Shana MacLean’s search for the legendary B-52 had nothing to do with the aerospace industry or nuclear bombs.
And sometimes she doubted the thing’s very existence.
Nevertheless, like heroines of old, she quested after the prize without knowing exactly what awaited her — would it shimmer in dark silken red, or camouflage itself, blending with skin in delicately laced flesh-tones?
MacLean sought a bra.
But not just any bra. A rare, highly coveted bra.
A bra for the ages … a B-52.
See, MacLean is an expert fitter.
And, like many tireless professionals, she triumphed.
“A couple of ladies came to me desperate for bras because they couldn’t find any bigger bras in town,” she said.
“The very first bra search was for a B-52; I finally found one two years ago,” she said with a laugh.
For those unfamiliar with the arithmetic of cloth and wire, B refers to the size of the cup that holds each breast, while 52 refers to the size of the band that pins the bra to the rib cage.
In the racks of brightly coloured bras in a clothing store, the gamut of normal sizes generally range about from B to D in cup size, and 34 to 38 in band width, said MacLean.
The further a woman’s body size strays from either end of these dimensions, the more difficult it is to find the perfect fit.
The women searching for the B-52s could find nothing wider than 38, said MacLean.
“No wonder they were very uncomfortable and hated having to put this torture device on every day.”
However, most women who fall roundly within the first four letters of the alphabet, are also sporting unfit undergarments.
Eighty-five per cent of women wear bras that don’t fit, said MacLean.
“We, as a (North American) civilization, grow up that way … We go into a department store and into the fitting room, usually by ourselves, and mom hands us something through the curtain and says, ‘How does it feel?’” she said.
“Well, how are we supposed to know?”
How did finding the right under-wire become such a challenge?
Bra-fitters have gone the way of the milkman and the cobbler.
And women have not learned the tricks to find the cup that fits.
“If we take that back 20 years, you definitely would never leave the shop without getting some little white-haired old lady coming in,” said MacLean.
But 85 per cent wearing ill-fitting bras? That sounded high.
So we put it to the test.
In a large, curtained-off change room, a full-length mirror hanging on the wall, I stripped off my top.
My whole life I’ve been an A-34.
My whole life I’ve been buying the wrong bra — like, say, 85 per cent of women.
I am, in fact, a B-32.
I considered challenging the professional’s expertise, but that faded quickly enough.
Within seconds, MacLean noticed my spine wasn’t straight — curving as it does in an S-shape — a condition that took my family doctor the better part of my teen years to identify.
The right fit is important for comfort, especially for women who wear bras on a daily basis, said MacLean.
Strapping into a silky brassiere that doesn’t offer support in the right places, can also exacerbate health problems, said MacLean.
It can be a pain in the neck, literally. An ill-fitting garment can damage tissue, provoke migraines and wreck your posture.
For large-breasted women, carrying the that weight on their shoulders can lead to serious muscular pain, said MacLean.
“You can get sore shoulders, you can get upper back and neck pain,” she said.
The majority of women wear the weight of their breasts on their shoulder straps, when it should rest on the band around the rib cage.
“Then women start stooping and leaning forward so you have a structural body problem,” she said.
Reducing pressure on the shoulders also reduces headaches and migraines, said MacLean.
“We’ve got muscles that are on the top of the shoulder and they run, literally, up the neck and come over the top of the head.”
A bra that pokes, prods or pushes the breasts in the wrong way, can also cause tissue damage and reduce circulation.
One of MacLean’s favourite fitting stories took place last summer when two athletes came into her boutique.
One was a curler and the other was a softball player, and MacLean fitted each with a bra.
“They came back the next week, after a tournament, and all of their scores had gone up,” she said with a laugh.
“From a structural point of view, your bra is an external device that really is functional — it’s not just pretty.”
That’s where MacLean lives out her working days, in the place where function and comfort meet.
“My basic goal with a lot of women is to allow them to go home and not think about, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot wait to get my bra off,’” she said from her boutique.
“Lots of women, as soon as they get home, rip their bras off and go braless for the rest of the night. Because they’ve been in agony all day long.”
The record number of bras MacLean has seen tossed into the trash in a single day, is six.
How does MacLean know so much about healthy breasts and fitting bras?
It was an epiphany. A moment knowing, in an inexplicable sort of way, that she had found her calling as a post-mastectomy fitter.
“I was in a local home medical equipment store here, and the fellow who was in there showed me a breast form that had nodes in it.
“The environment was not very pleasant to be in and he wasn’t very pleasant. I thought, how terrible that women have to come here to him.”
After that, MacLean saw her future course, and spent the following eight years executing her plan.
In 1998, along with her husband James Black, MacLean opened Alpine Health Supplies and Services.
Two years later, she started fitting women with bras, specializing in post-mastectomy breast forms and bras.
Alpine’s Bra Boutique, which operates inside the health supplies store, currently houses MacLean’s array of specialized undergarments.
Anatomy and symmetry were two areas MacLean studied when she traveled to Toronto in 2000 to become a certified post-mastectomy fitter.
“Our bodies are very symmetrical, even in our faces,” she said.
“We’ve got one eye on each side of our head, everything that’s single comes down the centre. So, when you go and remove something off your body, it has weight to it that you must balance.”
This is one of the reasons it is important for women who suffer from breast cancer, and need to undergo a mastectomy, to wear a weighted breast form afterwards, MacLean said.
“The body is built to support itself. When part of it is missing it just doesn’t deal with it well.”
So, MacLean is making a living by helping the territory’s women through what can be a painful and difficult transition.
The spacious fitting room is large enough for MacLean, the woman she’s fitting, as well as a partner, a friend or a daughter.
Perhaps counter-intuitively the atmosphere inside the fitting room is often light-hearted, MacLean added.
“We’ve had a lot of laughter,” she said. “Yukon women have such a positive emotional state, most of the time, that there’s a lot of laughter that comes out of the fitting room.
“Yukon women are different, they’re just really different.”