When Chloe Kelly hit her top to celebrate England’s Euros trophy-winning goal, she could not have known the impact of a simple act. But by revealing her sports bra to a packed Wembley and millions watching on TV, the 24-year-old sparked a much-needed conversation about bras and breasts in sport.
It’s a taboo that has endured for far too long, a fact Scotland’s hockey captain Sarah Robertson, who is competing in the Commonwealth Games this week, knows more than most.
Last summer, as part of Team GB’s hockey squad gathered ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, the 28-year-old pushed the topic of breasts to be on the agenda for team meetings.
For the attacking midfielder, who as a young athlete struggled to find the right bra to support a larger chest, the conversation created a stark moment of realization – how little her teammates knew about their bodies.
“We did a training session before the Olympics and it was amazing how many girls didn’t know the general rules about what bra you should wear for a high-impact sport like hockey,” says the Scotland captain, who has more than 100 caps for her country.
Researchers have found that breasts can move up to 15cm during exercise and studies say women who don’t wear an effective sports bra can lose up to fourcm in stride length during a marathon. Then, of course, there’s 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, so you have to be comfortable and supported in what you’re wearing,” Robertson says. “I think the mental impact of that is so important as well.”
Robertson is not alone in her struggle to perform at an elite level in a world where there has been little research on women’s athletic performance, particularly on the topic of breasts. Growing up in Selkirk, she struggled to express the challenges she faced as a teenager, and has no doubt helped some high-profile female athletes share their own stories in this area.
Simona Halep, the 30-year-old Romanian who crashed out of the Wimbledon semifinals last month, famously underwent breast reduction surgery at the age of 17, reducing her breast size from a 34DD to a 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 operation were invaluable.
Paralympic shooter Lorraine Lambert spent years worrying that her large 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 special sports bra to maximize her performance, shifting the distribution of her breast tissue away from where the rifle sat.
But while elite athletes are slowly navigating this issue, at a grassroots level the consequences for women and young girls are devastating. Studies have reported that women with larger breasts spend 37 percent less time exercising than their friends with smaller breasts.
As more teenage girls drop out of sports, 46 percent of them report seeing their breasts as an obstacle, making it the fourth biggest obstacle overall.
Dr Nicola Brown, researcher and associate professor in women’s health at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, is concerned that a lack of education around the issue is stopping women and girls from being active. “Women are not satisfied with the bra designs on the market and still experience pain or chafing and various other issues.
“For other women, it’s the psychological aspects of what other people think about your breasts that bounce while you exercise, especially for teenage girls – they worry about what boys think of their PE breasts and that means they don’t participate.
“People think they have to live with chest pain or excessive movement, but there are things you can do to reduce it. If we can educate girls at a young age about breast support and bra fit, we can normalize discussions about breasts. Yes, breasts move and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
The limited research on these topics has led to a disconnect in the relationship women have with their bodies. Robertson says she often wears a slightly larger bra until her period, and points out that women just don’t know enough about their bodies.
Asked if she feels educated on the subject, Robertson believes her knowledge comes from being watched as a larger-breasted athlete. She still believes she could be more educated on the topic, and worries that women – and athletes who shouldn’t have to consider the topic – lack basic information.
Her passion for the subject led Robertson to work closely with the English Institute of Sport last summer, on their initiative to fit individual athletes with special bras before the Games. For the Team GB hockey team that translated into a request to place GPS trackers directly into their bras instead of wearing an additional vest top that was often uncomfortable.
“That made a huge difference to me. again it wasn’t 100 percent perfect and it’s something I’ll continue to look at to help my performance,” said Robertson, who won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games. “The fact that the project was there is huge, it allowed bigger-chested athletes like me to get out there and play. It’s a huge benefit.
“I think there are huge performance gains you can make by wearing a bra that fits your body,” she said. “I’m very much in favor of education and awareness whenever possible.
“It’s such an integral part of being a woman in sport and it doesn’t make sense not to address those factors.”