Epigraph Vol. 25 Issue 4, Fall 2023

Epilepsy and the sports bra: Strange bedfellows

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By Nancy Volkers, ILAE communications officer

Cite this article: Volkers N. Epilepsy and the sports bra: Strange bedfellows. Epigraph 2023; 25(4): 28-34.

Lisa Lindahl’s uncontrolled epilepsy forced her to get creative when it came to employment. In 1977 she invented the sports bra, which changed the lives of billions of women and girls around the world and is now a $40 billion global market.

To read more about Lisa Lindahl’s journey, read Part 2 of this series.

Lisa Lindahl - then known as Lisa Zobian - was diagnosed with epilepsy in the early 1950s, at age four. For several years she had focal seizures, which were controlled with medication. Then she had her first tonic-clonic seizure in her sixth-grade classroom.

Lisa Lindahl, Photo courtesy of Lisa Lindahl
Lisa Lindahl

“All my friends were around, and it had the potential to be very embarrassing,” she said. “My brother came and took me home, and my mother kept me home for a couple of days.

“I remember consciously making the decision that I was going to go back into the classroom and not be embarrassed,” she said. “I decided that if other kids were going to make fun of me, or if they had a problem, then that was their problem. That was not my problem.”

She doesn’t know where this mindset came from. But she stuck to it.

“I remember walking to school and squaring my shoulders and looking at them, you know, daring them to laugh,” she said. “Mostly, they didn’t. There was a boy I had a crush on, and I remember him laughing. But he was the only one, and it didn’t go further.”

Mixed messages

Lisa grew up in New Jersey, USA, near the ocean. She was the youngest, with three older siblings.

Her parents were not overprotective. Lisa was allowed to ride a bicycle and could walk to the beach by herself in the summer to go swimming. That didn’t change when she had a tonic-clonic seizure in the ocean at age 12.

“That was the first time I almost drowned,” she said. “My mother’s reaction was to keep me home for a couple of days, and then when I went back, I couldn’t wear the same bathing suit. Because if I wore the same suit, people would recognize me as ‘that girl.’ But... I could still go in the ocean by myself.”

Apart from taking her medication, Lindahl said her parents didn’t expect much from her.

Lindahl getting an EEG, photo courtesy of Lisa Lindahl
Lindahl getting an EEG

“I was the poor little epileptic, and the best thing that could happen for me, according to my parents, is that some man would be willing to marry me,” she said.

And she was warned against living alone. “I was told that if I lived alone and had a seizure, I could die,” she said. “I mean, the neurologists were more careful about the wording than that. But still, I was told, ‘You don't want to be alone.’”

So she married at age 21 and changed her last name.

Several years later, Lindahl finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont and started a graduate program in education. She also started jogging. It began as a strategy to lose some weight, but Lindahl had fallen in love with the movement, the connection to nature, and the way it made her feel.

“Running was very powerful for me,” she said. “I did not have a particularly healthy relationship with my body, because of my epilepsy. When I started running, I was having this experience of being healthy and strong and capable.”

But she wasn’t wild about the lack of support that her current bra choices offered.

Filling the need for a sports bra

Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, lifelong friends; photo courtesy of Lisa Lindahl
Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, lifelong friends

Historically, at least in the United States, vigorous exercise for women was not socially acceptable. “Tamer” activities, such as tennis and croquet, were fine, but women exhibiting strength and vigor was seen as immodest. Women weren’t allowed to enter marathons until 1972, and the prevailing “wisdom” was that women weren’t hearty enough to sprint more than 400 meters without fainting.

Even with the passage of Title IX of the US Equal Opportunity in Education Act in 1972, which aimed to see that male and female students were treated equally in all educational programs and activities, including sports, there was nothing on the market in 1977 for women to run in comfort. So they improvised: some women ran in smaller-sized regular bras. Others wore multiple bras, one on top of another, or paired a regular bra with a swimsuit top.

Lindahl’s sister also had started running and had similar support issues. “She called me and she said, ‘What are you wearing for a bra? Why isn't there a jockstrap for women?’” said Lindahl. “And I laughed out loud. We thought that was hilarious. We hung up, and I thought, ‘What would a bra for running have to look like and what would it have to do?’ So I sat down and I made a list.”

Lindahl had the vision - but she was not a seamstress.

“I got a D- in sewing in eighth grade,” she said. “But my good friend got an A, and we remained friends. In fact, she was renting my guest room at the time because she was building costumes for the Champlain Shakespeare Festival right up the street. So I went upstairs and said, ‘Polly! Help me make this bra.’”

Costume designer Polly Smith’s designs for the Jogbra, photo courtesy of the Smithsonian collection of records and information on Jogbra, Inc.
Costume designer Polly Smith’s designs for the Jogbra
Photo credit: Jogbra, Inc. Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Polly Smith was not interested in making a bra. But Lindahl didn’t give up; she knew that Smith would get hooked on solving the considerable design challenges inherent in creating a bra. In the traditional garment industry most bras were designed by engineers.

Ironically, Lindahl’s soon-to-be-ex-husband gave them critical insight by coming downstairs one day with a jockstrap stretched across his chest, announcing the “jock bra.” Smith created a prototype by cutting apart and resewing two jockstraps, which Lindahl road-tested. Eventually they developed a design made from a new fabric called Lycra®, with plush-backed elastic and straps that crossed in the back.

And that might have been the end of the story - three women creating something useful that hadn’t existed before. Except that Lindahl knew that if she needed a sports bra, then other women needed one, too.

Lindahl also needed an income stream. She had drug-resistant epilepsy, and she knew her marriage wasn’t going to last.

