Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

Photo

Harriet Lee-Merrion

Spring, finally!

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”

Breast and Body Changes Are Driving Teen Girls Out of Sports

Photo

CreditHarriet Lee-Merrion

So why aren’t more teenage girls out on the playing fields?

Research shows that girls tend to start dropping out of sports and skipping gym classes around the onset of puberty, a sharp decline not mirrored by adolescent boys.

A recent study in The Journal of Adolescent Health found a surprisingly common reason: developing breasts, and girls’ attitudes about them.

In a survey of 2,089 English schoolgirls ages 11 to 18, nearly three-quarters listed at least one breast-related concern regarding exercise and sports. They thought their breasts were too big or too small, too bouncy or bound too tightly in an ill-fitting bra. Beginning with feeling mortified about undressing in the locker room, they were also self-consciously reluctant to exercise and move with abandon.

Experts on adolescent health praised the study for identifying and quantifying an intuitive thought.

“We make assumptions about what we think we know, so it’s important to be able to say that as cup size increases, physical activity decreases for a lot of girls,” Dr. Sharonda Alston Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, who focuses on adolescent obesity.

The challenge is what to do about it.

After reading the study, some pediatricians and adolescent health specialists said they needed to do a better job informing girls about breast health and development. Almost 90 percent of the girls in the study said they wanted to know more about breasts in general, and nearly half wanted to know about sports bras and breasts specifically with respect to physical activity.

Joanna Scurr, the lead author of the study and a professor of biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the breast itself had little internal support, so when a girl’s body moved, the breast moved independently, and the movement increased with breast size. In up to 72 percent of exercising women, she said, that movement was a cause of breast pain or discomfort.

Yet while sports and physical education programs frequently recommend protective gear for boys, like cups, athletic supporters and compression shorts, comparable lists for young women rarely include a mandatory or even recommended sports bra.

Only 10 percent of the girls surveyed said they always wore a sports bra during sports and exercise. More than half had never worn one.

Dr. Taylor said that lack of education about bra fitting and sizing was commonplace in her practice.

“The mom will say, ‘I don’t know what size she is,’ and the patient will say, ‘I just grab my sister’s or my mother’s bras to wear.’”

Using data from this study and others, the researchers from sports and exercise health departments at three British universities are trying to design school-based educational programs.

When researchers asked the girls how they would prefer to receive breast information — via a website, an app, a leaflet or a private session with a nurse — the overwhelming majority replied that they wanted a girls-only session with a female teacher.

At what age? “Most of them said 11,” Dr. Scurr said.

Andria Castillo, now 17 and a junior at Mather High School in Chicago, says she remembers that when she was around that age, she was painfully self-conscious about her breast size; she thought she was developing more slowly than everyone else.

“I felt boys and girls were making fun of me,” she said. “Even though no one called me out, I felt they were, behind my back. I was taking taekwondo, and I would look in the big mirror and try to find ways to cover myself up and hide. I asked my dad if I could stop going.”

She had a friend who had been active in sports. But in the sixth grade, the girl’s breasts developed rapidly. “She eventually stopped going to gym altogether,” Ms. Castillo said. “Instead, she just went to a classroom and did her homework.”

In time, Ms. Castillo turned her attitude around; she is now on her school’s varsity water polo and swim teams. She credits not only her mother, but also a Chicago-based project, Girls in the Game, which has body-positive, confidence-building programs, including single-sex athletics.

Some experts in female adolescent obesity and fitness suggested that young girls would be more comfortable in single-sex gym classes. But others said that option had its disadvantages, too.

Kimberly Burdette, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Loyola University Chicago who looks at the psychological factors that promote well-being and healthy weight in girls, says such separation might be helpful at a time when adolescent girls had a heightened awareness that others were looking at their bodies.

“It’s hard to be in the zone, focusing on athletic movement, on what your body can do, if you’re thinking about what others think your body looks like,” she said. “I like programming that is for girls only, where a girl can try a sport, regardless of her ability, without the male gaze.”

But Elizabeth A. Daniels, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, disagreed. “I’m not sure the concern or embarrassment is always just about boys,” she said, noting that girls can make derisive comments about one another. “So do we change the structure of the gym class or address respectful behavior?”

Holley Mangold, Olympic Weightlifter

An Olympic Weightlifter on Football, Breaking Windows and the Perfect Lift

Holley Mangold successfully completes a 145-kilogram clean and jerk on her first attempt during the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Weightlifting on March 4, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

 

People have called Holley Mangold “Big Girl” most of her life. She heard it growing up playing football against boys, it’s what everyone called her when she starred in an episode of MTV’s True Life and it’s how people think of her now that she’s an Olympic weightlifter in the superheavyweight division.

 

Mangold’s totally OK with that. In fact, she embraces it. She’s 5-foot-8 and weighs 350 pounds and she doesn’t care what you think about it. But then, she’s never been especially concerned with what others thought, and it’s served her well through an athletic career that’s been as impressive as it is unusual.

