A Business Memoir Tells the Story of an Invention That Changed the World

When Lisa Z. Lindahl decided to join in on the jogging craze of the late 1970s, she was only hoping to develop a healthy habit. As she writes towards the beginning of Unleash the Girls, Lindahl was working a desk job, and she felt a need for more physical activity in her life. As a result of her epilepsy, she often had a strained relationship with a body that might betray her with a seizure at any moment, and she’d never been great at group sports growing up. When she tried out running, she found it to be a wonderfully meditative and even spiritual practice that made her feel more at home in her body and positively giddy to break out in a sweat. 

Except for one issue: her bras. No one seemed to have any ideas for women’s jogging apparel other than uncomfortable underwire bras. Lindahl and her sister bemoaned this issue over the phone in what would turn out to be a seminal conversation. Her sister was frustrated that Lindahl’s only tip to cope with painful breast movement while running was to wear a bra that was a bit too small, and she commented that there should really be “a jockstrap for women.” They laughed over the idea, but Lindahl vowed to make what she christened the “jock bra” a reality.

“I hung up the phone, dwelling on the conversation and smiling at our repartee. It was true, though; the discomfort of breast movement and my ill-fitting bra were something that could greatly diminish my joy of the run. I grabbed one of my spiral-bound notebooks and a pen, sat right down at the dining-room table, and began to list the attributes of such a bra: minimize breast movement, have straps that wouldn’t slip off the shoulders, no chafing from the seams or clasps, be made of a light ‘breathable’ fabric to minimize sweating. 

“This ‘jock bra’ idea was taking shape in my mind. As I noodled out my list of attributes, I wondered—could this bra be modest enough, ‘swim-suity’ enough, for me to actually take off my T-shirt while running? Wouldn’t that be amazing! The thought was tantalizing. But heaven knows, sewing was not part of my repertoire. I could design and build a stained-glass window from scratch, draw pretty much anything, take shorthand, and type quickly, but I’d practically failed my sewing class in eighth grade. So, of course, I turned to my friend Polly.”

Polly, unlike Lindahl, was a costume designer and expert seamstress, and the two of them teamed up to design what became the very first sports bra. Unleash the Girls is Lindahl’s business memoir not just about how jogging changed her life, but about how women can lift each other up by joining together and sharing their stories. 

Lindahl, who splits her time between Charleston, South Carolina, and Colchester, Vermont, has always been a writer. She carries a notebook around with her everywhere she goes, and while her sports bra company was taking off and her life was changing, she always processed her feelings by writing about them. She is also an accomplished artist, working in media like assemblage and monoprinting as well as paint.

But some ideas need to be shared, and Lindahl feels passionately about using her writing to share a message with the world. “I wanted women, especially young women, to get a glimpse of what really happens in a life,” she says. “I say in the book that it’s not about sisterhood or brotherhood, it’s about our shared humanity.”

Unleash the Girls came from Lindahl’s strong belief that women should tell their own stories, especially when it comes to seeking comfort and “reclaiming their bodies,” despite what the wider culture dictates. Which, of course, was what the invention of that first sports bra was all about, which also speaks to the current cultural conversation around “athleisure” and dressing for comfort. “Our ideas and conceptions around what’s proper are getting challenged in a big way,” she says. “I think it is really about women figuring out what their authenticity is, aside from anything sociopolitical.”

Lindahl’s career has spanned her work as a visual artist, her sports bra invention and resulting company, and her advocacy for other people living with epilepsy. While all these paths may seem totally different, Lindahl says her many identities and roles inform each other “all the time and in almost every way; you can’t keep them apart. It’s all about creation.” She believes that it’s important to honor any and all of her creative impulses, whether that means serving on the board of the Epilepsy Foundation of America or using what Kirkus Reviews calls her “storytelling skill” to write a book about finding the power to persist through challenges and find true beauty along the way. 

Beyond sharing her story to help other women find their authenticity, Lindahl hopes her readers take that lesson and use it to build compassion for others. “What I hope comes out of this book is people having greater forgiveness and compassion for themselves as well as others,” she says. She has a few more writing projects coming up, including another book that she describes as “much more of an intensive memoir” than Unleash the Girls. She’s also working on developing a workbook to go along with her first book, Beauty as Action.

Unleash the Girls, as well as Lindahl’s other work, can be found on her website or through Amazon.

Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn