Women Warriors and Chest Size: Three Factors to Consider

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Did You Say Chicks?!

Esther Friesner's "Chicks" anthologies (starting in 1998) was the first to intentionally poke fun at the "chick in the chain mail bikini" trope.

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:

Body Type

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.

Women of the San People (Bushmen)

Women of the San People (Bushmen)

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.

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren

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.

Elizabeth I

The ideal, flat-chested, boyish silhouette of Elizabeth I's era.

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.

Queen Elizabeth rallying troops before attack of the Spanish Armada

Queen Elizabeth rallying troops before attack of the Spanish Armada

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.

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Good and thoughtful article. It may be worth noting that athletic women tend to have smaller busts and most adventurers will tend to be more athletic in build.

Great point, Sean. The more muscle mass women build, the less fatty tissue they tend to have and breast size can become relatively smaller than on a more sedentary woman of the same build. I don't think from a gaming perspective that one needs to spend a whole lotta time fixated on women's chests (though I know there is a gamer segment that will disagree with that ;), but insofar as there are anatomical practicalities to consider, things like the universal "one size fits all" armor purchase is far from realistic (whether in games or stories). I thought a totally great treatment of this subject is in Mary Gentle's historical fantasy series "Ash: A Secret History", in which the eponymous mid-Renaissance heroine, the female captain of a mercenary troop, is now and then particularly concerned about the fit of her armor, and has fits when her custom-built armor is stolen from her. (That's a great book, btw. A trilogy, also available as single books.)

Good points! Armour, and female sword fighters, are a trigger for me – they're so often obviously either female wishful thinking, or male fantasising. Quite apart from the ridiculous chainmail bikini, the tradition amongst artists that fantasy plate armour must have lots of lovely spikey things to catch the wearers arms, and curly stuff on the shoulders and hips to guide an opponent's strike towards vulnerable neck or waist is just plain silly.

The problem of protective wear for well-built swordswomen is a real one – I am a short, rather stocky woman, with large breasts, and when young, spent considerable time fencing with foils, sabre and epee – all of which call for speed and dexterity. Fencers wear padded body armour – and metal reinforced breast guards; it is well to also wear a solid, well-fitted bra under the guards to prevent the breast migrating up or down, as they do if not firmly constrained – even women with medium sized boobs have this problem. Medieval women almost certainly bound their breasts as a matter of course – whether wearing gown or armour – and I found this to b e a very satisfactory method of dealing with the problem.
For the serious female fantasy sword fighter, who maybe uses some version of the broadsword, there is also the problem of access – OK if she's tall and slender, but if her body is more like mine – exaggerated hourglass – then her breasts may well get in the way of her sword arm if she wears the sword on her hip. They may (WILL) hamper her cross body movements, particularly when parrying a heavy blow from the side, so she must learn some very swift footwork to compensate.
Sheathing the sword on her back is probably the best method, as it gives free access to the wearer, and avoids the difficulties of over-the-boobs baldrick, with hangers and sheath she can't see for the jut of her bust.
It's a good idea to give the Barbarian Ladies thigh guards, too – thigh muscles are crucially important to walking around, and if unprotected, easily severed in armed combat. So are the tendons behind the knee. In fact, if I was fighting a woman with bare thighs, that's the first disabling stroke I'd go for – straight across the front just above the knee, or around from the side, to take the tendons.

As for that actual sword-play! Men are almost always taller, heavier and stronger – and just as fast – as women. An armoured female warrior will have much the same difficulties to overcome when facing an armoured opponent as any other smaller, weaker fighter – so she must make up in cunning, speed, and dexterity what she lacks in clout – it's possible to overcome a bigger opponent, but it's not as easy as the fantasy writers make out. Especially when using a broadsword.
Oh yes – the warrior lady is going to be scarred – lots of scars; and she'll have callouses on her hands, and probably have sacrificed her hair for the sake of comfort in that helmet.
Afterthought: Elizabeth Moon's trilogy known as 'The Deed of Paksenarion' has some good stuff to say about female fighters in a quasi-medieval era.I believe Moon is an ex-Marine, so she has some ideas about the problems of an army of mixed sexes, and the practical fittings and fixings of their gear.

What terrific points you make in your comment, especially useful for gamers and writers. I especially like the considerations you point out about the positioning of weapons, thigh guards, and how the under-advantaged fighter takes on a superior foe. In almost all rpg systems, there is an egalitarian assumption that women fighters are essentially equivalent to men, and from a phyiscal standpoint are not disadvantaged out of the gate. It's easier to manage a game system that way – but those differences *could be played up (and in some systems, are). Also, in fantasy writing, there is no excuse not to take a more realistic view of these things: not that women are "weaker" in combat, but simply that their challenges are different, and what it takes to surmount them.

Good point too about Elizabeth Moon and Deed of Paksenarion. She is indeed a former Marine (I've written about her military fiction writing here: http://www.deborahteramischristian.com/writing/mi…. Also, you might be interested to know that I will be interviewing her at length in the next couple of months, mainly on the subject of world building, and some of that interview will be aired on my Alien Tourist podcast (which will premier later in April). Signing up for my newsletter is a good way to stay informed of these upcoming events. 😉 (Form's at top left column.)

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