body image · clothing · fashion · gender policing

Padded sports bras and nipple phobia

I know this is a controversial issue among women who run because the minute I whine about the problem of padded sports bras, friends leap to their defense. So I see that other people love them. I, however, do not.

I get that tastes can vary. I don’t like padded anything really. (Bike shorts might be the one exception.) And it’s getting more difficult to find non padded bras of any sort in A and B cup sizes. And then the problem continues because all dresses are now made to fit at least a C cup and when they don’t fit, the answer is the padded bra.

So I get that people like them, and like them they must, since it seems most sports bras now come with padding.

The complaints against the non padded kind are of two sorts, roughly related to breast presentation and size, on the one hand, and nipple visibility on the other.

One woman writes into the forum on bras at Runners World and describes the two flaws with non padded bras saying that they, “1. Squash my breasts so that my breasts are even smaller or so that my breasts merge into one small horizontal lump 2. Exhibit my nipple shape for all to see. I might as well paint on two black circles and arrow signs on my chest with the words “and HERE are my NIPPLES!” when it’s cold outside.”

Here’s one happy padded running bra customer: “While I’d like to say that I went searching for a padded sports bra to get extra coverage, the truth of the matter is when I work out, I’d like to look more like a woman and less like a 12-year- old boy.” (Read more Padded Sports Bra Reviews – Best Padded Sports Bras – Good Housekeeping)

I think I’d be happy to look like a 12 year old boy when I’m running and mostly I don’t think too much about my workout appearance. I like to be sleek and have as little extra material material as possible.

For advice on choosing a good padded sports bra you could do worse than read this advice from the folks at Livestrong.

So let me be very specific here, what I loathe isn’t the existence of padded sports bras, it’s their ubiquity. It’s their domination of the sports bra market. Try finding a non padded sports bra in my size. Oh, and it shouldn’t have an underwire either. Good luck with that and call me when you’ve succeeded.

A friend who works in television suggested a reality tv show, Bra Hunter. They could help me and help the women looking for brown bras, since ‘flesh’ colored bras are decidedly beige. You can read about the Brown Bra Scavenger Hunt here, Not MY Nude — Why I Started the Brown Bra Scavenger Hunt.

Looking around for some guidance and discussion about the whys of the rise in popularity of the padded bra, it turns out the real issue isn’t keeping up with breast-implanted Joneses. Instead, it’s paranoia about nipple visibility.

Nipples are now what VPL, or visible panty lines, used to be to my generation, before thong underwear came into vogue. In The Tyranny of the T-Shirt Bra: Do You Live in Fear of Your Own Nipples? Bonnie Downing writes for the Hairpin:

“Foamy, modern, molded bras have taken over more than their share of the bra market. They seem to insist that if we decline silicone breasts, we should at least have the courtesy to hide our actual breasts under smooth, springy, vaguely breast-like shells….

They continue to encroach, creeping in under new names all the time: Contour Bras for a “sculpted silhouette”; Foam-Lined Bras, defined on the Bare Necessities as the go-to choice for “protection against nipple show through”; Seamless Bras “virtually invisible!” (Like your nipples.) T-shirt Bras for an “ultra-smooth look” (you know by now what that means). Microfiber Bras! They’re all the same bras, really. OneHanesPlace adds Laminated Bras, which they admit are “a lot like Molded-Cup Bras,” which “mimic your body’s contours because the fabric is molded on a cone-shaped form. So, they fit like a second skin… and work with your shape, not against it.””

So I gather what I’m seeing are t-shirt bras, the running version.

Yes, women athletes have nipples–we’re not like Barbie–and when we’re cold or pumped with adrenaline from physical activity, they’re sometimes visible.  Deal with it please.

And when I find a nice non-padded running bra in my size, I think I’ll buy a half dozen and be done with it!

41 thoughts on “Padded sports bras and nipple phobia

  1. I keep the padding in my sports bras because I do get a little weirded out when the headlights are on because I feel like I’m really giving the world a glimpse into what I look like when I’m naked. I know it’s silly but it also makes me self-conscious and that’s the last thing I need when sporting.

    But underwire? Hell nah. I can barely cope with underwire in my non-sports life. Having to deal with them while running would make me mental.

  2. I’m just happy to find a sportsbra that fits a 36G. In 14 years of adult life, that has happened precisely once, and cost over $200. I agree the preponderance is geared towards the average C cup, but even finding DD in sporting wear is very difficult. It’s as if the thought of big breasted gals working out is anethema to the notion of fitness. Or that big breasts come on any body type other than very large. Big cups are much easier to find for 40+ around the ribs…

    If I could just find a fitting sportsbra, padded or not…I’d be a happy gal.

