When the cup runneth over... coping with being well-endowed
An early bloomer, Vicki Notaro has always been well-endowed. In the past, she carried her ample bosom proudly, but since reaching a 36F, her fuller breasts are proving to be more of a pain than asset
Summer is approaching, and I'm starting to sweat. Not just because of the temperature, but because strappy top season will soon be upon us again, and I'll spend the coming months trying to protect my modesty and coveting other women's crop tops. As a well-endowed woman, I dread shedding layers of fabric in the warmer months because I'm not just baring my shoulders - I'm also partially baring the 36F breasts I can keep under wraps in winter. I am not alone. As a nation, it's no secret that we're well-endowed in the chest region. According to research by department store Debenhams in 2013, the most popular size in their Irish outlets is 34DD, while Marks & Spencer currentlys find that in its UK and Ireland stores, the average woman's bust size has increased to 36D-DD.
"Our ranges have evolved to include 44 sizes in many of our most popular styles," explains Marks & Spencer lingerie designer Soozie Jenkins. "Our ranges now extend from an AA to a J cup and reacting to customer feedback, we have just expanded the size on offer of our popular Sumptuously Soft collection to a G cup." Not only that, but the vast majority of us badly need to get measured. "Seventy per cent of women wear the wrong bra size, so this is something that we regularly come across," says Samantha Cummins, expert bra fitter in Arnotts' lingerie department in Dublin. "It can be denial in some cases, or a lot of the time they may not have been fitted at all. We advise customers to be fitted by an expert at least one to two times a year as your size can fluctuate."
It was a mix of naivete and denial that had me putting off being measured. This time last year, I was squeezing my girls into tiny, flimsy bras from Victoria's Secret, and ignoring the fact that I could barely breathe. I'd gone from a size 10 to 12, but my boobs didn't adjust accordingly and shot up several sizes. I kept telling myself they'd settle when my body got used to the new contraceptive pill I started taking, or when I got a bit fitter and more toned. But they continued to cause issues, forcing me to give up the ghost.
After months of falling out of bras, back-ache and an inability to breathe past my diaphragm at certain times of the month, I recently went to get measured in Debenhams. Even though the girl with the measuring tape was courteous and professional, I felt like an absolute eejit standing in a little changing room with an unforgiving mirror, my shirt-dress around my waist and my boobs swinging out of my useless brassiere. It was all distinctly unglamorous.
When the assistant declared me to be a 36F, I nearly fainted. I'd been wearing a D, double D at a push. No wonder I felt breathless, hindered and misshapen. She pointed out the marks on my middle from where my old bra was sitting, a good two inches below where my boobs were now perched in a thick strapped beige T-shirt bra. She had me try on a FF for comparative purposes, but I was thrilled to find I was on the lower end of the F spectrum.
The whole thing made me feel hideously unsexy. Debenhams have an entire area devoted to fuller busts, and their own range is full of pretty, seductive lingerie. But I couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't the section for me. I couldn't get past the thicker straps, and I really didn't like the feeling of not being able to shop in the "normal" section. I felt like I had some sort of problem. When I realised I'd also be condemned to the fuller bust bikini section, I could have wept.
I've always had a complicated relationship with my boobs because I developed early.
As a kid, I read Judy Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, and wondered why on earth these young ones were doing exercises to increase their bust. At 10, I already had little buds that seemed unsightly in my cute tops and girly dresses. I got my period when I was barely 11, the first in my class. By the time I was 13, I had a womanly little figure with hips and a bust, and proper 34B bras - I think I skipped the training bra aisle completely.
They kept growing over time, and I guess I got used to them. To me as a teen, boobs were a sign of femininity and sexuality, and I enjoyed the effect they seemed to have on boys.
They were just right, proportionate with my small but curvaceous shape. I had no bum to speak of, so I played up my assets instead. In my 20s, my breasts would only annoy me when they were the difference between fitting in to a size eight or 10. On the whole I was still proud of them. The past couple of years, though, they've become something I dislike. Cumbersome, painful, indecent almost, I no longer enjoy the way they make me feel. I don't like it when men gape at them.
My Italian heritage could have something to do with the boob explosion - I guess you could say I have a buxom Mediterranean-style figure, if you're being kind. Maybe if I was actually from Italy, I could own it with pride. But seeing as I'm mostly Irish, and therefore inclined to be mortified by my perceived attention-grabbers, I want to strap my chest down rather than show it off like I used to.
Typically, though, my figure suits tight, low-cut clothes - I look massive in loose or shapeless garments, so I have to go form-fitting or else live with looking bigger than I am. Thanks to my breasts, I'm destined to skirt the line between class and vulgarity with every neckline, drawing judgementals glares from other women often.
