Several years ago, a series of articles appeared in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and India saying that women's boobs are getting bigger. In Britain, the average bra size has gone up over the last ten years from a 34B to a 36C. In Australia, manufacturers are making bras in new super-sizes, up to J and K. These articles made me wonder if the British Empire is somehow conferring bustiness upon her subjects.
Since every country uses different letters for different measurements, I thought at first there might be mass confusion about bra sizes. Or perhaps there had been a manufacturing trend over the years toward downsizing what is meant by, say, size C. Added to the mix-up: eight out of ten women are wearing the wrong bra size, so they have no idea what size they really are.
Then I found an article in the New York Times that said American bra manufacturers are making ever-larger bras, and sellers cant keep up with the demand. Another article in New York magazine noted that ten years ago, the median American bra size was 36C. Now it is a 36DD. The size of the band is the same, but the cup now runneth over.
I wondered if there could be some evolutionary forces at work. Maybe bigger boobs were better for nursing? But evolution does not explain the sudden change in womens proportions and structurally, my theory made no sense at all. Ironically, the person who benefits the least from the trend toward bigger breasts is an actual baby. Its harder for babies to nurse from large, round breasts, which can literally smother them. Out of a lineup, babies would not pick Pamela Anderson.
So why are breasts, and bra sizes, getting bigger?
Lets put one reason on the table up front. Obviously breast implants create bigger boobs and the need for bigger bras. But implants alone do not explain the greater demand for greater support.
Lets put another reason out there, and then forget about it. Yes, obese women need bigger bras. More obese women mean a greater demand for larger bras. Lack of exercise can lead to larger breasts that have more fatty tissue.
In the old days women were basically either skinny and flat, or curvy and well-endowed. Boobs tended to be round when we were young, bigger when we got pregnant, and saggy when we got old. Most young girls had gravity-defying boobs that needed something euphemistically called a training bra, as if growing breasts needed to be wrestled into submission. I remember girls doing the pencil test when I was in about seventh grade that is, trying to see if our boobs were big enough to hold a pencil underneath. Clearly we didnt have much to work with.
Now the pencil test is a joke. Clothes designers are seeing a body type among younger women who are not only thin, but also busty. A magazine editor said, Even women with skinny bodies seem to have over-developed breasts, which isn't a shape that used to exist at all." So how do we account for this change?
In a word: hormones. Especially estrogen. A womans breasts contain cells called estrogen receptors. Naturally-occurring estrogen, as well as substances from the environment that trick the body into thinking they are estrogen, stimulate these cells to produce mammary tissue.
Girls today are reaching puberty and developing breasts as early as age seven or eight. In general, black and Hispanic girls continue to develop faster than white girls, but as a whole, white girls are experiencing the most rapid change as they catch up. Reaching puberty faster means an earlier onset of menstruation. Earlier menstruation means the body is exposed to more estrogen for a longer period of time. More estrogen promotes more breast tissue. The longer a woman menstruates before she becomes pregnant, the longer her body is exposed to estrogen production every month. (Pregnancy and breastfeeding halt menstruation.)
But why are girls maturing so much earlier? You may remember in the 1980s, when little babies in Puerto Rico started developing breasts. It boggles my mind to think that three-year-olds had vaginal bleeding. Little boys, too, developed breasts. The culprit turned out to be an overabundance of hormones given to dairy cows that found their way into the fresh local milk and beef.
Because up to 80% of our cows are given hormones, US meat has been banned since 1989 in Europe, where the use of hormones is outlawed. The US Department of Agriculture does not allow the use of hormones in raising hogs or poultry, but only because they are ineffective anyway. So, theres no need to worry about hormone-free chicken or bacon. On the other hand, cattle and sheep are given hormones to make them mature faster and produce more milk. The dairy industry of course argues this is safe.
Before researching this article, I was aware of some cautionary tales about food coming into contact with plastic. Now I am going to be a crazy person on the subject. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound used to line the inside of aluminum cans and to make hard, clear plastic. Its in water bottles, baby bottles, plastic milk containers, plastic juice bottles, and plastic food containers - as well as in soaps, creams, deodorants, cosmetics, tampons, electronic equipment, pesticides, sales receipts, and a zillion other things.
Chemically BPA is similar to human estrogen, and our bodies actually cannot tell the difference between it and estradiol (a form of estrogen.) BPA leeches into our food and then enters our bodies, where even teeny tiny amounts levels too low to be measured by any scientific instrument can cause breast cells to reproduce. Over 90% of people have BPA in their urine and the highest levels are in children. So starting as babies, most little girls have been exposed to environmental BPA in a thousand different ways.
There are also a few more explanations for bigger busts on younger women.
Obesity in girls can contribute to breast size, and not just because of fatty tissue. Body fat can produce sex hormones. More hormones means bigger breasts.
Some children are accidentally exposed to hormones their mothers use, such as breast-enhancing supplements or hormone medications. If you use hormone replacement medications, keep them locked up. Do not let your son or daughter touch hormone-containing creams, even on your skin.
Problems metabolizing hormones can cause them to re-circulate or even build up in the body. Drinking alcohol can disrupt normal liver function, which can interfere with the normal breakdown of estrogen. Result: longer exposure to hormones.
Unusual endocrine disorders can cause precocious puberty.
After all this bad news, there are two reasons to be cheerful. Some women have bigger breasts because they work out at the gym and have built up their pectoral muscles. This makes their breasts look larger. Also, young women have better nutrition and health care than their grandmothers did 50 years ago. People in general are eating more pork and chicken and less beef. So growing girls are getting plenty of protein, and they are turning out taller, healthier, and shapelier than their mothers. Im the mother of a healthy, shapely young woman, and I couldnt be prouder even although I had next to nothing to do with it.
About the author: Nellie Sabin is an editor and writer who has published ten books on a variety of subjects.
Are you wearing a different bra size than in the past? Comment below.