Bravo for the Brassiere

Does wearing a bra cause cancer? Does it make your breasts more likely to sag rather than preventing it? As preposterous as these questions may seem, where the topics of breasts, women’s health, and body image intersect, you can count on speculation masquerading as science to connect the dots. It’s all hokum; wearing a bra is more likely to be beneficial than harmful.


Here’s an example: One recent blogger, in a piece titled something like “scientists advise women to stop wearing bras” asserted that “findings have been made that at least associate excessive bra wear to non-malignant breast fibrocystic disease as well as malignant breast cancer.” As evidence the writer cites the 1995 book Dressed to Kill by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer. In a survey of 5,000 women, they “discovered that women who wore bras for 12 hours or more greatly increased breast cancer risk than women who wore bras less.”


The authors of the book (who are anthropologists, not doctors or cancer researchers) have never published their data in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, which is a huge red flag. Evidence in fact proves the opposite: A large 2014 study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that “No aspect of bra wearing, including bra cup size, … average number of hours/day worn, wearing a bra with an underwire, or age first began regularly wearing a bra” was associated with risk of breast cancer. What’s amazing is that the myth about bras and cancer still has legs 20 years on.


Another fable that won’t die is that wearing a bra makes sagging more likely. “It’s been observed that using artificial breast support long enough will cause the breasts’ cup-shaped suspensory Cooper’s ligaments to atrophy, allowing the breasts to sag over time” according to the same blogger (who is also BTW not a scientist.) Instead, he suggests “exercises that strengthen pectoral muscles can be helpful” without offering a scrap of proof. (Then there was the “Botox breast lift,” which was supposed to lift the breasts by relaxing the pectoral muscle – also nonsense.)


But he’s not alone; a while back CBS news reported that “Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a sports medicine specialist from France, published a study … that shows that wearing bras may not prevent women’s breasts from sagging, and may in fact increase it.” First problem? No such study has been published; the story was based on an interview the professor gave to a student radio station. Second problem: although the “study” had reportedly been ongoing for 15 years, none of the subjects were older than 35. Additionally, there was no reference to breast size, prior pregnancies, hormone use (e.g., birth control), or any of the other factors that influence breast shape and perkiness. And no control group, meaning that the statistics are meaningless. So really all the professor was doing was measuring and cataloging a lot of young women’s breasts and encouraging them to go braless. Not a bad gig, but not exactly science either.

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