Friday Weird Science: Are Boobs Better Braless?

May 10 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

I'm sure many of you saw the news going around a few weeks ago. Bras make breasts sag!! The French debate the bra! Etc etc. Of course, I immediately wanted to blog it! I mean, bras! Boobs! That's Friday Weird Science material!

And so I set out looking for the study. Until I realized...there was no study. This is an example of what we like to call "science by press release". However flawed one may feel about the peer-review system in academia*, it's definitely important that SOMEONE be able to see the data and find the potential flaws (or, possibly, back you up in how awesome your science is) that are making the study sag (as it were). The science we are about to talk about? Has not been published yet. It is preliminary. The lead author has in fact been bemused by all the media attention (dude, you study boobs, you didn't think we'd just walk BY, did you?), and has stated that he's withholding final judgement until the paper is out.

Rouillon told Reuters that his unpublished work is still in the early stages and he is hesitant about giving one-size-fits-all advice to women, despite the media circus.

But it is not required that science pass peer review before its reported on (heck, there would be no scientific reporting at science conferences if that was the case). So while the science reported may well be...full-figured enough to pass muster, until they DO report it, it's good to keep in mind that it's preliminary.  This means that we only have bits and pieces of the data, and so drawing any conclusions is going to be premature. It's a good idea to keep in mind, honestly, that all science will probably be replaced by better science over time, but stuff that isn't out yet (and on which we have no real details), deserves extra fish-eye.

So. Eyes up here, friends.

Boobs. Made of mostly glands and fatty tissue, there's really...not a lot of structure in there.


(You see what I mean. Source)

There are a couple of areas of fibrous tissue (Coopers ligaments), but those, the pectoral muscles, and the tightness of the skin around it, are basically the only things holding the breast pert.

When you're young, obviously, this isn't an issue. But as you get older (or as your breasts get larger), the ligaments will become stretched, and will lose some of their elasticity. This means the breasts become less able to defy gravity, and you therefore get droopage.

Droopage (that's the technical term) is not in itself a problem. Sag happens, and your breasts are not any less functional than they were before. The only issue with this is that of aesthetics. We don't think sag looks good. This could be because we all want to look young and breast perk = young, and this view is certainly exacerbated by our current culture full of push up bras and breast lifts. But no matter why we feel the way we do, boob sag is a sad sag (in our culture, anyway), and women spend a lot of time worrying about it.

Enter the bra. Bras (or ideas preceeding them) date back all the way to ancient Greece, but the purpose is usually support. Not necessarily because of aesthetics, but because having sacks of fat and glands on the front of your chest...can get wearisome. Especially if they are large and heavy. And so over time, bras (preceeded by basic flattening structures and garments like the corset) have developed to do things like support the breasts, relieve back pain (though there isn't a lot of evidence as to whether or not this works), and of course, give you the look of a woman in a lingerie catalog (if so desired). After all, even if bras don't prevent the breasts from sagging, when the bra is on...would you know?

But the question is: is it BETTER to wear a bra? To this end, Jean-Denis Rouillon (and someone who I believe is associated with him, Laetitia Pierrot) has been looking at a lot of boobs. For science. Like you do.

I'm not sure whether the original investigation was all about boob sag or back pain and bra wearing (various media coverage includes both, but again, there's no paper, so I can't be sure), but the preliminary data so far has followed 320 women, ages 18-35, some of whom went braless for a year. During this time, they had their breasts measured with calipers, and Rouillon's preliminary reports report an average INCREASE in perk by 7mm in the braless women.

7mm. That's around 1/4 inch. So not much. Of course, this is average, and we don't know what the variability looks like (again, no paper). With a change in perk that small...I honestly wonder if it's even going to be significant, even if you do have 320 women in the study. But this (and the testimony of the one woman they found to give testimony about how great being braless was) was plenty to make people wonder if boobs are best when bouncing, if bras are generally bad, and other things beginning with B.

