Why Are Sports Bras So Terrible?

In the Victorian era, women turned to corsets to keep their breasts from moving too much. Those competing at Wimbledon in 1887 returned to their dressing rooms in between matches to “unhitch their bloody corsets,” having been “repeatedly stabbed by the metal and whale bone stays of the cumbersome garments” as they played.

By 1911, women got a “sports corset” with flexible material, and thanks to the 1914 tango craze, someone even invented a dancing corset. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that bras started to replace corsets in the United States, and while brassieres designed for athletic purposes were patented as early as 1906, they simply never caught on.

Finally, in 1977 — the same year Victoria’s Secret was founded — the sports bra as we know it was invented by Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, with the help of designer and runner Hinda Miller. That first sports bra was simply two jockstraps sewn together. It wasn’t just that jockstraps were the right size, they were also the right idea. “We said, what we really need to do is what men have been doing: pull everything close to the body,” Miller later told researchers. They called this new bra the Jockbra, but quickly changed it to Jogbra after store owners in South Carolina deemed the name offensive.

During its first year on the market, Jogbra moved 25,000 units. Two decades later, in 1998, the sports bra industry sold $412 million worth of product. A 2002 study estimated that sports bras accounted for about 6 percent of the then-$4.5 billion bra market. Today, the bra market is worth about $15 billion. Factor in that female participation in sports is increasing every year and athleisure appears to be here to stay, and it’s no wonder that from Lululemon to Under Armour to Victoria’s Secret, brands are turning their attention to sports bras.

Photo: Jenny White/Brittany Holloway-Brown

But researchers are still a long way from understanding exactly how breasts move during exercise. Standing in the way of designing the best sports bra possible is millennia of stigma, powerful marketing forces, and good old-fashioned physics.

Breasts have no muscle. They sit on top of the pectoral muscles, but breasts themselves are all fat and glands and connective tissue. They’re held to the chest by something called Cooper’s ligaments, though those ligaments aren’t designed to reduce movement. As one study puts it, “the skin appears to provide most of the support for the breast in regards to limiting breast movement.”

That is to say that there is nothing biological working to stop breasts from moving. Without any such built-in support, as any person with breasts can attest, they bounce up and down freely, which can cause a fair bit of discomfort. When surveyed, between 40 and 60 percent of women report breast pain associated with physical activity. That pain makes women less likely to exercise, and among those who do, hurts their performance.

Understanding the biomechanics of bouncing is key to understanding how to make it stop, but it’s a field that’s only recently gained traction. And since breast size, placement, and density are different for every woman, researchers need to look at a large sample to get a good idea of what’s going on.

Understanding the biomechanics of bouncing is key to understanding how to make it stop, but it’s a field that’s only recently gained traction.

Even two people with the same sized breasts might have different breast composition; put them in the same bra, and one might be in heaven while the other can barely breathe. “There are so many factors going on, it’s hard to pin down that it’s the bra,” says Jenny White, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth who studies breast motion.

White’s research aims to better understand how breasts move, and what that means for the people who have them. When volunteers come into her lab, she has them do a variety of physical activities in a variety of bras (and without one), and asks them to report how each activity and fit feels. She also uses a sophisticated motion capture system, placing reflective markers on the bra.

Recruiting for this kind of study can be hard, White says, but she came up with a clever strategy. In 2013, her team targeted female runners in the London Marathon: “At registration, we tried to accost as many of them as possible. We got about 1,300 people and we were able to understand that population.”

It’s one thing to be able to see a woman run in a bra in a lab. It’s another to see what they experience after 26.2 miles. Over the course of a marathon, White says, “you might start seeing changes in the patterns of their running. You’re probably going to see a decrease in stride levels. You’re just not performing as well as you could.”

On the other side of the world, at the University of Wollongong in Australia, Julie Steele does similar research. Women who sign up for Steele’s studies come in and are all given the same standard issue, commercially-available bra. This lets the team compare how women fit themselves, how they’re fitted by experts, and how they fill out and move in the control bra.

