The unsung hero of gender equality

It’s an iconic feminist image—a group of women attending the 1968 Miss America pageant slip off their bras and burn them to protest the patriarchy. Yet it never happened. The ‘bra-burning’ feminist is a myth. In fact, bras—specifically sports bras—could be the unsung hero of female liberation.

If you have breasts, you will know that they can move a lot. They have no internal musculature, so they can freely move up to 12cm in any direction. This can be painful, as, unless properly supported, excessive movement can result in breast tissue trauma. In fact, health professionals recognise sports bras as being an essential piece of sporting equipment for all women to maintain breast health.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the sports bra. Up until the late 1970s, women either endured the discomfort or sought ways to reduce the amount of bounce. Some wore two bras or even duct-taped their breasts down. Alternatively, women simply avoided sports. This barrier to participation perpetuated the belief that women were too fragile to play sports. As such, rules were created to ‘protect’ women from participating in sports. In America, girls weren’t allowed to play beyond the halfway line of basketball courts or participate in running races longer than 400m. Therefore in 1967, Katherine Switzer created headlines when she became the first woman to run the Boston marathon with a race bib. Switzer had registered for the race using her initials. The sight of a woman running was provocative. There are photographs of a fellow runner shoving Switzer as he tried to remove her racing bib during the event. The head of Boston Athletic Association, Will Cloney, said afterwards: ‘Women can’t run in the Marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don’t make the rules, but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the Marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.’

Switzer’s successful completion of the marathon started to shift perception of women; in 1972, the Boston Marathon changed its rules and allowed women to participate. This coincided with the jogging craze that was sweeping through America; suddenly people were lacing up sneakers and pounding pavements. Including Lisa Lindahl. She enjoyed running but couldn’t find a bra which stopped her breasts from bouncing. She enlisted costume designer Polly Smith to come up with a new bra design. Lindahl wanted to create a bra where ‘the straps won’t fall, [where] there won’t be any hardware that would dig in, it would be breathable, [and] it would be light weight.’ Lindahl went jogging to test each prototype, yet the pair were struggling to find a construction that effectively supported breasts. It was only when Lindahl’s husband paraded around their living room wearing two jock straps slung over his chest as a joke that they had a design breakthrough. Their final design involved two ‘encapsulating cups’, with a thick elastic band underneath and the straps that crossed at the back. For a brief period of time they called it the Jock Bra before deciding to call it Jog Bra.

The backlash to the bra was loud and immediate; they received hundreds of letters of complaint, including one, with the notable line: ‘If God had intended for women to play sports, he won’t have put breasts on their chests.’ There was also members of the medical community suggesting that bras could even cause cancer.

Thankfully, societal sentiment has shifted since then. In last the forty years, women have been able to run, jump and leap without experiencing pain. Global sales of sports bras reached $7 billion in 2014. The public now expect that there are women’s teams for every sport, which is one reason why the inaugural AFLW competition was so successful.

The impact women competing in sports has had on progressing gender equality should not be underestimated. This year the Australian female cricket players were awarded a pay increase from $7.5 million to $55.2 million. Football teams in Britain are following suit to ensure pay equality between their male and female teams. These victories in gender equality aren’t just for professional athletes, as sports participation is literally redefining what it means to be a woman—we are not fragile creatures or sex objects.

In 2017, the most popular photo in Getty Image’s library for the search term ‘woman’ is of a woman hiking alone. In the photo, she is striding along a clifftop overlooking a lake in Banff National Park. Her red puffer jacket is striking against the blue water. You cannot see her face. This photo does not focus on her appearance, rather, it highlights her ease in nature. Contrast that to the most purchased photo in 2007, which is of a naked woman lying on her stomach with a towel draped over her bottom. She is staring passively at the camera.

Danish advertising agency Mindshare are making a concerted effort to change the search results for the terms ‘beautiful woman’ and ‘real woman’ on Shuttershock. They were funded by Dove to host ‘image_hack’ in 2016. The agency created a series of images of women in non-stereotypical situations from playing rugby to working as car mechanics. Each image was tagged with ‘beautiful woman’ and ‘real woman’ to alter the algorithm. Mindshare uploaded all the images at once and encouraged advertising agencies to use them. Within a week of the ‘hack’ more than 42 brands released advertisements, with many using the photos of women charging down a football pitch with grit and determination. A scene that may not have happened were it not for the invention of the sports bra.

Image: Roya Ann Miller

Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.

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One Comment

  • Elizabeth commented on November 3, 2017 Reply

    Beautiful intelligent writing as always Fi

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