A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do bras prevent saggy breasts?

May 22, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Do bras keep breasts from sagging as you get older? I've heard reports that they do nothing at all.

Cecil replies:

Oh, bras probably do something. It's just that nobody can agree on what it is. I won't pretend to have the definitive answer, but here's what we've established so far:

(1) The medical term for breast sagging is breast ptosis. One often hears that "the French have a word for it," "it" being any inscrutable aspect of daily life. However, if the French ever get stumped, ask a doctor.

(2) The upper and lateral portion of the breast, as long as we're working on our vocabulary, is known as the tail of Spence. This is an extremely difficult fact to work into ordinary conversation.

(3) There is, so far as your columnist can discover, zero evidence that bras prevent saggy breasts. (I'm not about to keep saying “breast ptosis,” which sounds like something you'd take penicillin for.) My assistant Gfactor — Una is still recovering from creme brulee duty — scoured the medical journals and turned up nothing. Admittedly this wouldn't be an easy thing to study: though yes, I'm sure you could find 10 or 20 million guys who'd be happy to help, ho ho ho, my guess is if you actually had to stare at (palpate, whatever) human flesh day after day and rate its sagginess, the novelty would eventually wear off.

(4) Bras originated in 1863 as an alternative to corsets. The purpose of corsets, we can agree, was to squeeze a woman's body into something more closely resembling the 19th-century ideal of beauty, which had the unfortunate side effect of making it impossible to breathe. One may argue that bras are likewise intended to enhance the female figure but in a less drastic manner.

(5) Be that as it may, bras have always been touted for their health benefits, and given that they chased out corsets, who can argue? The original patent application for a bra, submitted by Luman Chapman, asserts that his breast supporter helps avoid "injuries to the breasts and abdomen." By 1927 bra makers were claiming their products supported "drooping busts" and strengthened "weakened tissues." A 1952 article in Parents magazine (then called Parents’ Magazine), which offers the bizarre suggestion that one should periodically trace the silhouette of one's daughter's breasts (presumably unclothed) to gauge their development, also exhorts parents to get their girls training bras at the first sign of puberty lest the poor kids' breasts drop.

(6) Bra manufacturers don't necessarily believe their products prevent sagging. In a 2000 article in the Independent we find John Dixey, chief executive of Playtex, agreeing with surgery professor Robert Mansell on this point. Mansell: Sagging is "a function of the weight, often of heavy breasts, and these women are wearing bras and it doesn't prevent it." Dixey: "We have no medical evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging, because the breast itself is not muscle so keeping it toned up is an impossibility." Others have greater faith. In a 1990 Runner's World article, exercise physiologist and biomechanics researcher LaJean Lawson compares the bouncing of breasts during running to the stretching that occurs when a woman "wears heavy earrings all the time” and recommends sports bras during exercise.

(7) In contrast to pretty much everything else you hear on this subject, we do have some scientific evidence that sports bras are a good idea, though for reasons having little to do with sagging. For a 1999 article in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Mason et al had women exercise at varying degrees of strenuousness while wearing different types of bra or no top at all; the subjects reported much less breast pain when clad in a sports bra. OK, the total number of subjects was three, which is not going to win anyone the Nobel Prize, but at least they were making an effort.

(8) I don't dispute that many if not most women need breast support while exercising and that large-breasted and lactating women need support just for walking around. The question is whether a nonpregnant, nonlactating woman of average endowment needs to wear a bra routinely. Women's breasts, even small ones, clearly sag over time, and it's not hard to believe the steady tug of gravity on minimally supported tissue partly explains why. (Other factors: significant weight loss, postpartum atrophy, and postmenopausal involution.) Conceivably a bra could delay the process. However, not to harp on this, we don't know it for a fact.

(9) Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. I'd suggest bras are primarily a tool of fashion: they give women an approximation of the idealized female shape plus some control over jiggle, cleavage, and nipple protrusion — the undeniable fact being that most people look better, and feel more comfortable, with clothes on than with them off.

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Brumberg, Joan. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, 1997.

Casselman, Anne. "The Physics of Bras." Discover Magazine 22 November 2005. 23 February 2009. http://discovermagazine.com/2005/nov/physics-of-bras

Crowell, Frank H. "When your daughter matures." Parents' Magazine. Aug. 1952: 41, 74-5.

Farrell-Beck, Jane, et al. "Brassieres and Women's Health from 1863 to 1940." Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. 16 (1998): 105-115.

Farrell-Beck, Jane and Colleen Gau. Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadephia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002.

Fontanel, Béatrice, Support and Seduction: The History of Corsets and Bras. Trans. Willard Wood. New York: Abradale, 2001.

Georgiade, Nicholas G. and Ronald Riefkohl, ed. Aesthetic Surgery of the Breast. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1990.

Kirwan, Laurence. "Breast Augmentation in the Ptotic Breast." Aesthetic Surgery Journal. 19 (1999): 49-54. http://www.surgicalbreastenhancement.com/Sept2003PressPDF/Breast.pdf

Mason, Bruce, et al. "An Analysis of Movement and Discomfort of the Female Breast During Exercise and the Effects of Breast Support in Three Cases." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2 (2): 134-144.

National Geographic Channel. "Man-Made: Secret History of the Bra." http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/series/man-made/3072/Overview#tab-Overview

Stuart, Julia. "Don't burn your bra just yet: Are recent reports linking bras to breast cancer based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of the results of a study carried out at a Bristol hospital?" The Independent, 2 November 2000. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/dont-burn-your-bra-just-yet-622008.html

Tantleff-Dunn, Stacey. "Breast and chest size: Ideals and stereotypes through the 1990s". Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 45 (2001): 231-242. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2294/is_2001_August/ai_82782448

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