Breast Tissue Migration: Fact or Fiction?

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Recently, a bra blogger asked if a particular fit problem could be attributed to breast tissue migration.   That question prompted me to research the topic, because we owe it to our customers to understand the fit issues being discussed in the world.

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via Lingerie Briefs

Breast tissue migration has not been covered in my online bra fit school for professionals, The FabFit Academy, because I didn’t previously have an informed opinion on the topic.   After speaking with both the bra blogging community and the medical community, I have a better understanding of what breast tissue migration is (and isn’t) and how it affects the subject that is the core of your business as a lingerie retailer, namely, how bras fit.

Breast tissue migration seems to be most commonly defined as “breast tissue that is semi-permanently redistributed to the armpit and/or back area, as the result of an ill-fitting bra.” Overall, the argument is that wearing a properly fitting bra over a period of weeks or months will redistribute breast tissue from its migrated position to its natural home in the “cup” area of the breast and, by extension, the bra.

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via Lingerie Briefs

The origin of the breast tissue migration theory seems to stem from Polish bra bloggers.   The earliest reference I found was from the Venusian Glow blog in September 2009.   The blog post states that, “the breasts sneak out of the too-small cups into the armpit area.   Presto! Instant armpit rolls! Very often, migration doesn’t stop here. Breast tissue, unchecked by the loose band, wanders further away”¦and ends up as back rolls.”  Venusian Glow author Eternal Voyageur  shared that the phenomenon is widely discussed in Polish bra blogging circles.   She directed me to a Polish blog (also from 2009) that walks through the breast tissue migration phenomenon.

Since these blog posts, American bra bloggers and many consumers have shared robust support for the theory.

My understanding is that breast tissue migration suggests three components, all of which must exist in order to prove the theory.

1)         An ill-fitting bra can cause breast tissue to spill into non-cup areas of the body
2)         This “spillage” can go a) toward the armpit/underarm areas and/or  b) find its way to a woman’s back
3)         The effect is actually a semi-permanent migration, reversed only by wearing a properly fitting bra for
several weeks.

Let’s break these claims down, one by one:

Claim #1: An ill-fitting bra can cause breast tissue to spill into non-cup areas of the body

This notion makes perfect sense.   When a bra cup is too small, the excess breast tissue has to go somewhere.   After all, it boils down to basic scientific principles.   If you are trying to put more units of volume into a container that is too small, there will be overflow.   In this case, breasts encased in a too-small cup will spill into a variety of places, including the underarm.

Claim #2: Spillage can go toward the armpit/underarm area

According to Rebecca Kaltman, MD Oncologist at George Washington University, there is a biological basis for seeing breast tissue under the armpit area.   Says Kaltman, “Under normal conditions, breast tissue extends up toward the axilla (the under arm) and is called the \’Axillary Tail of Spence.’  This is not \’migrated breast tissue,’ just actual breast tissue that extends beyond where most people feel the breast tissue might go.” So claim #2a seems to pass the sniff test, as well, since it’s reasonable to find breast tissue under the armpit and in the fold between the shoulder and the chest wall.

breast tail of spence

Let’s look at claim #2b, the notion that rolls on the back are actually breast tissue.   A look at the photos in the Venusian Glow blog post from 2009, reveals some excellent  examples of ways that bra fit itself can impact bodily appearance.   A band that’s too loose can ride up, pushing the flesh on the back into rolls that appear to be “back fat.”   It’s the fit that creates the unflattering look.   (photos via  Venusian Glow)

via venusian glow

via venusian glow

via Venusian Glow

via Venusian Glow

This back flesh is not breast tissue, migrated or otherwise.   There is simply no biological basis for breast tissue to travel to the areas of the back indicated in these photos.   A properly fitting bra can alter the appearance of back flesh, but does not redistribute it in any real sense of the word.

Claim #3: Breast Tissue Migration is actually a semi-permanent migration

The crux of the breast tissue migration theory is that the movement is a physical manifestation from years of wearing ill-fitting bras.  The bra blogger community’s, “proof for [breast tissue migration] is that when women get their first perfectly-fitting bras and are taught to regularly scoop and swoop, often after a few weeks they need to go up a cup size. Obviously new bras don’t make breasts grow, so the only explanation is that the migrated tissue has returned to the cup,” according to Eternal Voyageur.

Elisabeth Dale, breast expert and Founder of The Breast Life, is skeptical.   “If a bra could, by way of lifting, improve our breasts, then why would any woman ever have a lift?   A bra can’t do much but make you look better in your clothes. And any woman who has worn a push-up or padded one knows it’s all an optical illusion.”

Dale’s observation raises an excellent point.   If an improperly fitting bra creates a negative effect, then the biology should work both ways.   If breast tissue is “moldable,” it would seem to suggest that we could migrate breast tissue up and in after wearing a push up bra for an extended period of time.   Or make the breasts pointy by wearing a bullet bra.   But nobody is making that argument about breast tissue.

One caveat from the medical side is an observation from Plastic Surgeon Byron Poindexter, of Austin Weston Center for Cosmetic Surgery in Virginia, “from the surgical perspective we can see patients after surgery that are in a more \’moldable’ state and garments or clothing that they wear after surgery can have a more permanent effect on their shape.   But these patients have had a temporary disruption of the normal skin and fat structures that hold us all together that allows this to happen.”

When asked about the idea of other, unaltered breast tissue behaving in the same way, Dr. Poindexter unequivocally does not see it as a possibility .   “I do see patients who have concerns of \’hangover’ of  tissue in the armpit area, or on the back,” says Dr. Poindexter. “This is not breast tissue that has been permanently pushed there. Rather, it is breast tissue or fat that is naturally there that may be temporarily exaggerated due to and while wearing garments like poor-fitting bras.  I am not aware of any evidence to support this type of ‘migration.’  It also doesn’t really fit with what we know about the breast anatomically or how it changes through time.   We would love it if there were a way to utilize a garment to permanently restructure an area, but it just doesn’t happen. Breast tissue really just wants to go one way, and that is down where gravity is pulling it.  If an ill-fitting bra worked to migrate tissue out into an armpit, then a good fitting one would be able to migrate it up and keep it on the chest.

In summary, the medical community and the bra blogger community disagree about the existence of breast tissue migration as a semi-permanent manifestation of wearing an ill-fitting bra

After having thought about the topic for an extended period of time, there are aspects of the breast tissue migration theory that are troubling.   The theory – and several of the bra blog posts I’ve seen on the topic – seems to suggest that women should have no armpit flesh or bulges in any location near their bra. That seems like an unrealistically high standard with too much potential for body shaming.  Women already suffer from body image issues.  The byproduct of believing in breast tissue migration could end up exacerbating the problem.

There are simply too many differences in women from body to body.  I have seen plenty of women who wear properly fitting bras and who also have some extra flesh in the armpit region.  If we send the message that bras “should” reverse what biology decrees, do we run the risk of undermining both women’s self-confidence and our own mission as fitters?

What’s your take on breast tissue migration?


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