In a Bind Over Chest HealthHarm Reduction Tips

As a masculine-presenting person with a huge rack (aka butch with boobs) I’ve tried all the traditional methods for making my chest look smaller. Sports bras. Sports bras are three sizes too small. Ace wraps. Twelve sports bras at a time. Hunching over. Sleeping with weights on my chest. Commercial binders. Yes, even duct tape. Oh and yoga.

Okay, you caught me. I’m lying about yoga.

But none of these methods did much for making my chest look smaller, mostly they just made me sweat more, struggle to breathe and made my summers working as a home visiting nurse, hiking around North Philadelphia in 90-degree heat much more difficult than they had to be. Because for me binding isn’t about passing or safety (I am somewhere on the genderqueer/butch continuum but I identify as female and don’t much care whether people call me sir or ma’am) I just quit when it was giving me problems.

Although binding has been around in our community for ages, and many of us know people who have had health problems from binding, we, unfortunately, don’t have much research about what binding practices are safer than others. I can’t wait to hear the data that comes out of the Binding Health Project Surveys, but in the meantime, for LBT folks who do bind–whether it’s for performance, safety or because it seems appropriate for your body– there are some things we can do which will probably help decrease complications:

Tip #1:

Let’s get real: duct tape and ace wraps are a tool of The Man. It’s tempting to use duct tape or ace wraps, especially if you’re just experimenting, you bind for performance, or you are not sure what your next step is. And yes, we’ve all seen binding with duct tape backstage before a drag king show. But we’ve seen lots of things backstage at a drag king show that we might not want to make part of our daily lives, right?

Duct tape is great for ducts, and really bad for the skin. Even if you use it over a shirt duct tape can cause allergic reactions, doesn’t allow much room for breathing and has zero give. Binding that might feel fine if you are sitting still? It will be way too tight once you’re doing the running, jumping and climbing trees part of your act or your daily life.

It might seem like duct tape, especially a cheaper option, but since you have to use new tape every day, and a lot of it, it’s not long before the cheap option becomes more expensive. And then there’s the band-aids and Neosporin you’ll need to help your skin tears heal. See how it all adds up?

The Debbie Downer news on ace wraps is that they are only a teeny tiny bit better than duct tape. Ace wraps won’t stick to your skin with the scary tenacity of duct tape, but to achieve a consistent flattened appearance they must be pulled very tight. Once they’re pulled to the limits of their elasticity, they become um, just like duct tape.

Even worse? Ace wraps tend to roll and become tight little cords around the ribcage. And your ribcage is full of important things like, you know, your lung and organs and such, things that don’t take well to being roped in.

Tip #2:

A commercial binder can be a safer alternative if you get the right size. . Binders that are two (or seven) sizes too small might seem more effective, but you risk the same problems you have with ace wraps, like your lungs not being able to fully expand.

You can sometimes find cheaper or free binders through exchange programs online. There are also great reviews online about what kind of binders work for different types of bodies.

Often folks who don’t identify with their chests don’t want to use a bra for chest flattening purposes, but a good sports bra can often help achieve the look you want at a fairly reasonable price. Often a colour other than white helps with the “OMG I’m wearing a bra” feeling. Some of the specialized sports bras, such as those made for boxing, look more like a piece of athletic equipment and can be fairly effective.

Tip #3:

Experiment with ways to get what you want without binding. Although you might want to bind on most days, let’s say you have a bad cold and don’t want it to morph into a more serious respiratory infection. While we don’t have hard and fast data about how binding contributes to respiratory problems, if you can’t cough or breathe deeply when you bind, it’s not as easy to clear secretions from your lungs. It can help to take a break from binding while you heal.

Perhaps on those days, you’ll want to wear a different kind of clothing: you can experiment with different sizes, colours and textures to achieve a more desired result. An extra layer might not allow you to pass as male, but it might help your emotional reaction to your chest more than wearing a single tee shirt.

For me, I realized one of the reasons I was trying to bind was that I wanted my men’s shirts  to look better on my body. Shirts I bought that fit my chest were too big around my gut and looked sloppy.

If you have the money to get clothes tailored, that can help you achieve your desired appearance. I didn’t have the cash to get my everyday clothes altered, but I did have a few dress shirts done. Then I started I asked friends with better fashion sense than me (which, to be fair, is pretty much every one of my friends) to accompany me when went shopping. With their help, I found styles of everyday clothes that minimize my chest without looking like I am a seventh-grade boy swimming in my father’s clothes.

Tip #4

Get to know your chest tissue. Binding can change the structure of your chest over time, which sometimes makes it easier to bind, but this doesn’t mean you can just ignore that part of your body, even if you really really want to. It’s important to do chest self-exams and know what your chest feels like so you will know if something changes, if you develop a lump, etc.

If this causes you strong gender feelings, sometimes it can be helpful to think of your chest as an entirely different part of your body or think of it as a “pec inspection”. What you’re looking for are changes to your normal.  Professional chest exams are important, as are mammograms after age 40 but your knowledge of your own bits is always the first line of defence.