Chest Binding: Some Thoughts

[image description: Max Sparrow, a transmasculine person with short hair, metal-rim glasses, and a serious expression, wearing a dark grey t-shirt that says #APPALACHIA and a short-sleeved button-front black-and-white checked shirt, unbuttoned and hanging open. He is holding a purple paisley camera up to take the photo and is bound from here to next Sunday.]
I broke a lot of the binding rules yesterday. That makes today a great day to talk about chest binding in general and also about particular Autistic binding issues I experience. I’d love to see a conversation start in the comments. I’d also love it if other Autistic Trans people who bind (or corset, or utilize any other physical re-shaping device(s)) would write guest posts about this topic (or any Transtistic topic that’s important to you) that could be shared on this blog. Thanks!

My biggest no-no yesterday was letting myself get dehydrated. I struggle to stay adequately hydrated. I live in a vehicle, so I’m often in higher temperature environments than I would prefer, especially in the summertime. And my personal bundle of executive function issues includes being scattered and easily distracted from basic routines like regularly putting water in my mouth.  Add in binding and my no-no of letting myself get dehydrated escalates into a health risk.

I lost track of my water intake yesterday because I went to the gender clinic for the first time.  After bashing myself against the system in Florida for half a year — including calling clinics to find out if they offered gender services on the Informed Consent (IC) model only to end up having to explain the Harry Benjamin model and the IC model to them on the phone so they could even figure out what they were offering — I gave up and started looking out of state.

Florida has a lot of work to do. I’m looking at you too, Planned Parenthood! Train your people! When someone calls up, asking about hormone replacement therapy (HRT) at your clinic, do *NOT* call them “ma’am.” I know you’re trying to be polite, but getting “ma’am” back to my questions about starting testosterone (T) at your clinic is so de-validating and dysphoria-triggering!

But I digress.

I chose the Legacy clinic in Montrose and yesterday’s visit with them was marvelous. I was practically vibrating with nervous energy but everyone was so calm and kind. The forms were so sensitive. The doctor was so caring and available. No one even asked if I had been to therapy. I did tell the doc that I wasn’t willing to pay hundreds of dollars to a therapist to tell me what I already know, but I volunteered that information. No one asked. At every moment, I was treated like an adult who knows his mind and can make important decisions about his life.

I am so grateful. And I have mixed feelings about my gratitude, because the way I was treated yesterday shouldn’t be an overwhelmingly marvelous event that I had to drive 855 miles to attain. Compassionate IC clinics should be available to everyone, everywhere.

But back to my binder…I was on top of the world all day, as you might imagine. And all those emotions drained my batteries pretty thoroughly, as you also might imagine. I didn’t sleep the night before my appointment — I just couldn’t. I spent the night by the tracks, watching trains go by. In the morning I had some very supportive online chat time and then headed over to the clinic. After the clinic, I went to see the Rainbow Crosswalk half a mile away.

[image description: Max Sparrow standing in front of a rainbow striped crosswalk in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. The crosswalk was painted in preparation for Houston Pride. Max is dressed the same but this time he’s grinning to beat the band.]

I had intended to explore Montrose a bit, but I got to the crosswalk and realized I was going to crash soon and needed to drive the 25 miles back out to where I’m staying while I’m in the Houston area. I barely made it back — my body started to try to go to sleep during the last 4 miles. I parked and crawled in the back and fell asleep instantly. Wearing my binder — don’t do that.

I slept off and on through the day.  Autistic readers will definitely relate to that. I ate dinner and then went back to sleep for another nine hours. But I finally took the time to remove my binder before tucking in for the night.

Something interesting happens when you bind all day in the summer heat and don’t stay hydrated. When I finally took my binder off, I was feeling exhausted but good.  Within five minutes of removing my binder and getting blood flowing through my body again, the symptoms of dehydration slammed into me full force. I downed a liter of water before falling asleep and woke still dehydrated.

And then climbed right back into my binder.

I have been having trouble wearing binders. They are challenging. I hated putting my binder on. I would fret about it. “I’m not doing this for me,” I’d tell myself. “This is part of a gender performance. This binding is for others, to remind them of who I am. I’m helping people to remember me while in my presence.”

