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Don’t Burn Your Bra for Science Just Yet

Skepchick

Rebecca Watson

April 17, 2013

There are many ways a science news story can hit the mainstream media and become a viral hit: does it involve an adorable, terrifying, or adorably terrifying new species of animal? Did a politician say something hilariously ignorant about it? And perhaps more importantly, does it involve breasts?

It’s for the latter reason that Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon of Universite de Franche-Comte has been the talk of this week’s news cycle, with headlines like Research Suggests Bras Do No Good, Do Women Need Bras? French Study Says Brassieres Are a ‘False Necessity’, and French Study Suggests Younger Women Should Stop Wearing Bras.

Here’s a quote from the CBS News effort:

Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a sports medicine specialist from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Besancon in Besancon, France, published a study on Wednesday that shows that wearing bras may not prevent women’s breasts from sagging, and may in fact increase it.

With any viral story, my skeptic sense begins tingling almost immediately, but the point at which I began to really get suspicious was when I discussed it with my fellow Skepchick contributors, Mary Brock and Will Robertson, and we noticed that we each had a different idea of how many subjects were involved in this study. Was it 320 as reported here, or 330 as reported at CBS News and elsewhere, or 130 as reported here? This is usually easily solved by getting ahold of the actual published study, but unfortunately none of the articles mentioned what it was called or what journal it was in.

A search of the literature turned up nothing, and there were no press releases from the University that mentioned it. Because everything was in French, we engaged several French-speaking Twitter followers who also combed through the literature for us, but again, they found nothing (thanks to @LeBiochimiste, @ologies, and @Bookmore for the help). This was odd, especially considering that CBS News reported that there was a study and further that it was published on Wednesday.

Mary Brock found what appeared to be the oldest source: an interview Rouillon participated in with a student radio station. So it appears that by “published a study,” CBS News and other outlets actually meant, “spoke on the radio.” A fine distinction, I’m sure you’ll agree.

In the radio interview, Rouillon discusses his ongoing research and reports that his preliminary findings suggest bras don’t help with back pain or breast firmness. One twenty-eight-year old subject is interviewed as well and offers her anecdotal testimony that going without a bra has improved her breathing and posture.

Rouillon’s preliminary research, though, is based on only 330 women in total, none of whom was over the age of thirty-five. Rouillon himself has stated that his findings, when (if ever) they’re published, will have nothing to say about the population of women as a whole. He told Reuters that despite his preliminary findings, “a middle-aged women, overweight, with 2.4 children? I’m not at all sure she’d benefit from abandoning bras.”

Additionally, this research clearly suffers from a lack of proper blinding. The study isn’t even over yet, but one of the subjects is on the radio boasting about how great it is to not wear a bra, indicating that she knows what the study is about. Is it possible that she’s more cognizant of her posture? That she’s reporting less back pain because she believes strongly in the power of going bra-less? That she’s undergoing any other treatments to increase, er, “firmness”?

And what about the fact that this study is reported to have been going on for fifteen years? My first assumption upon reading that was that Rouillon was studying the long-term effects of wearing a bra or going without, but if all subjects have been aged eighteen to thirty-five, then the twenty-eight-year old who was interviewed hasn’t been in the study the entire time, and she states that she’s only been bra-free for two years. How are subjects added to this study, and for how long have they been tracked? Without an actual published study to check, it’s impossible to say. We only have Rouillon’s opinion of his own research, which could be based almost entirely on self-reported data.

Rouillon says researchers used calipers and rulers to measure “lift,” but for how long? And did they take into account the woman’s fluctuating weight, breast size, and level of activity? And considering that Rouillon is mentioned as an expert in sports medicine, did they study any women who go for jogs without a sports bra? Because, really, ouch.

Again, without a paper to look at, we don’t know. We only have the opinion of Rouillon and the intercontinental game of telephone that media outlets like CBS News play, resulting in misinformation reported as fact simply because no journalist bothered to take a few minutes to look for an actual published study at the source of the soundbite.

So, is it better to go braless? The answer is yes, if that’s what you prefer. Really, bras don’t appear to be giving people cancer or causing earthquakes in Iran. They exist to give you support if you need it, cleavage if you want it, and nipple coverage if your cultural milieu demands it. If you decide to go without, you may not get perkier breasts and less back pain, but you’ll definitely save the time and cost of a trip to Victoria’s Secret. Maybe that’s worth it.

Rebecca Watson

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Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.