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Transgenderism in pre-colonial times.
Mordred confused
pax_morgana wrote in little_details

I'm in the planning stages of a story that takes place in an Earth analogue world with the main setting being a small nation similar to pre-colonial midwestern America. The majority of the characters are of a native tribal culture, and my protagonist is, for all intents and purposes, a transgender man. His people (an as-of-yet-unnamed tribe, referred to hence as the People) subscribe to a belief that a daughter, under certain rare and specific conditions, was meant to be a son and as such, they raise the daughter as a boy. In most cases, the individual ends up as something like a two-spirit: accepting of their physically female form while still adopting traditionally male roles. However, my protag has grown up fully identifying as a boy / man. The People are accepting of this since it's their tradition in the first place, so that isn't at all my problem. My issue is purely a physical one, dealing with the character's body. So here is my question for the community:

Is it at all possible to "condition" breasts to grow in small or not at all? For instance, if the individual's chest is bound consistently beginning before puberty and all throughout, similar to the concept of foot-binding? I've tried Google-searching using key-phrases like "how to prevent breasts from growing" or "how to make breasts small" but all I got were links to breast-reduction surgery and YahooAnswers questions from young teenage girls fretting about how big their busts will be after puberty.

Pardon me if the question seems stupid or elementary. In my defense, I am a transgender man myself and I bind my breasts using an undershirt binder, so I tend to just pretend my chest isn't there most of the time. As such, I'm aware that constant binding could be damaging to the ribcage and chest cavity, particularly the lungs, but those things are not what concern me at the moment. I just want to know if it would (theoretically or otherwise) be possible to condition a person's breasts in such a manner as described above. If what I have in mind is usable, then I'll focus on longterm health risks and whatnot.

Thanks in advance!

EDIT: Just to clarify, this isn't the character doing it to himself. It'd be his parents or a medicine man. The community views this character as a man, and as such, would want him presented as one. The character himself doesn't regard his female body as particularly undesirable in any way. In fact, he's indifferent to it. He isn't the only person in his village who was raised this way.

EDIT 2: I think that the notion of breast ironing is closest to what I'm looking for in this case. I'd never heard of it before. Thanks to everyone who offered ideas and information!


Extreme Athletics will do this better than binding. The harder the athlete trains, the more the secondary gender traits (particularly breasts, in the case of women) will be suppressed, as a rule (there are exceptions, often leading to an early exit from athletics for those teen girls who continue to grow - top heavy does not an athlete make).

I'm sure there are other ways to handle this - but constant, sustained athleticism will work almost every time. And I'm talking about something like 2-3 hours a day, 4-6 days a week from a young age (at least 7, maybe younger) - look at the female olympic athletes for lots of examples of this.

well, you can definitely try to delay puberty, increase T production and decrease normal estrogen production etc that way, but there are health risks involved and you have to keep it up even after puberty to maintain that shape, like you said, lots of working out constantly.

Right - because when you stop, you start developing - female athletes have to deal with that reality. So yea, she'd have to keep it up to keep the development down.

Also, risk of osteoporosis from the lowered levels of sex hormones if it goes on for years.

yeah, that's one of the big health risks. i'm sure there are others too.

I missed that you had already mentioned health risks. I will blame my ipod screen and it's tiny little letters.


I want to say no, because think of the decades that women wore corsets all the time. (Though that may be an imperfect analogy. My knowledge of nineteenth century underwear is incomplete.) But I don't think the breast binding to foot binding analogy works, either. Foot binding literally changes the shapes of the bones; the bones in the feet are broken and then trained to grow back in the more compact form. Because the shape and size of breasts aren't dependent upon skeletal structure, I can't imagine a way that binding them could change the way they would grow.


While some corsets of some periods also reshaped bones (ribs all screwed up in many women), they didn't seem to affect the soft tissue in the same way. And it was always the lower ribs that were reshaped, not the upper ones supporting the bust.

But European 18th- and 19th-century corsetry wasn’t designed to eliminate the breasts; just to redistribute them, so to speak. Also, it wasn’t worn at night, and very often not when dressed casually around the house; for example, 18th-century ladies wouldn’t put on fully-boned corsets till they dressed to go out or for dinner, and would breakfast, instruct the cook, and write letters wearing either lighter half-boned or un-boned support wear, or none at all. So whatever effect it had on the breasts really wouldn’t be comparable to full-on 24/7 binding.

