Do breasts impede athletic performance?

A new article in ESPN Magazine has sparked debate over whether boobs hamper success in sports

UFC wrestler Ronda Rousey
(Image credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

America is a land where bigger is better, and nowhere does that prove more true than with our love of (or obsession with) boobs. Not for nothing is breast implantation projected to be a $1.1 billion market by 2016, with the U.S., along with Europe, making up 85 percent of the world's total implant market. It's also pretty much the only reason Baywatch stayed on TV for over a decade.

Yet, according to an article in ESPN Magazine's "The Body Issue," a number of female athletes, from gymnasts to wrestlers to tennis players, don't feel that same level of affection for their assets, saying they cause pain and damage their performance.

Amanda Hess presents an array of evidence, research, and interviews with athletes and experts on how breasts negatively affect sports performance. She describes how UFC wrestler Ronda Rousey was faced with the decision to guard herself from having her opponent "snap my neck in half," or adjust the weak sports bra she was given to keep from flashing 13,000 onlookers.

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Embarrassment aside, breasts are associated with neck and back pain along with degenerative spine disorder. They add weight (Hess cites .43 pounds per A-cup boob, and .44 pounds for each additional cup size), which is potentially damaging for pretty much any sport. They also get in the way, so to speak. Hess describes how female golfers and archers train themselves to swing and shoot differently to accommodate their breasts.

In short, Hess writes:

A mounting body of evidence suggests that they [breasts] pose a serious challenge in nearly all corners of competition. Gymnasts push themselves to the brink of starvation to avoid developing them. All sorts of pro athletes have ponied up thousands of dollars to surgically reduce them. For the modern athlete, the question isn't whether breasts get in the way — it's a question of how to compete around them. [ESPN Magazine]

A round of supporters have rallied around the piece, saying big boobs are the elephant in the room for female athletes. "Having breasts is a huge disadvantage in sports," writes Kat Stoeffel at New York. Sure, bigger boobs may have "some lurid cost-benefit analysis" by introducing a female athlete to a "new, larger, male-er audience." But in terms of pure performance, there's no getting around the fact that "breasts — whether as extra weight, a hitch in your swing, or a break in your aerodynamic line — hold athletes back," Stoeffel says.

And now people are wondering why the world of sports hasn't found better solutions. "Breasts do get in the way for women trying to compete in sports — and it's amazing more hasn't been done about it," writes Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel. The need for changes in sports or sports gear (the ubiquitous sports bra was only created in the late 1970s and it hasn't seen too many great advancements) is drastic. "Any athlete who relies on speed or needs to utilize the space in front of their chest to play their sport has to work around what essentially is two water balloons strapped to their pectorals," Gloria Ryan says.

But not everyone is up in arms over breasts in sports. Hess' piece "conflates two problems," writes Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire. Hess treats the two separate issues of large breasts as an athletic hindrance and large breasts as a source of potential ogling and embarrassment as one and the same. "There is a difference between having boobs so big you can't do some sports, and having boobs so big you get GIF'd all over the internet," she writes.

Reeve doesn't buy the argument that boobs interfere with athletic performance, citing Serena Williams and Aly Raisman as two well-endowed women who excel in (or, more accurately, dominate) their respective sports. However, she does mention that fellow (and weaker) tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked Williams by sticking towels down her tanktop, and how a nip-slip in the world sports arena is too often immortalized in internet history. The problem, though, "is not the fault of boobs," writes Reeve. Rather, "it is the fault of terrible people on the Internet."

Unfortunately, insensitive internet commentators may be the one thing harder to rein in than boobs.

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Emily Shire is chief researcher for The Week magazine. She has written about pop culture, religion, and women and gender issues at publications including Slate, The Forward, and Jewcy.