Today I read a post by Ginger Snap over at Troll in the Corner that talked about a perennial issue in gaming and fantasy settings: women’s breasts, and the effect this has on combat, armor, action and gaming-related activities. She points out, rightly, that non-existent or scanty chest armor doesn’t offer real protection for a fighter serious about fighting. She also matter-of-factly describes some issues about having breasts and maneuvering with them that may not be immediately evident to folks without substantial bosoms.
Now, given the posting date (April 1), I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that some or all of this post was meant to be tongue-in-cheek because of April Fool’s Day. (Lawful Good has small cup sizes, while Chaotic Evils can “sling double-Ds…with the best of them.” Ha!) Even so, I thought this article touched on some good points and also an issue (breasts on female adventurers) that rarely gets serious discussion.
This prompted me to marshal some thoughts on this subject that I’ve been noodling over for a while. Rather than hijack the comment thread there, I reference that post as a springboard to sharing my own observations on this topic. Although inspired by an April Fool’s (?) post, this one is not intended to be tongue-in-cheek. While the ideas here may apply to any female character who will be active in her world and stepping outside traditional functions, these comments are made primarily with warrior characters in mind. They also apply to both role playing games and female characters in novels and other fictional settings.
The Infamous Chain Mail Bikini
One of the more tired tropes about women warriors in fantasy settings is that of “the chick in the chain mail bikini.” Supposedly she can kick butt, but why and how does she come through every clash of arms unscathed, or damaged only to the extent that her (invisible) armor class permits? This defies logic, since her armor itself is skimpy or non-existent. In the last 20 years there has been more rethinking of this silly “near-nekkid babe kicking butt” trope, not in small part because more women game nowadays and more women write both game material and fantasy novels than in years past. Like Ginger Snap, I’m not going to get into the (sometimes heated) debate about the need for realistic body or chest protection here at length. But there are a few other points about protective armor worth making.
To put those in context, I will detour through my other points first. In the list of Factors to Consider for adventuresome female characters, I come first to:
A phenotype is the set of visible attributes that arise from one’s genetic makeup. Different phenotypes have different body configurations, and these are often geographically linked – and far more so in the days before transportation over distances was easily available to masses of the population. Therefore, in your typical fantasy setting, the average woman’s body type is going to be pretty much like that of the mass of the population around her (unless she has traveled far from home). A woman’s phenotype may differ to a great extent from how women in another country and ethnic group look. This is something to keep in mind since the appearance of your characters will reflect that of the larger phenotype group(s) you have populated your fantasy country with.
The question then becomes, what does your local population group look like? Tall, short? Fat (from subcutaneous adipose deposits, like the Inuit), or slender (like wiry Masai warriors)? Bulky muscles, or slender, lanky ones? When it comes to women, breast size will also fall into general categories based on the phenotypes common to the group. To use Earth analogies: are your locals tall, strapping firm-muscled Scandinavians who farm and even go a-viking with their men? Are they compact-muscled, flat-chested San People (Bushmen) of Africa? Are they lean and slender Asians?
The body – and chest – build of a curvaceous Italian woman (like Sophia Loren) is significantly different from that of a slender Japanese gymnast. Assuming she was built like most of her country women, real-world Japanese female samurai and heroine of fantasy novels Tomoe Gozen could easily wear a man’s armor: she was probably not large-chested enough for the fit to be a problem across the torso, while shoe-horning a Sophia Lauren analog into medieval armor presents a very different set of challenges.
The point here is that it is not enough to say ‘women have breasts’ and therefore their build is always problematic when it comes to wearing armor or moving athletically. The hindrance factor will be related to two things: 1) the woman’s phenotype and what this has dictated for chest size and body build, and 2) whatever measures she may be able to take to make the bosom more manageable.
Managing the Bosom, or Cultural Mores at Work
There are several things woman have done for ages to manage the weight, mass and vulnerability of the breasts. First, if breasts are small enough, something equivalent to whatever men wear is sufficient: from bare-chested to wearing a light quill breastplate or even fitting into plate steel armor, small breasts that are easily and painlessly compressed are non-problematic.
When a bosom is large enough that the weight and mobility of the breasts becomes an issue with athletic movement, the most common thing done for centuries has been for women to bind the chest. A cloth or long sash-like fabric is wound around the upper torso, compressing the breasts in place. This not only secures the bosom but gives the woman’s chest a masculine profile. (In modern times we approach this with the equivalent of sports bras and compression garments.) Many women who posed as men during historical periods (either passing in society, or fighting as soldiers in wartime) took this measure to hide their female curves. As a practical step it reduces the girth of the torso at its broadest circumference, making it possible for even relatively large-chested women to fit into armor built for men. Granted, not always comfortably, but this is indeed a functional way for many if not most woman to fit into armor made for men.
