What is binding? It is using something – a tight shirt, a specially-fitted garment, an ace bandage (dangerous though, do not use that) – to compress and flatten your breasts to give yourself a flat, masculine-appearing chest.
A lot of transmen have disdain or at least discomfort surrounding their breasts. Breasts are a secondary sex characteristic – just like widened hips and menstruation for women and deeper voice, facial hair, and muscles for men – that is developed by your body during puberty to prepare you for child rearing and make you more recognizable as the male or female biology that you were born as. Children who haven’t gone through puberty often are very gender-neutral looking because they lack these secondary sex characteristics.
Because the world can easily recognize and assume that a person with breasts, softer curves and a higher-pitched voice is a woman, transpeople are often pressured to try and disguise most of these aspects until we are ready for and can afford surgery and/or hormone therapy treatment. One aspect of that disguising is trying to erase the appearance of our breasts by binding. The end goal is to look simply flat-chested.
Not every transman binds. Some transmen bind every day. Some transmen bind occasionally, for job interviews and professional appearances. Some transmen can’t go get the mail without binding. It all rests on one’s personal level of comfort. I even know transmen who could give a shit less about what people think and refuse to bind. There are many varying degrees all over the spectrum.
I personally bind every day. I can go get the mail without a binder on, but I hate doing it. I won’t go get coffee or run to the drug store across the street without my binder on. I bind when we have guests over, even if they are dear friends.
My binding has been an evolution. At first, when I was still identifying as female with a lot of question and gender issues, I refused to bind. My breasts always get extremely tender and sore during my lovely menstrual cycle, and I couldn’t imagine binding. It seemed so painful.
After I started coming out more as trans, I started binding when I gave transgender lectures or when I performed, or when I went out to a bar or to dinner. At the time I was using an ace bandage: bad move. To try and get my chest flat, I would wrap it entirely too tight. I could barely breathe. Performing was the worst because my heart would race since I was nervous and I could feel that it was under stress and pressure due to the huge force of compression that I was subjecting it to. At times I felt I was going to pass out right on stage. There is one picture taken of me performing in which my face is literally purple.
However, at that time I was poor and uneducated and desperate to look closer to who I imagined myself as. Those circumstances put me in serious danger – probably more serious than I even realize.
I next switched to an abdominal binder that I would use to wrap around my chest. It was meant to apply compression to the stomachs/abdominal areas of patients who had just had some kind of stomach abdominal surgery. This was also made by Ace, but it was less constricting. It was more expensive though – about $40. However, a small price to pay for the luxury of being able to breathe and not feeling like I was going to die, but the binder looked awkward under my shirt. It was basically a big, stretchy band about 7 inches across that I wrapped over my breasts then velcroed. It never velcroed evenly, and the velcro always scratched me. The velcro never layed flat and there was always this one weird, pointy edge sticking up right underneath my left breast. I was constantly self-conscious about it used to always hold my arm in front of it so nobody could see the little piece poking through my shirt. Whenever I wrote tighter shirts, you could sort of see the band across my chest, so I stopped wearing a third of the clothes that I had in my closet.
When I got a new, physically demanding job I could no longer keep my posture hunched inward and my arm in front of the pointy piece, so I eventually chalked up the $60 for a professional binder from the company Underworks. (http://ftm.underworks.com). The binders from this company are the only binders I recommend. It is the safest and most comfortable. They are actually a company that makes surgical chest compression binders for post-operative cismale patients (cis meaning men who were born men and stayed that way: check the glossary page if you’re having a hard time keeping up with terms!). They found out that a lot of transmen started using their binders as a means to flatten their chests until they could afford chest surgery, and they started selling and advertising them directly to transmen.
I’ve had the binder a few months and it’s definitely a welcome change from my last two binder experiments.
Here is a video about my binder:
Binding is a necessary step for me. It helps me feel more like I have the body that I’m supposed to have, and it makes me appear more male in society. It’s not easy though, and not fun. Binding is painful. Although my breathing isn’t restricted (anymore), my muscles are, especially those in my back. The binder holds my body in the same posture all day. There have been times when the single only thought that filled my mind was the moment I could go home and tear my binder off and stretch my back muscles out. At the end of a double shift at work when I am standing and moving all day long, my spine sometimes feels like it is going to snap in half since I haven’t been able to stretch it for hours. I also wear it every single day, and I have very sensitive skin, so I’ve developed acne all over my back (so hot, right?). I also shudder to think what compression and probably restricted blood flow is doing to my breast tissue. The hardest thing to know is that until I can afford the $7,000 chest masculinzation procedure – that most insurance companies won’t pay for because they view it as “cosmetic” surgery – I have to make a choice of whether or not I want to do serious harm to my mental health (not wear it) or physical health (wear it).
Sometimes I dream about my binder. I had a nightmare last February while I was camping in a cabin with my Fiancee and friend. In the dream, I awoke in the cabin and went to the kitchen where I got some plastic wrap. I began wrapping my chest with it over my pajamas and started putting random things against my chest and wrapping them tight to me. I realized the wrap was too tight and I started to have a seizure and I thought I was dying. I woke in the middle of this but was still too sleepy to differentiate between wakefulness and dreaming. I went back to sleep but awoke later feeling extremely anxious. Later in the day I had a severe panic attack.
Just yesterday I also dreamed that that I was wearing my underworks binder. Sometimes, with certain shirts, the binder makes my chest look large and puffed out. In my dream I saw myself in a picture, and my chest was hugely puffed out and distorted. In the dream, I thought I looked like a monster.
If what I’ve said has troubled you, there is something you can do. Part of the reason transmen bind is because our appearance of breasts in society is automatic “female” label. Sometimes we even slap that label on ourselves when we don’t have our binders. Next time you see a person with breasts who you’re not sure how they identify, don’t automatically assume they are female. Also, if you have a loved one who you know binds, gently remind them that you will still see them for who they are even if they aren’t binding (don’t be pushy and insistent about it though, some transmen are just too uncomfortable to take their binders off). Even if seeing the outline of their breasts as opposed to a flat chest is a bigger mental stumbling block to seeing them as male, try really hard. Think man boobs – you know, that 400 lb dude at the beach who should really be wearing a bikini top. Being reassuring. Be on your A-game with pronouns. Make it seem like it’s not a big deal at all and it doesn’t change who they are and how they identify. Because it really doesn’t, only society tells us that it does.