I used to think that I would stop wearing my binder once I had a deeper voice and a beard. I figured Meatloaf’s character in Fight Club, Bob Paulson, was manly with his deep voice and muscular frame. No one called him “she” despite his large breasts. So I thought the binder was just to help others see me properly and then I could ditch the binder and then have top surgery at some point after that.

I didn’t like wearing my binder because it’s not comfortable.

No one really likes wearing binders, right? And on top of that, I am Autistic and have sensory defensiveness as a result. And on top of that, I have Ehrler-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and the binder causes my ribs to shift out of position — not fully dislocate, but sublux uncomfortably.

Once I’ve got the binder on, it doesn’t matter that it hurts, doesn’t matter that I can’t breathe properly, doesn’t matter that I feel the pristine jolts of overtaxed cartilage as my ribs sublux. It just matters that I look down and I can see my feet. It matters that I look in the mirror and I can see more of myself. It matters that the aching compression keeps me conscious of living inside a body.

This morning, the first thing I did was put my binder back on.

In the past, I would not have done that today. I wore my binder for 18 hours yesterday. The only place I went today was the library, to write. My body hurts (what else is new?) I could have gotten away with a bra instead. But I put the binder back on. It is emblematic of the surprisingly dramatic changes I’m experiencing as a result of making a firm decision to start T and going to the gender clinic and being taken seriously. I am changing as a result of the validation and compassion I encountered yesterday. And it seems I have become, virtually overnight, a person who doesn’t want to wear a bra anymore.

The bra promises physical comfort — at least as much as I’m likely to find this side of living in the water full time or getting top surgery. The binder bites me. Hard. But the comfort it promises is one that goes deeper for me than physical comfort.  It might be that I have to stop wearing the binder for a time if my ribs get worse. I hope that doesn’t happen. Short of medical crisis, I’m finally ready to live with the daily discomfort. My body has stopped squirming but my psyche squirms as hard as ever and so…it’s time to buy more binders and to bind full-time.

I am ready to bind every day, even if every rib in the cage subluxes.

This is something important I’ve learned: 90% of transition is internal. People gauge transition by how a person presents.  But gender presentation is just the tip of a very large iceberg. The binder is important to me — more important now than ever. But it is an external symbol of the real transition, the tilting of my internal landscape that sets me to re-exploring previously familiar territory, rendered unrecognizable by my new perspectives.

While I am at a point where my emotional and energetic comfort has become more important than my physical comfort, let me close with some discussion of sensory needs all the same.

I tried using the classic style of binder — the sort one pulls on over one’s head or steps into and slides up. I tried and I just couldn’t do it. I felt too claustrophic. I couldn’t get into most I tried. The one I did manage to make my way inside caused a panic attack when I tried to remove it. I felt like I was having a heart attack. I felt like I was dying. I cut it off with bandage scissors.

I bind with this now: Underworks Men’s Extreme Gynecomastia Pre-Surgical Post-Surgical Chest Binder Vest. It’s a medical binder, it’s long, and it fastens up the front with hooks and eyes. I hook all the eyes, doing my best to get the chest (H cup) to tuck down into my armpits. I get especially good results when I can lay flat on my back and arrange the chest before hooking the eyes. I think of the hooks as being very manly, by virtue of the fact that they were patented by Mark Twain, an icon of genteel masculinity.

If you have a hard time with slip-on binders, give a hook-and-eye binder a try. I’m not affiliated with Underworks and I get no kickback from this. I’m just sharing what’s working for me. The binder is long and I could use it for tummy control as well, but I have lots of digestive problems and the restriction could harm me. Instead, I fold the bottom half of my binder up over my chest, creating a double-layer of binding. Yes, I know. I’m not supposed to wear two binders at once. I fudge that rule all the time by folding up the bottom of my long binder.

I’ll leave you with this link about binding a very large chest. May your binding adventures be safe and personally enriching. So long as you are observing safety rules, there’s no right or wrong way to bind. I wasted so much time second-guessing myself because of earlier mixed feelings about binding.  You do what you need and don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right or are “trans enough.”

Struggling with the physical discomfort of re-shaping a body does not automatically make you less trans. You are who you know yourself to be.  Your body is just one piece of that equation. Honor your body’s needs, but don’t let the horse become the rider. What makes you “trans enough” is something that is much deeper than your skin.  You bind (or not!) the way you need to do it, in the amount you need, at the times you need. Don’t let anyone get away with judging your choice to bind or not bind.

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