A jubilant welcome to the era of the sports bra

July 25, 1999|By Susan Reimer

Bras are in the news again. Instead of refusing to wear them, as we did in the free-love '60s, instead of burning them, as we did in the feminist '70s, women are ripping off their shirts and showing off their bras in ecstatic celebrations of victory.

Brandi Chastain and her black sports bra made the cover of national newspapers and magazines after her penalty kick won soccer's World Cup for the American women. She didn't look sexy as much as she looked lean and primal and full of teeth-clenching joy. I'm not a guy, but I found myself looking at her abs. She has the chest of a young boy, but gee whiz, what a six-pack.

Anyway, Brandi Chastain's act of jubilation -- something male athletes have made a cliche, like saying "Hi, Mom," into the television camera -- has sparked fulminations about the future of women's sports. How like us. We want a swatch of cloth to summarize something as evolving as women in sports.

After all, it was only a generation ago -- as short a time in the past as my own youth -- that girls were discouraged from running and playing sports because all that jostling could damage their breasts. How long it took to come up with the female equivalent of the jock strap.

I don't know if sports bras are a symbol of change or the result of it. But those simple garments have changed more than the way women feel when they run. Even a girl's first trip to the foundations department with Mom is not what it was.

The element of embarrassment has been removed. There is no longer a question of whether a young girl has developed enough to deserve a bra or whether she is simply trying to keep up with her classmates.

These days, a girl's first bra is a sports bra, and its purchase is as neutral and absent of psychological baggage as the purchase of shin guards and cleats. It is a piece of sports equipment, not the emotional equivalent of her first period.

Later on, of course, a young girl will have to buy a bra because she has breasts. Or perhaps she doesn't, and the embarrassing question of padding must be addressed. But by that time, she has been an athlete for several seasons, and she brings into that tiny dressing room a sense of her body as an instrument of sports, not a reason for shame.

Everybody kept asking Brandi Chastain how it felt to be a role model, to have a young girl wear a jersey with her name stenciled across the shoulders, and she burst into tears, profound and inexplicable tears.

The question is all wrong, of course. It is backward. It is like asking if women are playing sports because now there are sports bras to prevent damage to their breasts. Our daughters don't need to see Brandi Chastain on television, ripping off her shirt in triumph, in order to find the courage to play sports. Our daughters are so-o-o-o way past that.

The sportswriters and the sporting goods merchandisers and the sports promoters are wrong, too, if they think that Brandi Chastain's sports bra means that there is a fresh market for professional women's sports teams, that the soccer moms and their soccer daughters will fill the stands and bump up the television ratings.

They don't get it.

Sure the Rose Bowl was full that Saturday. The final of the Women's World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Anybody would clear their calendar for that.

But season tickets? Don't be silly. Those girls have games of their own to play. They will be busy playing games for years to come. Just check the schedule on the fridge.

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