The big squeeze.

Are bras really bad for your health? Scientists are sceptical about yesterday's report, but ordinary women, scarred by a lifetime of painful encounters, are quite willing to believe it, says Sally Weale

Tuesday October 31, 2000
The Guardian

Yesterday I conducted my own little experiment. I went into the office toilet, removed my bra, then spent the day without it. For as long as I can remember bras have been a source of discomfort. My earliest bra memories date back to the first year of senior school, when half the girls in class moved with a quiet pride into their trainer bras. Oh, the shame of changing for Phys. Ed. to reveal a virginal white vest while the rest of them giggled in their little white bras.

Eventually I graduated to my own trainer. It was white, with little pink roses, and made me feel very grown-up. It was utterly redundant, but reasonably comfortable - that is, until twanged repeatedly by one's fascinated male peers.

Next came the teen bra, with its adjustable straps and vicious little hooks which were forever being undone by classmates, male and female. I began to look wistfully at my drawerful of flat white vests. By then, however, I began to need a bra and there was no turning back. That was it - for the rest of my life, just like the rest of the adult female population.

Since then there's been lift and separate, Cross Your Heart, latex, Playtex, lycra and lace; there's been Hello Boys, push up and plunge; the balcony, the Bliss, Affinity, Lovable, and something called Essensis. Strappy, strapless, underwired, wireless, sports bras, day bras - new ones with strings to control your cleavage size and the yoghurty-sounding Bioform with revolutionary plastic inserts instead of underwiring. A £500 million industry aimed at your chest.

Then yesterday I and tens of thousands of other women read a report suggesting that wearing a bra could damage your health. Professor Robert Mansel, of the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, and Simon Cawthorn, consultant surgeon at Bristol's Frenchay Hospital, carried out a six-month trial to see if wearing a bra influenced breast pain.

They asked 100 pre-menopausal women to go without a bra for three months then return to wearing one for another three months and record the differences. On average, the number of pain-free days went up by 7% when the women stopped wearing bras. Which seems unsurprising to most bra-wearing females. Bras are at best uncomfortable; at worst they can be instruments of torture.

The full findings of the study are to be released in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme called Bras - The Bare Facts, to be broadcast on Thursday, which also investigates claims by medical anthropologist Sydney Singer that breast cancer could be connected with wearing bras. According to Singer's theory, breast cancer is a problem only in cultures where women wear bras. He believes tight bras cause congestion in the lymph nodes, the body's essential defence against the spread of cancer.

Cancer charities yesterday moved swiftly to allay women's fears. Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "There is no substantiated evidence to link wearing a bra to breast cancer and I'm very concerned that women will be unnecessarily worried about this suggestion."

McVie went on: "The study carried out in Bristol and Cardiff involved just 100 women and only set out to measure breast pain from wearing a bra. It was never intended to show any link between this pain and breast cancer, and no link between the two has ever been satisfactorily proved."

Likewise one of the authors of the study, Simon Cawthorn, was anxious to stress: "This study does not link breast pain with breast cancer, and does not show any link between wearing a bra and breast cancer." Singer's theory that women in cultures where bras are not worn do not suffer breast cancer is more likely to be because of their diet rather than their underwear, says Cawthorn.

But whether bras are subsequently shown to cause breast cancer or not, what emerged among women I spoke to yesterday in the wake of the report is that many
of us do not have very happy relationship with our bras, whether we buy them for a tenner with our groceries in Marks & Spencer, or spend £100 after a two-hour personal fitting in a leading department store. For many of us they are so uncomfortable it would hardly be surprising if they were bad for our health.

This is what one woman had to say: "My whole life I've had one good bra - one bra that was comfortable, that didn't leave enormous scarlet weals on my flesh, that gave me two breasts instead of one; that gave support without stopping me breathing. One good bra!

"It was a sort of blue pebbledash cotton thing from Sock Shop, oddly, and I kept it going for five years. It was disgustingly unattractive, but under clothes my breasts looked like my breasts when I was wearing it. I cried when the much darned strap finally gave in last year and I had to throw it out. Since then I've bought about one bra a week and none of them are comfortable. All of them leave marks."

Or this from another colleague: "I went out dancing once, sporting an all-new underwired number and returned home to find huge parts of my chest gouged out by evil, satanic wiring. I think this might be one of the consequences of wearing such items if one is not overly endowed."

Or this: "I nagged my mother for a little black satin number for my 18th birthday. I tried to ignore the unarguable truth that it gave me a comedy trapezium-shaped bust and no cleavage to speak of. I felt like an utter fraud all night and suffered nasty red strap-marks on my shoulders where I had winched up the bra in an attempt to gain cleavage. It's really not surprising that I should favour vests now, is it?"

