“I want to be one of those kids who don’t go through puberty,” my older daughter told me the other day on a hike. “I don’t want to get big boobs!”
I almost fell over. She’s only eight, skinny as a stick, a tomboy since birth. We haven’t yet begun talking to her about puberty, but apparently some of the boys in her third-grade class broke the news. I fumbled through some lame response about how she won’t have to worry about it for a few years, which was really code for “Please don’t let me have to worry about it for a few years.” Then I changed the subject.
But it’s been haunting me ever since. She’s always been a very physical kid, but in the past few years I’ve watched her come into herself, gaining confidence and skills on the playground, in sports, and in the outdoors. Will adolescence change everything?
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the answer for many girls is yes. The study, which surveyed more than 2,000 English girls ages 11 through 18, found that they begin dropping out of sports at the onset of puberty, when their bodies begin to change. Forty-six percent reported that their breast development had some effect on their participation in athletics, nearly 75 percent had breast-related concerns while playing sports, and 87 percent wanted to know more about breast development. Only 10 percent routinely wore their own sports bra.
For Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of the women’s running and fitness apparel company Oiselle, this sobering data was a call to action. “When we read the study, it hit us between the eyes,” says Bergesen. “Puberty is still something we don’t know how to talk about.”
Her solution: free sports bras, and lots of them.
Earlier this year, Oiselle launched its Got Bras initiative to give away sports bras to adolescent and teen girls who might not otherwise have access to them and to help them view breast development as a normal part of life. In March, Oiselle partnered with the nonprofit Running for a Better Oakland, in California, to donate 300 bras and other apparel items. On May 21, the company will give away sports bras and booklets about breast development to the more than 1,500 girls participating in the Girls on the Run 5K in Seattle. Oiselle plans to give away 2,000 bras this year and increase that number in 2018, when it will also roll out production on its first line of girl-specific bras.
“When your body goes through changes, you become self-conscious and more apt to reduce physical activity. Middle school is the worst,” says Bergesen. At the middle school that Bergesen’s daughter attends, the gym teacher puts all the kids through a “pacer test,” where they run back and forth between two points in the gym to see who can get the most laps. She noticed that some of the girls intentionally went more slowly than boys and didn’t compete because they felt self-conscious and were worried about their breasts bouncing.
“The biggest thing we want them to know is that breasts are normal. Changing bodies are normal,” says Bergesen. “All you need is the right sports bra. If you have one, you can do everything you’ve been doing. It’s simply a tool in your toolbox for life.”
Bergesen’s hope is that with a sports bra that fits and the right knowledge, girls will stay in the game longer. “There are various points in a woman’s life when she’s more apt to turn away from sports: puberty, post-college, postpartum, and menopause.” By empowering girls to remain active during adolescence, they have a greater chance of becoming lifelong athletes through the other transitions as well.
“We know that when girls stay involved in sports, it helps them with confidence, as well as all the other health benefits of regular exercise,” says Bergesen. “When you’re doing a sport, you’re living in your body and you experience all the benefits of that—the endorphins, the strength, and neurons firing in the brain. From starting a business, becoming mothers, and making friends, sports help us with everything in life.”