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.