And who knows? It could be true. We could end up with perkier puppies if we go braless. But until I see the paper, allowing me to see the extent of the changes (and possible reasons as to why they take place), I'm not burning my bras yet.

And it's possible that it'd be too late for many of us anyway. You'll notice that the study was conducted in young women. The author himself notes that after a couple of kids and in your 40s? Probably not going to do any good.

It's also a question of whether or not bra wearing is actually HARMFUL. Wearing a bra that is ill-fitting or induced WAY too much lift can indeed be harmful, but is a good fitting bra on its own a bad thing? Does it really matter if there's more sag?

It makes me wonder though, what part of not wearing the bra helped? Is there increased pectoral musculature and increased elasticity of the Copper's ligaments, as the researchers have hypothesized? The idea is that the ligaments will be strengthened with natural bouncing. More bouncing, more spring, and so the ligaments stay strong. In contrast, in the presence of a bra, the ligaments have no work to do, and if you don't use it, you lose it, and the ligaments and pectoral muscles could become weak, resulting in funbag sag.

If that's the case, then you might expect women who have stronger pectoral muscles (such as, say, women who weight lift or do other athletics) would have less sag for their age than the average, and the pectoral strength might make up for the ligament weakness. I would be interested to see those women compared, and then comparing atheletic vs non-athletic women in the absence of a bra, or perhaps to compare women who specifically work their pectorals (perhaps with a training program), vs women who don't.

I would also like to note: there are a lot of things about this study that we DON'T KNOW. We know how old the women are, and how many of them there were. We do not know some rather important things, though. We don't know their average cup size! Which can have a pretty big effect on how much your sweater puppies suffer from gravity. I assume they split women evenly in the groups so that all cup sizes were evenly represented...but again, we don't have the data and we don't know. We don't know whether these women were athletic, and therefore how strong the underlying musculature might have been.

We don't know how variable the increase was. I've seen the quote "1/4-inch (7-millimeter)" in terms of RISING. But what is this compared to. Their baseline nipple height? The average nipple sinking of the bra-wearing peers?

We also don't know why the nipples on the braless women ROSE (if indeed they rose, or if they just didn't sink). There might be increase ligament strength, but there also might be other factors. Breasts, for example, change shape pretty drastically in response to life changes, like having children. And over the 15 year period in this study, I'll bet a LOT of these women will be having (or already have had) children. Were the braless and...braful (?) groups any different in this regard? Will something like childbirth and the accompanying changes as this group goes along completely eclipse that 1/4 inch of perk?

So while it's an interesting question, I'm withholding final judgement until I see the paper. And if it makes no difference in terms of harm, it may well be that going braless for perk will remain a personal choice. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing the study, on what will no doubt remain a titular topic. You see what I did there.


*For those outside of academia, the vast majority of scientific journals require peer review prior to publication. This means, when you send the paper to a journal, the journal picks some other scientists (usually around three), that are in or closely related to the field. The peer reviewers then take that manuscript and run it over with a fine-toothed comb, finding everything from major scientific issues (say, the interpretation of the results doesn't match what you actually found, or maybe you did the wrong statistical test, or that you're lacking some major experiment to prove your point), to problems with your use of that/which distinction. They then hand the paper back to the journal editor with their comments, and the suggestion of whether to accept, reject, or make you change big parts of the paper. It's not a perfect system, but it's the best we have for making sure that the science getting out there is, well, scientific. And I can say that my papers have always been improved by peer review (thus far).

15 responses so far

  • Jenny D says:

    I can tell you one thing without seeing the base data: The athletic women are way more likely to wear a well-fitting bra, especially the ones with larger cup size. That's because having the breasts bounce e.g. during a run, or a workout, or a horse ride, is actually physically painful, and more so the larger the breasts are.

    • scicurious says:

      I actually don't know if that's true. Athletic women may wear a well fitting bra DURING A WORKOUT, but how does a sports bra differ here? And would they wear a better bra just walking around? I doubt it.

