When Chloe Kelly whipped off her top to celebrate England’s Euros trophy winning goal, she could not have known the impact of a simple act. But in revealing her sports bra, to a packed out Wembley and millions watching on TV, the 24-year-old brokered a much-needed conversation around bras and breasts in sport.
It is a taboo that has endured for far too long, a fact that Scotland hockey captain, Sarah Robertson, who has been competing at 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 for the subject of breasts to be on the team meeting agenda.
For the midfielder, who as a young athlete had struggled to find the correct bra to support a larger chest, the discussion produced a stark moment of realisation – how little her team-mates 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 what bra you should be wearing for such 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 15 centimetres during exercise, and studies say that women not wearing an effective sports bra can lose up to four centimetres in stride length over the course of a marathon. Then, of course, there is the psychological impact.
“Going out and playing at something like the Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games, it is on TV, there are lots 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 as well is so important.”
Robertson is not alone in her struggle to perform at an elite level in a world where there has been little female-specific research on sport performance, particularly on the topic of breasts. While growing up in Selkirk she struggled to vocalise the challenges she was facing as a teenager, and it has no doubt helped to have some high-profile sportswomen sharing their own stories in this field.
Simona Halep, the 30-year-old Romanian who crashed out of the semi-finals at Wimbledon last month, famously underwent breast reduction surgery aged 17, reducing her breast size from a 34DD to 34C to improve her performance. Halep, who went on to win the French Open in 2018 and Wimbledon in 2019, has since reflected that the physical and mental benefits of the surgery 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 Paralympic Games last summer and was fitted with a bespoke sports bra to maximise her performance, shifting the distribution of her breast tissue away from where the rifle sat.
But while elite sportswomen are slowly navigating this subject, at grass-roots level the ramifications for women and young girls are devastating. Studies have reported that women with larger breasts are spending 37 per cent less time exercising than their friends with smaller breasts.
As more teenage girls are dropping out of sport, 46 per cent of them report seeing their breasts as an obstacle, making it the fourth-biggest barrier overall.
Dr Nicola Brown, a researcher and associate professor in female health at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, is concerned that lack of education around this issue 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 chafing and various other issues.
“For other women, it is the psychological aspects of what other people think of your boobs bouncing while you are exercising, particularly for adolescent girls – they are concerned about what boys think of their breasts in PE and this 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 it. If we can educate girls at a young age about breast support and bra fit, we can normalise discussions about breasts. Yes, breasts move, and it is nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Limited research on these topics has led to a disconnect in the relationship females have with their bodies. Robertson relays that she often wears a slightly bigger bra leading up to her period and emphasises that women just don’t know enough about their bodies.
Asked whether she feels educated on the matter, Robertson thinks her knowledge comes from having to pay attention to it as a larger-chested athlete. She is still certain she could be more educated on the topic and is concerned that women – and the athletes who have not had to consider the matter – lack key information.
Her passion for this issue led to Robertson working closely with the English Institute of Sport last summer, on their initiative to fit individual athletes with bespoke bras before the Games. For the Team GB hockey team that translated into a request to have GPS trackers fitted directly into their bras instead of wearing an additional vest top which was often uncomfortable.
“This made a huge difference to me; it still wasn’t 100 per cent perfect and it is something I will continue to look into to help my performances,” said Robertson, who won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games. “The fact that the project was there is huge, it allowed larger-chested athletes like me to go out there and perform. It is a huge benefit.
“I think there are huge performance gains to be made by wearing a bra that fits your body,” she said. “I am very pro-education and awareness whenever possible.
“It is such an integral part of being a female in sport and it doesn’t make sense to not address these factors.”