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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Lack Of Sports Bras Sidelines Seattle Girls, But It Doesn’t Have To

Studies show that lack of access to bras is the fourth leading barrier to exercise for girls and young women. ((Photo illustration by Sophie O’Sullivan))

By Sophie O’Sullivan, The Seattle Medium

Teri Garrett has seen hundreds of students come through her doors in her 29 years of teaching physical education. Some of her students have Olympic dreams, and some are just hoping to get through her classes. 

Having taught in a number of areas across the Seattle area, she now teaches physical education at Lindbergh High School in Renton and says a lack of access to sports bras is a prevailing issue for girls as they learn to navigate the role of exercise in their lives.

“There’s nothing worse than when kids start moving, and they’re holding their chest. If you’re doing that, you’re not comfortable,” Garrett said. “You’re not going to go out of your way to reach for that ball if you’re so concerned about falling out of your bra.”

According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 46% of girls aged 11-18 years reported that their breasts had some effect on their participation in compulsory sports and exercise. Garrett hopes to combat this statistic with a combination of hard conversations in her classroom and free sports bra resources provided by Seattle-based organizations. 

“We have people coming from families that just aren’t athletic, or a lot of families being raised by grandparents and single fathers, and that means they just forget to talk about breasts,” she said. 

“I have posters in my locker room that have a picture of breast tissue where it’s supposed to be if it’s well-supported,” said Garrett. The posters were initially considered unorthodox.

“When I first put it up, I had an administrator say, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought that poster was super funny,’ and then we talked about it, and like yes, it’s funny, but it’s also super important,” she said.

Breast support impacts athletes later in life too.

University of Washington rugby player Lane Simpson wishes she’d had more opportunities to learn about breast health as a kid.  “In college, I took a gender and women’s studies class, and that was my first time really learning about women’s health,” Simpson said. 

Anika Remmers, a former University of Washington rower, said she couldn’t recall any breast health education at Mercer Island High School, so she relied on family and friends. “I’m grateful for the women in my life who make it a comfortable thing to talk about. It makes all the difference to me,” she said.

The Washington State Sexual Health Education Standard contains one mention of breasts and requires only that “students exhibit breast self-awareness.”

UW sports psychologist Shelley Weichman adds: “A properly fitting sports bra is going to be incredibly important. “It’s likely going to make someone feel more comfortable, and if you’re comfortable, you’re more likely to be confident, which is going to increase motivation, and you’re going to perform better.”

Bra fittings, which are as important with sports bras as they are with everyday wear, is a time-consuming process that is often tied to costly retailers. Paired with a stigma that disincentivizes women to discuss breasts,  it makes sense why fewer than 4% of women have had a fitting of any kind, let alone for sports settings.

“I usually go for the cheapest option that’s the most compressing. It’s not the best but it gets the job done,” Simpson said.

These bra-fit guides, provided by the University of Portsmouth Research Group in Breast Health, are included in the educational resources provided in Seattle by Bras For Girls. (Used with permission of the research group)  

In 2018 the Women’s Sports Foundation analyzed data from Seattle Public Schools and found that girls drop out of sports at a rate six times higher than boys by the end of high school.  

Education is one of the best ways to help girls get a bra that fits. Without the resources to back that up, however, there is a disproportionate effect on those in lower socio-economic brackets. Even when the students have the drive and the opportunity to exercise, the financial cost of sports bras makes them inaccessible.  

In recent years, several Seattle-based organizations have tried to change that. Bras for Girls, a  non-profit initiative started by Seattle-based activewear company Oiselle in 2017, was born out of an excess of sports-bra inventory and research that indicated girls turn away from sports during breast development. The group has since grown to accept donations from other brands and contributions of new sports bras from the public. 

Within the first year, the Bras for Girls Foundation received requests for 68,000 sports bras.

“It was super gratifying to see the effect that a sports bra can have on girls feeling confident and feeling comfortable moving their bodies,” said Sarah Lesko, a former collegiate athlete, and coach, and the executive director of the non-profit. 

Angie Mosely, CEO of Seattle non-profit Double Dutch Divas, in 2020 received sports bras for her community from the Bras For Girls. She distributed the bras to Double Dutch Diva participants at a community coat drive. “To those girls, it was like Christmas,” she said. 

Mosely wants to empower everyone to participate, especially those who have been marginalized by the expense and exclusion of exercise. “Those bras are expensive, and we can’t afford that. So to have them provided–that made a massive difference,” she said. 

In addition to monetary donations, Bras for Girls accepts the donation of new sports bras from the public. To donate stock or discuss other directed giving options, including brand donation of sports bras, email [email protected].

People in need of sports bras can apply for one as either a group or an individual through the Bras for Girls website at the “Request Sports Bras” page. The simple application requires a few details about the applicant and a brief description of their situation. Once submitted, the foundation will review it and contact the applicant about how they can best meet their needs with a combination of sports bras and educational pamphlets. 

For students such as those at Lindbergh High School, where half the student population is on subsidized lunches, programs like this make a difference.

“The ability to give a student a bra and watch their face light up is truly amazing,” Garrett said. “Any way to do that, no matter how difficult is going to be worth it.”

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