Athletes and sports fans let out a sigh of relief when Amanda Hess, writing for ESPN yesterday, finally said it: Having breasts is a huge disadvantage in sports. Sure, in the mediagenic world of professional sports, there’s some lurid cost-benefit analysis to be made; for every uncomfortable exposure, there is a new, larger, male-er audience. (Don’t miss the Penthouse letter description of the first women’s UFC match, where handlers “forgot” a bra for one of the fighters.) But in terms of pure achievement, breasts — whether as extra weight, a hitch in your swing, or a break in your aerodynamic line — hold athletes back.
Ironically, breasts are the biggest handicap in the girliest of Olympic sports (after figure skating), gymnastics. There, Hess writes, “any hint of curve can mean early retirement.”
“Look at missiles that shoot into the air, batons that twirl – they’re straight up and down,” says Joan Ryan, author of the 1995 exposé of gymnastics and figure skating, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. In order to stay stick straight, elite gymnasts undereat and overtrain, which delays menstruation. “You can’t afford to have a woman’s body and compete at the highest level,” Ryan says. To keep competitors from reaching puberty, coaches would push away bread baskets at the table and riffle through their belongings to sniff out hidden treats, says Dominique Moceanu, who was, at 14, the youngest, teensiest competitor on the 1996 gold medal USA Olympic team. “The sport pushes us to be breastless little girls as long as possible,” she says. But though breasts were forbidden, privately “we longed for them.”
There’s been some progress on the chest front since Moceanu’s peak, Hess reports. She talks to a researcher looking at breast mechanics, a coach who specializes in tweaking women’s golf swings, and a plastic surgeon who does breast reductions for athletes. The miracle sports bra could be around the corner; it’s been fewer than 50 years since the first one was invented. But more often, chesty women don’t make it far enough in their athletic careers to bother with high-tech solutions. It only takes a handful of humiliatingly jiggly middle school gym classes to be turned off the whole endeavor indefinitely. Which is why we need new sports. Ones that weren’t invented by men, for men’s bodies. Competitive yoga? Soul Cycle marathons? Long float contests?