This should probably be more appropriately titled “Ask a Lady Geologist” but we all know I hate that term. But this is also not about the geology so much as the real estate.
You know, boobs.
Okay, so a dear friend of mine mentioned a descriptive phrase for body position oft-used in our genre: “She crossed her arms under her breasts,” and questioned the mechanics of it. And also why this needs to be described at all, which I think is a fair question because a lot of times it ends up being empty words that just break up a string of dialog, and at most serves as a tacit HEY THIS CHARACTER HAS BOOBS AND IS NOW PUSHING THEM UP SLIGHTLY WITH HER ARMS FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE, HETEROSEXUAL MALE READER.
So yeah. And for some reason this just amused me enough that I wanted to write an entire blog post about it, so there you go.
First off, mechanics: do we breast-bearing people (who need not actually be “ladies,” by the by) cross our arms under our boobs or not?
The answer is, as is often the case: well, it depends.
Personally, I do the underboob arm cross most of the time. But that’s because on the relative scale of breast real estate, I’m somewhere between townhouse and single-family one-story ranch-style on a postage stamp. In general, the smaller the breasts, the easier it is to cross your arms under them because there’s just less mass you have to move. So I know people who are much more well-endowed than myself who just do the overboob arm cross because it’s too much trouble. And there is a point where the tracts of land are so expansive that arm crossing at all is just not comfortable. Also, the length of one’s arms relative to boob size are also a major factor, it seems. Shorter arms make the underboob cross much less comfortable too.
(And please, keep in mind that I am not the last authority on this issue, and there will be other experiences.)
There’s another factor to consider: clothing.
Certain clothes basically make the true underboob arm cross impossible. Sports bras, for example, just kind of squash the boobs flat so the natural arm position goes on top of the boobs. Bodices and corsets make things kind of weird because they move the boobs up and thus provide an excellent shelf conducive to relaxed overboob arm crossing. Also, if you’re wearing an exceptionally well-tailored dress shirt or coat, most of the time that actually makes it uncomfortable to cross your arms that way at all, because women’s clothing has a tendency to pull across the shoulders–particularly if you have broad shoulders like me.
Other types of clothing may encourage or require an underboob arm cross. For example, on the rare occasions I am threatened at gun point to wear a dress at a formal occasion and am compelled to wear a strapless bra, all arm crossing immediately becomes under boob because I’m absolutely terrified that thing will pop off if I put any pressure on top of it. (The underwires, evil things that they are, also have an effect.)
And so on.
Another, potentially even more important factor: attitude and environment.
I’ve observed–and done this myself–women crossing their arms over their breasts as a defensive gesture. It’s a way to very deliberately shield yourself from unwanted looks or touches, or at least indicate that yes, this shit is very unwanted. Very. I personally have the tendency to do the overboob arm cross the more tense or attentive I am, because cheating my arms a bit lower requires a more relaxed posture. And I’ll even admit to once or twice IN MY ENTIRE LIFE doing an underboob arm cross as a
subtle indication to a person whom I found attractive that hello I have breasts and wonder if you would possibly be interested in arranging to touch them at a later time. (I have included this final example for completeness, but for goodness sake this is an exception to the general case, not a rule, and you had damn well better keep that in mind.) [ETA at 1102:] On the other hand, a friend of mine has now said that she feels the underboob arm cross is actually a defensive, but not angry gesture, while the overboob is defensive and angry. So there you go. MAKE NO ASSUMPTIONS.
I imagine this is a YMMV for other breast-bearing humans.
So yeah. It’s complicated.
And I think the far more important question is to ask why it’s even really necessary in the narrative to mention this anyway. If it’s empty place holder action, why the fuck are you writing empty place holder action to begin with? (No really, ask yourself that because I have a really bad problem with doing that kind of empty action myself and I need to knock it off.) What is this action accomplishing? How does it add to the story? Does it say anything useful about the character? (And “The character has breasts, by the way” is not really that useful.)
Personal aside: by the by, when I write a female character crossing her arms, invariable she crosses her arms over her chest. Because I don’t considering the state of the breasts that important. Hm.
If the action is actually important to the narrative (eg: “She deliberately crossed her arms over her breasts to hide her cleavage from the creepy gaze of the Nice Guy(tm).”) then I’m all for it. But if all it really accomplishes is indicating that the character has boobs and they are Super Perky, well. Eh. Probably not the kind of book I’d be reading anyway, right?
Please file this next to, by the way people don’t usually “notice” they have breasts and then describe them in detail so it’s a little weird to the point of creepy when your POV character does it mmmkay?
ETA at 1107: And I am now having an interesting discussion with some friends about how certain kinds of body language have become over-simplified short-hand for emotional or mental states particularly in writing, probably influenced by bullshit ‘psychology of body language’ pieces. For example, putting your hands in your pockets supposedly means you’re hiding something–when often it really just means that you wanted to do something with your hands other than just let them dangle awkwardly at your sides. Or maybe your hands are cold. Or you’re trying to talk with your hands less. Or you’re just feeling casual. Or who knows what else.
There is no single meaning for any particular sort of body language. And while I understand the utility of making particular gestures shortcuts for complex emotional or mental states (eg: the way body language is used in Noh theater) there needs to be an understanding that there is a separation from reality if we’ve hit that point. Which I don’t think there is right now. And it’s also a valid question on if you want your character actions to be coded in a highly stylized way–and if what is perhaps useful for certain types of theater (where there is normally no inner monolog to inform us of the realities of a character’s thoughts and feelings) is really something that should be utilized in the written word.
And wow this got all next level all of a sudden.
ETA at 1126:
Results of completely non-scientific arm position relative to boobs during arm cross data collection: