WELCOME TO BRA WEEK! This week and next, the Autostraddle writers and some special guests will be giving you the scoop on over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders and otherwise-inclined chest-covering situations — fashion, history, feelings and so much more.
By Sonny Oram
Welcome to Binding 101! Whether you are considering binding for yourself, have been binding for years but want to learn more about binder brands and health, or want to prepare to support your friends and loved ones, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to include my own experiences with binding as well as a crowdsource of favorite brands, care tips, and health advice.
What is Breast Binding?
Breast Binding is the practice of using a tight undergarment to flatten your chest. People may bind if they have body dysphoria, if they like wearing men’s clothing and want it to fit better, if they are performing drag, if they want to pass as male, or for other reasons. People with all sorts of identities bind.
Ways not to bind:
- Duct tape/ packing tape/ any kind of tape
- Ace bandages (get it together, Amanda Bynes!)
It’s generally good to stay away from these practices because it can cause scarring to your skin, hurt your mobility, and can be the cause of fluid build-up in lungs or even broken ribs. Ace bandages actually get tighter every time they stretch (i.e. when you breath) and breathing is important, guys. Ace bandages can also easily come loose and have to be redone, and don’t hide very well under thin clothes.
If you end up using these methods once in a while — for a performance, for example — you’ll probably be fine. But if you are planning on binding more often, I recommend obtaining a real binder.
Try a few of the brands I’m about to recommend, as everyone’s body is different, and it can take time to find the right binder for you. Some people are sensitive to different types of materials, for example, if you find one brand itchy, another brand might be just fine. If you can, try borrowing one from a friend to try it on before you buy it.
Binders will be a little tighter at first, and stretch out after you wear them for a few days. When you try it on, it should feel tight, but not so tight that you can’t breathe. Try a few different shirts on over it to see whether you like the look of it, and take notes of how the seams show. You may also find that you prefer one brand for working out, and another brand for maximum flatness during the day.
Wearing flattening sports bras is a form of binding. In the long term they are safer for your lungs and ribs, but they won’t flatten as much as a real binder. Since I happen to have BINDERS OF QUEERS at my fingertips over at Qwear, I asked them which sports bras are the most effective at flattening your chest. People like:
- Under Armour Endure Sports Bra
- Champion Powersleek Sports Bra (Has a clasp so you can get a smaller size without having to pull it over your head)
- Fila Sport Seamless Performance Sports Bra (Will provide a smooth look under your shirt.)
Comment below with more brands you like.
There are several websites that sell binders intended to create as flat a look as possible. I’ve surveyed the queers, and their favorites are:
Les Love Boat: A shop based in Taiwan with many pullover, zipper, and velcro binders. They offer discreet packaging as well. They also make special binders for swimming, which absorb less chlorine! Queers across the board responded that Les Love Boat are superior in comfort to other binder brands and easier to put on and take off, but also noted that they don’t flatten as well as others. People especially recommend the High Performance Binder, and Air Max.
T-Kingdom: Another company based in Taiwan that ships across the world in only 10-15 days and carries a wide variety of compression tops. Most people gave positive reviews and like the 801. It fits smaller people with A or B cups best.
Underworks: Based out of Miami and carries reshaping undergarments, with a large section devoted to breast binders. People (including myself) prefer their Tri-top binder, noting that the full body binder bunches up too easily. They also carry a few binding swim suits. Unfortunately, shipping internationally with Underworks gets expensive. Reviews report that Underworks binders bind really well but are the less comfortable of the brands, and harder to get on and off. Some people report back and skin issues with them. People with larger chests complain that it can be quite painful, even causing the need for painkillers.
