The Way of the Warrior: Women With Bruises

Back in my karate days, we used to do an exercise to “toughen” our arms: we’d hold them out and our partners would strike them with the knife edge of their hands. At first, this leaves bruises. When I went to work with those bruises showing, it really freaked out my male co-workers, though most of the women shared my opinion that it was kind of cool.

In the Aikido dressing room after class, we’re always noticing bruises, either on our own bodies — “I don’t remember getting hit there” — or on someone else’s — “Oh, yeah, that’s from when we were doing yonkyo.”

You don’t train in martial arts without getting injured. Martial arts schools keep ice packs and other first aid supplies on hand, and most every experienced martial artist I know owns at least one knee, ankle, elbow, or wrist brace (I have a complete collection).

And the truth is, most martial artists, both female and male, tend to be proud of their injuries. Even those of us who’d like to think we’re striving for enlightenment in our training want to be seen as tough. If you’re interested, I can show you my finger that is still crooked from being dislocated years ago, or tell you about the time I hit one of the poles that hold up the dojo roof with my face and shoulder.

The only time I get upset about bruises is when I accidentally give them to other people.

But outside of the dojo, bruises on women make people uncomfortable, partly because of the very real problem of domestic violence, and partly because some people are disturbed by the idea that a woman might fight or otherwise do things that put her at risk of injury.

Which brings us to the current Internet debate over the bruised “skins” that someone named Gala Phoenix has designed for female avatars in Second Life. Apparently they are intended to show bruises as if these women have been fighting. Now caveat here: I’m not on Second Life — the last thing my life needs is something else to do online — so the only place I’ve seen these avatars is on blog posts about them. The bruised skins in use may vary from the ones I’ve seen.

But even though I’ve got no problem with actual bruises on actual fighting women, I took one look at these pictures and thought “victim.” Here are the ones posted by Iris Ophelia on New World Notes:

bruised avatars

And here are a couple from the JuicyBomb blog on Second Life fashion:

more bruised avatars

I’m willing to give the designer the benefit of the doubt; I assume she intended for these pictures to convey a woman who’d been out fighting, not a victim of abuse. But she didn’t succeed. None of these avatars look like women who could fight their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Near as I can tell, instead of trying to create an avatar who looked like an artistic version of a woman who’d been out fighting, she simply put bruises on standard over-sexy female caricatures.

The result says victim, not tough woman.

The problem with these pictures is the same thing that’s wrong with the classic fantasy book cover of a skinny woman with large breasts wearing a chain mail bikini and swinging a sword: It makes the idea that a woman could actually fight laughable.

I’m not going to get into the debate over whether some Second Life participants might choose these skins to look abused rather than to look like they’ve been fighting, though it just creeps me out that someone would want to put on the persona of being abused.

I’ll confine myself to observing that the artist has completely failed to convey an image of a fighting woman. Perhaps she should take up martial arts. Or at least meet some women who’ve actually been in fights and been injured. Trust me: women who’ve been in an actual fight don’t have on perfect eye make up. They’re not likely to be giving out that pouty come-hither look, either.


Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week — the next to last one in the series — is “Emergency.”  Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

Check out The Nancy Jane Moore Bookshelf for more stories.



The Way of the Warrior: Women With Bruises — 11 Comments

  1. Casual martial artist, reactionary coot:

    My reaction is “Ugh.”

    Should I ever write fantasy about female warriors using swords, I intend to showcase the way swordsmanship generally works; why you do a full return on a cutting weapon, what muscles drive the sword, and what muscles guide it.

    Should some publisher buy it, I’m going to ask for a cover art approval clause in the artwork. I so thoroughly hate-hate-hate the way anyone (male or female) using a sword is portrayed in cover art for fantasy that it’s not even funny.

    One of the egregious offenders is this one – written by the ‘home town fantasy writer’ in Fairbanks when I was in junior high and high school:

    Would you believe the red headed woman is supposed to be a 12 year old scabby kneed tomboy from that cover?

    At least she’s got the shield in front of her, even if that’s a really bad overhand return….

  2. Nancy — My gosh, does that bring back memories.

    I once ran into a black belt’s elbow and gave myself a black eye… and had to go to a major literary conference the next weekend. And had to go on television. (I seriously dislike going on tv.) The make-up artist looked at me and said, “Do you have a black eye?” “Yes, I walked into a black belt’s elbow.”

    Weirdly enough, she was one of the few people who (a) noticed or (b) commented. I was in fact wearing eye makeup, which I don’t usually do, but if you looked at me you could see I had a black eye. It was quite a revelation about how people react (or not).

    On the other hand, the black eye didn’t look anything like the black eyes on the avatars above (and I certainly don’t look like the avatars, period; but then — does anybody?). I never saw a martial artist with the kind of black eye you get from being hit in the face by a closed fist. (On the other hand I only ever studied Judo and Aikido.)