Mangold, the younger sister of New York Jets All-Pro center Nick Mangold, started playing football when she was 8. She was on the offensive line at Archbishop Alter High School and the first girl who wasn’t a kicker to play high school football in Ohio. She started powerlifting at about the same time and won the junior nationals at age 18. Her path to the Games was set then, but the 22-year-old wasn’t expected to make it until 2016. Instead, she sealed her spot in London with a surprise second-place finish at the Olympic Trials with a combined total of 255 kilograms. That’s 562.2 pounds, for the metrically challenged.

Wired chatted with Mangold about her about challenging stereotypes, surpassing expectations and chasing the feeling that comes with the perfect lift.

 

Wired: How did you get into weightlifting?

Mangold: I was playing football and one day in the weight room my coach was like, “Well, you’re pretty strong for a female.” I’m pretty sure he meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. I decided to go into powerlifting. I got some national records there, and then moved on to Olympic weightlifting. I just fell in love with it.

Wired: Did you and Nick ever play together?

Mangold: Oh no, I’m sure I would have killed him, so he wouldn’t want to play against me.

Wired: Do you miss football at all?

Mangold: I miss the contact, you know. I really do. I love contact sports. I love when you get to beat someone out. [laughs] Here you’ve just got to lift more than them. But I have a lot more passion for weightlifting.

Wired: What stokes your passion?

Mangold: It’s so technical. It looks so effortless when you do it right, and when you do it wrong it looks like it’s really, really heavy. There’s this thing called weightlessness. When you get a good lift the bar is literally weightless. It’s off your body and you don’t feel it until it’s over your head. You get that with maybe one in 100 lifts, but when you get it you’ll chase it for the rest of your life.

Wired: How do people look at women weightlifters?

Mangold: I think a lot of people think they all look like me. There’s a lot of small weightlifters, 48 kilo class. People forget about that. I feel women weightlifters kind of try too hard and are too feminine just to show they’re still feminine. I don’t do that. I try to have a nice balance. But I haven’t had any problems. People don’t really say anything to your face because they’re a little intimidated that you can out-lift them.

Wired: I hear you were kicked out of the gym in college for breaking windows….

Mangold: Oh yes, I did. It was a second-story weight room. It wasn’t really built for Olympic weightlifting. In weightlifting you drop the weights, and because it was an all-girls college they weren’t really expecting girls to do Olympic weightlifting. I dropped the weights and it broke all the windows. It wasn’t even that much, like 200 pounds. I wasn’t allowed to lift there anymore, needless to say.

Wired: The training regimen for weightlifting seems obvious. But how much time is spent training each week?

Mangold: I train about three hours each practice. I have two practices Monday, Wednesday, Friday, one on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. And I have Sunday off. It’s about 27 hours a week.

Wired: What do you do to stay focused before you compete?

Mangold: Before I go in I usually wrap a towel around my head and try to get in the zone, focus and block everything else out. I don’t pay attention to who’s lifting, what they lifted, if they missed, if they didn’t. I just focus on me and what’s happening. It’s very important to visualize yourself making the lifts, visualize yourself doing thing correctly.

Wired: There’s a certain amount of grace involved in weightlifting.

Mangold: A lot of people think we just pick things up and put them back down. But if you’re a quarter of an inch off your path at the bottom, it’s going to be five inches behind you at the top. It’s very technical in the fact that you’ve got to be precise in your movements. I always say weightlifting is like controlled explosion. You must control the bar completely all the way through the lift, through an explosion of power. It’s hard to grasp the technical things you have to do but there’s a million of them. But you’ve got to make sure you’re not thinking of a million things, because then you’re not even going to lift it.

Wired: Is the technical proficiency one reason weightlifters often are older than many Olympians?

Mangold: Yeah. They say it takes five years to see if you’re going to be any good in weightlifting and 10 years to see if you’re going to be great. I’ve been doing it for about three and a half, so I don’t know if I’m good yet. [laughs] I feel I’m just scratching at the surface of what I can do.

Wired: You’re ahead of schedule, actually.

Mangold: You know, the 2012 Olympics means so much to me because everyone thought I was going in 2016. I was kind of like the underdog that just came through. This was an unexpected thing, everybody was projecting me for 2016, so now I’ve got to show that I deserve going to 2012. It means a lot of work.

Wired: What would you tell girls who may want to get into weightlifting?

Mangold: You’re not going to end up like me. You’re not going to be huge. A lot of girls don’t go into weightlifting because they think it’s going to make them like bulky and huge. You gotta be born this big. You’re not going to reach my size just because you start weightlifting. That said, do what you want to do and have fun doing it. If you love it, continue doing it and do not worry about what other people say.

Wired: Your confidence and attitude are inspiring.

Mangold: I love my body. I think it’s perfect. I don’t know what my personality would be like if I wasn’t so huge. And I think it’s a great thing for me. I’ll never be skinny and I’m perfectly okay with that. As soon as I retire I will be doing cross-fit and I’m sure I’ll go crazy with health stuff. But right now I’m kind of enjoying being a super heavyweight. I kind of like it.

Original article