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Nike launches a maternity line—after facing criticism for treatment of pregnant athletes

The collection is designed to take women through all the stages of pregnancy and beyond, and it’s part of Nike’s larger effort to appeal to female athletes—even when the company itself has not always supported women.

Nike launches a maternity line—after facing criticism for treatment of pregnant athletes
[Photos: Cass Bird/courtesy Nike]
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Today, Nike debuts Nike M, a maternity collection, over a year after facing a congressional inquiry over allegations that the company discriminated against pregnant athletes. Over the past two years, the sportswear giant has walked a tricky tightrope of trying to appeal to diverse female athletes, while simultaneously facing accusations that its workplace culture and internal policies have been harmful to women. Nike has launched a sports hijab, a plus-size line, and the jerseys for the  women’s World Cup soccer team. Nike M is its first collection for pregnant women.

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The four-piece capsule, which includes a bra, a tank top, a cardigan, and tights, is made from stretchy fabrics meant to adapt to a woman’s body as it changes throughout pregnancy and continue to look flattering after she has given birth. The items, which cost $45 to $80, will be available on Nike’s website starting September 18.

Carmen Zolman [Photo: courtesy Nike]
The project was spearheaded by senior design director Carmen Zolman, along with mothers and mothers-to-be, on the Nike design team. (They began working on the collection three years ago, before the exposé about Nike’s treatment of pregnant athletes came to light.) The designers used data from more than 150,000 body scans from women around the world to better understand how women’s bodies change throughout pregnancy. They also partnered with a focus group of 30 professional and amateur athletes who provided insights about their needs during pregnancy and postpartum.

Ona Carbonell [Photo: Cass Bird/courtesy Nike]
The designers tested 70 different fabrics before arriving at the ones they used for these garments. They picked the stretchiest fabric in Nike’s portfolio for the tights, and also ensured that the tank and bra could be stretched for extended periods of time and still spring back to their original form. The tops are all designed for easy nursing and pumping, with a “stealth evaporation fabric” that’s meant to reduce milk stains on the fabric. In a press call, Zolman said it was important that women could buy these pieces in their prepregnancy size, wear them throughout their pregnancy, then continue to use them postpartum. The cardigan, for instance, is designed to be worn in reverse during the pregnancy, with a split hem that creates space for a growing belly, while after birth, the sweater flips the other way for discreet nursing.

Nike joins a range of other brands that have created fitness gear for pregnancy, including Reebok and Gap. This wave of maternity sportswear is partly an extension of the broader athleisure trend, as consumers, including pregnant women, want to wear stretchy clothes, once reserved for the gym, in every day life. The trend may also be accelerated by the fact that pregnant women are now encouraged to keep exercising during pregnancy, when they were previously discouraged from doing so. 

Jeneil Williams [Photo: Cass Bird/courtesy Nike]
To launch the collection, Nike conducted a virtual photo shoot featuring five pregnant and postpartum elite athletes wearing the pieces in the collection, including Spanish synchronized swimmer Ona Carbonell, who was 36 weeks pregnant at the time, and U.S. golfer Michelle Wie West, who was photographed three weeks postpartum. Photographer Cass Bird directed these photo shoots from her home, while the athletes’ family members captured the images.

Michelle Wie West [Photo: Cass Bird/courtesy Nike]
The introduction of Nike’s maternity line comes a year after the brand faced widespread pushback for the way it historically treated its sponsored athletes when they became pregnant. In May of 2019, Olympic runner Alysia Montaño was featured in a video op-ed in the New York Times about how hard she had to fight with Nike to keep her paycheck, even when she competed in championships while eight months pregnant. In a companion story, the Times featured the voices of other athletes, including Phoebe Wright, a runner sponsored by Nike from 2010 to 2016 who said, “Getting pregnant is the kiss of death for a female athlete. There’s no way I’d tell Nike if I were pregnant.” After these stories were published, Nike faced a congressional inquiry about workplace discrimination against pregnant athletes along with a wave of negative comments from customers on social media. The company then announced a policy that guaranteed an athlete’s pay and bonuses throughout the pregnancy.

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Marz Lovejoy [Photo: Cass Bird/courtesy Nike]
In an email, a Nike spokesperson told Fast Company, “In 2018 we standardized our policy for elite athletes across all sports to ensure no female athlete is adversely impacted financially for pregnancy. In 2019, the policy was expanded to cover a period of 18 months. We recognize there is more to do and that there is an important opportunity for the sports industry to evolve to support female athletes.”

In a call with journalists, Zolman said that the Nike M line is part of Nike’s broader effort to support women’s fitness goals throughout all their stages of life, from childhood to motherhood. Nike studied why some female athletes abandon sports and found that pregnancy is one of the reasons, in part because women don’t have clothes that fit comfortably as their bodies change throughout this period. “Our goal was to create clothes that support women as they stay active through their pregnancy, but that they would want to wear these pieces long after their delivery date,” says Zolman.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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