    Ken, good luck getting cover approval in your contract. I mean that sincerely; but it’s fairly unusual to get it.

    I expect Annie Scarborough was even more appalled by the Bronwyn’s Bane cover than you were.

    I had cover approval once, for Fireflood & Other Stories, and it did me absolutely no good at all. The artist was supposed to send sketches; that didn’t happen. When I got to see the artwork, it was a finished painting and it didn’t look anything like the people I’d described in “Fireflood” the short story.

    Don’t ever describe a character to an artist by saying what the person doesn’t look like. You’ll get exactly what you’ve said you don’t want. (It’s actually a good idea not to describe anybody by what they aren’t, but I was a pup and hadn’t yet learned that lesson.)

    My editor sent the cover back and the artist, apparently put out with me, stuck an Incredible Hulk wig on the character meant to be Jay. (There’s a copy of the cover — missing the Hulk wig — at but it’s kind of small and you can’t see the character in the lower right corner, who’s meant to be Dark, who doesn’t look like an armadillo… except on the cover of the book.)

    My editor said, “We can send the painting back to the artist, but there’s no assurance that you’ll like what he does next, and it will delay the publication of the book at least six months.”

    So we went back to square one and I kind of learned my lesson about cover control.

    I didn’t have cover control on The Moon and the Sun, but I did get to talk to the art director (which is kind of unusual) and bless his heart he listened to me. (“No, you can’t turn the Fountain of Apollo around to face away from the chateau of Versailles. The statue has to face the king — you can’t present him with horse butts.”) And Gary Halsey did an amazing painting, which now hangs in my living room.

    Nancy, have I mentioned how amazing your Flash Fiction project has been? (And I really enjoyed today’s story.)


    • It’s worth a celebration when an artist actually is allowed to consult the author. Some publishers go out of their way to keep the two parties apart.

      I was luck enough to have the artist who did MAGIC TIME: ANGELFIRE (Iain McCaig, who designed Darth Maul for Star Wars) call to ask what my cover character Magritte looked like. As it happened, she looked like a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and my collaborator’s wife. Iain talked ot me for half an hour about what she was wearing and little details about her “powers”. In the end he came up with the real article. She was exactly the way I pictured her.

      Ah, if it were always so…

  3. Vonda, thanks for the comment about my story and project. You really made my day!

    I don’t think the bruises on these faces are wrong per se (though it seems to me that most black eyes are bruised more above and to the outside of the eye). There are worse pictures shown on the links, though — avatars with blood dripping down from the eyes. I suspect if a person is bleeding from her eyes, she’s not walking around showing off her bruises. Bleeding from a cut above the eye, no problem (except for blood running into your eyes), but not actually bleeding from the eyes.

    Ken, artist Charles Keegan agrees with us. I saw the original of this painting at the World Fantasy Convention in Corpus, where it won a prize, and fell in love with it because the young woman in the picture has the forearms of someone who swings a sword. Also she’s wearing armor that might actually protect her. I talked to Charles about it at the con, and he explained how he had taught the young woman who modeled for him how to use the sword (the explanation is with the picture at the link).

    But as I wrote on this blog awhile back, when we were discussing cover art, this painting was used as the cover for Laurie J. Marks’s great book, Fire Logic, which would be fine, except that the warrior at the center of Fire Logic isn’t a young, blond Viking; she’s short with very dark skin and lots of long braids, and for much of the story she’s older than Keegan’s warrior — in her 30s, or thereabouts.

  4. Depressing.

    There are such a large number of people in the world who would benefit from meeting my daughter that I fail to see how she can deal with them all. (If they could spend time contemplating the bruises she gave them, doubtless the art would be more realistic.)


  5. Vonda: Yeah, Annie was doing her very very very best not to say something Untowards to a room full of 8th graders when she was doing a presentation on that book to the local Junior High School.

    But it was still pretty new to her.

    Nancy: Nice! I like the forearm build up, and she clearly means *business*

    The following suggestions for the next time Charley does this. I am not a cover artist, though I am an art director…and teach swordsmanship.

    1) Headgear! No, really! If you’re going to strap on the gambezon and chain shirt, where’s the throat protection and spangenhelm? Not all Norse warriors could afford chainmail; everyone had headgear if they expected to be fit. And everyone wore an extra layer of boiled leather that basically covered the collarbones and throat.

    Forearm guards and gloves would be a good thing, but they are the last thing you put on, and the first thing you take off.

    Even when teaching with light weight practice weapons, everyone wears a helmet, a gorget, and padded gloves and a cup.

