to dry. Dryers make bras wear out much faster! If you are going to put them in the washing machine, use a mesh bag like these ones

Understandably, gaining or losing weight will cause your bra size to change. You may also find that the way that you carry weight changes as you age.

Many women find that their band size increases after pregnancy, since baby pushed on their ribcage while growing like a weed, so you may find that after you’ve weaned your baby you need to update your bra collection.

Problem #1: What if my band size is really small?

If you have a really small band size, it can be hard to find a bra that fits. A reader who we’ll call Cici emailed us last week with some amazing advice, here’s what she had to say:

In clothing, I’m a US 00P or 0P, and my bra size is a 28E. Small band sizes with cup sizes above an A or B are really hard to cope with! Everyone seems to assume that if you wear a 28 band, or an XS shirt or bralette, then you’re also flat-chested – but that’s often not the case! In fact, since statistically so many women are wearing the wrong bra size, there are often a lot more women who should wear a 28 or 30 band with a cup size of C or larger. To the eye, my chest doesn’t look very large – it’s just large relative to my frame and to the size of my ribcage. This is actually much more common than most women think!

Yet most bra companies don’t cater to this AT ALL. You’ll find absolutely nothing that fits us at Victoria’s Secret or Target or Soma or anywhere normal. I will never be able to pop into Target with my friends and buy a cute bra for $30 and a matching panty. (Yes; I’m a little bitter about that.)

Here are my tips:

  • First, ALL small band/large cup size bras will cost way more than bargain standard-sized bras. I pay $70-80 (USD) for most of mine. There’s no way around this – go for quality and fit in your bras, even if you only have 2 or 3 of them.
  • Try specialty bra/lingerie shops. We have one locally – they measure you carefully, and stock a lot of unusual sizes. This way you can try them on.
  • Nordstroms and other high-end stores also may carry a wider range of sizes, although they still mostly only go down to a 30 band size.
  • Tailoring! Most of my bras are a 30DD with the backband tailored to make it 2″ smaller. This opens up a lot more options, because then I can buy 28DDD/E’s or 30DD’s. A 30 band size could tailor down a 32. A specialty lingerie shop will usually tailor them for you in-house; or you can take ones you bought online or elsewhere to a regular tailor.
  • Be aware of international sizing. Many good brands for small band, large cup sizes are not made in the US/Canada. Look up a chart for international size conversions if you’re buying online, or work with a trusted fit specialist.
  • Good brands for small bands include: Panache, Chantelle, Natori (especially good at matching bra & panty sets and lace), Freya, Wacoal (they do actually make a few pretty ones!), Cosabella (for bralettes – try their curvy line!), and The BraLab* (small company with convertible/modular and strapless bras that can fit a range of sizes).
  • Once you have a good idea what size fits you best, get comfortable buying online – just check return policies in case something doesn’t work out for you!

We are so grateful for this amazing advice and we hope that many readers will find her pointers helpful, too!

Band tighteners are also available on amazon, if you’d like to avoid the tailor. 

If you’re good at sewing yourself, you can also do it yourself! Commenter Jane Eyre recommended just folding the band over itself near the armpit and sewing it down, and then left this tutorial on how to shorten the band size. The pictures are amazing! It really does work. 

Problem #3: What if I have a bigger bust?

If you’re heavy chested, ensure that you’re getting a bra with enough coverage so that you don’t feel like you’re spilling over or are going to pop out of your bra. Also make sure that the straps are wide, to give you more support. It’s important to make sure that your bra fits you well, so check your measurements to make sure you have a good fit to prevent back pain. And in that case, a full coverage bra is often your best choice. We had a lot of people leave tips for small chested women in the comments last week, but if anyone has any specific tips for large-chested women, leave them in the comments here!

Can I get sports bras if I’m bigger chested?

A number of women recommended these sports bras, which are available up to a 58 band size. Others swore by the Zyia brand. So there are some out there, but make sure that they are full coverage, with very thick elastic and good support. 

What if my favorite bra is just a little too tight in the band?

There’s an app for that. 

Okay, not quite, but there IS a really nice little product you can pick up for not much money – a bra extender. If you’re a little larger busted, or you’ve grown recently and your favorite bras don’t fit, you can extend them! Just choose the number of hooks you need and voila, instant extra band size.

Problem #3: What if I’m pregnant or nursing?

Your cup size is going to change significantly during pregnancy and breastfeeding. And because one of the first signs of pregnancy is tender breasts, it’s really tempting to go out and buy a bunch of new bras right away. I’d absolutely recommend finding a soft sports bra that will work for you until the tenderness wears off, but try to wait until you’re in your 3rd trimester or so to start thinking about getting a few nursing bras.

Also, most women leak while nursing at least a bit, so picking up some inserts to keep your bras nice is really critical (as is getting some good lotion to use if they get chapped by baby). That way you’ll be comfortable in your bras.