      • RowanVT says:

        Even in a normal, well-fitting bra you get some 'bouncing' when doing something like jogging/running and the straps can begin to loosen during such physical activity. Sports bras don't have the adjustable strap component for the most part, and often compress rather than just support. This prevents 'the girls' from trying to go in a different direction from the rest of the body.

      • Jenny D says:

        I'm taking athletic to mean "engages in athletics for a significant amount of time each week", meaning that at least during that time they're more likely to have a well-fitting (and, depending on sport, compressing) bra. As a horse rider, I spend roughly thirty hours a week at the stables, during which time I always wear a good sports bra, with adjustable bands and strong support as well as some compression. Having known the comfort of a good well-fitting bra in those circumstances I'm not willing to forgo it at other times either, so even when not working with horses the bra I wear is well-fitted and comfortable. I've heard the same from other women who are engaged in sports, though I'll grant that this is "anecdata".

  • David Ropeik says:

    Such delightful, and erudite, AND informative, writing. Wonderful. As always

  • Sara W says:

    This is so great - thanks for making my morning (at work) that much bouncier!

  • So glad you're covering this! I tried, but stopped when the trail of clues ran out. It was very short. No paper, and author didn't return my English-language email. I did learn some French words that were definitely not in the vocabulary lessons in high school. "Mamulon" for one.

    Here's an interesting tidbit: the study subject quoted in a few of the articles is an elite orienteering athlete named Capucine Vercelotti. (You can google her.) She RAN without a bra for two years as part of the study, and said it felt weird at first but was then totally normal. She seems (and I hate to sit across an ocean from somebody and comment on their boobs, but here goes) to be an A or maybe B cup.

    Since Rouillon is affiliated with a sports science department, I wonder if this is at least partially about boob bouncing in the context of sports, and running, and runners/athletes. Which is a super interesting question I think...

  • I'm just thrilled that I can read about boobs on a Friday afternoon and put the timet down on my timesheet. Fascinating!

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I read this and all I can think is ouch and extra ouch. I'll definitely be interested to see the size distribution once the manuscript is published.

  • Me says:


  • Jamona Ham says:

    And people wonder why I want to be a physiologist... I want to research new and fascinating facts about the human body and when I do I'll be dyin' to get it off my chest...

  • […] This week, we’re discussing the function, evolution and complicated social norms attached to the human female breast. Guest host Rachelle Saunders talks to freelance health and science journalist Florence Williams, about her New York Times notable book  Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. And researcher and blogger Scicurious returns to discuss the work of a French researcher who claims that wearing a bra can harm, rather than help, attempts to ward of the effects of gravity. […]

  • Michelle says:

    Wonderful article. I'd like to see women who have breastfed thrown into the study mix because anybody who has done that knows it's a workout both feeding and storing all that milk. Does it make a woman's muscles stronger to have working/feeding breasts? And then, in the aftermath, saggier, a la retired line backer whose chest has become a big belly? Fashion and saggy breasts here

  • […] Then there’s the Bargaining stage. We want bigger boobs, smaller boobs, longer legs, a higher ass, no ass at all. We wear snow-cone bras to “lift and separate,” sport bras to bind us, then push-up bras for cleavage. During the braless years, if our boobs were large enough to hold a pencil tucked under them, braless was good. Or maybe it was not good…I forget. No one knew what size pencil to use anyway (yellow Ticonderoga No. 2??) so we did the test with a 12-pack of BICs and then wore what we wanted. (For more on funbag sag go here […]

  • […] Then there’s the Bargaining stage. We want bigger boobs, smaller boobs, longer legs, a higher ass, no ass at all. We wear snow-cone bras to “lift and separate,” sport bras to bind us, then push-up bras for cleavage. During the braless years, if our boobs were large enough to hold a pencil tucked under them, braless was good. Or maybe it was not good…I forget. No one knew what size pencil to use anyway (yellow Ticonderoga No. 2??) so we did the test with a 12-pack of BICs and then wore what we wanted. (For more on funbag sag go here […]

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