Tanya Sweeney on how the Irish bust went BOOM!
There was no denying that the new bra was infinitely more comfortable than the 36E I walked in with. But a H-cup? Monstrous. A recent, tearful visit to the bra shop set Tanya Sweeney on a mission to discover why our breasts are now bigger, with the average woman matching our cover girl Georgia Salpa's DDs.
Retail therapy, form of cardio, pick-me-up ... suffice to say that shopping is great sport. At least, it's all fun and games until you find yourself crying in a changing room as I did recently.
Yet it wasn't because I had a dress stuck over my head or the button on a pair of jeans did that damning, accusatory pop.
It was because I felt like a full-blown circus freak, someone who deserved billing in between the bearded lady and the sword-swallowing conjoined twins at a county fair.
I had just been told in a London lingerie store that my bra size was a very grotesque, unnatural-sounding -- oh God, Sweeney, just type it -- 32H.
If you'd told my 12-year-old self that I'd be using tissues in a bra changing room for crying and not cup-stuffing in my 30s, she'd no doubt have been dead chuffed.
But as with much of adulthood, it's not half as much fun as you thought it might be.
"That's not normally the reaction we get in here when we tell people that," murmured the assistant as she hoisted my boobs into an industrial-standard haulage device.
Yet humiliation burned through me. I wanted to flee, even if it meant incurring two black eyes.
There was no denying that the new bra was infinitely more comfortable than the 36E I walked in with. But a H-cup?
Later, I went home and typed the damning bra size into Google Images, to get some kind of visual reference point. Let's just say I'd reached a few 'specialist' Russian sites within a few clicks and leave it at that.
Let it be stated for the record that I had many, many reservations about writing an article of this nature, and specifically about disclosing the above information.
It's all a bit ... you don't need me to tell you. A bit First World Problem.
As grating on some ears, no doubt, as "money just sticks to me", or "no matter what I eat, I can't put on weight".
No good ever came of talking up an overabundance of cleavage, unless you're a particularly tiresome, attention-grabbing kind of celebrity. Yet it's time to debunk some myths. When it comes to boobs, the Lord giveth ... but then, believe it or not, He taketh away.
The down sides
No doubt you've already heard about the backache; the inability to wear shirts; the women who make bitchy sideswipes out of the corners of their mouths.
What you might not have heard about is the more mundane aspects of having a larger chest. The constant need to wear a bra. The fact that Topshop and Oasis are, for the most part, out of the question. The inability to escape looking matronly.
The feeling as though you're carrying two bags of shopping, 24/7. The quiet coveting of a more streamlined, minimalist silhouette. The assumption that you're a certain type of girl.
The sheer exhaustion of saying to female pals, for the umpteenth time, "If I could give you a handful, I would".
There have been times when I've been standing in a group, waiting for a photo to be taken. One guy disappears from view, murmuring, "I'm sorry, but I just need to...", before he reappears behind you, cupping your chest without warning, your face a mixture of confusion and trying to be a good sport.
A word in your shell-likes, gents: just because they're there, doesn't give you licence to treat them -- quite literally --as funbags.
Ah, the greatest myth of them all -- that men are turned on by sizeable boobs. This is received as stone-cold wisdom, but the reality is often much different.
Men tend to look on big boobs as they might Everest; something they might like to have a crack at, albeit only in theory.
In truth, the men I encounter seem terrified, even intimidated by them. Is it a weird power thing, or are they simply afraid of death by flesh-drowning?
I'm not alone
Yet here's the curious part -- when I hauled myself back from London to Ireland (no excess baggage costs, mercifully), and disclosed my moment of ignominy to a few friends, their reactions were extraordinary.
"Pfft, sure I'm a 30F," shrugged one size-10 friend. "Pshaw, I'm a 34G," claimed another, a toned size 12. So ashamed is another pal of her natural G-cup size that she removes the labels from her bras, lest she wind up in a car accident.
The thing is, these girls would never be classed by anyone as busty or pneumatic.
Their chests appear unremarkable -- and I mean this in the nicest possible way.
Conversely, Georgia Salpa -- feted for her boobs -- is a 32D cup, according to her new card at Andrea Roche's model agency.
At her largest, professional walking cleavage Jordan was a 32FF.
Even Christina Hendricks, whose breasts seem to enter a room several moments before she does, is reported as a 32DD.
There is something very wrong with this picture.
