Sports Bras, AGAIN

SPORTS-BRAS-facebookSports bras. We’ve blogged about them a few times already. Way back in the early days, still among our most popular posts (because “nipple,” don’t you know), Sam posted “Padded sports bras and nipple phobia.” She hates padding in general, and hates the reason for it (nipple phobia) even more.

Then I jumped into it, with “The sports bra dilemma.” I want a bra that fits comfortably, doesn’t chafe, and dries quickly. Not so easy to find, especially because most do not dry quickly. Which means that after the triathlon swim, you can pretty much count on a wet bra for the rest of the event.  But that’s a comparatively minor complaint. I reported on a study in which out of 1285 women marathoners who responded to a survey, 75% of them said they’re unhappy with their sports bra. That’s a lot of athletes!

Then Sam: “What’s wrong with sports bras? One more time…” and “Success on the bra front: Oiselle bras reviewed.”  Bra success is a huge deal, worth a whole post about.

So why write about sports bras again? The thing is, we care a lot about sports bras because dealing with bouncing breasts is uncomfortable and sports bras just don’t do the job we’d like them to do a lot of time. And there is no more obvious issue where there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. So we keep the discussion alive.

As does this recent article from Racked, “Why are sports bras so terrrible?”  And more than that, can we expect them to get any better? Well, now that sport clothing manufacturers are starting to realize a phenomenal business opportunity, the answer is: maybe.

The Racked article gives an interesting history of breast support and athletics, noting that sports bras were patented as early as 1906 but never caught on. Then:

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 heretostay, and it’s no wonder that from Lululemon to Under Armour to Victoria’s Secret, brands are turning their attention to sports bras.

There are researchers who study breast motion.  Breasts have no muscle. They’re basically just fat, glands, and connective tissue. If anything keeps them in place at all, it’s skin. And so they bounce around:

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.

Jenny White from the University of Portsmouth and Julie Steele from the University of Wollongong are two researchers who study breast movement during exercise. Both say that:

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.

If breast discomfort, pain, and numbness are driving women away from sport and/or causing them permanent damage, that’s a serious issue.

Steele and White also worry about sizing.  Some surveys have shown that “literally 100 percent of women are wearing the wrong sized bra.” That may seem impossible, but you have to agree that bra sizing is “confusing, imprecise, and variable.”

Research is getting more sophisticated. Soon researchers will be placing tiny sensors on the breasts to gather GPS and acceleration data. This method will give more information about exactly what the breast is doing during activity. They will also allow for “field testing” as opposed to having to be set up in a lab. So that’s coming, and should yield more useful data once the technology is developed.

The racked article provides an interesting commentary on some of the fashion developments in sports bras. More and more, it’s not just athletic clothing manufacturers that are in the sport bra business.

Victoria’s Secret has waged war on “the uniboob” that has come to be associated with the compression-type sports bras. But:

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.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Just a different riff on the “play hard, look cute” theme. Functional fitness wear is one thing, but if it doesn’t also look good, it’s not good enough:

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.

Why would women who are serious about their athletic activity sacrifice comfort for fashion while working out? Do you think men worry about how their jock straps look? No, they just want to contain their man-bits and keep them safe.

The researchers say the same thing: for women to choose it, it has to look good and make them look good. What if the designers came up with 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.

When I look at my collection of sports bras, none of them is particularly “cute.” My Champion compression bras are funky colours, but they’re fairly standard in all other respects. My Under Armor bras offer more support and have padded cups, but they are plain black with greenish-blue trim. I find them comfortable–they don’t pinch or squeeze or chafe and the coverage is good. They even wick away the sweat to some degree, or at least they’re made of a fabric that doesn’t get waterlogged. Despite their lack of cuteness, I bought them anyway.

I wonder sometimes whether the researchers might be wrong about what makes us buy a sports bra. Considering that sports bras are mostly under our clothes anyway, do women really put fashion ahead of function, comfort, and support when choosing what to buy? And even if they did, is it really so hard to design a sports bra that’s stylish and supportive? I mean, despite that the first sports bras were made of jockstraps strung together, they’ve come a long way, haven’t they?

Almost every woman I know who is active on a regular basis has found a sports bra that works for her–the go-to that she favours while the others sit languishing in the drawer, under-used or completed unused. This, in my view, doesn’t set them apart from regular bras, which many of us toss aside as soon as we get in the door at the end of the day.

Maybe it’s just the nature of the task and of the bouncing breast that sports bras will never be perfect. But you have to wonder what the state of bra technology would be today if they were essential sports equipment for men.

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