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Title IX turns 50 this year. It’s no accident that on the heels of that milestone, the sports bra is turning 45. Opening sports to women gave rise to the need for proper equipment—the right bra—and so these anniversaries are forever intertwined, and we should celebrate.
I remember buying my first sports bra in 1990. I was 13, awkward and mortified. The women in the store who tried to help had little advice to offer. When I got home, my great aunt examined every inch and seam. I can still remember her asking, “It keeps your boobies from shaking, really?” She would never wear one, but she made sure I had three so I could do all the sports I wanted.
I watched as my friends struggled to make those early sports bras work for them. Some girls on my track team wrapped their breasts in an Ace bandage and then put on their sports bra because the Jogbra wasn’t enough. Others wore two or three together for extra support. This was at a time when my neighborhood organized an extensive baseball league for boys and a single softball team for girls ages 8–15. I wore a kilt to play field hockey and pleated white skirts for squash, but my track uniforms were unisex. Do you have any idea how tight around the chest that made my little singlets? I groaned about all of it but suited up because I was there to compete, to win.
Both Title IX and the sports bra are products of the ’70s, the heart of the second wave of feminism. During that decade, remarkable women bulldozed down barriers. Shirley Chisholm ran for president and worked with Bella Abzug to introduce a bill to provide $10 billion in federal funds for childcare; it passed both houses of Congress but failed to become law when President Nixon, on the advice of archconservative Pat Buchanan, refused to sign it. Gloria Steinem unleashed Ms. magazine, and Roe v. Wade rocked the United States. Women all across the country were fighting for a new place in America, and that included a spot in sports. The only problem was, our breasts hurt. The bras available to women were made to look pretty, not function while we ran and jumped.
Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith worked on the problem. The story is lighthearted, but the consequences are profound. It goes like this: Lindahl was swept up in the running craze of the ’70s, only her breasts were uncomfortable. Even more, her running partner was a man, and she was always jealous that he could take off his shirt when he got hot. When she complained to her sister, her sister shared that she had the same terrible problem: boob pain from running. So did their friends.
Around that time, Lindahl’s childhood friend Polly Smith was renting a room from her. Smith was a costume designer, and Lindahl asked her to help engineer a solution. That’s right, they decided bras needed to be engineered. This was 100 percent the right approach, but also a change. The idea that a woman’s comfort could be central to design was still a radical concept.
Early prototypes failed. The breast pain continued. Then one day Smith and Lindahl were brainstorming, talking about jock straps, when Lindahl’s husband came down and made a joke. He pulled his own jockstrap over his chest and told them he’d made their jockbra. That was it! They used two jockstraps and crossed them in the back, used the waistband on the ribs, and the Jockbra was born—later renamed the Jogbra. One small step for these women, one giant leap for womankind.
This new engineered bra made a difference. Not only did it stop boob pain, but it signified women were not backing down. Women were digging in and taking their place in the world of sports.
I benefitted immensely from that fight. I played in countless tournaments and raced on dozens of tracks, always checking record boards that listed past champions. The men’s boards were overflowing, stretched onto multiple walls, while the women usually had a single small plaque—but it was there. And I was grateful to the women who had fought to give me a spot, a shot.
In college, I played three years of varsity squash at Harvard on a team that won three consecutive national championship titles. I hated the fact that the women’s locker rooms in most gyms were pathetic and small, that the men received more and better equipment. But I loved the game and kept pushing to play.
I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I was at the tail end of the first wave of women to make our way through varsity collegiate athletic programs. At alumni events, the room was always packed with old men, and more often than not the only women in the room were their wives or my teammates. Varsity women’s squash was new enough (it was the late ’90s) that our older alums were only 40, and they didn’t come because they had careers and kids—not close to having time for banquets.
Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled I wasn’t in the early wave, a part of the first women who came through, but I noticed exactly how new the program was. None of my teammates had mothers who had played on the team or had played college varsity sports. Several had fathers who had been varsity athletes, but it was hard to relate to their stories about the old days. They had the big locker rooms we wanted, and they couldn’t help us figure out what to wear under those little white skirts that flew up and exposed our butts when we dove for the ball. They just didn’t understand.
If you had asked me in the ’90s if I thought men’s and women’s teams would be equal in 2022, I would have said yes. I would have guessed that the locker rooms and weight rooms would finally have been rebuilt and equipment and uniform budgets rebalanced. Only here we are, nowhere close to equal. The last summer Olympics highlighted continued problems with uniforms. Women’s volleyball players were forced to wear skimpy bikinis while the men wore shorts. The weight rooms for the women’s March Madness basketball tournaments are pathetic compared to the luxury men have.
Then something amazing happened during the recent winter Olympics: Adidas pushed an ad campaign to feature all 43 styles of sports bras it makes. Forty-three!! The teenager in me who struggled into her first sports bra can barely believe the number. And yet, the campaign has attracted all kinds of attention because it features photos of breasts—arrays in all shapes, sizes, and colors that show exactly why Adidas makes 43 styles. It shouldn’t be controversial. The reaction shouldn’t be outrage. It should be celebration. Finally, we can recognize our equipment can’t be one size fits all.
I’d still convinced myself we’d come a long way until last fall, when my daughter signed up to try out for a travel basketball team. My daughter has grown up with sports bras, and girls’ sports are something she takes for granted. She can’t even remember her first sports bra. She has no idea what it’s like to play without girls who came before her.
After putting her name down for the basketball team, a call came in for parents to volunteer to coach. There were a million reasons why I didn’t sign up, but then I saw the list of volunteers for our seventh-grade girls and realized there wasn’t going to be a single woman in the room when my daughter went to tryouts. A group of middle-aged men would be evaluating a gym full of teenage girls. The men were dads, and some I knew. They weren’t creepy. But somehow the idea was all wrong. I asked other mothers if they could coach and help. One after the other, they told me they weren’t qualified and were too busy. When I dug deeper, I found they were just as qualified as the dads on court, sometimes even more so, but the moms were counting themselves out.
There are lots of sports my daughter plays that are dominated by incredible female coaches who played in college. For example, the lacrosse program she plays in is packed full of women with intimidating sports resumes. But when coaches are harder to find, more often than not, it’s the dads who step up, who run the score boards and stat books. That’s what happened with our basketball league, and we’ve come too far for that. I volunteered.
The timing was terrible. My second novel was about to publish, and I was buried under deadlines. I didn’t want to pull back from my commitments just before publication, but I also couldn’t let it go. I knew I’d made the right decision when our uniforms were delivered. They were called unisex, but that meant they were made for a very specific type of body. There was no room for boobs or hips. The girls on my daughter’s team laughed and joked about how awful the uniforms were, but I was furious. It shouldn’t have been this way, not in 2022, but here we were again.
I geared up for the same old fight and got in touch with the league to ask for new uniforms, and to my relief I found it wasn’t quite the same old problem I’d had 30 years earlier. This time, I could point to other girls’ teams already wearing the right tops and shorts, and we didn’t have to look hard to find suppliers. That’s progress.
I don’t ever forget how much I loved being able to compete, and I want to make sure girls playing today have it better than I ever did. At least now when I tell my daughter about the Ace bandages and what it felt like to be surrounded by old-men alums, it sounds like ancient history. Next season, my daughter’s team will suit up in tops and shorts made for boobs and hips, and the girls might never even remember this unisex uniform blip in their sports careers. At least I hope they don’t, that the path ahead keeps getting wider and smoother.
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