The Athletic Brassiere

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

LaJean 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… (jogging sound)

Roman Mars:
That is the sound of producer Phoebe Flanigan, jogging on a treadmill. She’s being observed by LaJean Lawson, one of the world’s leading experts on sports bras. Lawson uses all kinds of fancy equipment like a 3D imaging machine to understand the biomechanics of breasts and how they move when women exercise.

LaJean Lawson:
The breasts will rise up and then has to go down again. It changes direction constantly. The accelerations, which is either speeding up or slowing down where the nipple is changing direction can be very high. I did a research and I said, “You know a 36D nipple can go from zero to 60 faster than a Ferrari.”

Phoebe Flanigan:
Really?

LaJean Lawson:
Much faster.

Roman Mars:
For the past 30 years, Lawson has worked as a researcher and consultant to Champion Athletic Wear. She specializes in sports bra design. Sports bras are a piece of clothing that women might take for granted today, but they were totally revolutionary when they were first invented. They opened up whole new realms of sports and exercise to women.

LaJean 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.

Roman Mars:
Today we’re going to feature a story from our friends at the Outside Podcast from Outside Magazine and PRX. They did a whole episode dedicated to the design and history of the sports bra. We’ll start back in Lawson’s lab with reporter Florence Williams.

Florence Williams:
Beyond the lab, LaJean’s also got a sports bra museum that’s filled with decades worth of vintage models and some are more mystifying than others.

Florence Williams:
There are so many straps.

LaJean Lawson:
This could not be any weirder. This was called the Damon Jogger, which I called the Demon Jogger and there were instructions on how to get this on, which I don’t know if I can do this.

Florence Williams:
You put your legs through it?

LaJean Lawson:
Yeah. You put your legs through it and you pull it up.

Florence 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.

LaJean 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.

Florence Williams:
Recent and surprisingly controversial. When LaJean started doing her research back in the 80s, she actually got some serious pushback like this one letter that turned up at her office.

LaJean Lawson:
This letter said, “If God had intended women to run, he would not have put breasts on them.” So it’s sort of like there was a whole socio-cultural stereotype of how women should behave and it wasn’t vigorously and badly. 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.

Florence Williams:
To understand how the sports bra changed all that, we need to go back to 1977. It was the same year that James Fix published his blockbuster bestseller, ‘The Complete Book of Running’, and it was just a few years out from Title Nine. 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.

Archive Tape:
“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.”

Lisa Lindahl:
You know, my whole generation started exercising.

Florence Williams:
This is Lisa Lindahl. She got caught up in the craze.

Lisa Lindahl:
And I had a friend who introduced me to what was then called jogging and…

Florence Williams:
Was it a new term?

Lisa Lindahl:
It was, 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.

Florence Williams:
Lisa broke a mile, then two, and then three. She started running outside, but the more she ran, the more she realized she had a new problem. Actually two problems, her 36Cs.

Lisa Lindahl:
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.

Florence Williams:
Yeah. I bet. Things haven’t changed much over the years.

Lisa Lindahl:
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.

Florence Williams:
Lisa’s sister started running too and one day she called her up.

Lisa Lindahl:
And 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 jockstrap for women?”. That’s when we really laughed. We thought that was hilarious.

Florence Williams:
Lisa couldn’t let the idea drop. She started working the problem.

Lisa Lindahl:
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 tee 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 tee shirt, over his head, and tuck it in the back of his shorts and I was so jealous.

Florence Williams:
Yeah.

Lisa Lindahl:
Because I couldn’t do that, but I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for that in the beginning.

Florence Williams:
And then somehow your husband became involved. Your husband at the time.

Lisa Lindahl:
Yeah.

Florence Williams:
Also had a role here.

Lisa Lindahl:
He did. Because what happened is, I mean, 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.

Florence Williams:
Yeah. Things need to be cantilevered.

Lisa Lindahl:
Yes. It’s like building a bridge.

Florence Williams:
Right.

Lisa Lindahl:
But we didn’t know that at the time. 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 jockstraps 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. I got up and took it off of him and-

Florence Williams:
Tried it on.