    1. Yeah, they must sort of stop including padding in sports bras once they reach a “certain size”… I’ve bounced around (heh) between 36-38 DD-FF and I have never seen that; I wasn’t even aware it was even a thing! I’m not a super-nipply person but I do wear “molded” bras to work, because it’s always cold and the last thing I need is my coworkers staring at my chest (more).

      Eliza, if you don’t mind underwire (and maybe a lifetime investment in Body Glide) Freya makes a sports bra that goes up to JJ cup (it worked great for running) and it’s not too too spendy. Anita and Moving Comfort have also done me well, for compression-style bras. Good luck finding the right one for you!

    2. Just seconding this. I’ve exhausted the bra fitters (I’m sure the fitters themselves, in addition to their sales stock) in my city; they don’t have what fits me (by my best guess, this would be something near a 34HH). And while I’d certainly save all my pennies to purchase a $200 bra if I knew it would fit, I don’t have the extra money to keep paying shipping and shipping and shipping (and shipping) to find my size via online and mail order.

    3. Doesn’t it suck that’ll the ones that do fit are not cut at all and look like something a grandma should wear!

  3. We talked about the difference between padding and support the other day. I’m not sure I’ve ever found good support without the padding (other than the old kind that gave support just in virtue of squishing the breasts against the body). At Costco (I know) they sell a lot of workout style tops with that “shelf” mechanism. Personally, I don’t find it to be sufficient in terms of support, but it might be the kind of thing you are looking for. Not sure. And finally, the underarmor sports bras come with removable padding and are very good. It’s possible that if you size it properly, you will be able to remove the padding and have just what you need. They come in a range of sizes and cup sizes. They sell them up at Sport Check.

  4. Sports bras, and bras in general (and hell, footwear) are a bit of a bugbear of mine because I’m not in the bell curve. I always thought I was something like a 36DD because that was all that existed, regardless of how uncomfortable everything was. I ran for years, including marathon training + marathon, in strategic doubling up. which sounds simple but is deceptively a pain because it involves a lot of planning and strategic laundry. (Seriously.) Then I happened to get gifted a Shock Absorber bra in 34E and it changed my life. No padding there, just high-engineering to hold my poor abused boobs in place. I’ve since lost weight and have to stock up on 32F Shock Absorbers and normal everyday bras (also only with enough lining to stop nipple freeze, which I am not particularly bent out of shape about, but can occasionally be uncomfortable physically). I’m lucky that I live in the UK, because these sizes are actually available here – I never found ANYTHING like them in the US and not for lack of trying. Running is *so* much better now and my bra does not look like a medical device; it may not look super sexy, but it is cool-looking enough to be able to go jogging in it alone when I’m feeling thin and it’s warm out (not now).

    The wider bra issue of larger measurements was brought up a few months ago on They cited people like Sofia Vergara – what I mean here is, large cup sizes on normal chest sizes, e.g. 32F, 32G, etc. (THEY EXIST, DAMMIT, I’M ONE OF THEM) and pointed out that none of the major bra makers – sports included – in the US cater to this size group. The conversation in the comment thread *immediately* went to “haha tits conversation” from the men and “this is not a problem, what are you complaining about, you implanted skank” from some bitchy women. (Trust me – they are a curse, not a blessing.)

    The reason I wanted to relate that story is that I think you’re right: there is a prevalence out there for bras to do exclusively what some vague “mainstream” thinks they should do (i.e. look sexy on a couple particular body types and no others), and that’s why so many of them are padded – it’s for “shaping” and “nipple decency” and whatever. Anyone with tastes or sizes out of that mainstream ideal is in for a tough ride – e.g. brown, 32F, unpadded small, etc. I think the root of problem is the fact that, as I mentioned above, we as a society seem to be unable to talk about boobs as a body part without being like SHRIEK! because there is no obvious reason to not widen the market, given that there is clearly demand for a diversified product. The story is marginally better in the UK, so if you’re over here for any reason, take the opportunity and go bra shopping.

    And on that note, as much as I like my sports bra and think it’s cute and eminently run-able, I would love someone like Lululemon or Prana to make a REALLY cute crossover bra that is actually… separative, not for running, but for stuff like rock climbing. It’s fucked up that no one does it at all, even the big-bra names like Panache. Dear world… big tits =/= lazy or fat, and we like hot fashions too.