Tank Top Binders from Ebay: Many people mentioned tank top binders from Ebay to me for the first time. They are quite afforable ($8.99 + shipping) and they look excellent to be worn just as a tank top in the summer time. They also come in fun colors, with contrast sleeve rings. Qwear writer Courtney Stirn notes of her Tank Top Binder: “It’s honestly more comfortable than a sports bra. There isn’t any elastic and it’s very easy to get into (and out of) compared to my friends’ Underworks stuff. The only issue I’ve found with it is that the fabric doesn’t breathe as much as traditional athletic fabrics. It seems like it might ride up on some folks (because of the lack of elastic) but that hasn’t been a problem for me. It does seem to ride just a bit when I’m being more active or when it’s been worn repeatedly and getting more stretched out, but nothing major or uncomfortable. I’ve worn it for entire days, multiple in a row with no pain or strain and honestly I feel like I could sleep in it if I wanted.”
Most binders are made of elastic materials that can easily wear down if washed in hot water and put in the drier.
However, it’s still important to wash your binders regularly, especially in the warmer months, to get rid of all the sweat, germs, and oil that can transfer onto it from your skin. This will lessen the risk of rashes and itchiness.
Every binder website I listed includes washing and care details specific to their binders. But, this is generally what you can do:
You can either wash your binder on a delicates or gentle cycle, in cold or warm water with materials of similar weight. If your binder has clasps, close the clasps to prevent them from catching on other things.
Or you can handwash your binder in the sink with a little detergent and warm water. Rinse it thoroughly to make you sure get out all the soap, and then hang it to dry.
Hanging your binder is generally better than putting it in a drawer because it helps maintain its shape.
We often talk about the health risks in involved with binding, but we don’t always address the significant improvement it can have for our mental health, and thus our overall health. It would be irresponsible of me not to tell you that:
- Binding is not recommended during exercise, and a sports bra will provide easier breathing/ prevent lightheadedness
- Binding is not recommended at night, and you aren’t supposed to bind more than 10 hours a day
- Binding consistently for years at a time can cause damage to your skin and ribs
Though I personally am aware of all these facts, I still bind all day long and when I exercise, and even when I’m in my room alone, only taking it off to shower or sleep. The confidence, energy, comfort, and joy that I’ve grown to love in my life since I started binding outweighs any of the physical discomforts and health concerns it brings me. However, some people struggle with different types of physical issues around binding, and everyone should make the best choice for themselves. If you are feeling at all lightheaded as a result of binding, you should remove it and try a different size or brand. I used to have a binder from Underworks that was too small which I couldn’t wear for more than half an hour at a time without feeling lightheaded. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t supposed to be that tight. Now that I have the size up, I never have problems wearing it all day.
Binding for the first time can be scary, because you might be unsure about how people will react to your newly flattened chest. It can still be scary to imagine navigating those comments for the first time. If you are nervous about this, try preparing some answers in case these questions do come up. “I’d prefer not to discuss my undergarments,” will probably do the trick, but you could also take a lighter approach and ask them what kind of underwear they’re wearing.
We can have a lot of anxiety about binding because it’s not something people often talk about outside the queer community (how I would have loved for my mother to offer buying me a binder rather than a bra while I was growing up!), and there are many misconceptions about the identity you must have if you bind. Whatever your relationship is to your binder, just remember that you are normal.
Some people bind on certain days depending on what they’re wearing or what their feelings around their chest are on that day. Getting used to your new appearance can be scary at first. I was terrified when I tried on my first binder and thought it made me look too macho. But later on I tried it again and felt just right. Sometimes our initial reaction to a new appearance can be different than how we feel later on. Be gentle with yourself and take some time to explore your options.
Best of luck, and I’ll be sure to answer any questions you have in the comments!
More Binding Resources
- binders101.tumblr.com is a great blog that posts detailed binder reviews and answers questions
- transguys.com/features/chest-binding is a collection of information including details on measuring, and places to get used binders
- Bindinghealthproject.wordpress.com seeks to expand and contribute new information on the physical and mental health effects of binding. They are releasing their research findings in a month or two
Sonny Oram is the founder and editor-in-chief of Qwear fashion.com, a Boston-based style blog for queer women, trans* people, and the dappers who love them. For their work with Qwear, Sonny has been interviewed for Fashionista.com, Huffington Post Live and was featured in Go Magazine’s 2013 100 Women We Love, as well as in the Spanish magazine, MagLes.
Header by Rory Midhani