What is chest binding and is it dangerous?

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What is chest binding and is it dangerous?

A series of dramatic black and white photos have put breast binding in the public spotlight. British actor Emma Corrin, known for playing Princess Diana on the popular series The Crown, shared the Instagram photos of their chest bound with “boxing tape.” Breast or chest binding is a method of flattening the chest by compressing it with bandages, tape, or specially designed clothing. Corrin commented that the photo shoot was done “before I bought my first binder”.

Breast binding is not a new or uncommon phenomenon, as any Google search will demonstrate, though Corrin’s photos may have brought the practice to the attention of some who were not familiar with it. However, there are many historical precedents. For example, Joan of Arc may have done it, as did Deborah Sampson, who famously took on a male identity to fight as a soldier in the American Revolution. According to a 1797 biography of Sampson, The Female Review by Hermann Mann: “She wore a bandage about her breasts, during her disguise... this bandage served to compress the bosom.”

Flappers of the 1920s bound their chests to achieve the flat-chested long lines of the era’s fashion. Women of that time often wore brassieres and bandeaux that were specifically designed to compress the breasts. There were even rubber brassieres marketed for women who wanted to reduce their breast size through perspiration loss; instead, they got discomfort, rashes, and sores.

According to bra historian Lori Smith: “The main difference between the flattening brassieres of the 1920s and a 2020s binder is that the former was mainly worn to conform to the fashionable body ideal of the time, and the latter is used by the wearer to better conform to their own personal body ideal, most often with regard to gender.”

Though fashion is one reason why individuals bind their breasts, there are also medical reasons for breast binding, such as to suppress lactation or to aid in healing after surgery. Other conditions, such as gynecomastia, enlarged breasts in men, presents another reason why some bind their chests. Men with gynecomastia are often ridiculed and they may wear undergarments such as compression shirts to flatten their chests. 

In the case of non-binary fashion model Rain Dove, who models both men and women’s clothing, binding was a means for their body to appear more masculine for the fashion industry.

a person lying on a bed: Emma Corrin - Instagram @emmalouisecorrin

However, Dove has written about using materials such as duct tape and Ace bandages, resulting in injuries and even in one instance causing them to pass out. In a 2019 Instagram post, which you can read below, Dove shared an exchange with a parent who was furious about her child wanting a binder. Dove calmly explained that having a professional binder could help to keep her child safe. They then expressed admiration for the mother because her child felt they could ask for a binder.

Some children do not feel that they can talk to their parents about their bodies or gender identity. They usually learn about binding from online sources and YouTube videos. One New Jersey teacher said that some trans or gender fluid students sometimes bind in the school bathroom because their parents don’t know. This also means that “sometimes they’re not using legit medical binders since they can’t purchase them without parents knowing”.

Dr Sarah Peitzmeier, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, concurs. “Research has found that teens whose parents do not support their binding or gender identity often have to resort to less-safe binding methods such as wrapping with Ace bandages or duct tape, because those are the only methods they can obtain without help from a parent.”

Jessica Jones of Spectrum Outfitters, a trans-owned chest binder company based in the UK, said: “The whole reason the company was started was because our founder, Jack Jones, could not find affordable and safe chest binding products in the UK.” The company is pleased that Corrin recommended them, but also noted that “in the last year we’ve seen a huge increase in orders” from a wide range of people, not only celebrities and not all who identify as LGBTQ+ or who may or may not “experience body/gender dysmorphia”.

Trans and nonbinary people bind for reasons including gender affirmation, the reduction of dysphoria and to feel safe in public. Research and anecdotal accounts report that binding reduces anxiety and depression. “For many transmasculine people, it’s binding or suicide,” 17-year-old Raphael Sanche told The New York Times.

Most medical professionals state that the psychological benefits of binding outweigh the risks, which may include chest or back pain, overheating, rashes, and shortness of breath.

Dr Peitzmeier says that pain and discomfort is common. “More severe symptoms from binding are rare, typically take many years to develop and are not inherent to the practice, but instead are significantly exacerbated by lack of information, lack of social support and lack of access to gender-affirming health care experienced by many transgender and nonbinary people.”

The nearly universal advice for binding is to use a proper binder, rather than do-it-yourself methods that can cause injuries, to get the correct size (not too small), and not to wear multiple binders. Binders should not be worn too long or often (most say no more than eight hours per day). 

Dr Peitzmeier suggests that those who bind “articulate your goals or motivations for binding and bind just enough to achieve those goals”. 

Reference: The TelegrapH: Merril Smith 

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