    1. Anna Kintner, I agree with everything you say here. I’m in the UK too, and I’m one of many women whose lives changed when Bravissimo started up. Since this thread is about sports bras: I’m another who likes Shock Absorber.

  5. I actually don’t mind the old style compression bras. They’re still around and I buy in bulk! Champion makes a nice one in funky colours, hot pink and lime green etc. But they are getting harder and harder to find. Online ordering from the US works…

  6. I’m a squishy D, and was an A/B when I was thinner. I swear by the Champion C9 sports bras at Target. No padding, comes in two strap styles, and a ton of colors…and cheap too 🙂

  7. I still remember the first time a woman told me she would never go out in public without a bra on because she was afraid of the “dot dot effect”. The premise that a woman should feel the need to hide the natural shape of her body was so far outside my realm of thinking that I had to ask her what she meant. Then, when she told me, I had to work hard not to laugh. Her fears reminded me of the time I was five years old and ran around the house with my hand covering my face because I’d decided I didn’t want anyone to see my nose.

    When I run in my old style, non-padded sports bra–which works just great by sucking up all of my flesh against my chest, helps keep me comfortable by wicking sweat away from my body, and helps keep my body shape streamlined and free from extra bulk–I do not look like a twelve year old boy. I look like a 41 year old woman running in a decent sports bra.

    Maybe I’d be a better person if I was open-minded enough to be able to say I don’t loathe the mere existence of padded sports bras. But the truth is that I do. The premise behind their existence is offensive, and the efforts to market them propagate the bizarre notion that women should for some reason desire to mould their own bodies into some socially sanctioned, cookie-cutter “norm”. The fact that padded and non-padded sports bras are not happily co-existing side-by-side but the once-popular non-padded bras are quickly disappearing in the wake of the rise of padded bras is testament to the destructive power of that marketing force.

    Samantha, when you get your reality tv show, let me know. I’d totally be on that one. And Tracy, thanks for the tips. I’m loathed to shop at Sport Chek at the moment since the last time I was there the sales clerk told me the solution to the problem of their not having a single pair of running shoes in their store which fit me was for me to purchase a pair which were too large and then also purchase a pair of $40 over-the-counter orthotics to go inside them. But I might need to go that route if I continue to come up dry elsewhere.

  8. There are some good bra recommendations in the comments here! I’ll add another one, just because… I have the “All Sport Bra” from Lululemon and it’s lovely – the fabric is very soft, and the seams are flat, so no chafing anywhere, which is a blessing. It’s got criss-cross straps at the back, though, which may not be everyone’s bag. I was apprehensive about them but I actually really like them. It’s not lined, though it does have the option for “removable padded cups,” which I don’t use with it. It’s very supportive, but my chest has gone from a 36C to a 34B in the past few years, so I don’t exactly need much support. But the reviews of larger-chested women on the website seem to suggest that it works for them as well (though not, I suspect, for the extremely well-endowed folks such as some of your commenters here).

    That said, I actually hadn’t encountered too many padded sports bras! I imagine they’d get kind of icky and damp with sweat, wouldn’t they?

    1. I wear that one too. No padding (gross, it would be soaking wet for me). I’m an odd 32 D which really means not a lot of boob, but I’m 42 and have 2 kids so I need some support!

  9. I haven’t thought of it because my goals are purely instrumental: what is right for the temperature and what will keep them the least bouncy (for comfort, not appearance). I found one at Winner’s ten years ago and bought two. They are still in excellent shape despite being in rotation constantly. I have bought others, but have found they are too thin, or the straps are too long. I haven’t thought of nipples while working out, but I guess once I warm up that isn’t a problem. Some people are perkier than others naturally, though, so maybe I have it easy. I can only guess how I’d feel if I was out there, and I think working out would be the one time I wouldn’t care because if you are looking, its your problem. I can’t imagine working out with padding, though. I have enough padding as it is! ha!
    Great post and awesome comments.

  10. I don’t think it was a good idea I wore too-thin bras…and I wore a T-shirt and shorts when cycling to and from work. At that time I worked for the courts/judges. So breezing innocently down the hall past senior judges in their black gowns…. on my way out the door.

    Same judges you read about in the Canadian news.

    That was when I was in my mid-30’s. Really, having a tiny bit of padding is just better taste. A

  11. Under Armor makes an excellent, albeit pricey, sports bra with removable padding. It’s called the Armour Bra. It keeps everything where it should be and is very comfortable. Best I’ve ever had.

    1. Saw those the other day wondered. Thanks for the tip. I’ll give it a try!

    2. As a 34DD distance runner, I second this recommendation (after taking the padding out) and would like to add Title Nine’s Last Resort to the list.

