Recent years have seen all kinds of major progress in outdoor sports equipment, from maximalist running shoes to electric bikes to crazy-lightweight camping gear. But the most important breakthroughs of all have been in the design and manufacturing of sports bras. New research and technologies have paved the way for an advanced class of support systems that are comfortable, look good, and fit a wider variety of bodies. In this episode, we talk to Outside associate editor Ariella Gintzler about her feature report on the state of the sports bra, then take a look back at the game-changing invention that started it all.
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Michael Roberts (host): Recent years have seen all kinds of major advances in outdoor sports equipment. Some of them have really transformed how we go about the activities we love. Think about the barefoot running revolution, which was quickly followed by the counterrevolution of “maximalist” running shoes. Or rockered downhill skis. Or fat bikes. Or electric bikes. Crazy lightweight camping gear. The list goes on.
And then there’s the gear advancement that trumps them all -- a leap forward in research, technology, and manufacturing, that will have an enormous impact on sports participation, and enjoyment.
Ariella Gintzler: My name is Ariel Gintzler. I am an associate editor at Outside. I specialize in gear and I run our buyers guide.
Roberts: This week, Ariella published a feature on Outside Online that details the current sports bra revolution. It’s been more than 40 years since the first sports bra was invented, helping empower girls and women to get involved in athletics in the wake of the landmark congressional passage of Title IX. As Ariella reports, while there’s been a lot of progress since then, designers and consumers have been operating under the belief that for a bra to really perform, it had to be rigid, tight, and … likely uncomfortable.
Gintzler: Women, a lot of times they feel like they need to be uncomfortable in order for their sports bra to work. And if you're wearing a sports bra that is chafing and digging in and making you overheat; it's rubbing you; you don't feel good in it. It's not gonna make you feel good about yourself and that can have a huge impact on a person's, you know, motivation to pursue a sport or to quit a sport.
Roberts: But in the last few years, this thinking has shifted—and rather dramatically. In her story, Ariella points to 2017 as the turning point. That’s when Lululemon launched the Enlite bra, becoming one of the first major athletic brands to break the comfort-versus-support paradigm. Then Nike released a model using knitting technology the brand borrowed from its running shoes.
Gintzler: And then after that you had Reebok which came out with the pure move bra, which uses... it's called shear thickening fluid, which is a chemical application developed originally for NASA that is essentially pliant at rest and then stiffens under impact.
Roberts: Most recently, Brooks Running released its Dare line of sports bras in February. Ariella traveled to the brand’s Seattle headquarters to get an inside look at how and why companies are transforming the way they approach the creation of a product that more than half of the population depends on for sports.
Gintzler: Obviously there are technological advances, just manufacturing capabilities that brands and factories didn't have access to 10 years ago that have really made a huge difference in what companies are able to do as far as designing sports bras.
But then also, you know, what we know research-science-wise about breasts has changed and evolved quite a bit over the last few decades. And so that is also really informing what brands are doing. And then finally, there's increased consumer demand. You know, people are, women are wearing sports bras for more than just sports. So that demand is really driving companies to invest in this science and the technology and the new manufacturing capabilities that they now have access to.
Roberts: The upshot, she says, is that girls and women can now find high-performance sports bras that are comfortable and even cute. This is a big deal when you consider that social research shows large numbers of girls still dropout of sports because of concerns about their breasts.
Gintzler: Knowing that brands are now prioritizing comfort, that to me is a game changer, right? It's like, you don't, you don't have to punish yourself with this uncomfortable contraption on your body, right? Like you deserve to be comfortable while exercising.
I think a lot of women, myself included, get into this mode of denial where you're just sort of, I've had bad experiences. I'm done trying, right? I found this one sports bra that like, kind of works. I don't really like it, but I just don't want to try anymore. It's exhausting and painful and makes me feel bad about myself and there's just nothing out there for me. So I'm just gonna like, accept my lot in life. And you know, the biggest takeaway for me was brands are trying, things are getting better. We still have a long way to go, but brands like Target are making really decent sports bras that are using a lot of modern technology. So I would just say like, try, you know, even if you've been burned once or burned twice, go out and try again because I would say there's a pretty good chance that you'll find something that you like.
Roberts: To really understand how important this shift is, you need to understand the rather remarkable birth story of the sports bra. As it happens, we told that story a few years ago on this show, just around the time the revolution that Ariella wrote about was getting underway. Outside contributing editor Florence Williams, who literally wrote the book on breasts chased down the inventors of the very first sports bra. I’ll let her take it from here.
Florence Williams: [jogging] So I'm on this jog with my dear friend and sister-in-law Elise Jones. We're jogging along and we're just not wearing fancy bras. We're just wearing our normal bras and it's kind of a problem. What kind of bra are you wearing?
Elise Jones: [jogging] Uh, well Florence, look at the strap, isn't it pretty? I'm wearing Mary Jo underwire, a padded cleavage enhancing piece of engineering. Only it's not really engineering enough to keep your boobs in place.
Williams: What are they doing?
Jones: Well, let's see. Checking in. They're bouncing a little bit up and down and laterally. [laughs]
Williams: [no longer jogging] Here's the deal. Boobs move around. They move around a lot. If you happen not to be the owner of a pair, picture this: running down a field with two water balloons loosely attached to your torso. They’re going to go up and down. They're going to go sideways... and until 1977, which was exactly 40 years ago this month, there wasn't a whole lot you could do about it. The sports bra hadn't been invented yet, so you were stuck jiggling around in thin nylon and maybe underwire. And as my experiment with Lisa shows, that's a drag.
[jogging again] Does this make you really appreciate the era of the sports bra?
Jones: I am so happy about science and engineering right now and design. Our boobs thank science; they do. [laughs]
LaJean Lawon: Why would we want to talk about the history of the sports bra? I mean, is it just like a trivial tidbit of historic costume?
Williams: [no longer jogging] This is LaJean Lawson, AKA chief boobologist, AKA Dr. Sports Bra. She's one of the world's top sports bra researchers.
Lawson: Not just because I've spent 33 years studying it, do I say this, I know from conversations with literally thousands of women that this is a game changer for them.
Williams: LaJean lives and breathes not only sports bras, but the needs of the women who wear them. She actually runs a sports bra lab out of her house in Portland, Oregon, and she's got a treadmill in there, and a 3-D imaging machine that she uses to study the biomechanics of the breast. We sent our producer Phoebe Flanagan over to check it out.
Lawson:Okay. This is starting up. What I'm going to have you do when you get on, I'm going to have you just stand for a few seconds and then when I tell you to run, just start jogging. The breast will rise up and then it has to go down again. It changes direction constantly. The accelerations, which is either speeding up or slowing down where the nipple was changing direction can be very high. I did a little research and I said, you know, a 36 D nipple can go from zero to 60 faster than a Ferrari.
Phoebe Flanagan: Really?
Lawson: Much faster.
Williams: [voiceover] Beyond the lab, LaJean’s also got a sports bra museum that's filled with decades worth of vintage models. Some are more mystifying than others.
Flanagan:[in lab]There are so many straps.
Lawson: This cannot be any weirder. This was called the Damon Jogger, which I call the Demon Jogger. There were instructions on how to get this on, which I don't know if I can do this.
Flanagan: You put your legs through it?
Lawson: You put your legs through it and you pull it up.
Williams: Looking at all the options around the room, it's crazy to think that the modern sports bra didn't even exist when LaJean was growing up.
Lawson: Actually, when I started high school, we weren't allowed to run full court because it was the assumption that girls were too weak and we couldn't run any races longer than like 400 meters. So women participating in sports and needing a sports bra is so recent.
Williams: Recent and surprisingly controversial. When Le Jean started doing her research back in the 80s, she actually got some serious pushback, like this one letter that turned up at her office.
Lawson:This letter said, if God had intended women to run, he would not have put breasts on them. [laughs] There was a whole socio-cultural stereotype of how women should behave and it wasn't vigorously and badly, you know, it was to be more calm and sweet and comport yourself with more steadiness and not the sort of enthusiasm and passion that we see with sport.
Williams: To understand how the sports brought changed all that we need to go back to 1977. It was the same year that James Fixx published his blockbuster bestseller, The Complete Book of Running. And it was just a few years out from Title IX -- women were finally wanting in on the sports action after being told for generations and generations that their bodies just weren't built for sports.
Audio from 70s commercial: I started walking. Then gradually as I got in shape, I began to run. Now I run three days a week. My family and friends say how healthy I look. [fades out]
Lisa Lindell: You know, my whole generation started exercising.
