Why do women athletes tend to be flat-chested?

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Dear Cecil: Why are women athletes always flat-chested? It’s easy to understand that being stacked might not be too helpful in many Olympics-type sports, but how do those gals get rid of ‘em? Do they strap themselves down, like Julie Andrews did in Victor/Victoria? Can you shrink them through diet and exercise? Or are they such a disadvantage that competition selects against them? Is it impossible to excel in such events as track and field and gymnastics if you are well-endowed? When this first occurred to me, I naturally assumed that good grillework was just not part of the well-toned athletic female body. However, this past summer I have put this notion to the empirical test, and I don’t think it holds up, if you’ll pardon the expression. So I turn to you, wise one. What gives? And WHY WAS THERE NO OFFICIAL SUPPORT-GARMENT MANUFACTURER FOR THE OLYMPICS? Leg Man, Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cool your jets, Jasper. As I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s difficult to come up with a definitive answer to a question like this. Partly that’s because Uncle Cecil has an aversion to getting punched out by female track stars, and partly because the U.S. Olympic Committee’s records on chest size are woefully inadequate. However, trainers and coaches confirm that women athletes do tend to be on the small-breasted side, particularly long-distance runners.

A number of reasons for this have been suggested. According to a report by Dr. Christine Haycock, a trauma surgeon and associate professor of surgery at the New Jersey College of Medicine, “a trainer who has worked more than 10 years with track-and-field athletes noted that he has seen only one or two girls with large breasts in sports, and this tends to confirm that the discomfort of running without adequate breast support has kept many potential athletes from competing.” As it happens, Cecil has a well-endowed woman friend who ran in a marathon, and pursuant thereto did training runs of as much as 14 miles a day. These often left her with a ghastly collection of abrasions where her bra rubbed. It seems safe to say, therefore, that the low incidence of big-breastedness among runners is to some extent a matter of self-selection.

We might further speculate that since the female breast, whatever may be said for it from an aesthetic standpoint, can do nothing for an athlete except slow her down, competitive pressures would tend to favor small-breasted women. Unfortunately, little research seems to have been done on this topic. As for your other theories on small-breastedness, women athletes do not go to any extraordinary lengths to “strap themselves down.” Diet and training, however, may play a role. Female runners carry about 15 percent body fat, and long-distance runners about 12-13 percent, compared to 18-22 percent or higher for an ordinary healthy young woman. There is a widespread belief among female athletes and their coaches that breasts are “mostly fat,” and thus will decrease in size as overall percentage of body fat declines. (There’s some indication that low body fat also causes menstruation to stop, a common phenomenon in women athletes.)

But others have their doubts. Dr. Victor Katch, a PE prof at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Frank Katch, of the department of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts, say that breasts are 80 percent glandular tissue and only 20 percent fat. They claim their studies show there is no statistical correlation between body fat and breast size. Whatever the truth of the matter, there’s no doubt that distribution of body fat varies widely from one woman to the next. Certainly some women find that their breasts become significantly smaller when they’re in training.

In any case, the Straight Dope research program in this vital area is continuing. (The woman friend referred to above is now Mrs. Adams.) Probably not going to be a lot of reports on the subject emanating from this department soon. But if anything startling develops, maybe I’ll find a way to give you a hint.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.