The identity behind your bra size
How the Brooklyn “bra whisperer” plunged me into an identity crisis
I just had the most transformative shopping experience of my life at a boutique bra shop in Brooklyn.
All day long, I could tell something wasn’t quite right with the bra I had on. The front plastic clasp was poking out or poking in, and from the moment I got on the subway, I’d been feeling a scratching pain around my sternum.
While at a friend’s baby shower near the Fulton Street shops in Brooklyn, I tried to innocuously adjust the arrangement of my bra under my shirt. Not wanted to call attention to my fidgeting, I finally went in the bathroom and tried to figure out what was going wrong. Nothing seemed to fix it.
I’ve been in a bra funk for awhile, I realized. For the past few months, nothing seemed to fit just right. Despite having close to a dozen bras at home, many were in poor condition or pulling apart in strange places, and only three or four seemed to work correctly.
Earlier this week, a colleague asked me what luxury service I would pay for if I had unlimited funds. Without skipping a beat, I told her I would pay somebody a monthly fee to outfit me with all undergarments, socks, and hosiery that I need for each season. That’s the kind of stuff I never have patience to do right myself, and I never seem to have what I really need.
Bra shopping in particular feels so loaded to me. You really have only three options:
- Go into a massive department store like Macy’s and explore unlimited options but have an impossible time finding anything;
- Visit a place like Victoria’s Secret and get sucked into the trap of buying cute things that cost a lot that you never have the occasion to wear; or
- Boldly enter a boutique lingerie shop and run the risk of dealing with a pushy shopkeeper and couture-like collections at impractically high prices.
Any way you slice it, it’s lose-lose-lose. Clearly I’m not alone in this line of thinking. This pain point is part of what makes online bra fitting services like True & Co so popular today.
But I needed a change today. So in a fit of desperation, I decided to see if there was somewhere in the area I could go after the baby shower. I typed “bras” into Google Maps, laughing as I waited for the results to load. Surprisingly, a nearly option popped up immediately: Iris Lingerie and Bra Fittings. It looked like a legit boutique, and as an added bonus, it was only two blocks away. I decided to give it a shot.
Try this on for size
Wandering past Hoyt Street to Atlantic Avenue, I observed the storefronts change from Old Navy and H&M to a smattering of brunch spots, cafes, and clothing boutiques carrying one or two designers with hand-written “Out to lunch” signs on the windows. I scowled a little, hoping I wasn’t about to enter one of those “look but don’t touch” lingerie shops I tend to dread.
Finally I arrive at what looks to be a high end clothing boutique with Asian influences and a sign that the lingerie shop is downstairs at the garden level. I weave my way though the tiny shop, down the stairs, and around the corner. Then I’m alone among a sea of bras.
“Hello…?” I call out. A few beats pass.
“…oh someone is here…” I hear shuffling from a place I can’t yet see. Then a woman pokes her head out from the back room. “Hello! Yes, how can I help you?”
“Hi! I’d like a bra fitting, if that’s ok.” At that, the woman, who I later learn is Iris, launches into action mode.
“I’ll take your coat,” she beckons, and I hand it over, dropping my purse to the floor as I uncurl my scarf.
“No, pick that up!” Iris demands. “It’s unlucky for purses to be on the floor. Put that here, on this shelf.”
I do as she says and then look down to my umbrella.
“That,” she continued, “can stay right here on the floor.” She ushers me into the fitting room and instructs me to get ready for the fitting.
“So just, take off everything, or just…er…” I awkwardly call to her from behind the curtain. She sighs audibly.
“No! Just your shirt. I can’t have naked people running all over my store!”
Makes sense, I think. As I wait for her to return, I hear her poking her way through the shop.
“What are you looking for?” Iris asks me.
“Well, my bra is broken and has been hurting me a bit today. But truth be told, I probably need a few other things too.”
“Have you seen me before?”
“Okay so we’ll start your record. Where do you shop today for bras?”
“Nowhere good,” I admit.
She pulls aside the curtain, takes a look, then hands me a bra. “Try this.”
I put it on with her help. It’s not quite right.