Photo: Victoria’s Secret/Brittany Holloway-Brown

They then go through a series of tests to figure out the mechanics. “We use 3D scanning, ultrasounds, and devices that measure the skin to really better understand the structure of the breasts of these women,” says Steele. “We really need to better understand how that goes together to make the breasts move.”

Both Steele and White say there’s a constant battle going on between controlling the bounce and making bras comfortable. You could squash the breasts tightly against the body, but that makes it hard to breathe. The most common complaint, in the long list of ways in which sports bras are painful, is that the straps are too tight, sometimes even causing them to break.

It’s worth noting that wearing the wrong sports bra isn’t just a matter of discomfort or annoyance. Studies have shown that breast discomfort is a leading reason women stop participating in sports. And in extreme cases, an ill-fitting bra can actually do nerve damage. Bra straps generally cross over the brachial plexus, the nerve bundle that sends impulses to and from the arm. Women who wear bras with too-tight straps can damage that bundle, causing pain and numbness.

Another thing Steele and White worry about is that women aren’t wearing the right sized bra. A full 75 percent of the marathon runners White talked to had some kind of bra problem during training. “I think we need to scrap the whole bra system and start again from a sizing system,” Steele says. Bra sizing is confusing, imprecise, and variable. This isn’t just a sports bra problem, either; some surveys say that literally 100 percent of women are wearing the wrong sized bra.

A full 75 percent of the marathon runners White talked to had some kind of bra problem during training.

White says that the methods she, Steele, and their peers use to study breast movement might soon change dramatically. “We’re at this crossover period,” she says. White thinks that in the near future, they’ll be using something called inertial sensors — tiny sensors that can be placed directly on the breast itself to gather GPS and acceleration data.

There are a few benefits to this new method. First, the sensors that attach to the breast directly rather than to the sports bra can tell researchers much more information about what the breast is doing underneath the bra. “So it means we completely get rid of any discrepancy between what the breast is doing and what the bra is doing,” she says. In other words, if the bra is too big, or has padding or anything else that might make it move differently from how the breast itself is moving, the researchers will be able to detect that.

Second, these sensors don’t require the camera setup that White’s markers do, which means researchers could use them out in the field and see how breasts move in their natural environments, like during a soccer game or in a road race.

The sensor technology isn’t quite there yet, but White says that it’s coming: “It’s been a slow development, they haven’t been small enough to place on the breast. But they’re getting that small, so we’ve got a provisional system.”

Today, there are a lot more choices than the original Jogbra jock strap design. In fact, as anybody who has gone shopping for a sports bra recently can attest, there is an overwhelming number of choices, from strappy yoga designs to padded cups to the classic racerback. But the choices women face come down to two main categories: compression bras and encapsulation bras.

“Once you go above a certain size, you start coming out everywhere anyway.”

Compression bras are the bras most people associate with sports bras — a single panel of fabric that hugs the breasts into the chest. The idea here is that if you can compress the breasts against the body, pulling them so they’re closer to your center of gravity, they’ll bounce less. Which is true, as long as the breasts in question aren’t too large.

Encapsulation bras treat each breast individually, more like a regular bra. While compression bras work perfectly well for women who fall into the A- and B-cup range, larger breasted women need more support. Some studies suggest that encapsulation bras can provide that, but not everyone is in agreement. In 2009, White found that for D-cup women, the difference in breast displacement between a compression bra and an encapsulation bra was insignificant.

“Once you go above a certain size, you start coming out everywhere anyway,” White explains. She also notes that compression bras are far more common in the United States than elsewhere in the world. For very large breasted women, some bras combine the two strategies, using individual cups for each breast with an outer compression layer on top.

In October of last year, Nike announced a new line of athletic gear for women, including sports bras, that it hoped would bring in $2 billion annually by 2017. This year, Under Armour announced its plans to reach $7.5 billion in sales, and as part of that growth, executives have pointed to its growing sports bra line.