Lisa Lindahl:
Tried it on. Because I had to get in the act, you know, and pulled it over my chest that actually had breasts and went, “Oh.”

Lisa Lindahl:
I went running the next day in this jockstrap contraption and knew that this 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.

Florence Williams:
How did you come up with the name jog bra?

Lisa Lindahl:
Well, there was no such term as sports bra at the time. And so we were calling it jock bra.

Florence Williams:
I like that.

Lisa Lindahl:
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.

Florence 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 sell women’s underwear?

Lisa Lindahl:
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.

Florence Williams:
Right. Because women’s undergarments had never been sold outside of the context of lingerie.

Lisa Lindahl:
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 standards.

Florence Williams:
It wasn’t about the bullet bra look.

Lisa Lindahl:
No, and it was about functionality. I mean it smushed the breasts against the chest wall. It certainly was not-

Florence Williams:
Well there was a little bit of a uni-boob issue, right?

Lisa Lindahl:
Yes, absolutely. There was a uni-boob issue and of course now you can have a very sexy sports bra now.

Florence Williams:
Right. But back then it was really about function.

Lisa Lindahl:
A hundred percent.

Florence Williams:
And it took off.

Lisa Lindahl:
And it was immediately successful. Our average growth rate was like 25% per year, and we just kept growing and growing and growing.

Florence 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 travel.

Sports Announcer:
“Goal!”

Florence Williams:
Remember that’s when the U.S. Soccer team had just beat China with the winning goal by Brandi Chastain.

Sports Announcer:
“What a day this was and it continues from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The United States has won the Women’s World Cup.”

Lisa Lindahl:
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.”

Florence Williams:
And that moment, let me just describe it. She made the final winning goal.

Lisa Lindahl:
She did.

Florence Williams:
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. And it was really the jog bra that was seen around the world.

Lisa Lindahl:
Right. The jog bra that was heard around the world. Exactly. And I think what she 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.

Florence 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.

Lisa Lindahl:
Exactly. Exactly. And in fact women do. I see it all the time and I chuckle to myself. You’d 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.

Florence 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.

Florence Williams:
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.

LaJean Lawson:
When you’re running, there are 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 breast 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 breasts, the more impact can affect it and create very large displacements. But yeah, mass is a big factor.

Florence Williams:
That was certainly proving to be true for Rinelle Broughton.

Rinelle Broughton:
Oh, I would try doubling up on sports bras.

Florence Williams:
She was a hairdresser in Montana and she’d been playing volleyball and running track with triple D’s.

Rinelle Broughton:
When you start getting up in the C, D, double D, triple D area, you got to have a lot more going on there to contain those.

Florence Williams:
Give us a sense of how big triple D breasts are. Like, do you know what they weigh, for example?

Rinelle Broughton:
Oh, not really, but a lot.

Florence Williams:
I mean if I were looking at a triple D breast in front of me, what would it look like?

Rinelle Broughton:
So apparently you don’t have triple D’s is that what you’re saying?

Florence Williams:
I so do not. No. I’m a B.

Rinelle Broughton:
You don’t know how lucky you are. 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.

Florence Williams:
Rinelle 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.

Rinelle Broughton:
And I’ll tell you, the first bra that I made for myself was not pretty. We just used my mother’s left over fabric from different things but I really didn’t care. That’s the thing with me is I don’t really care what it looks like. I just want it to work.

Florence Williams:
And what were the big innovations in your bra? What made it different from the jog bra?

Rinelle 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 going to 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.

Florence Williams:
So you were able to kind of distribute the weight a little bit through this design?

Rinelle Broughton:
Exactly.

Florence Williams:
Well, Rinelle, why do you think large breasted women had been so ignored until this point?

Rinelle Broughton:
You know, 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.

Florence Williams:
So you think that breasts are actually getting bigger now?

Rinelle 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.

Florence 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 like measured it in your annual doctor’s visit.

Rinelle Broughton:
No. And also I think when girls start to develop, if they develop 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.