  12. I can’t believe you actually have trouble finding non padded sports bras. Walmart! Not the best quality as you’d get at an actualy sports store but the Walmart ones do last well for a few months and relatively cheap so you can buy a lot ay once comared to buying one good sports bra elsewhere

  13. I have had a difficult time finding the right sports bra as I wear a 36DD. I am a nipply person but I don’t care as long as I get a bra to fit. I have nipples, you have nipples we all have nipples so really who cares. When I row I wear one bra but when I run I wear two, one uniboob bra and a regular sports bra to hold me in and stop the bounce. Then there is the problem of how to conceal my bra straps. Larger size sports bras rarely have t-backs to them so my shoulder straps show. Again I don’t care because it is obvious that I am wearing a bra. I buy my sports bras from Walmart and do some adjusting to them myself.

  14. Northern hemisphere friends! In Australia we have a great bra brand called Berlei who make sports bras that come in different levels of shock absorption and sizes including G cups for smaller chest circumference. They test their bras at the Australian institute of sport here in Canberra (I have a busty friend who did this – sticky dots on her boobs as she ran on a treadmill sans bra (ouch!) and then with a bra & they record the movement of breast tissue.) Cost is usually around $60AUD.
    They also come in a range of funky colours & different styles. As for the padding, None of the bras I have now are padded (too hot in summer!!) I run in an underwire bra but I cycle in a crop top.
    Hoping you can buy OS! (Or come to Aus for a bra-buying holiday!)
    There is also TriAction -they do great crossover back crop tops with med support, but I’m not sure of the sizes.
    I understand this problem for larger chested active women acutely, fortunately when I joined the military at 18 one of the things they did in our first week was get all the females fitted and issued with sports bras. So I knew as an young girl with an E cup (who grew up a to be 25yo with a G or F cup) that berlei bras existed. Didn’t stop me having to double up with a tight crop top over my sports bra for extra support back then (I had a bilateral breast reduction 10 years ago and am now a C or D cup depending on which weight I’m at). But I’ve always worn good quality sports bras that fit correctly since. Good luck!!

  15. It’s not so much nipple paranoia as it is the desire to maintain some level of modesty.
    I don’t like underwires at all, and find it difficult to find bras that not only fit me, but also have no underwire, have enough padding to have nipple coverage, and are comfortable.
    To add sports bras on top of that? A task. My current sports bras have no padding.

  16. I LOVE padded running bras – I don’t care who sees my nipples, I didn’t even know anyone cared about them showing – but my pointy beauties freeze and chafe horribly in regular bras. I was always stuffing pieces of old running socks in to insulate until I found padded bras. Now I’m cozy no matter how cold 🙂

  17. I didn’t read all the comments – but I just found a great bra! I have the same issue – B cup, don’t really like padding, however, I also don’t like nipplage. It never bothered me until it bothered my husband. According to him, that’s all it takes to get ogled by grown men. While I don’t agree that we should be ogled because of our natural body parts, I don’t really want to be ogled by grown men in my little suburb – just because I’m out running. Under Armour HeatGear. I think there are some that have removable pads, but mine did not. It just came with one piece of fabric, no pads. And guess what — NO nipplage! And I usually have major nipplage. This is the BEST bra ever!

  18. I prefer compression bras too. I don’t need my boobs to look separate! Or look bigger. I just want them out of the way!

    By the way, you mentioned nude bras and I was wondering if you’ve ever tried ThirdLove? Instead of a single nude colour they have a collection of Naked colours that range from the usual beige to a very dark purplish-black that are meant for women with different skin tones. I think there are 4 or 5 different colours.

  19. This is STILL an issue and I am on the “I do not want foam on my chest when I am working out because I am already hot and sweaty without it!” team.

    Yes, it pisses me off that strangers trip on nipples (hello nature gave them to both genders). In keeping with Polite Society Rules, I cover them for work and similar situations. However, when it comes time for exercise, I am far more concerned with my form, safety, and what I am trying to accomplish than how ‘cute’ my tits look. I need them to not bounce around, full stop. Also, HIIT + menopause + padding = a special level of misery.

    (To be fair, my opinion may be biased by my loathing of bras in general.)

    1. Over the years I have tried so many sports bras, expensive and cheap models. They all had annoying bra pads in common 🙂 Shifting bra pads drive me nuts! Am I the only one? I recently found bylly sports bra pads they stay permanently in the bra pocket. Sounds amazing, I’m excited to try them out!

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