    2) There is no garment in the world more slimming than a chainmail tunic. It makes the most compressive Kevlar-Lycra sportsbra in the world look like a corset in comparison. It’s like wearing a 40 lb sweater with inertia and no drape whatsoever, cinched around your waist to make sure some of that weight it rides on your hip bones, rather than all of it on your shoulders. It makes busty women look pear shaped, it makes guys with guts look like they’re carrying saddle bags.

    In full kit, it’s hard to tell if a 5’5″ person in chain mail is a man or a woman until they take two steps (then the balance on the hips usually gives them away; men walk front to back, women’s hips go side to side/up and down more). I’ve heard tell this is also appropriate for women wearing current US body armor.

    3) That’s an interesting mishmash of historical sword and armor types. A blade like that would be quite effective against the armor she’s wearing; the shoulder plates, if they extended inward to cover the deltoid and neck muscles, are kind of plausible if that sword blade and armor are temporally and spatially contemporary. Historically, that sword is a post-gunpowder weapon, and a straight bladed sword (which is faster, but doesn’t hit ‘as hard’) did an adequate job of cutting and injuring through it.

    Throughout the history of arms and armor, the metric is usually that the weapon is the cheapest/easiest to use/least fatiguing thing that has a good chance of injuring someone through the contemporary armor of the time.

    When weapons take a leap in lethality per pound lugged, armor tends to vanish (which is why body armor more or less went out of US Infantry usage from the 1860s to the current day – the weapons were light enough and deadly enough that making the soldiers slog in armor was less effective than letting them be unencumbered).

    When body armor becomes very effective (introduction of proof breast plates in the late 14th century), weaponry gets heavier and shifts from swords to axes and things that generate as much damage as possible on a clean hit.

    Bah. Geek Button Pushed. Stopping NOW. 🙂

  6. Hi Nancy,

    I really do think a year of weekly flash fiction is extraordinary. Brava!

    Urg, I knew there was a good reason (aside from just plain time constraints) to avoid Second Life. And, yes, my black eye was exactly as you describe: ra diating from the outer point of my eyebrow, which is where I connected with the black belt’s elbow. So mostly my eyelid was involved, which was pretty easy to disguise with a mild overapplication of cheesy blue eyeshadow. I wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t had to be at the rather big deal conference. (Though in truth it was such a big deal that I was basically invisible.)

    Most of my friends were already used to seeing me with various contusions, though mostly that was bruises on my wrists from demonstrating techniques to beginners.

    “Just turn your hand over. No, don’t jerk away. Just turn your hand over. OK, grab my wrist. See how you can’t keep hold if I just TURN MY HAND OVER?” They always wanted to work too hard.

    No experience with swords except for a few routines I had to learn for my black belt test, plus some ways of taking them (wooden swords) away from attackers. A lot of my Aikido compatriots studied Iaido but it never grabbed me.o

    Maya, I sort of lost track of Iain, but he always struck me as being pretty cool.

    Ken, I’m just reading Voyages Long and Strange, which discusses the Conquistadores and their armor in the context of their tramping through the southwest desert and the southeast swamps. Yikes.

    (My goodness I’m longwinded…)


  7. Never underestimate the ability for soldiers to have heavy, bulky items of equipment that aren’t helping them now fall out of pockets and get lost.

    For some reason, as the temperature gets higher, and the humidity goes up, the ability for particularly heavy pieces of gear to fall out of pockets increases.

  8. Ah, yes, Vonda: wrist bruises. Trying to teach beginning Aikido students not to work so hard is a real challenge. Especially guys who are strong and have always been successful using their strength.

    BTW, my Aikido teacher emphasizes a lot of weapons work — wooden swords (including two-sword technique), staff, knife. A lot of Aikido empty hand techniques come from weapons work, and he has developed a series of forms that teach those ways of responding. I can get hours of fun out of the subtleties in this. And except for working on the takeaway movements you mentioned, weapons work generally doesn’t involve falling down, which makes it nice when you’re (cough) no longer young. Actually, it isn’t the falling down that’s the problem; it’s the getting back up …

  9. Hi, Nancy —

    I gave up hard falls for my 40th birthday, though to be sure our dojo didn’t go in for much in the way of hard falls. The only time I was badly hurt in Aikido (my knee gives me trouble to this day) was taking a hard fall that went wrong.

    Good point about the weapons work and falling down. I always did kind of enjoy the bo, especially using it to make my uke fall down. Of course then we had to switch places…

    One thing I particularly enjoyed about Aikido was the advantage that my height (or, more accurately my lack of height — I’m a courtesy 5’1″) gave me over the big guys. By the time they got close enough to attack me, they were already off balance.


  10. Damn, now I’m wishing I had the time to go back to Karate. I MISS the bruises.

    As far as second life is concerned, I have no comment other than blauuuugh. And yes, that’s the technical term.