Vests are fine for women with flat chests, but for women with big breast, bras are essential for comfort. One colleague described her Triumph "Doreen" as "life-saving". And our breasts are getting bigger all the time. When Tony Dixey, group general manager for Playtex, began working in the bra industry 20 years ago 34B was the average size, now it's 36C.

"To us comfort is the most important thing. British women expect comfort when buying a bra, far more than continental women. Now women will buy bras for occasions. Most women have a wardrobe of bras - a strapless bra, a bra for the day time, a glamour bra for night, a sports bra." If your bra is not comfortable, you're probably wearing the wrong size and should go for a proper fitting - 70 to 80% of us are wearing the wrong bra apparently.

Bras may be bad for your health; they may be good for your figure; they can be a turn-on (black, lacy push-up) or a turn-off (grey, saggy, gone through the wash too many times) but according to Cawthorn they can't keep stop the natural ageing process. Not even if you wear one all night like Marilyn Monroe to keep them perky. "There's no evidence that wearing a bra will prevent your breasts from drooping and sagging," he says.

Which brings me back nicely to my own little experiment. It was much, much more comfortable going without. No red marks on the shoulders; no sore, itchy bit at the back where the label sticks and tickles; no constricted breathing or pinched ribs. Very earthy. Very pleasant. But I stayed very, very still, all day. And when I did move, I clutched something to my chest to hide any unprofessional jiggling. Bras - a necessary evil perhaps.

Remember your first bra? OK, so it was just a tad utilitarian-looking, maybe even downright ugly. At least it covered those newly protruding nipples that had become a daily gym class embarrassment. That was the obvious reason to wear a bra. But as we grew, we turned bras into a vital part of our wardrobe, bringing new meaning to the saying, “Don’t leave home without it.” Certainly not a hazard to your health, right?

Beyond a Boost to the Bust

Researchers at the British School of Osteopathy in London have found that fashion bras (anything designed to push up and push out) and sports bras constrict women’s rib cage expansion by nearly two inches. That, says lead author Charlotte Wightman, puts stress on bones and muscles, which can cause a host of health problems, including breathing difficulties, neck pain and irritable bowel syndrome.

While the study was too small to be considered conclusive—they tried out different bras on just 30 women—Wightman says women should think about the impact their bras have on their bodies. “I am not saying that bras are bad for women and they shouldn’t wear them,” she says. “The problem with bras is persuading women to be more sensible about the ones they buy and how often they wear certain bras like the Wonderbra, strapless or sports bras.”

Breast Cancer from Bras? This isn’t the first time bras have been attacked for their ill health effects. Three years ago, medical anthropologists Sidney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer surveyed 4,700 women and concluded—to the dismay of most medical doctors and cancer researchers—that the odds of getting breast cancer dramatically increased the longer women wore bras.

A survey of 4,700 women showed that those who had breast cancer were also the ones who reported wearing their bras for more than 12 hours a day. Other scientists argue that this analysis is flawed. Their theory: The cinching effect of bras on the body suppressed the lymphatic system below a woman’s armpits, blocking an internal network of vessels that’s supposed to flush toxic wastes from the body. Over time, these toxins accumulate in the breast tissues and create an environment in which cells can turn cancerous. Their conclusion, which was published in the book Dressed to Kill: There is a 125-fold difference in cancer rates between bra-free breasts and those bound by brassieres 24 hours a day. “The bra is a stupid garment, a complete fashion issue,” Singer says. “Women are giving themselves breast cancer, and they can stop it.” Ready to burn your bras? Not so fast.

‘Real’ Science? Most doctors in the American medical establishment thumb their noses at the notion that a mere bra could cause a disease so devilish, regardless of how tight it is. Dr. Ruby Senie, a Columbia University breast cancer specialist and epidemiologist, called it “a ludicrous idea.” And Dr. Stanley Rockson, co-director of Stanford University’s Lymphedema Center, is also unconvinced. “It’s irresponsible to make broad statements after doing studies that didn’t identify whether patients had preexisting breast cancer risks and not following them for 15 years,” he says. “What they did is stretching science further than it can go.” Rockson adds that he can’t say breast cancer isn’t caused by bras, but that we simply don’t know. To make that kind of conclusion, researchers would need to conduct prospective clinical studies, as opposed to Singer’s 12-question survey of women’s bra-wearing habits. “People don’t need to be panicked about this,” he says, “but it is something to be aware of.”

A review of ‘Healthy Woman’, a regular feature of’s Health & Living section and Good Morning America.