Talking Point

How Breast Development Affects Participation in Sport

Dr. Nicola Brown, breast development, affects on womens participation in sport
Dr. Nicola Brown

Dr. Nicola Brown shares information from her research into breast health and development and how this effects females participating in athletic exercise

Talking Point is hosted by Dr. Lisa Ingarfield

Podcast length: 33’12”

This month Lisa is joined by Dr. Nicola Brown from St Mary’s University in the UK to discuss her research into breast health and development on girls and women’s participation in sport. Nikki is a Senior Lecturer in Health & Exercise Science at St Mary’s in Twickenham. She collaborates with the research group in breast health at the University of Portsmouth. Her research spans many areas of breast health, including understanding appropriate breast support, breast pain and bra fit issues in exercising females and breast health education. They discuss how women and girls are affected by their bodies and what that looks like.  Women’s physiology and in particular their breast development and how it effects their participation in athletic activity.   

Dr. Nicola Brown’s bio is HERE

St Mary’s University 

St Mary’s University on Twitter

The Research Group in Breast Health at Portsmouth University is HERE

Portsmouth University

Portsmouth University on Twitter

MORE episodes of Talking Point are HERE

FULL TRANSCRIPT of this episode:

[00:00:00] Welcome to episode 7 a Talking Point on WiSP Sports Radio where we delve more deeply into the systemic barriers facing women in sport Talking Point is co-produced by myself and WiSP Sports Radio. I’m your host Lisa Ingarfield and at whisper sports we believe women in sport deserve equal coverage. Last month in episode six we were lucky enough to talk with Shannon Miller about her experiences of discrimination at the University of Minnesota Duluth and her historic legal win in federal court.

This month Dr. Nicola Brown from St. Mary’s University in the UK will be joining us to talk about her research into the effects of breast health and development on girls and women’s participation in sport. Dr. Nikki Brown is a senior lecturer in health and exercise science at St Mary’s University in Twickenham United Kingdom. She collaborates with the research group in breast health at the University of Portsmouth. Her research spans many areas of breast health including understanding appropriate breast support breast pain and bra fit issues in exercising females and breast health education. Welcome Dr. Brown to this episode of talking point we’re really excited to have you to join us today.

Thanks very much for inviting me.

I am excited to hear about your research as I think sometimes. Well primarily on this podcast what we’re talking about are the cultural and social barriers that inhibit girls and women and their participation in sport. We’ve also had conversations about the way that media represents women and girls in the way that they diminish their contributions and so I’m excited to talk to you because I think that your research offers something different to this conversation.  In terms of the physical aspect of sport and how women and girls are affected by their bodies and what that looks like. So I was wondering if we could begin by just having you share with our listeners a little bit about the research that you’ve done in two women’s physiology in particular their breast development and how or what you have seen the effects of that on girls and women’s participation in athletic activities.

Oh yes of course. So I work with the research group in RSL which is based at the University of Melbourne. And we’ve been investigating reste health a number of years now and it started many of us in the group exercise ourselves. We’re active individuals. And one of the key issues that women experience is pain and hope we think from the research that we’ve done and all the women that we’ve spoken to over the years and studies that we conducted that there’s often a simple solution which is no cause Gras or appropriate method for that a key issue. We identified is that a lot of women don’t wear the correct correctly if in bra and if rather isn’t it correctly. It’s not going to support breast freckling so that’s fine. One of the key things that we’ve been investigating over many years to try and optimize press reports so that it provides the best support possible for an exercise in. But also to educate women to ensure that they know how to make sure that profits in Pokorney so that when they are exercising their goals appropriately possible.

[00:03:30] So have you seen then that this lack of education or lack of correct fit with sports bras sports attire has actually an women make the choice. Well I’m just not going to participate because it hurts and does nothing I can do about it. And definitely through the study that you did a couple of years ago actually looking at London marathon runners and we identified that 32 percent of them said of the runners we survey of a running London Marathon. They experience breath pain and the breath pain can be as a result of the movement of the breath during this whole activity. And when we explored that area further and ask women what have they done to find overcome that eye. Nearly half of them say they’ve done nothing about it. It’s almost as if it’s just accepted that women will experience pain and we just to put up with it. We’ve got to get on with it anyway and only some women reported that they will take some kind of painkiller or they might use heat or cold air or a bar a appropriate bra is a key tool that we can use. I would use that for pain and nearly all muscles almost half of women said it at some point in time they’d actually had to change their exercise habits for stopped exercising completely because it never ends. So that was in every active population of women that were trained in the London marathon. We’ve seen similar results in Stubby’s some with much younger individuals so we can work with adolescent males. So around leavens 18 years old and we’ve surveyed over 2000 girls and nearly half of them said they felt that their breasts have had an impact on their exercise participation.