Florence Williams:
What do you think is behind that?

Rinelle Broughton:
I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a big boob, blonde.

Florence Williams:
Rinelle may not be a scientist, but we did find a woman who actually studies the stuff.

Florence Williams:
Hi Michelle.

Michelle Norris:
Hi.

Florence Williams:
Can you say your name and briefly what you do?

Michelle Norris:
My name is Michelle Norris and I’m a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science here in the University of Portsmouth.

Florence Williams:
We called up Michelle because we wanted to see if Rinelle’s instincts were right. That in spite of all the innovation in sports bra technology, boobs could still be causing girls to drop out of sports because something certainly is.

Michelle Norris:
Yeah, this is 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 cheating exercise guidelines and we know that as a nation we’re getting more obese and having 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.

Florence Williams:
Wow. So what did you find in your research?

Michelle Norris:
Yeah, so we find that kind of relates to breasts. The biggest reasons for lack of participation in exercise I guess is this breast bounce. So this kind of excessive movement in breasts that girls are very self conscious of it. After this, again, 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 breasted girls.

Florence Williams:
This is interesting to me. It’s not necessarily that it was… It’s sort of a physics problem as much as it is almost a psychological problem.

Michelle Norris:
Yeah, definitely. In terms of the physics, I mean having a good sports bra, we know will reduce the amount of that breasts move during high or low or any kind of activity. So we can easily alter the physics of breasts moving, but it’s the psychological effect that they probably need education on that and have a bigger impact maybe.

Michelle Norris:
As well as this: we found that nearly 50% reported that they never wear a sports bra during sports. And for us this is kind of one of the main educational aspects that we can kind of 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.

Florence Williams:
Do you think there’s an economic piece to this as well?

Michelle Norris:
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.

Florence Williams:
And this is really sort of an under sung area in looking at access to health. We need to get these girls in the right equipment.

Michelle Norris:
Yeah, definitely. I definitely think it’s overlooked. We also found that they actually had massive concerns about their breasts. 73% 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 stuff that we should all talk about freely and that we can kind of educate them further on.

Florence 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.

Florence Williams:
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’.

Roman Mars:
That was Florence Williams. This story was produced by Phoebe Flanigan and edited by Peter Frick-Wright, with music by Robbie Carver and Dennis Funk. The story originally aired on the Outside Podcast, a production of Outside Magazine and PRX.

Comments (7)

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  1. Christi

    Hey 99pi, women’s bra are sized way past the scary-sounding DDD cups. I wear a 34N sports bra during my half marathons. It’s a marvel of engineering.

  2. Leanne Bains

    I am a 40F and I was sad to see Champion does not have my size. I was probably a DDD in high school. I am overweight, but not obese. I would like to see bigger companies make quality stuff larger than a DDD. So far, my best find is the LIVI brand with Lane Bryant.

    1. Anne

      Hi Leanne! I wear a 34G in a normal bra and also struggle finding quality sports bras in my size. My best finds have been the Brooks/Moving Comfort Juno and Maia sports bras. I don’t know how they compare price wise to Lane Bryant, but they’ve been a godsend for me since I started distance running.

  3. Eliza Barry

    The way this episode depicts breast sizes is simply not accurate. Bra sizes are on a matrix, which means the band size matters! A 28 DDD is not the same as a 40 DDD. Calling something a DDD without a band measurement is totally meaningless. Further, many women on a higher or lower end of the matrix are wearing the wrong size anyway because those sizes are not readily available in stores and many associates at the traditional bra stores (Victoria’s Secret, Soma, etc) just tell women to size up the band to get a bigger cup and the band does not fit or support the breast tissue. I seriously doubt the woman mentioned who is a “DDD blonde” is actually in the correct size. I also doubt the producer who was saying she is a B really is a B cup without some kinds of band measurement or body description.
    I’m really disappointing in this episode that it was so poorly researched, but as mentioned in the episode people with larger chests (and women in general) are pretty discriminated against anyway so it doesn’t really surprise me, I just thought 99 PI could do/would try to do better than this.

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