For more than two decades, LaJean Lawson has searched for new and better ways to keep women's boobs from bouncing when they run.
The 58-year-old Portland businesswoman and Oregon State University adjunct professor is one of the world's leading experts on breast motion, with an academic background in textiles and a Ph.D. in exercise science. Lawson's seminal 1990 study, "Selected Sports Bras: Comparisons of Comfort and Support," put 60 women with cup sizes A, B, C and D on treadmills; the joggers were filmed in slow-motion wearing various sports bras, with only stickers over their nipples. The results were instructive.
Now, Lawson affixes reflective markers all over the body and uses a computer to track how different parts move. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's money in moving breasts.
Lawson is on retainer with Champion sportswear; she's consulted for Hanes, Playtex and other brands small and large, including (years ago) Nike. Exercise-related breast-bouncing is in part a seasonal phenomenon, which is why we sought her out now. On a sunny day last week, Lawson, a B cup, rode her black Cannondale Bad Boy bike to WW's offices to share her wisdom.
WW: You're a young-looking 58.
LaJean Lawson: It's all that exercise.
So you missed the bra-burning era, then?
I went to a small private Christian college. I look at the bra not as an instrument of oppression; I look at the bra, when it comes to exercise, as an instrument of freedom. I'm going to exercise, I'm going to be comfortable, and I'm not going to worry about my tits.
How many people study breast motion for a living?
Until recently I was probably the only one. This is a sore place for me. There's a researcher in England who claimed to be the first person to study breast motion.
What's the biggest misconception about breast motion?
That if you let your breasts move too much you can somehow injure them in a way that gives you medical problems, like breast cancer. The study [on that] was just a piece of crap.
Do you have veto power over bra design at Champion?
Pretty close. I'm out in the stores, talking to the staff, "Are you having problems with this bra?" I want to know about that.
A female colleague wonders if you can get tissue damage if you don't wear the right sports bra.
That's very difficult to prove scientifically, so we tend to extrapolate. The breasts have these "attachment cords" that hook up to the chest wall. The theory is that those will stretch.
Any advice for men who are bra shopping?
Here's what makes bras so tough: This is the most complex set of curves in the body. You have AA, C, B, all these cup sizes. Women are very individual. This is really risky territory for men. It's even more complex than finding a pair of jeans.
So, don't even try—that's your advice?
Gift cards are great.
Uh, any circumstances where a man should wear a sports bra?
I've seen some guys jogging on the Esplanade that I wish had worn man bras.
How'd you get started in this research?
I was running marathons, not happy with my bras. It was like, "Gee, you've got to get a master's degree in something."
Have you benefited from your findings?
I have so much swag! Also I get hit on a lot by men who want to help me with my research. But it would be tough to get in the lab with me. We have procedures we have to follow to preserve anonymity, and we take that pretty seriously.
Did any of your filmed subjects think, "Jeez, I don't want that tape getting out"?
I'm sure. I carried those tapes around for a long time because I felt I had to guard them. About three years ago, I finally did dispose of them. I'm not going to tell you where. The film was like from the chin to the waist. It'd be pretty boring. Pretty scary in some cases, too.
I had this wonderful subject in a D cup. She had six children. She'd recently left a deadbeat husband. She had lost about 80 pounds. That's partly where I formed my opinion about what happens to the skin of larger breasts.
It sounds like the larger-breasted benefit more from your work.
It's fair to say that. The larger cup sizes are a special passion for me. The average breast size has risen quite dramatically. For the first time I had triple Ds in my study.
Are these women obese, or—?
They do tend to have higher body fat levels. But over 20 years, I've seen a switch. What I see are more girls who aren't otherwise heavy but have larger breasts. I suspect hormones in the water and food supply.
Should we be worried?
No. There's more important things to worry about.
What are the big remaining mysteries about the breast?
There's questions like, "Does not wearing a bra actually cause sagging?"
How would you figure that out?
Theoretically, you'd have to secure one breast and let the other go for 20 years. It's hard to find women, especially double Ds, willing to do that. Some of those questions, I don't care.
You're very results-oriented.
Absolutely. It's all about better bras.
Uh, can you do something about the clips? Because in my limited experience with bras, the clip is a problem.
Ha ha ha! God, you're so naive.
Lawson is friendly with the founders of Jogbra (now Champion), who invented the sports bra in the late 1970s by sewing two male athletic supporters together.
She graduated from Walla Walla College in 1972, got her M.S. in clothing and textiles from Utah State in 1985 and her Ph.D. in exercise science from OSU in 1991.