[00:05:23] So they would either stop emphasizing the causes of their breasts hurt when they exercise it might be that they’re embarrassed by the way that they’re their Frasse look when they exercise it they might be bouncing one gram and some concern that their gratitude for size or they don’t know how to find them correctly fit in bra. So all of these issues then contribute that physical activity and decline in play in young adolescence. All right. We’ve also identified that if we can increase gas mileage that is linked to increased physical activity participation in education is key to high energy efficiency. That’s just I feel very naive with this information blowing my mind in terms of young women as they are developing our poor you know disengaging from athletic activity perhaps because of their breast development and any embarrassment or pain that’s associated with that. I mean that was that a significant number of women and girls who are either changing their athletic habits or on disengaging completely at significant. Yeah we were in the price well before that and maybe not so much the pride knowing what we know in the adult population of both words more disappointed of those that that young healthy feel like this that there isn’t enough education for them to help them learn the value their breath then health us caught their breath which is why we’ve gone. We’re fine. We’re in the process of developing an education program. We want to deliver in schools with the aim to educate them about this issue. And that program is currently in development and yeah we should be going live in a few months field in developing our resources.

[00:07:14] His feedback from what I’m schoolgirl’s from teachers and health experts and the other in the process of recruiting schools to deliver that intervention or that education session and most importantly evaluate whether it works. You don’t want to just cut school and deliver something and say you know look how great this is. We’re evaluating this so that we can actually show the hopper what we hope will be the positive effects of that increase knowledge does it increase participation in girls confidence and with their breasts and being able to breast size. And have you had much pushback or anything from schools who are just uninterested in providing an education on this then difficulty’s in terms of the school program and giving in to Aussie schoolteachers who are extremely busy doing a brilliant job educating and yet live in areas. And so if anything the issues we probably experience and mainly logistic but intenser the sort of violence and the recognition that this is an important topic. We’ve had some really positive feedback. We surveyed nearly 200 teachers from different schools of varying different levels within the school hierarchy and the feedback we’ve got has been really positive that they recognize that this is a significant issue and would like something to be put in place to address it. So that’s promising so you have a program kind of about to launch that could have significant affects on those particularly young girls anticipation and sport.

[00:08:57] And I’m curious you had said whether perhaps it was the marathon runner study you talked about where 50 per cent of women had just experienced discomfort or you know whether the bra was cutting into their shoulders or you know ill fitting clothing and really hadn’t done anything about it because they had just well that’s just what it is. You know I have to put up with it. CLV kind of thing. Do you have any insight into why the women in your studies or women in general may have that perspective this. Well it’s just the way it is one thing maybe historically it can be difficult to find the product fitted well for different sizes or different shape. Yes I think certainly the bra industry has progressed a lot over over the years and there is now such a variety of different bras the veil of them on the market and that we should or should be something that would fit or suit most different dress sizes and shapes. Then at the same time that almost becomes a negative that there’s so much to choose from that it can be is in the mind. You walk into a bra shop and there are so many different types of bras only different brands so many different styles and to handle acquired the one that works for you. And so in terms of things that we might recommend is trying on a graph will you buy it. Is he actually checking checking for what we call the best fit criteria. So instead of using a tape measure then you saying that your own size you may be a size in that particular graph from that particular brand in that particular style. But if you go to another shop or buy in a different style you might be different flies. So I think women get into this mindset that they are of particular size in that they say that size.

[00:10:51] And so they continue to buy that side of the godless but we know that breast size and shape will change during the menstrual cycle. It may change during significant life events and such as if a woman is pregnant or if they go through the menopause. So you can’t just pick a size and stick with that forever and. So we feel it’s important to be regularly. A professional also. Well you better actually learn those men then what is often it you put on a bra what happens you’re going to have them look bored and ensure that it’s. That’s all really great advice and I am thinking back to my youth and how I never Probert I never got fitted and just kind of like rolled with him like this. This is great. And now I’m this size forever and in eternity great and I think that’s really great advice for people to think about and I think about it with the sports bar in particular in particular. My understanding is the advent of the sports bra is a pretty recent phenomenon and end for a really long time there was nothing on the market to support women runners women athletes in that capacity. And then when the sport bra was initially developed it was largely developed with small breasted women in mind so larger women remembers larger breasts were kind of left out of the equation. Have you found that the development of sports clothing for women has correlated with perhaps what might be an idealized body type. When we think about athletic women yes to a degree I do think that things have certainly progressed.