Photo: Jenny White/Brittany Holloway-Brown

It’s not just athletic brands getting in on the action either; designers of all stripes are dipping their toes into the athletic market. Designer Mara Hoffman just released an activewear line that includes colorful sports bras. Rebecca Minkoff and Tory Burch recently did the same. There’s even a startup trying to disrupt the sports bra industry.

While there are suddenly a ton of options out there for women, not all of them are good. “There is no piece of clothing that is more difficult to design well than a sports bra,” says LaJean Lawson, a breast researcher and consultant for Champion Athletics. “There are so many different parameters. It’s the most hooked into cultural stereotypes. You have to think about sweat, support, chafing, straps, slippage, and then looking cute. That’s a really long list of conflicting design requirements.”

Lawson has been studying breasts, their movement, and the bras that contain them for Champion since 1984, when she tested the original Jogbra. In 1987, she evaluated the seven sports bras Champion had on offer using a 16mm film camera. Today, she employs the same methods that White’s lab does, using complex camera tracking to test hundreds of bras both from Champion and other companies. “I just ordered $1,000 worth of Victoria’s Secret sports bras to test in the lab,” Lawson says, “and they called me and asked, ‘Who are you, and why are you buying all these bras?'”

White’s team works directly with brands who want to evaluate their bras using her methods. She runs breast science workshops a few times a year, where representatives get an introductory crash course and learn ways bras can be designed to help reduce pain. From there, White offers her lab’s services to companies who want to come in and test their designs.

“There is no piece of clothing that is more difficult to design well than a sports bra. It’s the most hooked into cultural stereotypes.”

One of the brands that has taken White up on the offer is Shock Absorber, a UK sports bra company that prides itself on its scientifically-supported designs. “Since this original research was carried out, Shock Absorber has tested all new styles at the University of Portsmouth to measure their reduction in breast movement,” states.

White wouldn’t share the names of other brands she’s worked with, but Kelly Cortina, vice president of women’s apparel at Under Armour, disclosed that her team has used the Portsmouth lab. There, Cortina says, “we tested on women of all different sizes to ensure that the bra is minimizing breast movement and managing moisture efficiently.” White’s lab offers everything from a basic bra test to a “gold-level” setup where the company gets heavily involved in the fundamental research the team is doing.

In her ideal world, White would work with brands from the very beginning of their design phase, so they can test out many iterations of their styles. But that’s not how it usually happens: “Unfortunately many companies have gone through the whole process of design and they just want to know how good it is.”

Lawson, on the other hand, gets to work on Champion’s designs from the start. Along with a team of engineers, Lawson advises on seam placement, strap design, how to change contours, which parts will rub, and more.

White and Lawson keep a close eye on the trends in sports bras, and they have both seen a recent rise in bras with padding. “Last spring, when I did my last project, I had 12 bras to test,” Lawson says. “Four were Champion, eight were competitors, and 10 out of those 12 had some kind of padding in them.” White also saw more bras featuring lots of straps, and ones that look more like everyday bras: “I’ve noticed more sports bra that we’re testing having underwire.”

Here is where those athleisure offerings from brands like Mara Hoffman and Tory Burch are having an impact. “It’s had a noticeable influence on what women want in their sports bra,” Lawson says. “There have never been more products out on the market from non-athletic brands that don’t have the structure and the design to meet women’s needs when she’s out kicking it hard on the road.” Lawson adds that when she tests those bras on women in the lab, their flaws quickly become apparent. “When I can’t get a woman to take an $80 sports bra home for free, I mean, that’s a bad sign.”

Photo: Nike/Brittany Holloway-Brown

But this is the really tricky part: how good a sports bra is depends on what you’re measuring. For White, the quality of a bra has everything to do with the comfort of the user wearing it. But for brands, that’s not the only consideration.