As a kind of weird question, what about... cutting them off? I don't know if the information I've heard is simply anachronism, but I believe there were traditions (attributed to the Amazons) that would cut off one or both breasts because it got in the way of combat. If this information is correct, off they would go, though I can only imagine such would be very painful based on the potential amount of medicine available.

was something like valium available maybe? anything anti-anxiety would help a huge amount.

I'd also be concerned about sepsis -- surgery was pretty dicey pre-germ theory and pre-antibiotics. In general, the surgeon had to think that whatever he was trying to fix had a higher risk of mortality than the surgery itself. And breast removal seems like it would be a major surgery.

It is a major surgery, there's a lot of blood supply to the tissues to support milk production, plus major lymph vessels right nearby in the armpits. I'm not aware of any archaeological support for a real people underneath the legend that the Amazons cut off a breast to improve their archery efforts, though I know there's some speculation on which tribe the Greeks might have encountered. If they were extremely athletic with the kind of fat reduction you see in many athletes now, besides going without periods at all, they would have minimal breast pads. Not all ballerinas are tiny-breasted to begin with, but that level of 7 to 10-hour dance sessions daily really reduces that and hip sizes.
There's also the question of why the character feels the need to reduce breast size any further. Focusing on absolute measurements of hips and breasts is a very Western cultural cue, very dependent on form-fitting clothes that exaggerate it and draw attention to it. Not every culture does this. Some cultures, it depends whether you have the correct clothes, in many cases you would be unable to tell the gender of the body underneath such clothes. Layers of elkhide garments heavy enough for midwestern winters might cover up a multitude of questions! Some cultures, it's enough if you have the right facial tattoos, if your behavior reflects your assumed gender correctly.
Also, you don't mention the practical underpinnings of their survival. If they are growing squash and corn along the rivers and trading skins for a thousand miles along the Mississippi, that's a different set of requirements for their clothes (muddy ground churned up with digging sticks) than hunter-ghatering. Also, the brief horse-riding period where tribes ventured onto the plains and started hunting herds of buffalo in greater numbers requires different clothes than racing on foot and stampeding small groups over cliffs whenever they could manage it.

Mastectomy could be done pre-anaesthesia and pre-sepsis. The novelist Fanny Burney wrote a detailed letter describing her experience of it (summary at http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/Annotation?action=view&annid=12724 ). But it does require a fair degree of medical technology, and a lucky patient.

When I read about the Amazons it wasn't that they removed their breast, but that they would burn the nipples off their prepubescent children to stop the breasts from developing. I don't remember where I read this, not do I have any clue if burning off the nipple would stop the breast from growing (to me that would just turn into a deformed breast).

Though, I did meet someone at summer camp when I was a teenager who had a burn from pulling a pot down on herself as a toddler. She said she was really glad that it hadn't got her nipple because the doctor told her she would've been lopsided if that had happened. Still just hearsay - you'll have to look it up to see if burning is a viable way of stopping development.

Google "breast ironing". I saw this on an episode of Taboo. In some parts of Africa, mothers take a heavy piece of wood, heat it in a fire, and then press it to their young daughter's chests over and over. This retards or outright stops development of the breasts. It ain't pretty to look at, though.

Maybe a stupid question, but even if breast-binding doesn't make breasts smaller, why can't the character think that it does? They could just have naturally small breasts and attribute it to binding them, true or false.

However, on a related, and sort of horrible note, you may wish to look up breast ironing, which apparently can lead to lack of development for one or both breasts.



Edited at 2012-04-18 03:02 am (UTC)

It's not actually suppressing breast growth, but low body fat percentage means smaller breasts, and muscle building exercise on the shoulders especially makes the frame appear bigger relative to breasts. If your protagonist notices that the leanest and most muscular women tend to have the smallest breasts, he might choose that path.

I remember once reading that a full bosom was unfashionable in 16th-century Spain, so in wealthy families girls wore corsets with metal plates in front to discourage breast growth and give a smooth, flat-chested look. A metal-fronted corset would certainly enforce that!

As far as what's actually happening to the underlying tissues, obviously you can permanently re-shape bones such as a baby's skull or a ribcage through binding and corseting. Breasts are possibly even more subject to 'molding'. It's my impression that people with money would generally rely on wet nurses in that era, so loss of function wouldn't be an issue.

I doubt it would work. Foot binding, for one, didn't so much stop growth so much break bones and fold everything up. I'm sure growth was effected, but it's not like they had tiny versions of regular feet.

Second, there's kids who've tried the binding-way-too-much from when they were quite young (I've run across posts on tumblr) and it seems like they've mostly caused themselves serious and maybe permanent ribcage and possibly lung damage more than they've limited chest development. So even if you did manage to stop growth, I'd imagine you couldn't do it without hurting yourself pretty severely.