Williams: This is Lisa Lindell. She got caught up in the craze
Lindell: I had a friend who introduced me to what was then called ‘jogging.’
Williams: [laughs] Was it a new term?
Lindell: It was! [laughs] I have to say.
I went out and started jogging up at the University of Vermont indoor track. And just to get around that track once was painful. And I remember the day that I got around that track four times and completed a mile and you would think I had won an Olympic medal. I was so proud of myself.
Williams: Lisa broke a mile. Then two. Then three. She started running outside. But the more she ran, the more she realized she had a new problem. Actually two problems: her 36 Cs.
Lindell: When you have a tee shirt over bouncing nipples, you get chafing. So the answer to that is to put a bra on, because I did try running without any bra on. And then of course I got a lot of comments from passing motorists and certain male runners.
Williams: Things haven't changed much over the years.
Lindell: Unfortunately not.
So you wear a bra of some sort and then that poses new and different problems like the straps that slip off your shoulders, so you're always jigging them back up. Hardware that can dig into your back. And they're hot and sweaty.
Williams: Lisa’s sister started running too, and one day she called her up.
Lindell: She said, what do you do about your boobs?! Actually is what she said. I am so uncomfortable when I'm running! What she said when I was talking about the fact that I had no great solution was, why isn't there a jock strap for women?
That's when we really laughed. We thought that was hilarious.
Williams: Lisa couldn't let the idea drop. She started working the problem.
Lindell: What would that bra have to look like? What would it have to do? And I sat down at my dining room table and wrote out a list that was, all right, the straps shouldn't fall off. They should be wide enough that they don't dig in. Ideally, I was hoping that it could be modest enough that I could take off my t-shirt on really hot summer days because I had a running partner who would do that. He would take off in the middle of his run his t-shirt, over his head and tuck it in the back of his shorts. And I was so jealous because I couldn't do that, but I didn't hold out a lot of hope for that in the beginning.
Williams: And then somehow your husband became involved, your husband at the time.
Williams: [He] also had a role here.
Lindell: He did. Because what happened is, part of the irony of this story, Florence, is that I don't sew, but living with me at the time was my good friend Polly who had become a costume designer. And so boy did she sew. And I went to her and said, Polly help me make this. And so we started making prototypes and having difficulty because really bras are an engineering proposition.
Williams: Things need to be cantilevered.
Lindell: Yes. It's like building a bridge. But we didn't know that at the time. [laughs]
So we were sitting in the living room, Polly and I, bemoaning the latest prototype that I had gone running in and was not cutting it. And my then-husband came down the stairs and he had pulled one of his jock straps on over his head and across his breast and said, Hey ladies, ha ha ha, here's your new jock bra. And we just thought that was very, very funny and rolled on the floor. And I got up and, and took it off of him and tried it on, cause I had to get in the act, and pulled it over my chest that actually had breasts and went, Oh.
I went running the next day in this jockstrap contraption and knew that it was the product that was going to work. And Polly went to New York city and found good elastic, found a new fabric that would work for the cups, and Voila. We had a working prototype.
Williams: How did you come up with the name jog bra?
Lindell: Well, there was no such term as “sports bra” at the time. And so we were calling it jock bra.
Williams: I like that. (laughs)
Lindell: And we heard from some people in the South that jock was not such a nice word and we didn't want a name that offended some people. So we changed jock to jog and it became “jog bra.”
Williams: So Lisa started shopping her new jog bra around to different sporting goods stores. Most of the buyers looked at her like she was crazy. After all, why would a running store, so women's underwear?
Lindell: I was very clear from the beginning that this was not going to go into lingerie. It didn't look like lingerie. It was considered ugly. And so, it needed to go into sporting goods so that when a woman went in to buy her shoes, she could also get this bra. And so, I had to contend with men who were the buyers.
Williams: Right, because women's undergarments had never been sold outside of the context of lingerie.
Lindell: Correct. To put it in lingerie would be to be minimizing its importance, minimizing its functionality. It so was not about lifting and separating and making a woman more attractive,according to some fashionista’s standard.
Williams: It wasn't about the bullet bra look.
Lindell: No, it was about functionality. I mean it smushed the breasts against the chest wall, it certainly --
Williams: There was a little bit of a uni-boob issue, right?
Lindell: Yes, absolutely. There was a uni-boob issue and, of course, now you can have a very sexy sports bra now.