Sports bras aren’t just a piece of sports equipment. They’re not like a bat or a baseball mitt or shin guards — designed, for the most part, for maximum functionality. They’re cultural objects, they’re fashion objects, and as such they’re laden with all kinds of baggage about how a woman is supposed to look. “There’s so much more to a sports bra than just a bra,” says Jaime Schultz, a sociologist who studies women and sports.

Just look at the way sports bras are advertised. The very first ad for the Jogbra boasted that its “unique design holds breasts close to the body.” Twenty years later, the company changed its tune. Suddenly, holding breasts close to the body, literally the entire purpose of the Jogbra, was a no-no. “Only abs should be flat,” a new ad read in 1996. “Now, a sports bra that respects and defines your natural shape.”

Today, Victoria’s Secret is continuing the war against compressed breasts. They call this “the uniboob.” Victoria’s Secret chief executive officer Sharen Jester Turney announced last year that the war against the uniboob was in full force: “We wanted to solve the uniboob problem, where your sports bra makes you look straight across — no one likes that. This bra is just as much about performance and function as the look.”

“One of my testers is an aspiring Olympic marathoner, she’s a 32C and she’s like, ‘I don’t want to be flat.'”

Well guess what, sometimes the uniboob is in fact the best way to reduce breast motion and pain. But women are constantly being told that even their sports bra should be sexy. Styles with spaghetti straps and low V’s and padded cups win out over wide straps and good support. “Women feel like they have to present themselves in the best possible breasted way that will appeal sexually,” says Schultz.

Under Armour’s Cortina echoed some of those sentiments in an email. “Women want to feel good and look good,” she wrote. “Gone are the days of sacrificing style for fit or comfort. She expects and DESERVES a bra (no matter the cup size) to fit, perform, and be on trend. Many bras offer one but not the others. She wants it all and she can have it all!”

Lawson says that she hears from lots of women that they want padding, and while she herself is not a proponent of enhanced sports bras, she’s also quick to say she doesn’t want to dismiss other women’s desires: “One of my testers is an aspiring Olympic marathoner, she’s a 32C and she’s like, ‘I don’t want to be flat.’ That shocked me, but that’s one of those things that has turned my ideas on their ear in the last few years.”

This is a perfect example of the “be everything at once” dilemma women face. A bra can’t just be a good bra, it also has to be fashionable and womanly. It has to hold the girls nicely, without diminishing their size and shape. And when forced to chose between those two things, bra manufacturers almost invariably chose look over function.

When asked about the future of sports bras, Lawson talked more about materials than overall design. She expects we’ll see materials “that can respond to breast impact so the control is local rather than being on the shoulder, materials that are better at responding to body temperatures and heat rates.” The compression and encapsulation styles, she says, are serviceable enough. While they could certainly use improvements in form, the foundational system of sports bras probably won’t change much any time soon.

And therein lies the problem. Lawson or White or any bra designer could, tomorrow, invent the world’s best sports bra. Something comfortable and supportive and soft and easy to put on and take off. Something that wicks away sweat while providing coverage. Something that doesn’t pinch the shoulders or squeeze the rib cage. But if that sports bra isn’t cute, it wouldn’t matter. “I think the biggest problem is that a lot of it isn’t based on science,” says Steele. “It’s based on fashion and look. And that’s what sells.”

Editor: Julia Rubin
Photo illustrations by Brittany Holloway-Brown

Many women have a years-old bra, now slightly stretched or discoloured, that they love for how comfortable it is. You might also have a bra that you haven’t been able to wear more than once because it doesn’t feel right – maybe the wires poke in or there’s too much padding.

Research has shown that as many as 80% of us are wearing the wrong bra for our bodies, but why does it matter?

Can your bra cause breast cancer?

There are a whole host of myths out there when it comes to breast health. For years, headlines have cropped up suggesting that wearing bras causes breast cancer.

“Wearing a well-fitting bra has no known negative consequences,” says Amy Sanchez, Senior Research Associate in Biomechanics with the Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth. “We often get asked about cancer and bras, and existing research shows no link between bra use and breast cancer.”

