A few days ago, an article popped up on my Facebook news feed: a group called the Binding Health Project just published the first study on chest binding to be carried by a medical journal (Culture, Health, and Society). As I read through the article (which can be found here), I found myself immersed in memories of my own experiences.
As a youngling, my body didn’t offer too much in the way of dysphoric triggers. In my experience, society as a whole and my family in particular were more lax in what kids got to wear and how they acted. Several photos exist of me running around the family lake house as a toddler with the top of my one piece bathing suit pushed down around my waist, and I have strong memories of sitting by fires on the beach there in just shorts or pants.
Initially, I was in denial about the changes puberty brought to my body. I saw myself as a boy, and the idea that my body may be developing in a different way intensified the feelings of discomfort I was already experiencing. When I couldn’t deny the changes to my body any longer, I insisted on only buying sports bras. Through high school, my dysphoria and body image issues only continued to grow. The sports bras became both a blessing and a curse: Underneath my preferred t-shirt and vests or hoodies, the undergarments provided enough camouflage that I felt comfortable moving through the world, but at the same time the very name of the things reminded me that society saw me as a girl. I only wore a “regular” bra a handful of times, and never outside a dressing room or my own bedroom. To this day, even the memories of those few experiences bring an overwhelming feeling of disconnect between the mental and the physical, a dizziness that only increased when I’d contemplate wearing the things out in public.
College brought the opportunity to explore my identity and begin living authentically. No longer happy with the sports bras, I researched other means of binding my chest. For the immediate future, buying commercial binders was out of the question. Instead, I settled on using Ace bandages. Each morning I’d wrap the elasticized cloth around my torso, pinning the end in place with my arm as I secured the little clips. This method had its drawbacks: The bandages would roll around the edges, leading to an oddly lumpy silhouette. And while I joked that it forced me to breathe from the diaphragm, I would sometimes feel short of breath when exercising or playing trombone. I never had trouble following the so-called “eight hour rule”; by the time my classes had ended for the day, I was more than happy to return to my dorm room and ditch the bandages while lounging in a baggy t-shirt.
In the middle of my junior year, I finally bought several binders from Underworks, one of several companies that sells these items. After the constriction of the bandages, the binders brought a new feeling of freedom, both physical and psychological. Instead of a tight band around the center of my chest, the binders spread the compression out over my entire torso, which meant no more unsightly bulges. Even better, the garments looked like an undershirt, which meant I no longer had to worry about what would happen if someone caught a glimpse of one. Best of all, I no longer wore a bra, which marked me as a girl, or a bandage, which implied I was damaged in some way.
I wore binders for four years. While never as uncomfortable as the bras and bandages, I still had to deal with a near-constant feeling of over-heating, particularly in summer. After I started hormones and my body began changing, the binders gradually became even less amenable. Testosterone combined with my workout habits to begin reshaping my chest even without surgery, which lead to chafing around my armpits and shoulders. I also had the fun of learning how it feels when hair grows in underneath such tight garments. Not binding was never an option: I couldn’t bear the sight of my naked chest for more than a few moments at a time, and hated the weight that hung off my body without support. However, the idea of wearing binders for the rest of my life never held much appeal, either. Like so many others, I sought a more permanent solution in the form of top surgery.
Even though it’s been over four years since I last bound my chest, I still think about how that experience shaped me, both psychically and physically. I worry that the Ace bandages in particular re-shaped my ribs in some way, and wonder what the consequences of that will be further down the line. I also worry about my trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming siblings who resort to even more dangerous methods of binding themselves. I sincerely hope that the Binding Health Project continues their good work, and that that work influences how the medical community helps others like me.