Unleash the Girls
Named a Kirkus “Best Books of 2022”
2019 Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize Semifinalist - Nonfiction (Memoir / Autobiography)
"…an inspiring narrative about changing the world through fearless innovation." —BookLife (Publisher's Weekly)
The 1970s saw women coming into their own, working hard to create new roles at home and in sports, culture, politics, and business. It was also the start of the “fitness revolution.” At this unique intersection of feminism and athleticism, Lisa Lindahl’s game-changing entrepreneurial journey began.
She invented the first sports bra, the “Jogbra,” in 1977. It was the right product at the right time, throwing Lisa into a high-stakes world of business and power—a world for which she was not fully prepared. Unleash the Girls is the improbable story of a young artist with a disability who used her powers of creativity to solve a vexing problem and ended up leveling the playing field for girls and women across the globe—literally, unleashing the girls.
Her invention would become a feminist icon and the company she founded would change an industry. But amid the success, Lisa continued to search for meaning and the true nature of power and beauty. This is the untold story of the invention of the sports bra and how it changed the world for girls and women...and, along the way, changed Lisa, too.
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"... the author's narrative is as much an inspiring business memoir as it is an absorbing chronicle of a surprisingly significant piece of sports clothing. An engrossing account of the entrepreneur—and the bra—that changed women’s sports." —Kirkus Reviews
“The sports bra was and is more than a piece of sporting equipment, it has become a symbol and a vehicle for women and girls to propel themselves forward without inhibition towards the future that they are creating. Prior to its inception, the concept of women running, jumping, lifting, competing, basically moving dynamically, caused reticence. NOW, WE RUN AND MOVE in every athletic space and then some. To say I don’t think about my sports bra anymore is to say that I am FREE to accomplish and go after anything I want. I am EMPOWERED TO EMBRACE OPPORTUNITY!” —Brandi Chastain, American retired soccer player, two-time FIFA Women's World Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold-medalist, coach, and sports broadcaster
“The introduction of the sports bra did more than improve athletic performance. It represented a revolution in ready-to-wear clothing, and for many women athletes – past, present, and future – it actually made sports possible.” —Smithsonian Museum of American History Archivist Cathy Keen
Lisa Z. Lindahl is an artist, entrepreneur, and women's health advocate. She invented the sports bra in 1977, revolutionizing athletic participation for women and girls. In 2000, she patented a medical garment for use in breast cancer. She has a BS in education from the University of Vermont, a Master's of Arts in Culture and Spirituality from Holy Names University in California, and is a graduate of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies' Three Year Program of Advanced Initiations. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where it rarely goes below freezing and one can garden year 'round.
Sometimes a single moment captures and reveals the essence of your life’s purpose. For me, it happened one day near the end of winter in Vermont. It was not quite springtime, mud season as it’s called, a difficult time of year for souls yearning for sunshine’s warmth and the first signs of green. I was standing at the window of my studio office overlooking Lake Champlain, always a changeable, capricious view. This day, I noticed a wind was tickling the top of the lake’s slate-colored surface. But my attention was turned inward. I was wrestling with my identity, and how the title “successful businesswoman” fit into the whole of my life. I chafed under the typical introduction, “Meet Lisa, the ‘Jogbra Lady!’” Wasn’t I more than just this one achievement? Had my entrepreneurial journey made a difference in the world? Did any of it really matter?
Nature, as she always did, called me back. Outside my window the gray sky was beginning to lift and just enough midday light was filtering through to create a bright and otherworldly sparkle on the lake’s now choppy water. It silhouetted the dark tree branches lining the lake edge, highlighting the baby yellow leaf buds clinging there. A blue jay’s call pierced my silence and suddenly I was immersed—if only for a moment—in a deep sense of timeless and complete beauty.
There was my answer.
In that moment, I realized that what really mattered was beauty. Not physical beauty. Not glamour, which is so often confused with beauty in today’s culture. No, what I had experienced was much bigger: It was True Beauty—transcendent and everlasting.
Since that moment, I’ve made it my life’s work to learn the way of True Beauty and teach others how to find and use it to create greater harmony in our world.
My journey to that life-changing moment on Lake Champlain was long and circuitous. It began in a very different time and place, a time when my relationship with myself was muddled and my understanding of beauty was still nascent. I was a young, artistic woman trying to find herself. It was the early 1970s, and we were all trying to find ourselves. The “women’s liberation movement,” as it was then called, had swept across the United States. The changes were so profound that Time magazine awarded its 1975 “Man of the Year” cover to “American Women.” Only two years earlier, tennis star Billy Jean King had captivated the nation’s attention when she beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” on the tennis court. Women were coming into their own, working hard to carve out new roles for themselves at home, in sports, culture, politics and business.
The nation in general was also beginning to move. We were getting up off the couch where we’d been watching TV shows like All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H and Bewitched and joining the “fitness revolution.” People started jogging—en masse. It’s estimated that 25 million Americans took up running in the 1970s and 1980s, including President Jimmy Carter.
It’s at this unique intersection between feminism and athleticism that my entrepreneurial story begins. With the passage of Title IX in 1972, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program, doors were finally opening for young women not only in the classroom but also on the field. But Title IX could not erase the discomfort and self-consciousness that were insidious ingredients in keeping girls and women off those fields.
Along with the other young women of my “Baby Boomer” generation, I was trying to find my way. In my mid-twenties I had headed back to the college classroom and, as part of my self-reinvention, taken up jogging. My new love of running, though, came with a problem—my breasts bounced...a lot. It was a constant distraction and discomfort and the only thing not great about my runs. I needed a solution.
