Why the British Woman's Cleavage Has Gone From 34B to 36C in a Decade
Whether concealed in lace or held firmly under wraps in no – nonsense Lycra, the fact that can no longer be hidden is that British breasts are getting bigger. In less than ten years the average bra size has grown from a 34B to 36C.
Marks & Spencer say a quarter of all its bras sold are a D cup or above – a figure which has doubled in three years. And, in response to customer demand, its range, which used to end with a G cup, now goes up to a J. Lingerie company Bravissimo has even introduced three different K cup bras.
It would be easy to blame this on an increase in cosmetic surgery; breast implants remain the most popular procedure and about 10,000 British women underwent the operation in 2007.
Yet, according to experts, from dieticians to gynecologists, the reasons why our breasts are getting bigger are complex and range from obesity to hormones, and alcohol to environmental factors.
And that in this instance size does matter because there is a direct connection with the health of our breasts and of our bodies as a whole.
Nutritionist Marilyn Glenville admits seeing clients who have gone up a cup size after being put on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by their GPs to help them cope with the menopause.
This, she believes, is because breast tissue is being encouraged to grow by the 'injection' of unusually high levels of oestrogen into the body from the HRT. A harmless side-effect of beating the menopause? Probably not.
The female breast contains cells called oestrogen receptors which are stimulated by the presence of oestrogen into producing more mammary tissue.
While this could mean a simple increase in size, it is also possible that stimulating these cells artificially after the menopause – when natural oestrogen levels drop – could contribute towards breast cancer.
"Putting women on HRT is giving the body oestrogen at a stage when it would not normally have it," says Glenville. "The more exposure we have, the more likely we are to get breast cancer."
According to Cancer Research UK, approximately 70 per cent of breast cancers are oestrogen-driven. And according to its website: "The bottom line is that HRT does increase breast cancer risk."
Glenville points to other major lifestyle changes that also increase how much oestrogen is flooding the body, leading to larger breasts and also an increased risk of cancer.
"Our daughters are reaching puberty earlier – sometimes as young as eight. This means they will have much more exposure to oestrogen in their lifetimes.
"Women are also having fewer children so the body is exposed to higher levels of oestrogen in the long term, as during pregnancy and breastfeeding oestrogen levels in the body are lower."
Consultant gynecologist Peter Bowen-Simpkins, medical director of the London Women's Clinic and spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agrees that theoretically hormones could be involved in this change in the female shape.
"If men took oestrogen as they used to in the early days of treating prostate cancer, they developed noticeably larger breasts."
Yet he does not think the levels of artificial hormones that women take now are enough to make a significant contribution to breast size.
So if it is not all down to deliberately consuming hormones as part of a medical regime, could it be 'false' hormones affecting our body via the environment?
Xeno-oestrogens are chemicals from pesticides or plastics that mimic the effect of oestrogen and are fat-soluble so store themselves in the body. In our highly processed society, xeno-oestrogens are found everywhere from food to cosmetics and scientists are unsure how dangerous they are.
According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), there are serious environmental concerns about the way these artificial hormones are affecting our health, wildlife and the food chain as a whole.
But it is not just a case of banning every chemical that comes along. A spokesperson for Defra says: "Many substances, including common ones such as water, salt and alcohol, can cause changes to hormone systems. A ban on the basis that something has this property could deprive society of many useful chemicals."
Marilyn Glenville says: "We are talking about a cocktail of toxins so it's hard to pinpoint what is going wrong. But many products, from lipsticks to tampons to spermicides, contain xeno-oestrogens – and we are applying them directly to our bodies.
"We know these chemicals will be having some impact on men, but on women it is more physically obvious."
While science debates the effect of these toxic chemicals, there is one reason for increased breast size which is undeniable. Obesity is a major problem in the UK; according to the Medical Research Council, 50 per cent of adults are overweight, with 20 per cent classified as obese.
Professor Michael Baum, an expert in breast cancer, thinks this is the main reason for the increase in bust size. "Fat is laid down on breasts as much as thighs or bottoms," he says, "and we are in an epidemic of obesity. It isn't surprising women's measurements have increased."
Before you go on a diet, though, Glenville recommends you look at your body-fat percentage. "Are you over-fat or over-weight?" she asks. "Breast tissue is adipose or fatty, that's why weight gain shows up so quickly there. To lose weight from your bust you need to lower your sugar intake and eat less processed food as this will keep your blood sugar level stable so you can burn fat."
Conversely, high sugar foods force the body to increase its insulin output. Too much insulin helps your body to store energy as fat and makes it more difficult for your body to break down those fat stores when you try to lose weight.
This gives us another clue to increasing bra size: alcohol. "We are raising a generation of ladettes who don't care about how many units they consume," says Glenville.
"Alcohol is full of sugars that will elevate your blood sugars and cause them to release unstable levels of insulin. It also has a toxic effect on liver function. This means oestrogen and other hormones can end up being recirculated around the body and perhaps reabsorbed instead of being broken down in the liver, if that organ has been damaged by too much alcohol."
But there are two more positive reasons why the British breast size has increased. "More women are taking up aerobic exercise and building up their pectoral muscles, which can affect cup size," says a Marks & Spencer spokesman.
And, reassuringly, having larger breasts could be the key to a longer life as it is a sign of improving nutrition levels in children. We have bigger breasts, it seems, than our forebears simply because we are healthier and stronger.
So before you feel envious about those dainty B cups, remember your J cup – as long as it is not overshadowed by a super-sized tummy – could be due to your own good health.