Of bras and breasts 

Do bras really keep breasts from sagging as you get older? -Curious

Oh, bras probably do something. It's just that nobody can agree on what it is. I won't pretend to have the definitive answer, but here's what we've established so far:

(1) The medical term for breast sagging is breast ptosis. One often hears that "the French have a word for it," "it" being any inscrutable aspect of daily life. However, if the French ever get stumped, ask a doctor.

(2) The upper and lateral portion of the breast, as long as we're working on our vocabulary, is known as the tail of Spence. This is an extremely difficult fact to work into ordinary conversation.

(3) There is, so far as your columnist can discover, zero evidence that bras prevent saggy breasts. My assistant scoured the journals and turned up nothing.

(4) Bras originated in 1863 as an alternative to corsets. The purpose of corsets was to squeeze a woman's body into something more closely resembling the 19th-century ideal of beauty, which had the unfortunate side effect of making it impossible to breathe. One may argue that bras are likewise intended to enhance the female figure but in a less drastic manner.

(5) Be that as it may, bras have always been touted for their health benefits, and given that they chased out corsets, who can argue? The original patent application for a bra, submitted by Luman Chapman, asserts that his breast supporter helps avoid "injuries to the breasts and abdomen." By 1927 bra makers were claiming their products supported "drooping busts" and strengthened "weakened tissues." A 1952 article in Parents magazine, which offers the bizarre suggestion that one should periodically trace the silhouette of one's daughter's breasts to gauge their development, also exhorts parents to get their girls training bras at the first sign of puberty lest the poor kids' breasts drop.

(6) Bra manufacturers don't necessarily believe their products prevent sagging. In a 2000 article in the Independent we find John Dixey, chief executive of Playtex, agreeing with surgery professor Robert Mansell. Mansell: Sagging is "a function of the weight, often of heavy breasts, and these women are wearing bras and it doesn't prevent it." Dixey: "We have no medical evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging, because the breast itself is not muscle so keeping it toned up is an impossibility." Others have greater faith. In a 1990 Runner's World article, biomechanics researcher LaJean Lawson compares the bouncing of breasts during running to the stretching that occurs when a woman "wears heavy earrings all the time" and recommends sports bras during exercise.

(7) We do have some scientific evidence that sports bras are a good idea, though for reasons having little to do with sagging. For a 1999 article in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Mason et al had women exercise at varying degrees of strenuousness while wearing different types of bra or no top at all; the subjects reported much less breast pain when clad in a sports bra.

(8) I don't dispute that many if not most women need breast support while exercising and that large-breasted and lactating women need support just for walking around. The question is whether a nonpregnant, nonlactating woman of average endowment needs to wear a bra routinely. Women's breasts, even small ones, clearly sag over time, and it's not hard to believe the steady tug of gravity partly explains why. (Other factors: significant weight loss, postpartum atrophy, and postmenopausal involution.)

(9) Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. I'd suggest bras are primarily a tool of fashion: they give women an approximation of the idealized female shape plus some control over jiggle, cleavage, and nipple protrusion-the undeniable fact being that most people look better, and feel more comfortable, with clothes on than with them off.


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Cecil Adams

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