Note -- this post is the fourth in a series by the WFencing Allies Committee. Check out the Allies Committee page for more.
Content warning: discussion of breasts, bras, and body insecurity.
If you already know the problem with chest protectors, you can fill out our survey! Click here to skip to the survey.
Last month I was meeting with a few members of the Allies Committee and we were talking about what the committee ought to do beyond blog posts.
“You know what would really improve fencing for women? Better chest protectors.”
The other woman in the meeting instantly agreed. The men in the group asked what, specifically, was the problem we had with chest protectors.
The meeting ran long. There are a lot of specific problems with chest protectors.
Right now there are two commonly-used designs for chest protectors. The vendors call these “male” and “female” but we generally prefer to call them “flat” and “shaped.” The flat chest protectors are mostly flat and bear a general resemblance to the shape of an average eight-year-old’s chest (and then scaled up but not reimagined for other sizes).
The shaped chest protectors have many nicknames, none of them particularly kind. “Barbie boobs” is commonly used. I like to say that those chest protectors were designed by men who’d had women described to them. They bear the vaguest resemblance to the shape of a smaller-chested woman (wearing a pushup bra, not a sports bra), and again they are scaled up without regard to the way that a woman wearing a size large might actually be shaped. In seventeen years of coaching I have yet to hand a size large chest protector to a fencer in my club and have it fit her.
A third style that has fallen out of favor in recent decades was usually known as “frisbees” or “hubcaps;” these were two separate discs usually worn in pockets in the jacket. These protect the breast and only the breast, assuming (and this is a big assumption) the pockets were in the correct place for the individual fencer’s anatomy (and assuming the breasts were smaller than the cups, which was often not the case). On my first fencing jacket these pockets were located halfway to my belly button, so the top of the disc hit me at the midpoint. I altered the pockets to make the cups fit better, but they often shifted out of position. Many women put the cups directly in their sports bras, which led to one unusual and particularly painful injury for a friend of mine when her protector cracked and pinched her. No wonder we don’t use these much anymore.
What are chest protectors for?
USA Fencing rules (m25.4(c)) state that a rigid chest protector is mandatory for female fencers and optional for male fencers. The reason for this is to prevent hits to breast tissue, as even soft hits here can be more painful than on other parts of the body. But the primary purpose of the chest protector rule is to prevent injuries to breast tissue, which if hit hard enough can form lumps called fat necrosis - these lumps are benign, but they can be very painful. And even if they aren’t painful, discovering a lump in the breast generally means a lot of expensive, invasive, and very stressful testing.
So what are the problems?
Inadequate coverage. One of the problems with ill-fitting chest protectors is that they often don’t cover all of the tissue that is supposed to be protected. Breast tissue extends into the armpits, and of course it would be impractical to wear a rigid chest protector that covers the armpits. But a chest protector that doesn’t fit right may “float” over the breasts and leave some part of the top, bottom or sides exposed - I have especially seen this in larger-chested fencers.
Misconceptions about coverage. There is a common misconception that the protector is to provide protection against the discomfort and pain of hits in the general upper torso area, rather than to protect specifically breast tissue. This leads to disappointment that other areas, such as the clavicle, upper chest, and lower torso are not covered.
Physical discomfort. I have seen smaller girls in tears because their chest protector was too large and rubbed against their sternum or underarms. I have seen larger women struggle to zip their jackets that would fit if the chest protector actually followed the shape of the body. I have seen (and felt) many hits where the curve of the top of the chest protector redirected a hit onto my collarbone.
Social stigma. The shaped chest protectors look goofy. Kids will grab large ones and pretend they have big chests. Even adults will laugh and make comments about wearing them on a date. But in my experience, the group that experiences the most emotional discomfort with the chest protector are preteen and teen girls. So many of them already feel awkward and embarrassed by their changing bodies, they compare themselves to their peers and most of them find reason to think there’s something wrong. The shaped chest protectors call so much attention to a supposed ideal female shape - which again, ISN’T ACTUALLY SHAPED LIKE MOST WOMEN - and it leaves many girls feeling bad about themselves.
They really don’t work for larger people. Large-chested people currently have two options: wear a shaped chest protector that sits on top of the breasts, rather than surrounding them, emphasizing them and not actually covering most tissue outside of the center. Or, wear a flat chest protector that juts out at the bottom, making the clothing worn over difficult to zip, velcro and fasten. When adult beginners come into my club, I have to show them these two terrible options and allow them to choose, and it often becomes a source of consternation.
What are we going to do about it?
It’s time to find some allies and make fencing better!
We have made contact with a few fencing equipment vendors, armorers, and other folks to start to get an idea of what it will take to fix chest protectors. We know that getting new types of chest protectors made is no small task, but we’re ready to get to work.
We are collecting data on individual fencers’ experiences with chest protectors - follow the link here or at the bottom of this post. This will help vendors understand both the demand and the issues better, to motivate change.
We are having a meeting at the April NAC to discuss the problem and solutions in person. Join us to have your voice heard!
WFencing Social: Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar
Sunday, April 23rd, 6:45pm
Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar, 1004 Locust St, St. Louis, MO 63101
(5 minute walk from Convention Center)
Our initial ideas are twofold: either, we find a way to get custom chest protectors made based on individual measurements, or we start having a third shape made.
Custom-making chest protectors may be an insurmountable manufacturing challenge. However, other similar products exist, such as body armor for police officers and chest protectors for soccer players, that already address some of the issues we see in fencing chest protectors. These products give us a great starting point.
Please take the time to fill out the survey - the more voices we add to this request, the more likely we are to see change!
Author Liz Mayerich is an owner and coach at Houston Sword Sports in Houston, Texas, and co-chair of the WFencing Allies Committee. She is an epee fencer and a USFCA prévôt in epee and foil. She has two chest protectors, one that she keeps with her coaching jacket and one with her fencing jacket; improving the shape of the chest protector would probably not keep her from misplacing them if she tried to just use one.