Williams: Right. But back then it was really about function.
Lindell: A hundred percent.
Williams: And it took off!
Lindell: And it was immediately successful! Our average growth rate was like 25% per year and we just kept growing and growing and growing.
Williams: By the mid to late eighties, everywhere she looked, Lisa was seeing runners and others wearing sports bras, but it wasn't until the 1999 Women's World Cup that she realized just how far her vision had traveled.
[audio from Women’s World Cup: Cheering, “Goal!”]
Remember that's when the U S soccer team had just beat China with the winning goal by Brandy Chastin.
Lindell: I was home in Vermont and, all of a sudden, my phone started ringing. I ran to the TV set and of course they were replaying the moment and I went, Oh my word!
[audio from Women’s World Cup fades out, music fades in]
Williams: And that moment, let me just describe it. She made the final winning goal. And as soon as that goal hit the net, she ripped off her shirt and she was wearing a black jog bra and she pumped her fist and she showed her muscles and she was swarmed by her ecstatic teammates. It was really the jog bra that was seen around the world.
Lindell: Right? (laughs) The jog bra that was heard around the world. Exactly. And I think what you said was it was her confidence and her preparation and the long journey that came to fruition in that moment. And that \is just perfect because that's exactly what I could say about my journey in my life really, but also the jog bra.
Williams: Well, in a way, that moment also really represented the culmination of your dream that one day women could run around with their shirts off.
Lindell: Exactly. Exactly! And in fact, women do. I see it all the time. And I chuckle to myself. You see women running down the running path or the Greenway here and they're in their running shorts and their sports bra and that's it.
Williams: So the jog bras revolutionized women's participation in sports, but they were still geared toward women with small to medium sized chests. What about the subset of women who are the most discriminated against of all in sports: the women with really big bazungas and, often, plus sized bodies.
Back at the champion bra lab, LaJean Lawson says that coming up with products for large breasted women was the obvious next step. But it also required some next level engineering.
Lawson: When you're running the ground reaction forces coming up through your body that are two to three times your body weight and those impacts are transmitted to your breast tissue. Our skeletons are pretty boney. They react in a certain way. The breasts is sort of visco-elastic and can respond even more to the impacts stretch and distort out of shape. The larger the breasts, the more mass of the breast, the more impact can affect it and create very large displacements. But, mass is a big factor.
Williams: That was certainly proving to be true for Rinell Broughton.
Rinell Broughton: Oh, I would try doubling up sports bras.
Williams: She was a hairdresser in Montana and she'd been playing volleyball and running track with DDDs.
Broughton: When you start getting up in the C, DD, DDD area, you got to have a lot more going on there to contain those.
Williams: Give us a sense of how big DDD breasts are. Like, do you know what they weigh, for example?
Broughton: Oh, well, uh, not really but a lot. (laughs)
Williams: (laughs) I mean if I were looking at a DDD breast, in front of me, what would it look like?
Broughton: So apparently you don't have DDDs?
Williams: I so do not know; I'm a B. (laughs)
Broughton: You don’t know how lucky you are. (laughs)
I'll tell you what, they can be very annoying because every time you want to do anything, move or, I remember when I was playing volleyball, the ball would roll out of the court and I'd just stand there and let somebody else go after it because I wasn't running after that thing.
Williams: Rinell was fed up and eventually it occurred to her to just try to hack the jog bra and make it a much sturdier feat of engineering. That was in 1985.
Broughton: And I tell you, the first bra that I made for myself was not pretty. We just used my mother's leftover fabric from different things. But I really didn't care. I didn't. That's the thing with me is I don't really care what it looks like. I just want it to work.
Williams: And what were the big innovations in your bra? What made it different from the jog bra?
Broughton: There's more fabric. There's less stretch in the fabric because if you -- what I always say [is] if you can take a sports bra and stretch it out enough to pull it over your head, it's only gonna stretch when it gets there. And so we knew we had to do something that had a closure in it and I wanted the closure in the front to make it easier to get on and off. So it looks like a vest basically.
Williams: So you were able to kind of distribute the weight a little bit through this design.
Williams:Well, Rinell, why do you think large breasted women had been so ignored until this point?
Broughton:I think it's probably a couple of different things. There probably wasn't as many of us out there. I think there's getting to be more of us.
Williams: So you think that breasts are actually getting bigger now?
