For two years, between the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2021, the top drawer of my dresser was haunted.
The ghost of my flat-chested self, who bought their first binder five years ago and experienced a nonbinary euphoria that I’d previously thought only existed in Tumblr posts, spent season after season in that cramped, dark drawer. The ghost was anchored to my binders, which lived in a little cloth organizer, safely separated out from sports bras and the very rarely visited special occasion bras.
I put my binders away a week after I got a positive pregnancy test, when my chest went from “occasional cause of dysphoria but more often just a part of my body that messes with the line of my shirts” to “place full of swollen, miserable pain that reacts to pressure with crocodile tears on the train.” My doctor, when I brought that up at a prenatal appointment, said that wearing a binder during pregnancy probably wasn’t ideal anyway, so, with some regret, I tucked them into my drawer and switched to sports bras and, later, nursing bras through the end of my pregnancy.
My intention was always to go back to my binders as soon as I was done nursing my son. But the longer I waited, and the longer they sat there in my drawer, tucked in with my socks and underwear, the more they became less a sense of self that waited to be reclaimed and more a lurking, almost ominous presence that filled me with anxiety every time I thought about going to put one on. The more my anxiety swelled, the more it felt like putting a binder back on represented a huge, terrifying barrier–a million miles from what was once just the simple act of getting dressed.
I missed that simplicity. And everything that it represented.
I bought my first binder in 2016, about three weeks after I came out to my partner as nonbinary. Queerness had been a known quantity in our relationship since we got together in college, but gender, for the most part, had always been taken for granted. The sailing of that coming-out wasn’t perfectly smooth, but the boat made it through more or less intact, and he measured me for my first binder with the relative comfort of someone who, if not totally grasping the concept of why binding was important to me, at least had a secure handle on how to take an accurate shoulder measurement.
When my GC2B package finally arrived and I wiggled my way into the binder for the first time and then tossed a henley and a flannel over it–it was fall, so obviously it was henley-and-flannel season, as opposed to summer, which would be Hawaiian-dad-shirt season, and to this day I am stunned that no one saw this gender awakening coming–I felt, despite the unfamiliar pressure around my chest, a sudden swell of air inside me, like the first inhale after spending too long underwater.
I never wore a binder daily–usually three or four days out of a given week–but I loved having the choice. With my particular fat, ample-chested body, I was never going to really pull of the androgynous aesthetic perfectly, but it was still gave me a feeling of control of my presentation that made me feel safer and more comfortable in my skin than I had since before puberty. When I had to stop binding earlier in my pregnancy than I expected, it felt like losing yet another piece, in an already-dwindling pile of pieces, of control over my body and the way my gender was perceived. I had already–and with great joy, though I’m sure it doesn’t sound like it; I was excited by this much-awaited pregnancy–resigned myself to a default of feminine language, to strangers touching my body and mentally writing woman all over it, to the pastel-pink walls of my OB-GYN’s office and vaginal ultrasounds and the truly horrific process of finding pregnancy clothes that weren’t covered in ruffles.
Giving up the freedom of how I presented my chest, so much earlier than I thought I’d have to, just felt like a kick to the metaphorical nuts.
I’ve never been able to determine if giving up binding so early in my pregnancy was made better or worse by my desire to breastfeed my potential kids. Even before my understanding of my gender identity was a twinkle in my eye, I’d put off the idea of breast reduction surgery on my back-breaking chest because nursing was something I wanted to experience, even when I researched it as an adult and found that having a reduction wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for breastfeeding. And when I eventually had a traumatic birth experience and had to struggle to even establish breastfeeding, spending hour after hour strapped to my pump while we worked with my son and his tongue-tie and our lactation consultant, nursing went from a wouldn’t that be nice to something I almost needed. I needed, very desperately, for one thing about this process of pregnancy and birth and feeding to feel like it was going to happen the way I wanted it to. And since pregnancy and birth didn’t do it, well, nursing it was.
The first time my son properly latched and took a full feeding at my chest–no supplemental pumped milk in a bottle, no nipple shield, just my body and his–I had an absolute sobbing breakdown. Granted, it was after a month of chronic exhaustion and an overwhelming swell of hormones, but I think that it was mostly just the feeling of relief. That I’d finally gotten something right.
I nursed for over a year, and, to my surprise, had the best relationship with my breasts in that time that I can honestly remember. I wore a bra nonstop, even to sleep–pour one out to the geniuses over at Kindred Bravely, I owe those people my life and my sanity–but always thought, at least in the back of my mind, that as soon as my son stopped nursing and my chest was no longer communal property, I’d dig my binders out of my drawer and get back to feeling like myself.
Only my son weaned himself in February, just before hitting the fourteen-month mark, and I didn’t, in fact, take my binders out of the drawer. Instead, I started coming up with reasons not to. The pandemic! The weather! My pre-existing back pain! The humidity in my house! The weird tendency my skin had developed to become incredibly sensitive to pressure for seemingly no reason at all! (Yeah, that was cool. Loved that. Thanks, pregnancy!)
And my binders lurked, and lurked, and lurked.
The realization that the uncertainty I was feeling was about my own perceptions of what it means to be nonbinary than anything else came slowly, with no real lightbulb moment. What I had mistaken for anxiety about the act of pulling a binder over my head for the first time in two years was really about having gotten to a place where I’d convinced myself that by getting to a place of comfort with my unbound chest, I’d somehow forfeited my right to nonbinary identity. And despite the community rallying cry that nonbinary people don’t owe the world androgyny, pushing past what I can now recognize as basically nonbinary imposter syndrome was a lot.
And weirdly, it was my son who pushed me past it, when he used his newfound height–height! On a toddler! Horrific!–to open my haunted drawer and proceeded to cheerfully toss things out as he found them. Three mismatched, partnerless socks. A pair of polka-dot boxer briefs. And then, standing on his tiptoes, he reached in and pulled out a binder. He held it up to me and gave me the world’s biggest smile when I took it from him. He declared, very cheerfully, “Yay!” and resumed systematically throwing my socks on the floor while I held a universe of gender identity symbolism in my hands.
A few hours later, after I put the baby down for a nap and went to clean up the carnage of my underwear drawer, I picked up the binder again. On a whim, I pulled it over my head, and muscle memory kicked in with the familiar motions of squirming my breasts into place. And suddenly it wasn’t a universe anymore. It was just a piece of clothing, nylon and spandex and cotton, stretchy and worn to softness.
But the sensation was the same, as simple and meaningful as it was the first time. A filling of the lungs. Not something to be deserved or earned with a certain number of ticks in the nonbinary presentation column. But comfort and pressure and warmth. Like a chubby-armed toddler hug. Like a breath of air.