Just the other day I was wearing a wrap-dress with a low neckline, and noticed a woman on the bus sneering openly at my cleavage. What am I meant to do, wear a habit? I'm not going to look like a nun because of other people's repression. It's the difference between Kim Kardashian or Kelly Brook wearing the same designer dress as a supermodel. On Kim and Kelly no matter what, it's going to look hyper sexy and flashy, whereas on a sample size waif it could look elegant, reserved even.
Of course, wearing the right size bra, I feel and look much better. My shirts don't gape, and I appear more in proportion. But I still feel sort of embarrassed to be an F cup at 29 years old, like I'm inadvertently showing off all the time.
Big boobs are seen as so highly desirable, with people paying thousands for a large set, but it's not necessarily the case. When I confided my boob shame to friends, I was told not to be so silly. "People pay for chests like yours!" was one response. No, people pay for high, firm, full breasts that they don't strictly even need to wear a bra with.
Boobs are such an emotive subject, it feels churlish to complain about them. They're used to nourish children, for God's sake. Women lose theirs to breast cancer, they even lose their lives to the awful disease. Other more flat-chested women spend their time stuffing chicken fillets into Wonderbras just to get a hint of a shape, or get cosmetic surgery to augment their breasts. I'm well aware of the emotional connection we have with our breasts, and their inextricable link to our femininity. But that doesn't mean I have to cherish my own bountiful set on a daily basis - when I'm crippled with back pain, popping out of shirts and looking indecent in polo-necks, it's difficult to always be grateful for them. I would definitely miss them if they were gone, but if they were a couple of sizes smaller? I'd be OK with that.
One woman who took the plunge and had a reduction is author and TV personality Amanda Brunker. She underwent breast reduction surgery in 2013 after years of back pain and upset.
"I always had big boobs. My first bra was 32C. My mother got my sister to march me into Arnotts to get fitted because things were getting uncomfortable for those watching me on the basketball court!"
Amanda says she always knew she'd need a reduction, suffering from back pain and having awful difficulty getting clothes to fit. "I gave my husband a five-year countdown to the operation, I thought that was fair. They were a 38GG when I had the op. My mum had it done at 60, and I didn't want to wait as long. It has been one of the best decisions I ever made. Now I don't have to hold myself getting out of bed and I like what I see in the mirror."
On the other end of the spectrum, 31-year-old make-up artist Joanne Peden opted for breast enlargement. "Growing up my boobs were grand, an average 34C. I was happy enough with them, but then I had a baby. I was left with these wrinkled things that had gone south! I decided to have a boob job in 2008. I found a clinic with great reviews that consulted in Dublin."
Joanne had her operation in Marbella a fortnight later. Her new breasts cost under €5,000, including her accommodation and transfers. "I actually took out a loan to cover the cost, which worked out at about €35 per week for two-and-a-half years." Joanne says her boobs now are exactly what she wanted. "They're a 34DD/E depending on the brand. I personally feel more confident with them, sexier in myself."
It could be a case of the grass always being greener in somebody else's bra. After all, I have fond memories of my 24-year-old figure in general, not just my smaller boobs. While I'm not in the market for a breast reduction, I simply refuse to go any bigger in the boob department. Finding a contraceptive with fewer side-effects is an ongoing battle, so I just have to get fitter and hopefully lose some breast fat along with all the other kinds of fat too.
In a case of faking it 'til I make it, I'm going to try and own my buxomness. I shall channel the likes of Jessica Simpson and Salma Hayek in the fashion department, with a hint of Nigella Lawson's posture, and hopefully learn to love, and not curse my bountiful breasts.
Stylist Corina Gaffey offers her sartorial tricks for dressing a larger chest
Go plain on the chest area
"Avoiding too much detail or embellishment is a good idea for busty ladies. Use your clothes to divert the eye to where you want it to go, whether that's statement earrings or a belt."
Avoid buttons that can bust
"There's little worse than a gaping blouse or shirt, so either wear a cami underneath if you're worried, or go oversize and tuck it in to your jeans or skirt to give more shape."
Use a tailor
"Don't be afraid of the size on the hanger - sometimes you may need to go up a size and get a tailor to take your clothes in to make sure they fit you perfectly."
Don't fear blazers
"You don't have to go for a buttoned jacket. Waterfall or drape style blazers work well on a bigger bust, and choose a longer line style to draw the eye down and skim over the breast."
Emphasise the smallest part of your body
"Whether that's your waist, arms or hips, draw attention to the more petite parts of your shape to prevent feeling big all over."
Try separates on for size
"Some women might be bigger on top and smaller on the bottom, so in that case separates could really work well - don't just rely on dresses!"