Broughton: Yeah, I think they are. I think people are getting bigger. Breasts are getting bigger, feet are getting bigger. I mean, if you look at an antique pair of shoes from way back when they were tiny, I mean really tiny. So yeah, I think people are getting bigger.
Williams:Yeah. Well I've certainly heard that anecdotally. I know it's not something that's really easy to quantify. I think, it's not really measured in your annual doctor's visit.
Broughton: No. No.
And also, I think when girls start to develop, if they develop like starting in junior high, early high [school] , and they're playing sports and all of a sudden they've got these boobs that are causing problems, a lot of them will quit.
Williams: What do you think is behind that?
Broughton: I don't know. Um,I'm not a scientist. I'm just a big-boobed blonde.
Williams: Renelle may not be a scientist, but we did find a woman who actually studies this stuff.
Williams: Can you say your name and briefly what you do?
Michelle: My name is Michelle [inaudible] and I'm a senior research associate in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science here in the University of Portsmouth.
Williams: We called up Michelle because we wanted to see if Renell's instincts were right -- in spite of all the innovation and sports bra technology, boobs could still be causing girls to drop out of sports because something certainly is.
Michelle: This is a kind of a really big issue I guess worldwide. Just the general participation levels in sport. And we looked at it in school girls in the United Kingdom and as it is about 12% of 14 year old girls are achieving exercise guidelines. And we know that as a nation, we're getting more obese and it's having massive, massive health implications. So we need to try and combat that. And we actually found that breasts are one of the barriers of why these girls might be dropping out or not reaching the exercise guidelines.
Williams: Wow. So what did you find in your research?
Michelle: Yeah, so we find that, related to breasts, the biggest reasons for lack of participation in exercise is this breast bounce. So, this kind of excessive movement in breasts that girls are very self conscious of.
After this, it was changing in front of each other. So in school, they weren't comfortable in case their breasts might be exposed to their friends. This was again more prevalent in larger breasts with girls.
Williams: This is interesting to me. It's not necessarily that it's sort of a physics problem as much as it is almost a psychological problem.
Michelle: Yeah, definitely. In terms of the physics, I mean having a good sports bra, we know we'll reduce the amount of that breast moves during high or low or any kind of activity. So we can easily alter the physics of breast moving. But it's the psychological effect that they probably need education on that can kind of have a bigger impact maybe. As well as this, I found that nearly 50% reported that they never wear a sports bra during sport.
And for us, this is kind of one of the main educational aspects that we can come in with. Well, if you get a good sports bra, you can reduce this bounce during sport and we might be able to keep school girls engaged in sport then.
Williams: Do you think there's an economic piece to this as well?
Michelle: Possibly. But I think that we see a lot of good sports bras now that are not necessarily very expensive. So I think that it's becoming more accessible for people to have sports bras in general and well-performing sports bras.
Williams: Huh. So this is really an undersung area when looking at access to health. We need to get these girls in the right equipment.
Michelle: Yeah, definitely. I definitely think it's overlooked. We also found that they actually had massive concerns about their breasts. So some 2, 3% reported having one breast specific concern in sports and that they were looking for education, that they'd be happy to take in breast education, but it just wasn't there in the schools for them.
I think it's still a taboo subject talking about breasts and we really want to make it out that this is not a taboo. This is something we should all talk about freely, and that we can educate them further on.
Williams: It's been 40 years now since the first jock bra hit the market. Annual retail sales of the sports bra are in the billions worldwide, and growing, and it's all continuing to track with the phenomenal growth of women's athletics overall. The next 40 years will likely offer better materials; smart bras that keep track of your vitals; ever cuter, sturdier, and flashier designs; and hopefully, more education to make these genius contraptions of structural engineering more accessible to the girls who could use them. Because girls need to run and play and move even if they don't want their breasts to move quite so much.
So here's to the basement sewing session, the high tech boob labs, the dedicated enthusiasts who made it all possible. From all of us, happy 40th anniversary.
Roberts: That’s Outside contributing editor, Florence Williams. She’s the author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Her story was produced by Phoebe Flannigan, with music by Robbie Carver and Dennis Funk.
This episode was brought to by Allbirds, shoes made from natural materials. That means less of the bad stuff, and more of the good stuff. That’s naturally better. Find your perfect pair today at Allbirds.com.
The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media, and distributed by PRX.
We’ll be back next week.