Selling bras is a lot like pulling teeth; I can say this as I’ve done both, and each has the distinct ability to leave you feeling completely helpless. Pulling teeth when you’re in Haiti on a medical mission trip, and trying to remove an adult male wisdom tooth with only basic instruments; and selling bras, when you’re a grown man and you take a job working at Victoria’s Secret.
This is where I was in April of 2010. An English major with double minors in biology and chemistry, I’d planned on going to dental school to become an oral maxillofacial surgeon. But after a series of events that left me feeling like I no longer understood women, I decided I needed to go somewhere I could immerse myself in them. Hence Victoria’s Secret. There, no longer having to worry about taking the DAT or writing my mission statement, I was on top of the world. All I had to do now was learn a couple of bras. How hard could that be?
I came to realize just how naïve this assumption was two hours into my first day on the job. I was ringing up a customer when she noticed she’d grabbed the wrong size and turned around to go and correct her error. “Oh don’t worry about it,” I said. “Lemme just call to one of the girls on the floor. They’ll grab it for ya.” This is what we were trained to do, and it’s a nice gesture until you realize you have no freaking clue what you’re looking at it. It could be a Very Sexy push-up; it could be a Nakeds demi; it could be a Cottons full coverage; or it could simply be a double-pouched water balloon launcher. Because, when you don’t listen to country music, anything with steel guitar and banjo sounds like country music. When you don’t have a discerning palate, anything with pasta and marinara sauce tastes like Italian food. And when you don’t have breasts, anything with two cups and some straps looks like a bra.
It was clear I needed help.
Recognizing the I’m-Drowning-Over-Here tone in my voice, the store manager saw to it that I receive schooling in the matter. What resulted was a string of lectures I came to call “The Titorials.” My first was with a coworker I’ll call Gloria. She started me slow, first picking up a bra without padding, having me squeeze it, then picking up a bra with padding and having me squeeze it. “See,” she said, “this is a bra without padding, and this is a bra with padding. Feel the difference?” I nodded, squeezing what the FAA would approve as a personal flotation device in the event of a water landing.
My second Titorial was with a different coworker, who I’ll call Colleen. Seeing as I now understood the difference between a push-up and non-push-up bra, she gave me a more in-depth lesson, walking me through each room, carefully explaining the bra collections within it, and how to tell them apart. It was during this that I started to feel more comfortable feeling like a complete idiot.
No matter what sex you are, or what gender you identify as, selling bras at Victoria’s Secret is hard. The Body by Victoria collection, for example, has eight different bras. There’s the full coverage, the unlined full coverage, the demi, the racerback demi, the push-up, the supermodel push-up, the multi-way and the wireless—which sounds like something that might come with a data plan. Multiply this by the fact that there are 13 other bra collections in the store, and the only thing that keeps you from having a complete meltdown is the reassurance that each bra has what it is and the size labeled on the band. “If all else fails, it’s there,” Colleen said, which I reassured her all else would absolutely fail.
In the last remaining minutes of the lecture, she took it upon herself to explain “swell.” Swell is the word that Victoria’s Secret uses to describe the amount of cleavage a push-up bra produces. All in all, there are five levels of swell: the first being Subtle, the second being Moderate, the third being Dramatic, the fourth being Extreme and the fifth being Ultimate. This was where she lost me. While the first four made some sense—I could see describing someone’s cleavage as subtle or moderate; dramatic was a little odd, but OK; and extreme just sounded fun—I found ultimate to be somewhat baffling. It’s not that Ultimate wasn’t a suitable word choice to describe cleavage spilling out of a top, it’s just that it followed extreme, a word that, in order of magnitude, is usually only followed by death. Extreme sports, for example. Bungee jumping, skydiving, shark diving: all of these have one thing in common. If it weren’t for one item—a rope, a parachute or a stainless steel cage—you would die doing them. Which is why the fifth level of swell should not be called Ultimate, but simply Death—Death by Cleavage.
