If we don’t feel comfortable with our breast size and bra fit, our behaviour can be affected in many ways. It can make us try to hide our chest by draping scarves over them or buying minimiser bras that make breast tissue take cover under armpits.
It can lead to not exercising, too, because of feared breast pain or because we can’t stand the unwanted attention that ‘bopping’ breasts can bring.
An ill-fitting bra may also lead to unwanted musculoskeletal pain because we don’t have the correct support.
Siobhán O’Donovan is a Cork-based chartered physiotherapist who began researching the impact of breast weight on posture 14 years ago.
“While it was well known, at that time, that women have more neck and back pain than men, the connection didn’t seem to be made between that and breast weight,” she says. “It was like two elephants in the room that no one mentioned.”
As well as running a clinic in Cork, she now trains therapists around the country (and in the UK) to offer dual-approach PostureFitting consultations that are aimed at improving the posture of girls and women — and educating them about bra-fitting.
“We’re not about selling bras, although we can supply them,” says Siobhán.
“We are about educating girls and women about their individual posture and empowering them to be able to control their breast weight through a combination of postural awareness and optimal bra fit. We should all have learned how to buy a well fitted bra as teenagers but we didn’t because there was no forum for it then.”
1.5kg of weight
The average breast weighs 750g so that’s a 1.5kg weight that women carry around their neck every day.
“That’s a lot of weight but if you get your breasts into an optimum position, your body will work better.
“You will breathe better, your pelvic floor will function better, you will have less neck pain, less back pain and maybe even no pain at all.”
Siobhán mentions research which found that almost 20% of women weren’t active because of their breast weight.
“It’s a barrier to activity at a time when we are trying to encourage people to be more active,” she says. “If you are more optimally supported, you can walk faster with your head up so your stride length is longer, you get more steps in and can therefore, increase your metabolism. The reaction force that goes through your heel is also less which means that your pelvic floor has less to cope with.”
Then there is the whole concept of mood in relation to poor posture. “Reserach shows that when people spend long periods in a slumped position, negative thoughts are more common, and the reverse is also true.”
A bra will only give you forward projection and uplift, however. “A bra on its own will change your breast position on your trunk and give you this forward projection and uplift but it is only fabric (and wire, if present) that’s taking your breasts into that position. Over time, gravity will continue to act on that weight and on that material and that will stretch. Our skin — the only thing that is holding our breasts in position naturally — will stretch too so you cannot underestimate the importance of posture.
“If you are in a slouched position, your breasts are like dipped headlights. If you now lift your chest up again, you’ll notice that your breasts are now parallel to the floor. You made them do that by using the muscles in your lower and mid back.
“If I then add the optimally fitting bra to that, you go from what I call dipped headlights, to full beam, to high beam.
“The heavier our torso, the harder it is for the muscles in our backs. The bra on its own isn’t enough but if you adopt postural cues you’ll be better able to hold that more upright position. Your bra then works and sits better.”
In relation to how people sit incorrectly, she mentions head rests in cars.
“How many people do you see using them? Very few, unfortunately. Gravity and life tends to pull us forward but if you use the head rest it will take the weight of your head, allowing you to breathe better and your pelvic floor to work better.”
Appearance is important
Initially, Siobhán’s physio approach concentrated on helping women to move and feel better but appearance is very important to them too, she found.
“Patients repeatedly showed me that how they looked was as important to their mental health as it was to their physical wellbeing,” she says.
“When someone stands in front of the mirror and can see their waist again, their confidence soars.”
She mentions how many women, including physiotherapists that she has trained, speak of being bullied as teenagers because of their breast weight — not just by boys but also by girls.
“Many have spent their lives trying to hide their bust size but if you are in your optimal fitting bra, it actually makes you look neater even though you are ‘in front’. You’ll only see that when you’re wearing a bra that will show that to you.”
She reiterates the confidence aspect. “We are talking about bringing women into boardrooms and breaking glass ceilings,” she says, “but when you have someone who is uncomfortable in their own body, how can they be confident enough to step up and present to a group of people, either men or women? If you feel better psychologically, you move better and look better.”
Know how to fit yourself
On the bra fitting front it’s not about returning to PostureFitting clinics every six months to buy new bras, she states.
“I want women to be able to go into any shop in the country and find an optimal bra having learned how to fit themselves properly. It’s easy once you know how.”
Mary Keigher is a Cork-based theatre nurse. She describes herself as 5’7’ and curvy. She was always conscious of her breast size and bought bras frequently trying to find the right one, often opting for the minimiser and shock absorbing varieties.
“My job is quite physical,” says Mary. “I have to hold certain positions for a good while or assist in transferring patients. It got to the point where, when I finished a shift, my shoulders and neck were really tight and sore.
“A colleague suggested that I see Siobhán O’Donovan at the PostureFitting clinic in Cork to get myself sorted out. My initial assessment was via Zoom because of the pandemic. With my laptop in front of me, I stood and sat like I normally would looking at TV, for example, and so on, and Siobhán took photos at these various stages.
“On the pictures she took, she drew an ‘S’ to represent an optimally aligned spinal column. I could see my posture was more like a C shape. No wonder my back and shoulders were sore.
“Over the course of the consultation, she assessed my posture, my gait and even my shoes. Exercise suggestions followed to strengthen the muscles in my upper back.
“A month of doing them made a difference. They were a game changer as was the proper fitting bra I got.
“I found a whole new way of putting on a bra too, with the ‘scoop and swoop’ technique. I’ve learned to engage with my stance when I am putting on my bra as well.
“I found with the retraining and the better bra that has a racerback (hook and clip system that fastens the straps together at the upper back) that I was also breathing more freely. When you think about it, my boobs weren’t squashed in on top of my chest anymore.
“Now I no longer have marks on my body, I feel taller and that I am ‘in’ my clothes better. My range of neck movement is much better too. Size wise, I found that I was a bigger cup and a smaller band size than what I had been wearing.
“It did take a while to get used to the exercises and the clip as I was retraining my back muscles but within three to four weeks, I noticed I wasn’t as tired as I had been and that I was sleeping better.”
According to a study from Triumph, the Swiss lingerie company, 80% of the 10,000 women surveyed were wearing bras that were the wrong size. In Siobhán’s and her PostureFitting team’s experience to date, it has been 100%.
Simple exercise that strengthens your back:
1. Come away from the back of the chair so that it is not supporting you.
2. Adopt your optimal posture. Sit there for 10 seconds.
3. Do this every 10 minutes to strengthen your back muscles.
For more tips and information, check out posturefittingphysio.com