These May Look Like Normal Shirts — But for Trans People, They Can Be Life-Changing
When Jessie Anderson was 13 years old, he started wrapping his chest in Tensor elastic bandages, holding tight so his breasts would be as flat as possible. It was all he knew from watching movies like Boys Don't Cry. But after more than a year of wrapping, Anderson found a safer, more effective solution online: chest binders.
Binders are elastic garments that look like tight shirts or tank tops, and they're commonly used to compress breast tissue for people seeking to minimize their chests. For many men transitioning from female to male, like Anderson, binders offer a "trial run" to see what not having boobs feels like.
"A binder is a completely discreet thing to have, and if you don't like it, you take it off," Anderson, who is the owner of Big Bro's Barbershop, a transgender-friendly barbershop in Vancouver, told Mic.
Anderson ended up wearing binders for 10 years before surgically removing his breast tissue, and he's not alone. Even as trans and gender non-conforming people gain visibility thanks to glamorous icons, the mundane yet crucial, and even painful, experiences many transgender people face — including finding the proper clothes — remain challenges faced behind closed doors.
And finding the right binder can actually be a life-saver.
The need for binders is very real. The binder industry is a fairly new one. In fact, the leading company that produces them, which itself has only been around since 1997, didn't even make them for trans or gender nonconforming purposes at first.
Underworks began as a company specializing in post-operational compression undergarments. But within the company's first two years of operation, the transgender community came to them.
"The internet changed everything," Underworks founder and CEO Nash Abi told Mic. "I had created some of these garments for the male breast, so I would get people calling and saying 'What you're doing is making them look more masculine, and that's what I want to look like.'"
"Trans people found it and were like 'Hellooo,'" Anderson added. "The idea of creating trans products was so new."
"I was already a manufacturer," said Abi, whose company now carries a variety of compression items including vests and swimwear. "I already had my sewing machine. It was perfect because I would design something, and they'd tell me what they needed. I was a little surprised at how much compression was necessary to get to where they wanted, because the passing game was very serious."
The "passing game" isn't a game so much as a matter of survival. "Passing," as it's known, is critical for people who are transitioning in areas that are hostile towards people not living according to their assigned gender.
According to the Anti-Violence Project, transgender people are seven times more likely to experience violence from law enforcement. In 2013, 72% of the victims of hate violence homicides in the United States were transgender women; just this year, at least 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S.
It was these kinds of safety threats that motivated trans shoppers to reach out to Underworks around 1999, Abi said.
One of the other reasons binders are so critical has to do with feeling comfortable in one's own skin. Many trans individuals attest to looking down at the bodies they have and feeling a disconnect, thinking that something that is there shouldn't be — dysphoria.
"If you are a trans guy who's on [testosterone], having boobs isn't necessarily advantageous." Anderson told Mic. "For me, dysphoria was hugely related to this physical thing that moves whenever you move."
That feeling isn't limited to trans individuals. Anderson's colleague at Big Bro's Barbershop, tattoo artist Ciara Gunn, told Mic that plenty of cis women have shown interest in the binders at their shop.
"I think that chest dysphoria is a lot more common in women than we know," Gunn, who used to wear binders, said. Think push-up bras, but in the reverse. "We've had much, much older cis-presented women come in [to Big Bro's] and buy their first binder. So it really helps. It appeals to a very wide demographic."
But binders aren't easy to come by — or wear. When worn incorrectly, binders can be incredibly unsafe. By literally compressing one's chest, binders can stagnate breathing or make the wearer uncomfortably hot.
"I essentially liken binding to drinking a can of Coke," Anderson told Mic. "Is it good for you? No, but you're going to do it anyway."
Dane Menkin, a nurse practitioner and clinician at the Mazzoni Center for LGBT health, told BuzzFeed that common issues include skin irritation, acne flareups and increased problems for people with asthma. The edges of the binder shouldn't — though can — cause redness or bleeding, and people shouldn't necessarily exercise or travel long distances in them.
"They're not for everyone," Gunn added. "For me, it just didn't work. I was working in kitchens with high levels of exhaustion, dizzy spells and headaches. My partner dislocated their ribs."
That why where someone buys binders can be just as important as what they buy. Places like Big Bro's Barbershop (which also sells packers, phallus-like devices that create a realistic bulge; STPs, devices that allow the user to stand to pee; and gaff underwear, which tuck and conceal genitalia) offer fittings that take breathing and comfort into account in a safe environment.
"It's about asking, 'How are you breathing, can you move your arms?'" Anderson said. "And encouraging people to think about the fact that it's going to get worse. When you're out, you might get stuck not being able to breathe anymore."
That's the aim of a new gender-fluid lingerie store and queer resource center, All is Fair in Love and Wear, which is set to open in January in Kansas City, Mo. Founder Peregrine Honig, who launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for a new line of binders earlier this year, said the goal is to create an accepting, comforting atmosphere, with trans employees.
"It's this big, white space with warm lighting," Honig told Mic of her store, which sells binders and gaff underwear. "Even the floor is painted like a swimming pool, which is usually a highly ungendered and calming experience for people. It holds a lot of good memories."
Online, Underworks offers live support for people who are either interested in or in the process of buying one. And sites like Tumblr and Reddit are where people can connect over firsthand experiences, with one Tumblr checking to make sure everyone is breathing correctly in their binder, every hour.
Beyond the difficulty in wearing and comfortably buying a binder, there's the problem of cost. For a group of consumers that already tends to be poor and young, binders are pricey: Relatively run-of-the-mill binders can easily be upwards of $60 to $100 online.
Underworks sells compression shirts for around $30, but also makes a point to donate products or sell them wholesale to clinics and trans resource centers so people can access them for cheaper. So far, Underworks has donated more than 5,000 binders.
"I think that for these kids, when they transition, it's usually a time in their life when they can't afford much," Underworks' Abi told Mic. "We donate to organizations that they can go into and not have to worry about it."
Can a much-needed garment get... stylish? Binders, like so many other matters of transgender rights and equality, have a long way to go. Next up will be, thankfully, style.
"On a completely abstract level I think they need more designs," Anderson said. "I've seen things that are galaxy print and cat print. I have a shirt that's supposed to look like a T-shirt."
Recently, the company FLAVNT Streetwear, which specializes in LGBTQ clothing, launched a Kickstarter campaign for binding swim tops, offering them in shades other than white, black and beige, and styles like racerbacks.
"A lot of [binders] are really bulky or cover your entire torso," FLAVNT co-owner Chris Rhodes told Mic. "As a trans masculine man, I like to be in the water and in the sun so I was like, 'Why don't we make a top that does bind but lets you be as shirtless as possible?'"
Rhodes, who's been binding for two and a half years, partnered with his sister Courtney on a line of swim binders that reached a Kickstarter $25,000 goal this year. They will reportedly begin manufacturing the swim binders, which they call the "bareskin top," which will retail for about $50, come spring 2016.
It's just one more company making strides. For many transgender people across the world, getting safe, affordable binders is just one more battle to fight. But with these innovations slowly coming, hopefully a time with better, safer options is right on the horizon.