Hinda S. Miller and Lisa Lindahl at a trade show, 1981; photo courtesy of the Smithsonian collection of records and information on Jogbra, Inc.
Hinda S. Miller and Lisa Lindahl at a trade show, 1981
Photo credit: Jogbra, Inc. Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

“How am I going to support myself without a driver’s license? I had to make a living,” said Lindahl. “I now know that under-employment and unemployment are the biggest non-medical issues facing those of us with epilepsy. In my young adulthood, I was experiencing that. So I was thinking that [selling these bras] could be a nice little mail-order business on the side.”

Building the bra business

That “nice little mail-order business” evolved into Jogbra, Inc., a multimillion-dollar company. Lindahl, Smith, and Hinda Schreiber Miller were the original owners; they were awarded US Patent #4,174,717 for the bra in 1979.

Although none of the women initially knew much about running a business, they found a manufacturer, secured loans, hired sales reps, managed marketing and advertising, and started attending trade shows. Initially, they had to convince sporting-goods stores to carry the bra; this wasn’t easy, because at the time, bras were considered lingerie, not sports equipment.

Lindahl learned on the go, asking questions, recruiting help, and generally rolling with whatever came her way. What began as boxes of bras shipped to her apartment - and a small group of people packing bra orders while eating pizza - eventually grew to a company of 175 employees. (The full story of the Jogbra and the growth of the company is found in Lindahl’s book, Unleash the Girls, published in 2019.)

Epilepsy in the corporate world

How does a business owner with uncontrolled epilepsy handle frequent travel and long hours?

Hinda S. Miller and Lisa Lindahl in an ad for the Jogbra, 1978; Photo courtesy of Lisa Lindahl
Hinda S. Miller and Lisa Lindahl in an ad for the Jogbra, 1978

It helped that she owned the company; Lindahl could manage her own work hours and create the flexibility she needed. Over the years, she continued having one or two tonic-clonic seizures a month. But her seizure pattern was predictable.

“My pattern had always been that I'd have an issue first thing in the morning,” said Lindahl. “It was never in the middle of my day. That is how I could travel all over the world and run a business. If I woke up in the morning and I [didn’t feel right], then I knew not to go into work.”

However, Lindahl wasn’t particularly open about her epilepsy.

“I once had a seizure on a tradeshow floor, in front of sales reps we were trying to hire,” she said. “In stockings and high heels. That wasn’t fun. But unless someone asked me directly, I didn’t talk about epilepsy. I never wanted to put anyone out or feel like a burden.”

Game changer

For many years, Jogbra, Inc., showed consistent growth and profitability. But by 1990, it was clear the company would have to carry some debt to continue growing. Running the company was stressful, and other companies had introduced competing versions of the sports bra. Lindahl was ready to exit. Jogbra, Inc., was sold to Playtex Apparel. Lindahl stayed on for a short while and then decided it was time to move on. (Playtex soon sold the company to Sara Lee, the parent company of Champion.)

Lisa Lindahl and Lesli Bell invented a compression garment for breast cancer patients to address lymphedema; photo courtesy Lisa Lindahl
Lisa Lindahl and Lesli Bell invented a compression garment for breast cancer patients to address lymphedema.

Today, sports bras are a $40 billion industry and still growing. For so many women and girls, it’s difficult to imagine a life without the sports bra. Some original Jogbras are part of the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And there’s a bronzed Jogbra in the theatre department at the University of Vermont, where it all began.

After selling Jogbra, Inc., Lindahl partnered with a physical therapist, Dr. Lesli Bell, adapting the sports bra design into the Bellisse Compressure Comfort® Bra for breast cancer patients. Developed in 2001, the bra facilitates lymph drainage, reducing swelling and promoting healing.

In 2022, Lindahl, Smith, and Miller were inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, which also includes Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

“The Hall of Fame... I mean, there were rocket scientists in there, you know? People who are saving lives,” said Lindahl. “And the fact that that organization thinks that the Jogbra is important enough... it was the acknowledgement that I had never gotten.”

Epilepsy as “shadow teacher”

Lisa Lindahl 
Sports bra
patent no. 4,174,717
Photo credit: National Inventors Hall of Fame
Lisa Lindahl was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022.
Photo credit: National Inventors Hall of Fame

With the invention of the sports bra, Lindahl changed the lives of billions of women, giving them the opportunity to exercise and play sports in comfort while building confidence and skills.

This was not her intention.

“Who knew that would happen? I didn’t know,” she said. “That’s not why I did it. I did it because the alternative was to possibly be shunned and have to drop out of school, and I didn’t want to do that. So [Jogbra] is what I ended up doing.”

Because of epilepsy’s complicated role in her life, Lindahl calls the condition her “shadow teacher.”

“It’s that obstacle or challenge that we learn from, if we choose to,” she said. “It’s taught me a lot, starting with sixth grade. I’m either going to be a victim and feel self-conscious, or I'm going to square my shoulders and put my chin up and walk back in the classroom and pretend that I'm fine.”

The life journeys of Lindahl’s co-inventors

Polly Smith was hired by Jim Henson in 1978 as a costume designer for multiple televisions shows, including The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Smith also designed costumes for The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The Muppets Take Manhattan. She has received eight Emmy Awards for her work. Smith and Lindahl are next-door neighbors.

Hinda Schreiber Miller held roles at Champion Jogbra until 1997 and was a member of the board of directors of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. She was a member of the Vermont Senate from 2002 until 2013 and ran unsuccessfully for Burlington (Vt.) mayor in 2006.


Part 2 of this series covers Lisa Lindahl’s activities in epilepsy advocacy, which were instrumental in improving epilepsy awareness and treatment in women.