Our cups runneth over
Breasts are getting bigger, both here and in the UK. In 2007, Marks & Spencer began stocking J-cup bras.
Research states that the average bra size in the UK has gone from a 34B to 36D. Compare this to the bombshell era of the 1950s, when the average woman wore a B-cup.
Earlier this year, specialist company Bravissimo launched an L-cup bra, after 18 months of research and production. What's more, Bravissimo research has shown that at least 60pc of women currently wearing a C-cup should actually be wearing a D-cup and anything up to an F-cup.
They also estimate that the average bra size is more likely to be 34E rather than 36D.
"Since the first Bravissimo shop opened in 1999, we have seen a steady flow of women around the UK who need an L-cup bra," says Jo Lee of Bravissimo.
"There is a total misconception that it's unusual to be big boobed and small bodied, yet we've been contacted by more than two million women since we started in 1995, the vast majority of whom are naturally small in the body and big in the bust."
Closer to home, Clodagh Weber founded specialist lingerie company Bramora on Dublin's Earlsfort Terrace six years ago.
She opened the store after noticing a glaring hole in the market after being unable to find wedding lingerie in her own size.
Bramora gets up to 40 customers through the door a day, most of them looking for anything from an FF to a HH cup.
As it happens, the 32H -- of the Russian specialist websites fame -- is the first size to sell out in any range. It is, in Clodagh's words, a shop for bigger busts, not bigger ladies, as might be the general misconception.
"Since we opened, only four women have come into the store wearing the right size," she admits. "Some of them have been a size six and tiny, but have fitted into a 28G or a 28F."
The surprises come thick and fast in the changing room.
"Women who come in wearing a 34B leave with a 32F, while a person who thought she was a 32B can often turn out to be a 30C or DD. Some 99pc of them come in with a bra that's too big on the back and not big enough on the cup," Clodagh adds.
I wanna be a C!
Yet given that women's identity is largely bound up with her dress size (and, by extension, her cup size), these tearful changing-room episodes are more common than you might think.
"I've had women proclaim, 'There's no way I'm a D-cup!' as if it were a problem, and they wouldn't even try on a D-cup bra," says Clodagh.
"They don't want to think of themselves as bigger, even though the right-sized bra will make them look smaller. They get really upset, mainly because their whole identity is caught up in being a C-cup.
"People in their 50s and 60s come in and assume they've been the same size for years without getting measured. And yes, we've had tears," she adds.
Well, I can relate. When women think of themselves as a certain size for a prolonged period of time -- be it 'I love my little bee-sting A-cups' or 'I'm a very average C-cup' -- to find out that you've become a D-cup or higher is quite the adjustment.
Aisling Holly, MD of Dublin cosmetic surgery company The Hospital Group, has also noticed a rise in the number of women -- particularly over 30 -- looking for breast reduction.
"People often decide to do it for medical reasons, such as backache, or to make their lifestyle more comfortable," she explains.
"Little things, such as going to the gym or finding clothes to fit properly, can be very uncomfortable."
In a way, it smacks of the vanity sizing that's rumoured to have besieged the high street -- the idea that clothes' measurements have been altered by manufacturers to allow a size 16 person fit into a morale-boosting size 12.
After all, given that the number part of a bra size pertains to a torso/back measurement, while the letter part indicates the volume of the cup, a 30F sounds, in theory at least, preferable to a 36D.
However, the manufacturers deny that this is the reason for the cup-size conundrum. Besides, we can safely assume that bra manufacturers know what they're doing.
And it's not an easy job if you consider the contents of an article, entitled 'Brassieres: An Engineering Miracle', that was published in the February 1964 issue of 'Science and Mechanics Journal'.
It said: "The challenge of enclosing and supporting a semi-solid mass of variable volume and shape, plus its adjacent mirror image, involves a design effort comparable to that of building a bridge or a cantilevered skyscraper."
And, given that a DD+ cup now has 31 design components -- 10 more than a smaller size and a vast improvement on models from past decades -- it's also safe to assume that bra designers wouldn't change their modus operandi for the sake of vanity.
Clodagh notes: "In my experience, the changes in size are because a lot of people haven't been wearing the right size bra for years.
"They've gone to the high-street stores and been measured with a tape, whereas we prefer to fit people into bras to establish the size. I'm not sure it's a vanity sizing thing, as most women don't like to hear that they are bigger."
Is it a fat thing?
But why this quantum leap through the alphabet?
Of course, today's young bra shoppers are the first generation born to women who took the Pill.
To date, there is no research about the effect of sustained hormone ingestion on subsequent generations and their cleavage. However, it is known that taking the Pill -- concentrated amounts of oestrogen, and sometimes progesterone --affects breast size.
Ask anyone on the Pill about the unexplained tantrums and zit breakouts, and they're likely to acknowledge that, yes, this is one not-unwelcome side-effect.
The men in white coats agree. Professor Mark McLean of the University of Western Sydney says lifelong exposure to the Pill is a factor in the increase in bust size.
"We know oestrogen stimulates breast ducts and causes tissue to proliferate," he says.
"The whole reason breasts develop at the start of puberty is because that's when oestrogen starts to kick in. Anyone on the Pill is then being exposed to more."
Another theory states that rising obesity levels are to blame for the rise in breast size. Certainly, at a size 14 and with a 33in waist, my H-cuppers aren't staggeringly out of proportion with the rest of me.
Nutritionist Sarah Keogh notes that, given that 66pc of Irish people are overweight, the fat will invariably go on to the breast as well as the stomach and thighs.
"Our ovaries produce oestrogen, but a lot of oestrogen is produced by fat cells, so the more fat you have, the more oestrogen you will produce," she explains. "This does trigger breast growth and puberty."
Yet this doesn't explain how a size six Bramora customer can be a 28G.
Another more disturbing theory that has been floated is that the food we eat has changed our bodies; specifically, that xenoestrogens -- man-made chemicals found in everyday items like food preservatives and make-up -- might be responsible.
In 2002, research published by the Environment Agency in the UK showed that an "exquisitely potent" form of oestrogen, which is believed to have entered the rivers through the urine of Pill and HRT users, was responsible for changing the sex of half of all the male fish in British lowland rivers, and could be contaminating the water supply in the UK.
"There's little direct evidence but lots of indirect evidence that xenoestrogens have an oestrogenic effect and affect the growth of human breast cancer cells," says Dr Ian Fentiman of Guy's, King's and St Thomas' School of Medicine in London.
"But to take that on and say what the impact of this is on human females, well, it's a bit more difficult to say.
"We're doing some work, which seems to show that you can see evidence in relatively young women that they've had exposure to a variety of mutagens and the body has had a response to those.
"It may be that if you get an exposure to xenoestrogens at a young age, there may be an even more profound effect. The young breast is very sensitive to a whole variety of stimuli. But none of it is yet proven," he explains
As to the idea that increased levels of hormones in milk are a factor, Nina Ni Dhuinn from the National Dairy Council says this is mere urban myth.
"Irish milk is subject to so much regulation and is quality-tested right through the process so that the milk Irish people drink it pretty natural and pure.
"It complies with EU regulation and our dairy comes from grass-based farming, so it's a hell of a lot better than in many places."
Boom and bust
Whatever the reason, Clodagh of Bramora observes that younger girls are coming into her.
"They are definitely a lot bigger than I might have been at that age. When you think of what our parents or grandparents cooked and ate, I do feel there's a link between food and this. If whatever they're feeding chickens is making them bigger, what's it doing to us?"
Says nutritionist Aveen Bannon of the Dublin Nutrition Centre: "I don't think there's enough scientific evidence out about hormones in food and breast size, but what is a probable cause is weight.
"Hormones are not added to foods (in the EU), so it's hard to make the link between animal diets and ours."
As with many things in life, what comes up must come down -- and not just with regards to gravity.
Already, the backlash against the hourglass figure can be seen on the horizon; the frenzy surrounding 'Mad Men' actress Christina Hendricks is losing pace, while the heat surrounding plus-size beauties is dying down.
This 1950s silhouette du jour -- extolled last year in every couture house from Prada to Louis Vuitton -- may well be out of fashion in a couple of seasons' time.
Scientists will no doubt continue to scratch their heads over this curious new phenomenon for years to come.
In the meantime, gents, keep your hands to yourselves as we ladies get to grips, so to speak, with this new world order.
Or, at the very least, try not to look as though two Dobermans have just climbed up your trouser leg whenever you meet a pendulous pair at close range.
Andy Warhol may have said that any more than a handful is a waste, but nature's endless bounty is seemingly here to stay, so you had better get used to it.
You and me both.