Why are women with bigger breasts dropping out of sport?

Why are women with bigger breasts dropping out of sport? – GETTY IMAGES

When Chloe Kelly took off her shirt to celebrate England’s winning goal at the European Championship, she couldn’t have imagined the impact of such a simple act. But in revealing her sports bra, to a packed Wembley and millions watching on TV, the 24-year-old brokered a much-needed conversation about sports bras and breasts.

It’s a long-standing taboo, a fact that Scotland’s hockey captain Sarah Robertson, who is competing in the Commonwealth Games this week, knows more than most.

Last summer, as part of the Team GB hockey team assembled ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, the 28-year-old pushed for the breast issue to be on the team’s meeting agenda.

For the midfielder, who as a young athlete struggled to find the right bra to support a bigger chest, the discussion produced a moment of understanding – how little her teammates knew about their own bodies.

“We did an education session before the Olympics and it was amazing how many girls didn’t know the general rules about which bra you should wear for a high impact sport like hockey,” says the Scotland captain, who has more than 100 caps for his country.

Researchers have found that breasts can move up to 15 centimeters during exercise, and studies say that women who don’t wear an effective sports bra can lose up to four centimeters in stride length over the course of a marathon. Then, of course, there is the psychological impact.

“Going out and playing in something like the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games, it’s on TV, there’s a lot of people watching you, so you need to feel comfortable and supported in what you’re wearing,” says Robertson. “I think the mental effect of that is also very important.”

Scotland's captain Sarah Robertson struggled to find the right bra to support a bigger breast - SCOTTISH HOCKEY

Scotland’s captain Sarah Robertson struggled to find the right bra to support a bigger breast – SCOTTISH HOCKEY

Robertson is not alone in her struggle to perform at an elite level in a world where there is little research specifically for women on sports performance, particularly on the topic of breasts. While growing up in Selkirk, she struggled to express the challenges she faced as a teenager, and has no doubt helped some high-profile athletes by sharing her own stories in this field.

Simona Halep, the 30-year-old Romanian who dropped out of the semi-finals at Wimbledon last month, underwent breast reduction surgery at age 17, reducing her breast size from 34DD to 34C to improve her performance. Halep, who won the French Open in 2018 and Wimbledon in 2019, has since reflected that the physical and mental benefits of the surgery have been invaluable.

Paralympic marksman Lorraine Lambert has spent years worrying that her big breasts would be the cause of disqualification if they touched her rifle.

She represented Great Britain at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics last summer and was fitted with a bespoke sports bra to maximize her performance by shifting the distribution of breast tissue away from where the rifle was.

Lorraine Lambert was worried that her breasts would be disqualified from the competition - PAUL GROVER/TELEGRAPH

Lorraine Lambert was worried that her breasts would be disqualified from the competition – PAUL GROVER/TELEGRAPH

But while elite sportswomen are slowly navigating this issue, at the grassroots level the ramifications for women and girls are devastating. Studies have reported that women with larger breasts are spending 37% less time exercising than their peers with smaller breasts.

As more teens are dropping out of the sport, 46% of them report seeing their breasts as an obstacle, making it the fourth biggest barrier overall.

Nicola Brown, researcher and associate professor of women’s health at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, is concerned that a lack of education on this subject is preventing women and girls from being active. “Women are not satisfied with the bra designs on the market and are still experiencing pain or friction and various other issues.

“For other women, it’s the psychological aspects of what other people think of their breasts bouncing around while you’re exercising, particularly for teenage girls – they’re concerned about what boys think of their breasts in PE and that means they don’t participate.

“People think they have to live with breast pain or excessive movement, but there are things you can do to reduce that. If we can educate young girls about breast support and bra fit, we can normalize discussions about breasts. Yes, breasts move and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Limited research on these topics has led to a disconnect in the relationship women have with their bodies. Robertson reports that she often wears a slightly larger bra before her period and emphasizes that women just don’t know enough about their bodies.

Asked if she feels educated on the subject, Robertson thinks her knowledge comes from having to pay attention to it as a bustier athlete. She’s still sure she could be more educated on the subject and is concerned that women – and athletes who haven’t had to consider the matter – lack important information.

Size Matters: Being Upfront About Bras - PAUL GROVER

Size Matters: Being Upfront About Bras – PAUL GROVER

Her passion for this issue led Robertson to work closely with the English Institute of Sports last summer on their initiative to fit individual athletes with tailored bras ahead of the Games. For the Team GB hockey team, this translated into a request for GPS trackers to be fitted directly to their bras rather than wearing an additional vest, which was often uncomfortable.

“It made a huge difference for me; it still hasn’t been 100 percent perfect and it’s something I will continue to investigate to help my performances,” said Robertson, who won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games. “The fact that the project is there is huge, it allowed bigger-chested athletes like me to go there and perform. It’s a big benefit.

“I think there are huge performance gains from wearing a bra that fits your body,” she said. “I am very pro-education and awareness-raising whenever possible.

“It’s such an integral part of being a woman in sport and it makes no sense not to address those factors.”

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