Bless the sports bra, but can we lose that uncomfortable padding?
How women's breasts appear when we're working out just doesn't matter
This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
As a sports columnist I get to dive into some of the deeper issues in the sports world. I have written extensively on discrimination and exclusion and have also championed and celebrated successes in sports.
One issue I wanted to write about is something that frequently comes up in many women's circles — not just professional athletes, but women with breasts who engage in physical or leisure activities and want to live healthy lives: the function of removable pads in sports bras.
"Sports bras?" you must be thinking. Why spend a week in Women's History Month reflecting on sports bras? Why use an important platform to gripe about minutiae?
The reality is that for people who work out and have breasts, a sports bra is essential. We can't simply rely on Cooper's ligaments to keep us intact. According to the Mayo Clinic's website, breasts are a combination of fat, glandular and connective tissue, as well as lobes, lobules, ducts, lymph nodes, blood vessels and ligaments. Without proper support when engaging in vigorous activities, they bounce, fall and can be painful for the active person. As a soccer player, I appreciate the ways in which a sports bra will firmly hold down my breasts so I can focus on what's happening on the pitch and not in my kit. I know I am not alone in this.
WATCH | The science behind the sports bra:
While the history of the first sports bra is complex — it started out as the JogBra but was bought by Playtex in 1990 — the industry has grown astronomically and while valued at $43.75 billion in 2021, it is expected to be close to $95.32 billion by 2028.
We know there is a market for this. We know sports bras are important. There is even a sports bar in Portland, Ore., named after this garment aptly named The Sports Bra.
Some of the most iconic moments in women's sports involve sports bra imagery; from Brandi Chastain's 1999 Women's World Cup pose to England's Chloe Kelly's joyful and shirtless reaction. After winning the European Championship at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 2022, Kelly copied Chastain's legendary celebration in what British Vogue said "demonstrated the emancipation that women and girls can enjoy when they're given the time and space to play sports and dominate arenas that for decades have been held by men."
'Greatest invention in running'
Breast health is important in women's lives and sports bras play an important role in the discussion.
Accessibility and design are critical and there are many lists of best bras (Good Housekeeping and Wirecutter/ New York Times) and suggestions for sports bras for people with disabilities and people with arthritis. The sports bra has even been heralded as "the greatest invention in running — ever" by Runner's World Magazine.
For those that are unfamiliar with the design of sports bras, in addition to colour and style, there are also different levels of support (high-impact versus low-impact) that prevent what is known as breast-bounce. They might have zippers, or racer-back designs, and are made from materials that absorb sweat or cooling materials.
But for me and many others, the offending parts are the small slits at the sides of a sports bra where pads can be inserted or removed. These pads get lost in the wash, twist and even scrunch up, and in the worst situations move around while one is exercising. You end up with creases and lines across your décolletage. I actively avoid sports bras with those inserts. I thought about making them into crafts with my children when they were young then just avoided it and threw them in the garbage.
I took a poll on social media to ask people what they thought. I received more than 365 responses and the most common answer was "useless."
Super useful, most jerseys are super thin material and this keeps it seamless. No one wants to cut glass while doing their sport!—@LizzieMurph
There were some who did offer that the pads were helpful if team jerseys were thin, and said pads prevented nipples from protruding. But others felt the pads were wasteful and even used to appeal to the male gaze. For women who have had mastectomies, sports bras with padding are an important option. And that will always be key: option. Feeling confident and comfortable when women's figures are highly sexualized is not easy. So there should be a vast array of choice.
The pads are used to round out the shape of the breast and even make the person more attractive, according to society's idea of beauty standards. People might like to believe that breasts are plump and pushed up, but the reality for many is the opposite.
I am part of the group of respondents who feel annoyed that trying to keep breasts beautiful while exercising is necessary at all. My intention is to sweat, feel great with the endorphins pumping until I am forced to twist my sweaty self into a pretzel trying to remove the damn bra, then get into the shower. Rounding out my "chesticle" area for someone else to appreciate is not something I care about at all.
I happily nursed four children and a torso like mine isn't likely to be featured on a remake of Baywatch and I am fine with that. I want proper support without shoulder aches, no underwire that pokes me, or difficult clasps when I work out or partake in activities that I enjoy.
If people want to show off then that's great for them, but the vast majority of women I have spoken to agree that the removable pads are a nuisance, particularly if they aren't sewed in. One company advertises its sports bra as being for "chilling, playing and moving." If I am chilling, playing or moving I am not interested in wrestling with little bits of my sports bras in order to be comfortable.
At this point, if I collected all the removable pads from all the sports bras I've owned, I would have enough to make a quilt. I don't know how to quilt, but it might make me feel better instead of throwing them into a landfill.
I appreciate products that are designed for women and help them in their day-to-day lives. Different designs to suit all shapes and sizes and different levels of ability is critical. Being able to purchase a sports bra is as essential to exercise as proper running shoes and other equipment.
In any case, the industry is strong and I hope that those designing this specific sportswear are listening to buyers and designing it with firm intentions. Pun intended.