“Do you see how you’re moving out of it?” She asks. I don’t see. Clearly I haven’t been paying close enough attention to these things. Iris shuts the curtain as I try to teach myself what a bra that doesn’t fit looks like. I hear some rustling of tiny plastic hangers and she tosses me another bra.
“Put this on,” she instructs. As I do, I think get a glimpse of the size tag in the mirror and do a double-take.
She pulls aside the curtain in a flash. “Aha! There we have it.” She smiles.
I acknowledge that it feels good. Really good. But I’m still a little shell-shocked from what I thought I saw in the mirror.
“Um, what size is this?” I ask uncomfortably, praying I saw something different.
She says the number out loud. I gasp in disbelief. Both the band and cup size are 1 or 2 places different from my usual size.
“Wait, seriously?! But I’ve never worn that size before in my life!!”
I stare at her open-mouthed, in complete shock. She gives me a look that says, well no shit, sweetheart, that’s why you’re here to see me.
She shuts the curtain again and I finally notice the newspaper articles taped to the mirror. A New York Times piece from 2015 refers to Iris as “the bra whisperer.” Another remarks on her beloved presence in the neighborhood. It’s only then that I realized I have stumbled upon greatness.
Iris spends the next 20 minutes passing bras back and forth over the curtain to me as I try on one after the other, each one further validating that number-and-letter combo she gave me earlier. At one point, she hands me a strapless bra that’s within striking range of my normal size. I shuffle a little in it, eager to find comfort in a size I’m used to. It doesn’t fit. She hands me one in my new size. It’s perfect.
Knowing your number
There’s a funny thing that happens to women at about the time they go through puberty. All of the sudden, you get assigned a number and a letter that pertains to the size of your chest. And that combo, no matter what it is, sticks with you for the rest of your life.
In all likelihood, the first number and letter you receive is incorrect in some way. Maybe the first person who tried to help you figure this out was a parent, equally freaked out by the situation as you were. Maybe it was a shopkeeper who offended you profusely by her use of the phrase, “training bra.” Maybe you took yourself shopping, crammed in a fitting room with a WikiHow page about bra sizing tips opened up on your phone. But however it happens, you leave your first bra fitting with a permanent brand on your chest — a proxy for categorizing and ranking your own beauty and femininity.
Before that moment, you are undefined. Just like everyone else (men and women alike), you have a shirt size and a pants size. But after your first bra fitting, you’re forced to carry another secret code with you — one that applies only to women and is accompanied a plethora of societal chatter. It may feel strangely personal and invasive, but as soon as you get your number, you must wear it on your chest at all times. This, perhaps, marks the beginning of the coming of age of women, when you receive the label with which you can compare yourself against others.
From that point on, it will come up at every sleepover party you attend. You’ll overhear others hazarding guesses as to what your size could be, and you’ll hear crude references to other people’s sizes in pop songs on the radio. You’ll be reminded of it in the locker rooms of gym class and when trying on prom dresses at the mall. And years later, when prom dresses become bridesmaid dresses, this combo once again becomes a source of comparison among even the closest of friends.
Let’s be clear: There’s no winning here. As soon as you get assigned your size, it will likely serve as a source of ridicule no matter where you net out. If it’s too small, you’re undesirable and gimpy. If it’s too big, you’re a beacon of unwanted attention. Once you’re labeled, you invite all of the bias and stereotyping that goes along with it. Over time, you’ll associate with that funny little number more and more, allowing it shape the way you think about yourself and the way you come to internalize understanding your own beauty.
When Iris shouted that new number out to me, my entire self-worldview came crashing in around me. She didn’t just find me a bra that fit a little bit better; she single-handedly dismantled over a decade’s worth of preconceived notions I had about myself. Despite visible evidence to the contrary, my mind and my head still could not reconcile the gap. This bra may be sized like that, I rationalized. But this size isn’t my size. It can’t be!
It may have been the single-greatest instant paradigm shift of my adult life.
I went in to that shop looking for a bra that wouldn’t scratch and stab me in the chest all afternoon. But what I came away with was so much more than that — a new number to challenge me to look beyond the size on the label.
As I wrapped up my new purchases to leave the store, I overhead a voice from the next girl in the fitting room.
“Wait, is this really my size?! Why have I been wearing that other one for so long?!”
I smiled as I walked out. Seems like Iris has a pretty great job.