When I invented the sports bra in 1977, it completed what Title IX had started. It leveled the playing field for female athletes and athletic women. It turned out to be the one-two punch that knocked out old attitudes and restrictions. You might even say it “unleashed the girls.”
The Jogbra files, prototype, and history are now preserved at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where archivist Cathy Keen said in 2015, “The introduction of the sports bra did more than improve athletes’ performances. It represented a revolution in ready-to-wear clothing, and for many women athletes, past, present, and future, it actually made sports possible.”
The original Jogbra company’s byline was “by women, for women.” I believe that women’s stories must be told—and when possible by the women who lived the tale. The story of the invention of the first sports bra is very much a story of women. It is also a big part of my life story. This is the improbable story of how I created the first sports bra and how it changed the world...and the course of my life.
Chapter 1: Inspired
Let’s face it, in 1977, I was an unlikely candidate to become a business success story—let alone, since I’d never been particularly athletic, change the world for women in sports. My formal business education consisted of a post-collegiate one-year program at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. I was an aspiring artist working in stained glass, selling my work at craft fairs. At the same time, I was also working part-time at Threshold, a rural residential treatment facility for adolescent drug abusers where my husband Al worked as a counselor. I administered tests and did secretarial stuff. I had little interest in a 9-to-5 sort of traditional career. At 28, I was working on finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont (UVM) in Burlington. My marriage of seven years to my husband Al was shaky, and I couldn’t drive a car due to having Epilepsy. It was quite an odd resume.
At the time, my lack of mobility felt a greater disability to me than having the occasional epileptic seizure. Without a driver’s license in our car-centric world I was very dependent on others. I could only maintain the job at Threshold because I got a ride out to its very rural location with Al. This aspect of my Epilepsy-induced dependence was probably one reason I had married so early and certainly was a factor in my decision in 1977 to take yet another job, this time as a low-level filing clerk at the UVM admissions office. It was hard on my ego and horribly boring, but unlike the job at the drug treatment facility, it was within walking distance of my house and afforded me a free academic course each semester. As an “older woman” in her late 20s (ha!), I had been intimidated by the prospect of going back to college. This job afforded me a way to try it out, then literally make it more affordable.
Sitting most of the day for my filing job, I began to put on weight. My once “drop-dead gorgeous” figure, taken for granted ever since its appearance around age 15, had become blowzy and indistinct. A friend told me what I somehow knew but had resisted: dieting alone wouldn’t shed the pounds. I would need to exercise. My friend outlined his running regime, telling me that all I had to do was run a mile-and-a-quarter three times a week and I would achieve and maintain “physical fitness.” To me, translated, that meant “skinny.” And lord knows, as a 1960s teenage girl, skinny was a beauty hallmark. Remember Twiggy? Count me in.
The UVM job also gave me access to the university’s athletic facilities. Every day on my tightly controlled, exactly 60-minutes lunch hour, I walked up to the field house to run. The indoor track there was only one-tenth of a mile, but it might as well have been a thousand miles long. That first day, I could barely make it around even once. But my competitive spirit was awakened, and I suppose vanity drove me forward as well. I was determined to shed that creeping weight. Each day, I pushed myself to go just a little further. Just…a…little…further…until the day, months later, when I finally completed the tenth consecutive lap for the first time. I was elated. I had run an entire mile! You would have thought I’d won an Olympic gold medal. I felt terrific. I had challenged myself and won!
A little background here. My mother, raised by her Victorian-era grandmother, was a firm believer that her daughters would be raised to be ladies. Always full of platitudes, with such wisdom she would intone, “Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow.” Athletics, let alone organized sports, were not part of her repertoire. Me? Give me a bathing suit and point me towards ocean surf. No boards please. Growing up, spending my summers on the New Jersey shore, that was my idea of being “active.” But in my mid-20s, living in landlocked Vermont, there was no ocean nearby. When I found jogging, it became my land-based equivalent of active joy.
My running never grew into a desire to compete. Rather, running reconnected me to the natural world and became, frankly, one of my first spiritual practices. It is totally ironic that this practice spawned my financial success and exposure to the grit of the business world. And in so doing, like all good spiritual practices, it also afforded me the opportunity to confront some difficult personal issues. Oh joy!
The deeper irony is that for me to start running at all was completely out of character, Mom’s “encouragement” notwithstanding. While I remember enjoying recess and dodge ball in elementary grades, by middle school at the girls’ academy I attended I was self-conscious and uncomfortable in gym classes. A 2019 study shows many girls still feel awkward in gym class, but back in the early ’60s, all I knew was that my best friend Polly and I definitely were. We hated those locker room moments! There were those “jock” girls who relished gym and understood the rules of field hockey and were eager to get out on the tennis courts. They intimidated me. It seemed to me I was somehow less for not “getting” the whole sporty thing and for being so self-conscious. When possible, I opted for Beginning Bowling as my gym class choice. I didn’t like to even glow, let alone perspire. When I look back now, I can see that my relationship with my adolescent girl’s body was fraught with an underlying threat: When would the next seizure occur? When would my body suddenly throw itself on the floor, and my consciousness disappear—embarrassing, inconvenient, and painful.
Avoiding gym classes, playing around in the summertime ocean, doing some body surfing, and climbing the occasional tree—these were my ideas of “sports activities.” Until I discovered the meditation of running. Then my world did change. My body and I became more intimate. We glowed. We sweated. We gloried. I’d found not only my sport, but my practice.