[00:12:28] There’s now a lot of bras on the market or manufacturers that do cater to large aggressive women but I guess historically they tend to focus on smaller restive women and there even seems to be this perception that that is it only matters for small aggressive women they’re the only women that collectivity. And then on the flipside we also see evidence that people think if they’re small aggressive they don’t need to wear offals bra that is not a problem for them. We found that with Kingsfield see a significant reduction in breast movement in a small half size equivalent or very similar to that that we might see a lot of rested women so it’s not just an issue that is important. The large breasted women’s woful bra it is equally important is more of a woman. Okay so I want to make sure I understand you sew clothing sports clothing or sports bras developed initially for smaller breasted women and kind of less larger rest women out of the equation but now manufacturers have caught up a little bit and are making a broader range of sizes. How ever you say you now has the small breasted women for whom sports bras were originally created at deciding I don’t need to wear one because I don’t have big enough Fobes to wear one. There’s no point no yard greens. Okay that’s really interesting and so but that’s an. And so then those individuals maybe experience discomfort but don’t maybe connect that the reason for the discomfort is that they’re not wearing a sports bra one or perhaps the sports bar bra they’re wearing doesn’t provide enough support. Yeah yeah I don’t think that that link is always clear.

[00:14:14] It might be it could be sort of related to their menstrual cycle that women may experience some rough discomfort and they put it down to that but it can that can be exacerbated when in a woman is exercising if you’re already experiencing breath discomfort. If people may then choose not to exercise during the time. Whereas if they are more of appropriate breath support they may still be able to continue with their activity without any discomfort. So they’re thinking about you know the kind of thrust of the show as look at those cultural and social barriers and then obviously we’re intersecting here since perhaps physical barriers. I’m wondering whether young girls as they’re entering sport in the research that you’ve found how much and how much does body image intersect with your work in the sense of when we see women athletes on screen. They almost always fit a particular body type. And so if you combine that and perception of which is breast pain had you seen that kind of I don’t sit like that my body type doesn’t sit as a teenager in for athletics and so that is going to compound the reason why I’m not going to participate on it. It’s not an area that we specifically investigate it presently. Certainly an area we will let you do more work in to look at the kind of poignant image and I can certainly see a link between you know things that you just described the kind of ideals that we see in terms of that a less ideal image of what is portrayed in the media what is portrayed in young girls magazines how of rap or rest should look.

[00:15:57] Oh what I like how they should look when they’re being added and certainly playing a role in terms of their self-esteem and their body image. I’ve been doing it in preliminary the missionary work in the area looking at how the represented in clean everything. And it wasn’t until I yachty having not been a teenager myself for a number of years that it’s been a while since I’ve looked at those kind of articles. And I felt quite insecure having looked through some of those articles that were constantly always told that you know if you’ve got small breasts it’s a problem. He got large breath it’s a problem. You know it doesn’t matter what side you press out there’s a problem then you know you need to fix it is not just you know you’re not just at home. You got small rest that’s okay. Is he puts more rest. Here’s how you make them look figure. And if you’ve got large breasts this is all you need to sort of shut them down and stop moving in there stop people looking at them. So I think young girls are under enormous pressure in terms of their body image specifically related to their breasts which I think is an area that has been running running for a while. We see body image is a really important area Erin is investigated in many different areas for I don’t think anyone really specifically apith on how the rest would have an impact. On my own and then yeah and then how that those perceptions of body image and spirit it then connect to participation in athletic activity is more or less participation rate. Yes. So how did that influence girls behaviour.

[00:17:40] So as part of our education intervention and our high of long term goal is if we can increase the breadth health knowledge of younger girls and increase their knowledge of breath in the knee breast development breast changes that might they might Varians an appropriate support that they can use organs for. If we can increase that knowledge what happens on that long term basis will they carry on being active or will they start to be active will they change their behaviour because they have a great knowledge of their own bodies. And what do you what do you think will happen. Well I’m very hopeful that that will happen that hopefully if we can have a girls and increase those nonage levels that it will give them the kind of the confidence in almost empower them to reclaim their bodies and take part in all these that they want to so not be embarrassed if they have a lot of press movement or that boys might view when it is knowledge the fact that they have breath they can’t do anything about the heart of their body. And they you support them as much as they can and if they do that in the best way possible they can still lead active lifestyle. Yeah I’m inspired by what you’re saying and the research that you’re doing and their education in particular because the taking back of their bodies right. This is who they are. It’s not something to be ashamed of I think is really important.