One reader also recommended trying a nursing cami with bra insert for coverage while nursing. We love the cami she suggested

Another commenter with a hard to fit size had a really fabulous suggestion about tailoring in nursing bras – I never would have thought of this!

I was a 34DDD before breastfeeding, and I looked everywhere for nursing bras that would both fit and provide enough support to avoid straining my back as I adjusted to being a 36F. Maternity stores didn’t have anything that worked for me. The lingerie stores in my area didn’t have nursing options in my size. My mom, a seamstress, suggested we find some well-made bras that fit (and we found them on clearance!), and then she converted them to nursing bras for me. This ended up being a much more economical solution! A few of my friends found out what we had done and ended up bringing my mom piles of bras because they were tired of flimsy bra options at a time when their breasts were heavier and more cumbersome than ever!

So if you’re struggling with nursing bras, consider reaching out to a seamstress or tailor for a bespoke option!

And then someone else gave us this link: A complete tutorial to convert a regular bra into a nursing bra.

Another reader pointed out the importance of getting a good fit while nursing – mastitis and clogged ducts.

I’m nursing right now ( 36 DD) and I feel like a good fitting bra is especially important during breastfeeding to help prevent problems. After my twins were born, I used several cheaper brand bras, and I got clogged milk ducts all the time. I’m sure part of it was the poor fitting bras because when I finally got a good fit it helped. This time with my daughter, I haven’t had near the problem with the clogged ducts, and I’ve been using nice bras since the beginning. I’ve have good luck with bravado bras. They’re more expensive, but I feel like with both bras and shoes, you get what you pay for.

Thank you so much to all of the readers who let us know their tips for making bras work for YOU! And I was blown away by how many of you said that you sewed your own, or that you hired tailors to fix small things, and it made all the difference. As a knitter, I customize things all the time, but I’ve never thought of customizing a bra. So that was my big takeaway. Find something you love, but it’s not quite right? Then fix it! I love it. 

There you have it! My best tips–and many, many of yours (thank you!)–to troubleshoot bra fitting. Do you have any other advice? Let me know in the comments!

Check out other posts in our lingerie series: 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Belinda

    Thanks for this, Sheila, but bra sizing is still so confusing to me! If I go by straight rib cage circumference, I need a 29″ band (so, 30, right?) But 32 is where I feel comfortable. My teen would wear a 30″ band but prefers the feel of a 34. According to another site, we’re supposed to add 4 to the circumference and that’s our band size. If I do that, I get 33 (so 34) and it slips constantly and I’m pulling the shoulder straps up Then there’s the cup size. Have mercy. I have a 3″ difference (C?! I wear a B comfortably, but I guess 32B/30C, right?) and after breastfeeding 4 kids, the sides are uneven. More fun. Daughter has a 5″ difference (DD?!!). She feels constricted by smaller bands and is very private, so it’s impossible to get her to let me help more tham explaining what to look for. 😓 There’s no way she’ll let a professional sizer assist.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s tough! The most common thing professional bra sizers say, though, is that the vast majority of us are wearing bands that are too big. If you have a loose band, and you lift up your arms, frequently your bra rides up your breasts, and that’s no good. But if you wear an ill-fitting bra with too small a band size, you often get “side boobs”, as I like to call them, which isn’t good, either. That’s why understanding “sister sizes” can help. If you’re supposed to be a 30D, you can try a 32C for instance, and that often works better.

      I took my girls in for a professional fitting when they were like 14/16 or something, and it was actually quite informative. It’s helped them so much in shopping for bras as adults. If your daughter will go, it is quite a good education.

    • Ashley

      Belinda, I once read about bra fitting by a professional who used to do sizing at Nordstrom (I think). According to her, go by your band measurement (rounding up as needed) and don’t add the 4 inches like most sites say to.

      You should be able to reach back and pull your band away from your body a bit, but if you can put a fist under it, it’s too loose.

      My guess is that most stores say to add those extra inches because they don’t even sell the correct band size. I mean, how would it sound for J.C. Penney to say, “You need a size 30 band, but we only go as low as 34, so you need to go to a boutique.” They aren’t going to do that! They want to sell their own bras!

      • Belinda

        Thank you ladies! Off to convince the 14 y/o to let a more knowledgeable person than me help her! 😅

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          May God be with you! 🙂

  2. Arwen

    This is very helpful because i HATE wearing bras with a passion!!!!! Once they pulled me aside at work and told me to start wearing a bra because they could see the shape of my nipples. I told them then don’t look at my breasts, for thousands of years women have survived without a bra and still do many places on earth. But i wear them now, reluctantly. Hopefully if i get measured properly i might learn to love them. Otherwise they make me miserable!!!! It’s the first thing i take off when i get home before my shoes or before putting my purse down. I had been planning on getting measured for the longest time this article just gave me the impetus to make an appointment soon. Thank you!

