Figure matters: What exactly does a "training" bra train your breasts to do?

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I am flat chested. There is no other way to describe me; I am nearly 40 years old, but I still buy my bras in the Junior section. A few years back, I used the Victoria's Secret online bra size calculator to check my cup size, and when I entered my numbers I got an error message. I measured again, and then had my husband help me measure. Sure enough, I am too small to register on the program. The problem is that the basic bra measurements assume that one has at least a five inch difference between one's rib cage and the largest part of one's breasts.

I do not.

I don't have a problem with my bra size; I am happy with my breasts the way they are. But having a small chest can be an issue when I'm shopping for tops or dresses. Or bras.

When we're talking about breasts, the basic advice is the same regardless of size: no matter what cup you're wearing, you need a bra that fits properly. Get fitted (the consensus seems to be that Nordstrom is the place to go) and don't settle for a bra that ALMOST fits. If you are an A or B cup, I would recommend something with a little bit of padding, not because I think we all need to be a C cup or else, but because most women's clothes fit better if you're not sporting the chest of a twelve year old boy.

Sad, but true.

Another option for the flat chested is to invest in a set of "chicken cutlets" to drop in your bra for a little extra ooomph. These are the things that Julia Roberts used to create Erin Brockovich's cleavage (remember that?). Her Look carries several different varieties, including the charmingly named Takeouts and Cleavage Cupcakes. Again, I'm not advocating for bra stuffing, but as a girl who has a hard time filling up the top of anything, I am sympathetic to the urge to have a chest. I like the on-call boob job for dressy occasions, because my pear shaped body is incredibly un-dress friendly, and having the option to balance out my top and bottom for an evening out is nice. But for everyday, I go with a lightly padded bra.

That may be more than you wanted to know about me, but let's just move along.

green shirtThe trick with a smaller chest is to choose necklines that flatter what you've got. Halter tops and tube tops can be difficult (or really impossible) when you're flat chested, but a nice V-neck sweater or knit top--particularly something with detailing just under the bust--will emphasize your cleavage and give you a little figure boost. The shirt pictured here has a nice slim line and an empire waist; it also has some terrific detailing along the neckline, to draw attention up toward your face. The combination of the gathered neck and the seaming under the bust will create the illusion of a larger chest, even without any extra padding. Other flattering options for a smaller chest include chunky turtlenecks and boat neck sweaters and tees. Smaller chests can also benefit from front pockets, on a jacket, for instance. Pockets placed right at the level of your boobs can visually add volume where there isn't any. Sweet Pea top from Bluefly, $50.40.

Women with smaller breasts can wear jackets with a higher stance; look for a blazer or jacket that buttons just above the center of the band on your bra. As with any jacket, make sure that it fits through the shoulders when it's buttoned, even if you never plan to wear it that way.

My favorite trick for creating a little bit of bulk through my chest is this: I wear a lot of tee shirts and cardigan sweaters, and I will button the sweater across my chest (usually the second or third button) but nowhere else. Having the V line both above and below the button gives my chest some extra emphasis.

All without a boob job.

Susan Wagner writes about fashion at Friday Style and everything else at Friday Playdate. Today she is practicing what she preaches and wearing a V-neck sweater with seaming under the bust and a bias cut A-line skirt.

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