[00:19:11] There is so much shame there percolates and permeates young girls and young boys to some extent but in this but you know this instant young girls and they’re the way that their body looks an end you had mentioned a couple of times confidence and embarrassment. How much in the research is done specifically with teens how big of an issue was embarrassment around teen girls embarrassment around their breasts and their development. How much did that come up from nearly one third of girls reported that they were maybe embarrassed getting changed at school. So no in their physical education lessons at school they may not participate it is they don’t want to get unchanged in front. There is an of similar amount around a third were worried about how their breasts looked specifically during physical activity. So they were worried that they might be bouncing or that ball might move by breath. So it kind of that was one of those barriers to ossification Ray. Where do you think that embarrassment comes from. Like where. Why are they embarrassed. Do you have a sense of that. Is it the media or is it something else. I think it can be a number of things I think. I think partly I my view certainly is it is the lack of education and if we don’t talk about it. There’s there’s particularly in the UK where I’m from. There is no nothing in the curriculum that teaches… all there is to set and relationship guidance that schools may follow but that is very … or it looks at it and changes during puberty.

[00:20:50] We’re very scientific an you point and I would say does this go that step further of actually making it of our individual personal experience not just these are the physiological changes you will go through that actually in the into context of how that might make a young girl feel or how that might change how their view on I put particularly the media certainly plays in role. I mean I’m sure I’ve read a story fairly recently about a young girl that was sent home from school because she didn’t have a bra on and she was disrupting young boys you know. Yes thory like that. Is this just horrendous how can you know you’re telling a young girl you are sexualizing that young girl just because she has breasts. Oh my gosh aunties say it’s impacting the education of young boys because it’s going to distract them. But know whose issue is that the young girl issue or is that young voice issue. So there could be a need to educate young guys as well as girls to make them aware that this is just you know girls have breath we’ve got to deal with it well and then whose education are you pulling ahead there. So in that scenario right the boys education is more important than the girls because the girl has to go home yet the boys have just not on their not be disrupted. So there’s a very simple solution. There’s another recent story about a girls bra strap was on show so not even the fact that she’s not wearing a bra it is just somebody the hairbrush. Well you know something that that young girl means wear it all with these exalted. So how can you feel my hot young girl the mayor of Raasch being visible. How has that impact on of his education. So she was sent home because her bra strap was visible. Yeah.

[00:22:47] Yes at home all was off to change her clothing. Megan analysis makes me angry I guess been a number of cases like that in the United States less less associated perhaps with bras. But just in general girls being sent home because their clothing is perceived as distracting to the boys. And so certainly not a phenomenon just in the UK. And then you see you can see how these are all connected right. So you send messages to young girls that the way that they dress or that the clothing that they wear in particular their bras or sports bras that are important and needed are problematic and they are distracting. So then you reinforce embarrassment around that young girl’s body and then that connects to their capacity or willingness perhaps to engage in any activity that will draw attention to their body. Yeah absolutely. You know those negative experiences at a young age can often lead to women not exercising throughout their lifetime or who’s you know they remember that moment when they were exercising in the school playing field and remembered somebody laughing at them because their breath without feeling or somebody calling out names on that wall. Their role in their lives on the ground. So an experience in school could have long term effects on the girl and then woman’s willingness to participate in any kind of athletic activity. Well I certainly have stories to suggest. Yeah. Yeah. So I mean this is what’s so fascinating and so troubling ride is that all of these elements are connected. They’re not operating in silos and so on.

[00:24:44] When we talk about both the kind of social and cultural representations and perceptions of girls and women in them we intertwine now with girls and women’s perceptions of their own bodies. And then there are the way in which their bodies move through the world and then how that all contributes and combines to a lack of participation for young girls and women. And I know like not all of the connections I’m making are necessarily scientific and they’re are somewhat anecdotal based on some of the things you’re sharing and just my own life experiences but I think that we miss that sometimes when we think of our participation in sport for young girls and particularly in them moving through adolescence and into adulthood that it’s not just one thing right. There’s the kind of multitude of behaviours and add attitudes and perspective perceptions that were affecting the decision whether to participate in sport. Yeah I completely agree it is such a complex area in so many different factors that in play a role in what might lead to either a young girl being active or choosing not to be in an office that will be so variable as well among individuals that there may be some young girls argue to be confident and they may have large breasts then they may not know the effect is on comments that people might make that for a mother young girl malathy covers a significant in part on how they feel about themselves and what decisions they choose.

