Leslie Lehr knows boobs. She’s the author of A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me—and You, a 2021 memoir (and soon-to-be HBO Max series co-executive-produced by Salma Hayek) that examines American society’s ever-adapting treatment of breasts. She has also grappled with her own changing anatomy, going from breastfeeding to breast implants to breast cancer. So she knows firsthand how difficult shopping for comfortable and well-fitting bras can be.
Lehr’s funny and at times heartbreaking book chronicles American history—and her own—through the lens of breasts, from the intersecting rise of Playboy and bra burning in the 1960s (which transpired during her adolescence), to the film industry’s treatment of breasts as she tried to work in the field while juggling breastfeeding and motherhood, to the process of undergoing breast augmentation and, later, treatment for breast cancer.
We spoke with Lehr about changing breasts, inconsistent (and often exclusive) bra sizing, shopping online, and other factors that can make bra buying fraught. We’ve condensed and edited the interview for clarity.
You note that you’ve worn cup sizes from AA to DDD. How has your process of bra shopping changed over time?
First I was so small, they didn’t carry my size. It was all about covering the nipples, and I remember how embarrassing it was when I was little, using a Band-Aid, you know, to cover my nipples. And, now, it’s weird to ask for such a [comparatively] big size.
Speaking of bra sizes, you mention in your book that 80% of bra wearers don’t know their true bra size. What is going on there?
Bras are so hard to fit, and no companies offer the same fit as any other companies. You know, you could be As, Bs, or Cs in a lot of different brands because they’re so completely different. They didn’t even have cup sizes until the mid–20th century. And that was a big deal. I kept switching my bra size even in my book. I wondered, “Well, should I say quadruple D because I have bras in those sizes, but it’s usually a triple D?” It depends on which brand it is, and I can wear both cup sizes. So bras are a huge challenge. But I’m glad that more women are making bras now and bras are coming in more color choices.
How many bras do you own?
Honestly, I just counted up my bras: I have 26. And I have this statistic in my book that says most women have eight bras. Good bras, they can start at like 60 bucks. But I keep them because they’re expensive. I have all these beautiful, really pretty ones that I don’t wear. Mostly I wear practical ones.
What about shopping for bras online?
I have not gone into a store at all since the pandemic. And it’s kind of trial and error ordering things online. I did that long quiz [from bra maker ThirdLove, which sells one of Wirecutter’s picks], and then you order one, and it’s not quite right. You’re not sure which you are, like, “I’m to the side but I’m kind of uneven,” and blah, blah, blah. It seems really smart, but then most people fall into more than one category, so you still have to frickin’ try them on and [possibly] return them. [It’s just better] to go in and have somebody there who knows how they’re supposed to fit.
Another one that I like, True & Co. [which makes Wirecutter’s favorite pushup bra], they have on their size charts “small,” “medium,” and “large,” and it’s hard to know when ordering online: Am I a triple D or a quadruple D, and then 32 or 33? Am I a medium or am I a small, you know, because my boobs are bigger but my back is smaller. You have to try them on. So it’s a tricky thing.
We all know that we’re supposed to hand-wash and air-dry our bras, but that can be super annoying. Be honest: Do you?
I put them in the washing machine on the delicate cycle. But if they have lace on them, I do put them in a lingerie bag. And I definitely air-dry them.
In the book, you describe the humor and frustration of going bra shopping with your mother. How do you approach bra shopping with your own daughters?
It’s a family legacy: My mom wanted me to have a nice bra, and so I want my daughters to have a nice bra. And I hope they want their daughters to have a nice bra. It just seems like a rite of passage, and also like a gift where you can do something more special than just a cheap basic thing because it is about identity. Even if [the bra] isn’t necessarily ever going to be seen by anyone else … still it can really make you feel beautiful.
In your youth you were an avid gymnast and swimmer, and now you’re a hiker and yogi. How have sports bras changed in that period? What do you look for when shopping for them?
“Jock bras” were invented right after I graduated high school. Before that I used to wear my mom’s bras under my leotard [before buying my own], and it was a hassle to get your straps secured so they wouldn’t fall down and they wouldn’t show. So having a sports bra was just a huge deal. But they started out so tight, really uncomfortable and hard to breathe in.
Now there are so many sports bras out there that honestly it is dizzying. But they are hard to try on, because they’re tight going on and off. After surgery for breast cancer, I got these bras with a zipper in front, and they’re really old but I love them because they’re so easy to take on and off.
How do you keep bra shopping from being a chore? How do you make it fun?
You have to make it not the only thing that you are doing! Because it is a chore. It’s not like you can just run in and buy a bra. It’s going to take time, and you have to give yourself some sort of reward. I think that’s why it’s important to not just get a sturdy bra; I almost always will at least buy myself a great pair of panties, too.
Breasts do these amazing things, and they go through all these changes in our lives. Most women go through all these different sizes in their lifetimes. Bra shopping should be something that makes us feel great not just as women but as adults with power. So it should be a fun thing. We should be able to collect ones that make us feel beautiful, as well as the practical ones. It should be the kind of experience where it’s a celebration of your body—an empowering experience and not just an errand.