While bras don’t cause breast cancer, that doesn’t mean that they can’t impact your health, she continues.

“Wearing an ill-fitting bra can cause poor posture, and neck pain, shoulder grooves leading to numbness in the fingers, and a lack of self-confidence.”

An uncomfortable bra can have a big impact on body confidence and self-esteem, says Tracey-Jane Hughes, founder of Bra Lady.

“If something is pressing on the breast tissue it can obviously cause discomfort. Sometimes that can cause mental health issues as well. I see a lot of women who don’t like their breasts because they find them uncomfortable – all because they are not wearing a well-fitting bra.”

With wear, bras stretch and don’t provide the same support they had when we first bought them. Our bodies also change over time so it’s a good idea to buy new bras regularly.

“A bra will only last for about six months,” says Hughes.

Our picks for Is your bra harming your health?

Anatomy of the breast

The medical name for breast is mammary gland. Each breast consists of tissue overlying the chest…

Is braless better?

There’s a growing trend, particularly among younger women, to turn to non-wired soft-cup bras, fabric ‘bralettes’ or not wearing a bra. Bralettes in particular have taken the lingerie market by storm with the number of styles of bralettes on the market seeing a 123% increase between 2016 and 2018.

So is an underwire always necessary?

“As far as I am aware there has been little research done specifically on bralettes,” says Sanchez. “We have, however, tested several non-wired bras and these can be effective at supporting the breast if constructed well. There are many different materials and techniques used in the bra industry and from my experience, I feel it is no longer essential for a bra to have underwire to provide good support.”

Bralettes aren’t one size fits all. What works for one woman might not work for another, and sometimes that can lead to pain and problems with the breasts, she continues.

“Wearing no bra or a low-support bra can cause the skin to stretch beyond its elastic limit, leading to permanent deformation and premature sagging of the breast. There is also plenty of research to show that wearing low breast support leads to increased breast pain and reduced movement efficiency during exercise or physical activity.”

Body shape can make all the difference when it comes to buying a bra. “Some women with larger breasts may not get the support they need from a bralette,” explains Hughes. “They are likely to end up with neck ache or back ache because it’s not supportive enough.”

Fit is just as important in bralettes as in traditional bras. “An ill-fitting bra is an ill-fitting bra; it doesn’t matter whether it’s got wires in or not. A lot of women are going over to soft-cup bras but if you’ve got an ill-fitting soft-cup bra, that will still do as much damage to your breasts and back and neck as a underwired bra.”

How to find your perfect bra

Every woman will have different criteria for their bra, including style, support and comfort. The Research Group in Breast Health advocates a ‘best-fit’ approach to finding the right bra, using five key criteria:

  • Underband should fit firmly, pulling away about one inch, and be level all around the torso.
  • Underwire should follow the breast crease and not sit on any breast tissue.
  • Cups should fully encase the breast tissue without bulging or gaping.
  • Straps should sit comfortably on the shoulders, pulling away about one inch.
  • Centre-front should sit flat against the body.

“If a bra does not meet all these criteria try going up or down a size,” says Sanchez.

The underband is crucial to getting the perfect fit. Many women wear the underband too loose and the cup too small. “You wear it around the smallest part of your back. A lot of women are wearing them too high. That means that their breasts aren’t being supported,” explains Hughes.

“Make sure your breasts are enclosed in the cup. We all have one breast bigger than the other so we always fit the larger breast which for some women can be one or two cup sizes different.”

If you’re lucky enough to find your ‘perfect bra’ don’t forget that it might not be suitable for all occasions. Breasts change during the month, and even during the day. Hormones can make breast size fluctuate during the monthly cycle, up to one to two cup sizes. What you need from your bra also changes at different times.

“Consider wearing different bras for different activities, as support level, strap configuration, adjustability, and style requirements are likely to change between activities,” explains Sanchez. “Invest in a well-fitting bra if you are experiencing discomfort or embarrassment associated with your breasts, even if it’s only worn at certain times of the month or for specific activities.”

