Despite a French scientist's claim that bras may harm women, experts here say that if the bra fits, wear it, writes Arlene Harris
FROM thick straps and firm support to whimsy clasps and delicate lace, the brassiere has been around for an entire century.
Heralded for its ability to enhance a cleavage, tone a silhouette and add allure to every female shape, this piece of basic lingerie is quite simply the mainstay of every woman's wardrobe.
But despite its simplicity and its longevity, French researchers are now claiming that wearing a bra does no good for us at all – so instead of spending time searching for the best cut for our figures, would we be better off joining our 1960s sisters who burned their bras as a symbol of female emancipation?
Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a sports scientist from the University of Franche-Comte in Besancon, France, has completed a 15-year-study on the bra and concluded that it is not necessary for women to wear them; in fact he says the breast does not benefit from being deprived of gravity and they may be doing women's figures more harm than good.
The 130 women who participated in the study were advised to not wear a bra for a certain period of time – ranging from a couple of months to several years – and during this time Prof Rouillon took regular bust measurements and questioned the women about whether they were suffering from either back pain or restriction in carrying out daily tasks.
On presenting his results, the French scientist said he believed that wearing a bra could "prevent supporting tissues from growing" and the "absence of a bra could keep breasts in shape".
"The first results validate the hypothesis that the bra is not needed," he continued. "Medically, physiologically, anatomically – the breast does not benefit from being deprived of gravity.
"The decision not to a wear a bra appeals to women in terms of comfort and aesthetics. Contrary to popular belief, the breast does not fall, but tightens and lifts and the quality of the skin improves."
But Dr Patrick Treacy, chairman of the Irish Association of Cosmetic Surgeons does not agree with Prof Rouillon's report and says in his opinion, having completed countless breast operations over the years, drooping of the breast can be associated with any number of lifestyle variants.
"It's difficult to really believe anything from this study," he says. "Although bras are not natural, and there has been suspicion for years that they reduce muscle tone or give rise to a cancer risk, scientific evidence does not support a link between wearing a bra and these effects.
"The rate at which a woman develops breast drooping depends on many factors including genetics, smoking, body mass index, number of pregnancies, the size of breasts before pregnancy and age.
"Also, I note that under pressure from the lingerie industry, the famed professor retracted somewhat and stressed that his research was actually preliminary and not based on a representative sample of women and therefore it would be dangerous to advise all women to stop wearing their bras."
Despite some claims that wearing a bra can raise the risk of breast cancer, the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) says there is no evidence to suggest this link and in fact this month launched a
breast pain app in which one of the recommendations given was the importance of wearing a properly fitted bra.
The NCCP Breast Pain App describes simple measures a woman can take to manage her breast pain including taking exercise, being a healthy weight, reducing caffeine intake before her period, taking simple pain relief and crucially wearing a good fitting bra.
To ensure the correct fit, women are advised to be measured by a professional. And Clara Halpin, head of personal shopping and bra fitter for Arnotts department store in Dublin, says wearing a correctly fitted bra is essential for both aesthetics and posture.
'I would not be doing my job without ensuring we get our clients fitted for the correct size bra," she says. "Since I started working in fashion over 20 years ago the dominant body shape has changed from the pear shape to apple shape. The average bust was 34B and it is now 36D.
"It is amazing the results and the amount of ladies that cannot believe how slim they look and how posture improves as this can be a big problem for women wearing the wrong bra size – and improving one's posture can make the individual appear slimmer and more confident.
"Sports bras are also a must as tissue damage can be caused by wearing incorrect bras when exercising."
But despite knowing that we should be expertly fitted to determine bra size, the majority of women take a guess – and end up getting it wrong.
"Over 80pc of women wear the wrong size bra but many don't even realise it," says Clara. "However, we would not recommend they try to determine their own size as every bra fits differently and an expert fitter will understand what shape of bra will suit the customer best depending on the fullness of the bust."
Rosyln Ellis of Brown Thomas agrees and says an ill-fitting bra can cause any number of problems and women should ensure they are fitted properly for different stages in their lives.
"By wearing the wrong size you are not getting the support you need so this can cause sagging and problems for your posture," she says. "Lack of support also causes you to hunch forward which in turn causes shoulder, neck and back tension. The wrong size can also cause discomfort and you will see bulges around your breasts, back and upper arms.
"In some cases it is not immediately apparent to a woman that she is wearing the wrong size, for example when wearing too large a back size with the cup size too small, the straps may frequently fall down but she may assume she has sloping shoulders. With a correctly fitted bra, there is no going back, you immediately see the benefit."
But Sinead Halpin, 34 (and no relation to Clara), feels that wearing a bra is not always necessary and women should spend at least some part of every day without one.
"I am inclined to agree with some of Prof Rouillon's report," says the 34 year old. "I have read studies where it is claimed that wearing underwire bras all the time can increase your risk of breast cancer. I know this hasn't been proven but I think it makes sense as having tight straps over sensitive tissue and muscle areas can't be a good thing.
"But even on a less serious note, I feel really trussed up when I am wearing a bra and can't wait to get it off.
"Every evening when I come home from work, the first thing I do is unhook my bra and breathe a huge sigh of relief. For me, it's like wearing a tight belt around your middle all day and when you take it off, there is such a sense of release.
"I have friends who wear their bras in bed because they think it will keep them pert for longer, but I don't agree – as with everything in life, a good diet and plenty of exercise seems to do wonders for most areas of the body.
"So although I won't be ditching my bra entirely as Irish society frowns on it unless you have very small breasts, I will continue to spend all my time at home without one – it might not be conventional, but it works for me."
• For more information on the NCCP Breast App visit www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/breastpainapp.html
• For more information about breast surgery visit www.aylesburyclinic.ie
• For more information about bra fitting visit www.arnotts.ie and www.brownthomas.com