Chest binding is a common practice among those of us on the more masculine-presenting side of the trans spectrum, from binary FTM trans-folk to non-binary people and even some of our non-trans friends, binding is for anyone who wants to do it, no matter your identity.
It’s a fantastic way to minimize dysphoria, but staying safe while binding is extremely important, and the first step to binding safely is learning what isn’t safe.
Regardless of anything, your health needs to come first, and while binding can alleviate dysphoria, the health issues that can come along with taking unnecessary risks in your binding habits can have harmful negative effects. So, should you choose to bind, it’s important to do it in a way that is as safe and comfortable as possible.
What follows is a basic guide to the potential health risks of binding, and the most effective methods to minimize harm to yourself, as well as addressing one particular health myth that may hopefully ease some people’s worries about binding. Though, it’s worth saying that no matter the reason, you do not need to bind. It doesn’t make you any less trans and you are still valid, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
This guide is also by no means exhaustive, and some tips may not work for everyone. Binding is a practice where the individual needs to listen to their own body’s unique needs and act accordingly.
What Are the Effects of Binding?
Chest binding can have many positive effects. People feel better mentally and emotionally when they bind, it decreases gender dysphoria and anxiety symptoms, and it increases confidence and self-esteem. There are, however, a significant number of health risks, which is why it’s important to be as safe as possible and to take both the positive and the negative into account when you make decisions about your binding habits.
Binding can negatively affect your skin, muscles, and movement, especially over a longer period of time. Covering your skin tightly with material that doesn’t allow free-flowing air can make environments where bacteria can develop and cause issues like scarring, swelling, itching, and infections. It can cause pain in the chest, shoulders, back and abdomen, underlying problems like tissue and muscle damage can occur, and it can even cause respiratory problems or rib fractures.
Safe binding habits can minimize the risks of these negative side effects. It’s considered best practice to speak with your healthcare provider if you experience any symptoms of these effects – though, it may not always be possible for closeted people or those whose healthcare professionals may not be understanding. You’re entitled to safe and judgment-free healthcare, but there’s a significant disparity between the healthcare trans people need and what they often have access to or feel safe enough to ask for.
Can Binding Affect the Results of my Top Surgery?
Not binding safely can be detrimental to a person’s health, but there’s this idea that circulated around for a long time about binding in general being detrimental to the results of your top surgery.
This idea is heavily disputed. More research into both the effects of binding and more generally the healthcare needs of trans people is needed. Some trans mastectomy researchers think that long-term binding could cause a decrease in skin elasticity, which could make performing the mastectomy more complex. Ultimately, though, based on the research available, safe binding habits should not impact surgery results.
What if I can’t wear a Binder?
There are some people who aren’t able to bind for various reasons, either due to a pre-existing condition or a received one. Sometimes, binding is simply not an option – and that can be upsetting for many. If your body can’t handle binding, however, your body and health needs come first. If it hurts, stop. Pain is always an indicator that something is wrong. There are other ways of easing chest dysphoria without binding and risking your health – for example:
- Using an undershirt or a sports bra can offer some light compression without causing harm. For some smaller chested folks, a good sports bra can even be as effective as a binder, and it’s often a decent cheap alternative to binding, regardless of health.
- In the winter particularly, wearing a lot of layers can help with hiding the chest area, or wearing clothing that frames your body in a certain way can draw attention away from the chest.
Affirming your identity doesn’t just come from binding or hiding/disguising your chest area, either. Remember, social circles can play a big role and those you surround yourself with will help you far more than a piece of compressing material can.
So, How Do I Bind Safely?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are a few safety tips to get you started!
- Make sure to avoid binding when you work out. You need to breathe deeply and move freely when exercising, and you’re more likely to sweat.
- Limit the time you bind for. It’s usually recommended to not wear a binder for longer than 8 hours, and make sure you’re taking stretch breaks every few hours. Binding for too long can cause a lot of the negative symptoms associated with binding. Many of us have the urge to bind 24/7 because of the effects it has on our dysphoria and mental health, but your body’s physical needs are important as well.
- Don’t bind every single day. This can put too much strain on your body and binding every day makes you more likely to experience negative side effects.
- Do not sleep in your binder. Let your body rest while you rest.
- Never use duct-tape, plastic wrap, or bandages. These can all damage your skin or tighten as you move and can really hurt you. If possible, you should purchase your own binder made specifically for the task. You might be excited to start binding or you may not have the resources for a commercial binder, but it isn’t worth putting your health at risk. As said before, sports bras and layering shirts are your safest options. Alternatively, some organizations give away free binders to those who cannot afford them, such as Point of Pride.
- Don’t wear binders over other binders or sports bras. Never layer the more compressing techniques! You can really hurt your ribs and lungs. Try and remember that even cis men don’t have perfectly flat chests, and you don’t need to either.
- Don’t wear binders that are too small for you. This puts you at the same amount of risk as those who bind with bandages or duct tape. You’ll only be putting extra pressure on your back and ribs.
- Wearing a thin cotton shirt underneath your binder or using baby powder may not stop sweating, but they can really help with minimizing skin irritation! If you ever do get a rash or any kind of skin issue, make sure to treat it properly, which means washing the irritated area with antibacterial soap to keep it clean and help it heal faster, and not binding until you are healed! That would just make it worse.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your body is skipping binding, period. Especially in the hot summer months, if you’re just lounging around and not going out in public, or if you’re with a group of people who will affirm your gender regardless of your appearance.
There are many ways, some of which we have discussed, to skip binding and still manage to dress how you want and look good! If the dysphoria is too much, while understandable, please at least try and give yourself frequent breaks.