Another thing done where binding is not a cultural practice or feasible for other reasons (think hot Africa), is to simply do without and compensate in other ways for breast movement and mass. This requires myriad small adjustments in body balance, the angle at which weapons are held, and so on. But in groups where women develop their own ways of fighting they seem to manage to adjust effectively regardless of the existence of breast mass. The practices of the 12,000-strong army of women that protected the Kings of Dahomey in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries are a good case in point: regardless of personal body configuration, these female warriors wielded a variety of weapons and trained and fought intensively in the elite royal military corps. Aside from wearing uniform attire, no particular external compensation seems to have been made for their bosoms, but as fighters these women warriors developed a fearsome reputation among enemy nations and Europeans.
Finally, customized clothing and outerwear are a time-tested manner of bringing delicate and potentially cumbersome organs under control. The brassiere is a 20th century invention but before that were corsets, bodices, and a variety of undergarments meant to contain the bosom and give a more refined line to clothing.
However, when we think of cultural behaviors, actions like padding the bra or stuffing an upper garment because one is under-endowed are not things that a typical fantasy-era character would be worried about or even think to do. These kinds of practices came about because of the form-accentuating use of the brassiere, and before that, the cleavage-enhancing functions of corsetry. Such practices are more a reflection of contemporary attitudes towards the breast and the garment, rather than a default behavior across cultures and time periods.
In Elizabethan times, for instance, a smooth, flat-chested silhouette was the ideal, and the large-chested woman was challenged to squelch her curves (often resorting to breast-binding to do so). Stuffing her clothing to enhance the swell of her breast would have been the last thing on her mind.
The best rule of thumb about how the bosom is presented might be to have as clear an understanding as possible of the mores and ideals about beauty for the era in which the female character is adventuring. This is probably the single biggest determinant of what kinds of behaviors would seem natural to her in her physical presentation and how she might want to deal with her bosom (enhancing it, underplaying it, disguising it, or what-have-you). It all depends on the culture the character lives in.
Do not assume that our modern attitudes towards breasts and the popular Western predisposition towards large ones has always held sway. That is simply not the case historically or anthropologically. Before adjustments are made for charisma or appeal based on a character’s bosom characteristics (if you want to take that tack), you have to know what the baseline standards are for beauty in a culture. Are breasts even regarded as anywhere near as compelling a feature as they are in 20th and 21th century Western civilization? It is very likely they are not, since other eras and cultures have had widely differing sensibilities on this subject.
Protection: Armor That Makes Sense
Now to come back around to what I mentioned at the start: getting out of that chain mail bikini and protecting the girls. I’m not going to rehash a lot of what’s previously been written, but I will second Ginger Snap here, who said, “To protect properly, [armor has] to be big enough to cover dem boobies.”
When getting armored up, the female warrior needs armor appropriate to her fighting activity: an archer needs to be unencumbered and mobile, while a horse-mounted fighter might be armored anywhere from lightly to wearing full plate. But at a minimum, if we’re talking about a character who may come to body blows in melee combat, protecting the vital organs is, well, vital.
Out of millenia of armor development, there’s no shortage of armor styles that accomplish this function. Of course one should pick armor that is era- and culture-appropriate. Ryan, blogging at Mad Art Lab, is an armorer and has written a great article about the tension between fantasy representations of armor and the practical demands of protective gear. Here’s what he says about plate armor:
“Plate armor is the way it is largely out of necessity. The layout and articulations of the plates are the best solutions the designers could come up with to balance mobility with protection. Also, note that nobody was naked under their armor. There was a ton of padding between the metal and the flesh that absorbed the energy of the blows. That means the difference between male and female plate armor is relatively trivial because once you’ve padded it out and left space for movement, you’ve all but erased the figure of the person inside.”
Real armor on fantasy women fighters will accommodate the chest, but it’s not about the chest. The silhouette that signals “female form” is going to be dulled down when real protection is worn. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: there are a lot of great looks and even historical precedent for this, as you can see in Kirin Robinson’s brilliant Tumblr blog, “Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.” (Lots of great art there, and well worth checking out, if you’re not familiar with it.)
Nevertheless, the woman who does not have a boyishly slim figure is either going to employ bosom management tactics as discussed above, or will end up ordering custom armor for herself, probably at considerable expense for the extra custom work. If she is chesty but intent on getting good body armor, this is probably the only serious option open to her. Men might wear armor made for another man of similar build, but a well-endowed woman is going to be squashed, pinched, or simply not fit into scrounged armor at all.
The quest for appropriate gear in cultures that don’t ordinarily arm woman can be a mini-adventure in its own right. Certainly, the woman who scores the right custom armor has handiwork to be proud of, which she may value over any other piece of gear she owns.
Instead of treating women warriors like female men, OR like martial cheesecake, there is a middle ground. Acknowledge the girls, acknowledge the need for real protection, and within the rules of the local culture, see where this leads the character. Sometimes physical attributes can make life more challenging, but this can add depth to story or game if you work it right.