An Uplifting Experience

Sonja Winfield works in the trenches--the pink, lacy trenches of the Joslins Intimate Apparel department. What goes on here, though, is neither rakishly romantic nor deliciously self-indulgent. Most of the time, it's not even fun.

"It's a good thing I like -ologies," says Sonja, the chain's expert bra fitter. "Psychology, biology, that kind of stuff, because fitting a bra is a several-stage process. A series of checks and balances. I like it, personally. But I get tremendous satisfaction from solving problems."

And when it comes to women and their bodies, there are enough problems to last a bra fitter several lifetimes. As for solutions, Intimate Apparel at the Westminster Joslins is so crammed with them that shoppers have to bushwhack their way from the Calvin Klein display to the far reaches of the service counter. Tags rattle in a jungle of specialized terms: backless, strapless, minimizer, instant shaping, suddenly smooth, push-up, comfort-plus, for the fuller size, double-ply-underwire, seamless, reduces bust projection...

"Complicated? Oh, yeah, it is," Sonja admits. "I'm a genius."
Of course, there are some who don't need Sonja or any other genius. They are the rarefied few known as "easy to fit," Sonja says. "In which case you go out and buy a beautiful Warner's bra, and that's the end of that." But the rest of us need guidance.

To begin with, all breasts are either much smaller or much bigger than the women who own them think they are. Learning the truth can be a shock, but Sonja knows how to soften it. She will search and search and search--and it could take hours--until she finds your pre-destined bra. Then she will look at you, listen to you kvetch, and finally tell you that you look fine.

"I'm good at this because I'm from New York," she explains. "I may be a little more forward, a little more interested. Everybody has a story. I listen."

As Joslins' head fitter, Sonja rotates between eleven Front Range stores, north to Cheyenne and south to Colorado Springs, listening, fitting and teaching the permanent staff in each Intimate Apparel department how to meet the challenge. "First of all, the denial," she muses. "And the disappointment. Just when you think, oh, great, my weight's gone down, you're visited by that evil fairy who takes your breasts away. Of course, the saddest thing is all the people with breast-augmentation surgery who think, great, now they can wear all those cute bras. I'm sorry, but there's no such thing as a cute D bra with three hooks in back."

The fitting room, the place where a customer contemplates all this unwelcome news, is pink, quiet and mirrored, so that even as Sonja is out on the floor picking out problem-solving bras, the woman inside is forced to confront the various observations Sonja has made in her not-unkind tone of voice. Her posture could be better. Her waist is thick and high or her back is narrow. Has weight been gained? In all cases, whatever bra the woman wore into the store now looks weak, helpless, amazingly dirty and very, very wrong.

In these circumstances, the best thing to do is sit down. The bench provided is wide and sturdy, equipped with the kind of chrome handrails you see in handicapped bathroom stalls. The carpet is oddly nautical in theme, but maybe not as odd as all that, because the voices emanating from neighboring cubicles sound as if they come from women who are, on some level, drowning.

"Well, I used to be a 38 B; I don't know what's happened..."
"I'm nursing--maybe that's the problem. They're usually both the same size..."

"What about those Wonderbras? Can't they help? The women at this party are all going to be so young..."

There is a discreet knock. Enter Sonja with a Maidenform #9819 All-the-Time Bra. "Now, look," she says, "because I won't always be here with you. Here is the kind of fit you are looking for, and I want you to lift that breast and put it, yes, right there, and then we adjust these straps." She steps back to gauge the effect. "It's a good bra," she decides. "It's shaped. It's lifted."

Too lifted. Suddenly, breasts resemble snouts. "True," Sonja admits. "What a shame. For a while, this was one of my favorites. But ever since Maidenform came out of Chapter 11, they have gone back to their roots. You know, young girls. Maidens. That's how they started out, and they're thinking, okay, it could work again."

Sonja disappears, in search of something less...maidenly, then returns with five options. Over the next hour, as breasts are moved and straps adjusted, you learn the latest bra theories according to Sonja, who is constantly clued in to developments by the major manufacturers. Yet she owes allegiance to none. To a Lily of France sports bra, for instance, she says: "It costs $16 and you get a free pair of panties? You get what you pay for." The $59 Wacoal minimizer model may have become famous as Oprah's bra of choice, but it is not necessarily Sonja's. "It's the bra of a rich man's wife," she says. "It has many threads per inch, and the company travels all over taking the measurements of the women of the world. This bra costs $59 and it's worth it, but not everyone has $59." Vanity Fair, Jockey for Her, Olga--all have their good points, but none have invented the perfect bra, because it can't be done.

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