It’s a good idea to have a supportive sports bra for exercise but generally you should avoid wearing restrictive sports bras all day every day as they can become uncomfortable with prolonged use.

It can be difficult to know if a bra works for you until you’ve tried it out for a few hours. However, you can check if it’s fit for purpose by trying it out in the fitting room in the way that you would normally wear it, to make sure that it isn’t too tight, gives you support and lets you move in the way you need to.

“Try your top on. Does it look good? Does it feel good? Jump up and down, swing your arms around. Make sure your bra is fit for the purpose you need it for. If it is a sports bra, do some of the things that you would do if you were doing that sport. If you’re sitting down in a job all day, sit down on a chair to try it out because our bodies are in a very different position from standing to sitting. Try it out as you would wear it every day,” explains Hughes.

“If it’s not comfortable, it’s definitely not right. If you’ve got any doubt at all, don’t get it.”

Can You Work Out Without A Bra? You Can, But It’s Probably Going To Be A Bit Painful

You know the feeling: You just conquered a long day of work, you’re ready to sweat it out at the gym, but as you reach into your duffle bag, you realize you forgot your sports bra. And, let’s be real, if you go home to get another one, your bed is going to look way too inviting, and your trip to the gym will soon become ancient history. So, you can’t help but wonder, can you work out without a bra on?

Like, it seems as if everyone and their mother is already #FreeingTheNip anyway, so letting the girls breathe during your HIIT circuit can’t be such a big deal, right?

It may seem pretty harmless but, if you’ve ever tried doing burpees braless, you might beg to differ. In fact, I’m almost certain that that’s what dying feels like — more or less, anyway.

First, let’s start off with why your boobs hurt so much when you try to get moving sans your strappy companion. Whether you’re braless and running to catch the subway, or you’re freeing the nip on the elliptical, your breasts are super sensitive to motion because they’re made out of a combination of fat and glandular (aka milk-producing) tissue, and they’re basically anchored to your chest wall, according to Greatist.

Plus, your breast tissue contains extremely sensitive nerves throughout that can be easily be torn during exercise.

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Is anyone else in actual pain just reading/thinking about this?

Plus, if you’re thinking about pounding the pavement with the twins on the loose, you might be in for some unwanted upper back and neck tension that will be hard to shake off afterward.

Basically, when you’re sweating it out sans sports bra, your muscles have to work a little harder than usual to keep your shoulders from being weighed down by your breasts. As if you’re not already working hard enough in the weight room, now you have two extra bouncy dumbbells stuck to your chest to worry about.

And if you think you’re in the clear because your tatas are on the smaller side, think again.

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According to Women’s Running, even the smallest cup size can experience irreversible damage to connective tissue in the long run without the proper support provided by a bra.

But sometimes, even wearing a bra while you work out won’t exactly do the trick. A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that more than half of women with larger breasts — along with 25 percent of women who wore an A cup or smaller — reported experiencing uncomfortable chest aches while working out.

This is because a lot of women don’t pick the right bra style for their breast size, and suffer some pretty painful consequences as a result.

So, since it’s pretty imperative to brace your breasticles for movement, make sure you’re investing in the proper support.

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If your bra just ain’t right in the midst of your sweat sesh, according to Fitness Magazine, an A cup will move about an inch and a half in each direction, and a D cup will shift as much as two to three inches. All I can say to that, is ouch.

So, if you’re a B cup or below, you’re going to want to invest in a quality compression sports bra. Those are the ones that give you that whole “uniboob” look, in case you were wondering.

As for ladies with bigger boobs, you’re going to want to opt for an encapsulation style, which have individual cups to support you and limit unwanted movement.

Bottom line: The right over-the-shoulder boulder-holder is probably more important than you realize if you want to avoid both posture problems and a seriously unpleasant sweat sesh.

Running with no bra

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