I told Colleen this and she laughed, not genuinely, but the way you have to when someone has overanalyzed the shit out of something and you think they’re a little strange.
While the Titorials helped in my quest for bra knowledge, I’ve never been much of an audible learner. I’m more of an hands-on kind of guy, which can be somewhat tricky when you’re dealing with breasts in a professional setting. As a result, it took me about five months to really feel confident both selling and differentiating the bras in the store.
I had a lot of things drilled into my head in that time, the first and foremost being that knowing size was everything. Most women think they know their bra size; they were measured when they were 16 years old and think nothing has changed since that point. These women, I was told, are sorely mistaken. Therefore, it was also a bra salesperson’s job to ask each and every customer if they wanted to be measured.
But because most women didn’t want my help in this area, I mainly stuck to helping men, which I found to be relatively easy. Once you got them to focus, they generally had a clear notion of what they wanted. The only problem came with sizing. If women were often naively mistaken about their bra size, men were proudly ignorant. They either treated breasts like a trophy bass, exaggerating both their size and weight, or they blinked once before saying they had no clue, which is probably how I would have gone about it.
For years, bra size had been a mystery to me. Yes, I’d heard of the sizes—34A, 36B, 36DD—but I had no idea what they signified. Was 34 the weight in ounces? Did the letters perhaps signify the amount of water a breast displaced if put in a pool? Or were they both just some kind of a visual estimation, based upon the amount of shadow they cast on a wall when a woman walked in front of a lamp?
It turned out to be much simpler than I thought. The number indicated band size, or how many inches around a woman was, while the letter indicated cup size. No, I didn’t know how to measure either of these, but it was OK, as I was probably never going to have to do that. That’s what my female coworkers were for.
Knowing what a bra size meant, however, still didn’t help me with my clueless male customers. I was about to throw in the towel when the missing key to my success was finally discovered. Out of all the things the girls had taught me about bras, they had failed to mention the most important. The method for sizing when a size wasn’t known.
“Wait,” said one of the girls, “no one’s taught you the fruit method, yet?”
“The what?” I said.
“The Fruit Method.”
“No, I don’t—I don’t think so.”
She put her hands on her hips.
“Well, that’s why you’re having so much trouble. The fruit method is what we use when we have men who don’t know their girlfriend’s bra size. It’s simple. You ask them to compare their girlfriend’s boobs to either a lemon, an apple, an orange or a grapefruit, and from that you can get a rough estimate of their bra size.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said in disbelief.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “A lemon is a 34A, an apple is a 34B, an orange is a 34C and a grapefruit is a 36C/34D.”
I stared at her in complete awe. As a learning device, The Fruit Method was essentially perfect, playing both to men’s innate visual and tactile abilities. Combine this with something we can eat, and it makes for a method that we not only understand, but will employ the rest of our lives.
I got my first chance to employ this knowledge the next day. I was on the floor, putting some bras away, when I found a guy staring at a French maid outfit. I asked him if he needed help finding anything and, much to my surprise, he said he did.
“I’m looking for some panties you can untie,” he said. “You know, kind of like a bikini bottom, but a panty.”
I told him we didn’t have anything like that, but we did have some great see-through lingerie. He agreed that would do just fine.
“Ok, so do you know her size?” I asked.
“Um,” he scratched his head. “I think she’s a small.”
“No,” I said, “Do you know her bra size?”
He looked me, then turned away slightly, raising both hands in front of him, palms facing out, before cupping them and making a squeezing motion.
“Mmmm…about this big,” he said.
I shook my head.
“Ok, let’s to do this a little differently. If you were to compare your girlfriend’s breasts to a fruit, what would they be? A lemon, an apple, an orange or a grapefruit?”
He paused, thinking.
“An orange,” he said. “She’s probably an orange.”
I told him this meant she was about a 34C, and he raised his eyebrows, looking at me as if I was some kind of jaw-dropping circus act. “You’re good,” he said. “You’re really good.” I thanked him, not wanting to make a big deal out of it. But It was the best compliment I’d ever received.
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