    • Ina

      So with you, Arwen. I’ve always called my bras my modern corset. I get away with bra camis as much as possible and never, ever use underwire anymore. The funny thing is, there are studies that suggest that bras are actually bad for our breasts and don’t prevent sagging!

      • Excelsior88

        I suspect we read the same things! I have always hated underwire bras, and since having babies and nursing have discovered the joy of unpadded, or lightly padded stretchy bralettes and sleep bras. I’ll pop in reusable cotton nursing pads if I need nipple coverage (even when not nursing). I’m in search of lovely, unstructured bras to replace the ones that the band and cups have worn out in the past few months (breastfeeding is hard on bras, even the ones designed for the purpose!)

  3. Lizzie Carter

    Great article! I’ve had so many problems with finding the right bra over the years, it’s been frustrating. (And let’s be honest, it’s so easy to feel awful about yourself and your body when you can’t find the right size or have to wear bras that hurt or just don’t fit!)

    It was actually my husband who saved the day. He was listening to a podcast a couple years when a new bra company called ThirdLove was advertised. It took me a little bit to actually buy a bra from them, but once I did, I was so impressed! It fit perfectly, and it didn’t hurt or pinch. When they came out with cotton t-shirt bras in my size I snapped one up, because I get acne from being bigger-chested and I’ve found that cotton ones have helped with that issue.

    (I also really like this company because they have great return policies, and any bras that get sent back get washed and donated to women’s shelters, which I think is pretty cool.)

    I still struggle to find good sports bras, though. Even ones that are technically my size (I’m a 36H) always seem to ride up around the bottom and shift around a lot when I’m moving.

    • RA

      I second the Third Love recommendation and they have a great return policy. I love my bras from Third Love. Bonus is that they have HALF cup sizes. I discovered that I am a B 1/2 which is in between B and C. Now my bras fit like a dream! I didn’t know it was possible to wear bras without constantly adjusting the straps before this.

  4. Ashley

    This post is GOLD! Thank you so much! I have had the “small band size, but bigger cup” challenge, and it’s NO fun. A brand I have done pretty well with is Calvin Klein, but I don’t know how small the bands get. They seem to run tighter than some. I actually bought my last one on Poshmark, and saved some money that way. It was a bra style I had bought before, and I was confident ordering one I couldn’t return.

  5. Kristine Farley

    Yesterday I posted a video about 3 Strategies to Look and Feel Younger, Instantly. One of those is getting a well-fitting bra. So today I posted your article as a follow-up. Thank you for this vital posts.
    FB- Joyful Empowerment with Kristine Farley

  6. Kay

    I need some help! I can’t figure out my sister size. I’m a 34C. Thanks!

    • unmowngrass

      32D, 30DD, 28E.
      36B, 38A, 40AA.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      32D or 36B!

      • Kay

        Thanks! Sometimes the mom brain just shuts off and nothing comes to mind and what it could be!

  7. EM

    This is so helpful! I just found out I am a 32D, not a 34C like I thought, but it is really frustrating because so many stores don’t carry 32’s except for AA & A! I don’t understand this – I’m a size 4, so I’m sort of petite, but not crazy tiny. All these years I just thought my boobs were shaped weird and that’s why nothing ever fit quite right. A note on shape though. ThirdLove has a great list of shapes on their site, and mine is “athletic.” Apparently most bras are not made to fit this shape. One style that really works is the plunge bra, especially if it has elastic on the top edge of the cup. That stops the gaping that has always plagued me.

  8. Sarah

    What about those of us who are asymmetrical? I have always had the hardest time getting an accurate measurement (because it’s always going to be too big for one side and too small for the other).

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think go with the bigger size, and then get a bra with removable padding, so that you can put more padding in one side than the other. But that’s something you could also ask a professional bra fitter. But that would be my best guess!

  9. Belinda

    This was recommended to me: I haven’t tried on a bra in the recommended size, but the results are significantly different than any other calculation I’ve tried. My friend said it has never failed her through multiple size shifts due to health issues.

  10. Sheila

    I lost a lot of weight in the last six months, and still would like to lose more, so don’t want to buy any new bras at the moment. (Never mind that I also just hate shopping and would also like to wait until January when we’re in the U.S., where it will be a lot cheaper than where I live.) One in particular was just not doing anything at all for me anymore, and one day a few weeks ago I grabbed some pins and started trying to make it fit. What I ended up doing, never having heard of that before, was exactly what was described here: folding the band over on itself near the armpits and sewing it there. It fits wonderfully! I’m so excited! I have to do that to one other bra, and then maybe I can get out of shopping altogether. 😉 (I do have more bras, but those are ones that had gotten too small for me, and now fit. 🙂 )


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