I also wanted to mention that if the culture has a trans male role that is fully accepted, it's possible that your character wouldn't necessarily think of his body as unacceptable as a male body. That is, chest dysphoria might not even be an issue since he doesn't live in a situation where body-to-gender codes are as strict and binary as in modern culture. Or there might be a way of dealing with breasts already in the culture. say, practical binding garments (for regular binding, I mean, not for molding.)


I have read transcripts of interviews with old Chinese ladies about their experience of foot-binding that definitely mentioned breast-binding in passing as another painful ordeal they underwent as well. I can’t recall any description of the permanent effects of that, but it might be worth adding ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’ to your search terms, and see if that throws up anything useful.

Just a thought, and I don't know how realistic this is, but there are plants with naturally occurring testosterone, which will inhibit estrogen production if started early enough (read about sex-reassignment for transgendered youths). Sarsaparilla and nettle are two which come to mind (and maybe Ginseng?).

In any case, you have a made-up world. Couldn't you simply create a plant with the right properties?

Sorry, forgot to log-in before posting the above.

my understanding of foot binding was done by the Chinese for thousands of years, however it doesn't work. They still do it because, well, who wants to have big feet in a culture that prides themselves on small feet? Think of it this way, if foot binding actually worked, then ballerinas would have the smallest feet going around.

Similar to foot binding was an early Incan subculture that would bind their children's heads. It actually goes back as far as 47,000 years. They did this to shape the head so that the head would grow longer. This CAN be done because the human baby skull is still soft enough to accept reshaping. After that though, the skull hardens and continues to grow in the new shape.

My understanding is that while breast binding is done to make a woman look more like a man, it is simply her activity in physical day to day chores that reduces her breast size. When a woman wants to lose weight, the first thing that goes is the size of her breasts, typically.

Sorry if this has gone it's full course. Just adding my two cents...

Edited at 2012-04-20 11:58 pm (UTC)

Your first paragraph is full of misinformation.

Chinese foot binding involved more than just constricting the foot and hoping that the pressure would keep it from growing; they actually broke the foot, folding it over, and then bound it so that it would heal in that unnatural shape. Women who had their feet bound wore shoes like this, which could fit in the palm of your hand. Chinese foot binding certainly "worked," in that it created a very small foot, but it caused a lot of pain and disability as well.

Foot binding is no longer practiced in China. I'd like to know your source for claiming that it is.

Ballerinas do not practice foot binding.

I'm not even sure what you're trying to say about breast binding and chores and losing weight.

I wasn't aware of this form of "breaking and folding" as you say.
I have no "source" to supply that it is still done today, just life experience. I merely know two Chinese women who had their feet bound. They told me when I asked "what it was", they called it foot binding. Thereby I thought it the only form practiced.

"This is a form of "loose binding" that was prevalent in central china (by the Hui and Dungan) which did not involve breaking the toes and heel. This doesn't produce "small" feet so much as "thin" feet." ~a la wiki

Whether it is practiced this way by a re-surging large majority or just the two women I knew (non related), I don't know. They were pretty traditional women by all accounts.
My observation that it didn't work was when their feet were unbound, they seemed to return to their normal size. In other words it merely compressed the soft tissue which would resume it's original size and shape.

Ballerinas practice a form of foot binding similar to this again from my personal observations. My understanding that the ballerinas that I've known, told me that they do this to compact the foot to make standing on their toes for extended amounts of time more bearable.

and if you aren't sure about something then you should ask a question and stop using it as further proof that you know more.

Yes, of course, because I questioned a comment that equated Chinese foot binding with just compressing the feet, when the most well-known form was completely different, I'm trying to prove I know more.

And when I said I wasn't sure about your comments on binding breasts, chores, and losing weight, I meant that that paragraph is kind of jumbled up and it really is difficult to tell what you mean. It reads as if you think that women who bind their breasts to look like men then go about reducing their breast size by doing chores, which is kind of a bizarre statement despite the fact that yes, breasts are partially fat and their size can be reduced (but usually not completely eliminated) by losing weight.

I missed this part too:
It actually goes back as far as 47,000 years.

I assume you don't mean the Inca practice goes back this far, so - the practice of changing head shape in general? I'm interested in this, actually, because while I've heard of the Inca practice I haven't heard of it being practiced that long ago. Do you know details?

I was looking into this sort of thing back in my 20's, I just remember the occasional number more or less. Try this

This has gotten off topic to the OP