I beg everyone to please watch Kat’s video above, especially her bravery and act of self-compassion at the end. http://destroyyourbinder.tumblr.com features a transcript and FAQ as well.
Like so many of these topics, binding is deeply personal. Perhaps there are some women out there who bind just because they personally like the look of a flatter chest – perhaps it works for them simply as a cosmetic device no different from a push-up bra. At very least, that’s what a person might think when encountering the marketing and promotion of binders. It’s all overwhelmingly positive, upbeat, empowering – like so many things sold to women to make them hide their natural selves.
I bought a binder from gc2b in late May of last year. I followed the cheerful and helpful instructions on their website for measuring myself and received a plain, satiny white garment in the mail a week or so later. It was cut like the top half of a tank-top, thin and slightly stretchy on the shoulders straps, thicker around the torso from a fabric that mystified me as it was not stretchy at all. I had been wearing sports bras, and to come across an undergarmet with no stretch at all was disconcerting in a weird way. I could not get it on for the life of me – almost literally, as I got so badly stuck I strained a shoulder muscle in a panic of never being able to free myself. Immediately I looked for return instructions and ended up emailing customer service. They couldn’t have been nicer, more eager to please, more understanding, more positive. A week later another, larger binder came in the mail.
I took it up to the bathroom, took some “before” photos of myself in my sports bra and t-shirt, then took everything off and somehow squeezed myself into the binder.
I could just get it on by folding it up like a donut, squeezing my shoulders through the arm-holes, and then flipping the fold down over my breasts. It was exhausting. I thought there would be more pressure on my breasts but there wasn’t much, really. What I felt was a constriction around the middle of me, around my ribcage, a very strange sensation that kept me from being able to breathe deeply. Within a few minutes I got a bit of an ache in the center of my back. No big deal, though. Just something to get used to. I had read all the “How to bind safely” guides and knew what steps to take. Stretch, take deep breaths now and then, don’t wear it overnight. Easy.
My chest was flat. It’s not much to begin with but the binder did the job of making it convincingly flat. The funny thing was, I didn’t feel more like a man, looking at myself with my t-shirt back on. I felt like a woman who had lost her breasts somehow, from cancer or injury, and worried that’s how others would see me, too. No matter how much I had tried to convince myself I could have a male body if I identified as male, this binder seemed to prove otherwise. I had something to hide, after all – these irritatingly female parts – but I hoped the binder would transform them for others, and for myself, and convince me further I was being the person I needed to be.
I decided I would only wear it when I’d go out, when I’d be interacting with people and want to pass as male. Twice I wore it out to nice restaurants, and both times I smiled to myself as my mom and I weren’t greeted with “You ladies.” At one restaurant, the older waitress called me by male pronouns and commented on how I’d easily be able to eat the larger portion – something that used to make me incredibly uncomfortable as a woman who was aware, indeed, of just how much she could eat. Such things are so much more excusable, even notable, when you’re male. I remember giving my mom a smug smile. See, it’s working! This can work! At the second restaurant, an older couple was celebrating their anniversary and taking pictures in the garden; we offered to help so they could have one together. The older man passed me his camera and said, “The young man will know how to use that.” Again, having been self-conscious as a woman into tech and gadgets, everything seemed so much more “right” about being male. I could eat huge portions and be a an A/V expert just like I’d always been, but now I had a Social Pass.
I had a Social Pass in the form of a garment that was making my back hurt worse and worse the longer I wore it. I had a Social Pass in the form of a costume I worried about constantly – every moment, would someone see through my disguise, revealing me to be… what? The failed woman again? More a failure now than ever before, because look at the lengths she’s gone to only to fail at being something other than herself.
I’ve often read experiences about steps in transition increasing dysphoria. I can definitely say that for every step I took my anxiety increased tenfold. When my mother called me her “son” to the cheese lady at the grocery store, I thought I might crawl out of my skin. When I wore that binder out I was constantly on edge. Was it really cool to see myself with that flat chest, being read not as a woman but as a man by others? Yeah, it was great. Was it really cool to not hear myself called the disparaging “she” all the time? Yeah, it was fantastic. I was escaping the constrictions of misogyny with every little victory, and I crossed every mile-marker with my hands in the air and that same smug smile on my face. But the whole time I was running so hard and – literally, in that binder – I was breathless.
I have done some running. Several years ago in an effort to get fit (yet again) I downloaded the whole Couch-2-5k plan and went through it with dedication, finally one October day running a whole 3.1 miles down my road to the library and back. I kept up running for a while, too, feeling like I was really exercising, always collapsing in a heap afterwards and getting a migraine later. Eventually my right knee decided it was all too much and got really intent on telling me so, and I had to listen and stop pounding it on the roads. I did not want to become one of those people who end up lame from trying to be a runner.
I went back to walking instead. Around the corner from our house, a lonely little road goes through the woodlands, past a creek, back up a long hill to the baseball fields and finally to a small farm where they keep sheep and goats and a crowing rooster. Up until a year ago this road was dirt, and I have such fond memories of how dirt roads smell in summer, in winter, wet and dry, when cars pass and kick up clouds of dust, when rain falls and fills the air with petrichor. I’ve walked this road all my life and still walk it today, and when I walk it – even though I do try to keep up a quick pace for some cardio – I’m always breathing long and deep, looking at the trees, listening for birds, watching for the little red efts that try to cross the asphalt on damp mornings. I spread my arms to the breezes, talk back to the babbling of the creek through the culvert, wave to people walking their dogs, help lost folks with directions to the baseball fields. I stop and say hi to the goats and the sheep, even if they just stare back at me. I couldn’t do any of those things while I was running.
And sometimes, I find a snake run over in the middle of the road, still twisting in the sun. Sometimes I move a squashed salamander – once, an adult grouse killed by a car – to the cover of the weeds by the woods. Once, I found the last few inches of an orange cat’s tail, puffs of fur trailing for yards from the dark stain where the body had been, devastatingly sad. For over a year now, in a ditch off the shoulder, a garbage bag has covered a box-shaped object – far too many people throw out trash on this road. In the spring the snow melted and the bag was torn, revealing beneath blue plastic with a label on it describing a cat’s litter box. I have a terrible feeling someone, one day, dumped a litter of kittens there to die. I don’t dare go investigate. That would be a bit much, especially after so long – it can stand there forever like a tomb. But every time I walk by it’s a poignant memento-mori. Another thing I wouldn’t notice if I were running. Life is both beauty and pain.
At the end of her video, Kat cuts herself free. I was so moved by how she did it – how she was actually wearing the binder and literally (yes, literally) cut herself free. She could have held up her binder and cut it to pieces, perhaps in an act of violence against it (for myself, I shoved mine deep in the trash) but instead she cut herself free. She has slowed to a walk, she has taken in all that beauty and pain life puts before us, and she cut herself free to experience it completely.
If there is one thing we can do in this life it is to experience it completely, bravely and honestly and with all self-compassion, unbound.