[00:26:21] I would regard their activity to us and as so many have that sort of slowly set there has been research group where time fits for this area more and more and really understand what the issues are and then if we can understand these issues more clearly we can start to try and address those so that we can try and support young girls and and adults when young women and try and engage them in that the thing given the confidence here. Yeah. Great because that’s a huge piece of it. So thinking about the next steps and you’ve obviously got this great education program that you’re about to launch and you’re working with schools to educate young women about breast development and about how they don’t need to be an impediment to their to accessing physical activity. What can parents or teachers do. I mean obviously this program you’re doing is just in the United Kingdom it’s not. It’s not in the United States or indeed across the world like what kind of things do you have or are suggestions for parents and teachers and friends if they’re noticing a young girl is embarrassed you exhibiting embarrassment around their body developing and perhaps withdrawing from athletic activity. Oh I think competing issues are just trying to have knowledge that while actually opening a dialogue and allowing a young girl to talk about breasts than the the issues or experiences they might be feeling or having. And I think it is all too easy to just ignore it all you know the teachers or maybe embarrass themselves or parents who are embarrassed to address the issue. But I think I’ve just shown it it’s okay to talk about these issues is the first step really.

[00:28:09] Then you can really try and understand what that young girl’s experiencing or what she’s feeling and then just trying to offer support and advice really even sharing your own personal stories just to open that dialogue compelling or have it her relationship or confidence and that they’re having you to be able to share what their healing is going to help open that dialogue. And even worse using other Appellees then impact role models that I would be willing to talk about their own experiences so that they recognize a week of healing is that change isn’t. The only person that’s its view thing those concerns and those worries so often recognize that actually this is something that a lot of girls will go out on a lot of girls experience. It doesn’t become such into the subject. If we can just open up communication about the issue yes. And that’s also true of Beyond Breast Health then understanding one’s breast is also sex education that it’s such a taboo in conversations that are happening and so it seems like that conversation needs to be expanded significantly and it needs to be expanded in multiple places and not ignored gray because ignoring it can just compound the issue. There definitely is more something that happens if women continue it’s going to get worse. It’s never going to get addressed will never solve the issue when everything can find out what the issue is. So we’ve got it the first thing is the hign communication in how young girls on the continent. You think about their breath and talk about the issue or and hopefully it’s often talked about the positive thing it is they have addressed. No one knows. 

[00:30:01] They also feel comfortable in crowds bad breath got at such a great point because yeah they have conversation even that you and I have been having is being focused on kind of the net the negative aspects or relate the culture surrounding breast development and how that has negatively influenced young women. So activity and engagement in sports but there’s a lot of good right there’s a lot of positivity and we need to flip the script to be to have a body positive perspective and help young girls see that because with that I imagine their confidence will grow and then the likelihood that they will engage in physical activity will increase never harmony hash such a lot to think about. Well I really appreciate you taking the time today to talk to us on talking point. This is just a really important additional layer for us to think about as we try to deconstruct all of the barriers that are affecting young girls and women and their participation in sports so we really do appreciate your contribution to the conversation. Plinked they might lampooning it with regards to you know share some of the work that we’ve been doing in enhancing anything here in the hell. You know even as a young girl or woman watching this experience on issues that they can relate to and it helped them realise that they’re not alone. Am I being hit well worth it. Absolutely. We can include links to your research in the show notes for the podcast so if a listener is interested in learning more they can access your information and also organise a show in the research group in breast health. We can include a link to that too at the University of Portsmouth so folks can look into that more.

[00:31:39] But thank you again for joining us. We really appreciate it. And hopefully this has provided some great food for thought for our listeners. We went through much thanks again to Dr Nikki Brown for joining us this month for sharing her research into some of the physical and cultural barriers inhibiting women and girls participation in sport for show notes including related links and a transcript of the episode please visit wisps sports dot com you can also find hundreds of additional podcasts on WiSP Sports Radio. Subscribe to us using your preferred podcast player. And don’t forget to leave us a review on iTunes for more conversations from the world of women’s sport including blogs articles and videos visit wisps sports dot com. Post your comments questions and suggestions on our Facebook page or email us at and follow share and like @WiSPsports on social media you can reach me Lisa Ingarfield directly @tritodefi on Twitter and Instagram. Thank you for listening and supporting women in sport everywhere. Will be back next month with another in-depth thought provoking conversation on Talking Point.





Photo: Dr. Nicole Brown supplied by guest 
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