This article was reviewed by Courtney Rawls (they/them), MSN, FNP-C, WHNP-BC
What is chest binding and who is it for?
Chest binding is a process of compressing breast tissue to affirm one's own sense of gender. Binding helps a person feel more comfortable in their body by creating the appearance of a flatter chest. This can be a good option for people who aren’t able to get (or don’t want) top surgery but want to alleviate feelings of gender dysphoria. Most of us have seen the numerous movies and TV shows where an androgynous or more masculine-presenting person has bound their chest with ace bandages, duct tape, or plastic wrap.
The binding that is often portrayed on TV and in movies doesn’t usually model healthy binding techniques. Binding using ace bandages, duct tape, or plastic wrap can be dangerous and harmful to your body. These materials are meant to constrict and constrain, which can restrict both movement and breathing or even cut into your skin and break ribs. There are many other methods to bind your chest and compress breast tissue including compression tops, sports bras, strategic layering, binders, and other elastic materials. There are even safer binding tapes available, specifically made for people to bind their chests with, however, they use specific materials that are safe for chest binding.
For this article, we are going to be using anatomical language to refer to body parts, but we celebrate any words you use to self-identify. The language we use for our bodies matters, just like how we ask others to touch and experience our bodies, and respecting this is a part of healthy and active consent.
Why do some people bind their chests?
Chest binding allows a person’s breasts to be less visible through clothing such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other tops. Binding is for anyone who wants their chest to appear flatter or less visible for a more masculine or non-binary appearing look. Some people bind daily whereas others only do it for special occasions or safety reasons. Being visibility trans or gender non-conforming can lead to unwanted interactions, harassment, or even violence. Some people choose to bind to minimize the likelihood of encountering these types of situations.
You should also know that dysphoria is not a prerequisite for binding. Binding is for you if you haven’t had top surgery or don’t want to get top surgery, but want a flatter-appearing chest. Anyone can bind regardless of their gender identity.
Transgender men, trans masculine people, non-binary people, butch women, and other gender-nonconforming people all bind. Many drag kings and drag performers may also choose to bind their chest while performing, but not as an everyday thing. Just remember, chest binding is a personal choice and it doesn’t make you any more or less masculine. Many masculine of center people don’t feel the need or desire to bind their chests and this doesn’t make them any less trans or valid in their gender identity.
What are the best ways to bind your chest?
If you are able to purchase a binder, these are the options that offer the most compression for your chest. There are companies such as GC2B, Urbody, and For Them (for bigger bodies) that specifically make binders for transmasculine people, transgender men, and gender non-conforming people. There are also other alternative chest binder brands that aren’t specifically designed for trans bodies such as Underworks which can be purchased directly or through FtMEssentials (for those of us who remember when this was the only brand on the market!)
When buying a binder, it’s important to buy the right size. Binders are already designed to be tight, so buying the right size is key for comfort and long-term use. Make sure that you check out the sizing guide of the website that you are buying from and, if possible, get a friend to help take your measurements. If you are in your first six months of starting testosterone HRT or planning to start soon, make sure that you buy the right size to accommodate any incremental weight gain or loss that might come with T.
You might find that your binder rolls up in certain areas, particularly around the waist. If this is a problem, you can sew an extra piece of fabric all the way around the bottom of the binder, and tuck that extra material into your pants.
For people who can’t afford or safely get a binder, Point of Pride provides free chest binders to any trans person in need. Sponsored by GC2B, this program has donated thousands of binders to trans youth and adults in 50+ countries. The only requirements needed to receive one of these binders are to identify as transgender (a trans man, FTM, non-binary, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, etc.) and to ensure that you don’t have the means to obtain one yourself.
How can you bind your chest without a binder?
If binders feel too restrictive for you, or you live in a climate with high heat or humidity, you might want to try other options. TransTape is a body-safe tape that is waterproof and backless, specifically designed with trans bodies in mind. TransTape is similar to KT (Kinesiology) Tape, which can be used to tape the chest down. It’s important to note that this tape should not be wrapped around the body. It’s important for the tape to be rubbed vigorously upon application to activate the skin to adhesive bond. Note that this might not be as effective for folks with larger chests.
Layering shirts is also an easy and cost-effective way to flatten your chest. Wear a tighter-fitting shirt as your base layer and continue to layer looser shirts on top. A button-up or (flannel shirt in the winter) is a good option for a final layer. While layering shirts can be less restrictive, it can also mean more heat or sweating. Try to incorporate moisture-wicking fabric to reduce sweating if this becomes an issue for you. You can also always wear more loose-fitting clothing such as hoodies, oversized shirts, or button-ups and flannels during colder months to conceal your chest.
Sports bras are also a good option for flattening your chest that also won’t restrict your movement much. You can wear one shirt or a few shirts over a sports bra to flatten the chest. There are many different options for sports bras, but the ones with higher Lycra content typically compress the chest better. You can also look for athletic compression shirts, which are usually made out of Lycra or Spandex and used to aid in muscle recovery. This option will typically work for people who have less breast tissue or smaller-sized chests. If you have a larger chest, this might still work for you as an option but note that it won’t offer as much compression as a binder or tape such as TransTape or KT Tape.
Is chest binding safe?
There are some health concerns and side effects related to binding, but luckily all of these can be managed with the appropriate methods and techniques so that you can stay safe and comfortable when binding your chest. There are important precautions and safety measures that you can take while binding to minimize risk and discomfort.
The most common possible health concerns associated with binding are back pain, restricted breathing, and movement, muscle soreness, skin irritation, rashes or chafing in the armpits, dehydration, overheating, and possible back pain. While there haven’t been many studies done on the long-term effects of chest binding for transgender people, we’ve gathered what we know from the medical perspective and the knowledge and experiences of our community to help you bind safely.
- Limit the amount of time you bind your chest: Try to bind for no more than 8 hours consecutively, if possible. If this isn’t possible, try not to wear your binder for more than 12 hours. Don’t wear your binder while you sleep or when you work out. If you have dysphoria at night, try layering t-shirts or wearing an A-tank under your shirt while you sleep.
If you can, try to schedule breaks throughout the day where you can take off your binder and let your body rest. Try to set your binder aside for one or two days a week if you can. If you’re new to binding, start with binding your chest a few hours a day at first to get used to it.
- Avoid ace bandages, duct tape, plastic wrap or any other materials not designed for binding: Remember to stay away from these binding methods, as they restrict movement and oxygen intake. Binding with any of these materials can lead to damage in chest tissue over a period of time and injury such as broken ribs. If you do tape, make sure to use TransTape or KT Tape.
- Choose the right binder size: Again, sizing-down is the quickest way to cause health issues when binding. Make sure that you check out the return policy of any company that you might purchase your binder from. It’s important to buy the appropriate size binder for your body so that you can stay safe and bound at the same time. A binder should allow you to breathe normally and without restriction or back pain.
- Air everything out: Sweating underneath binders is nearly unavoidable, but it can cause skin rashes or even infections without proper ventilation. Tight materials that don’t allow air to flow freely can create warm, moist environments for bacteria and fungal skin infections to develop. Make sure that you regularly wash and air dry your binder between uses, or try wearing a thin undershirt or body powder such as Gold-Bond underneath to prevent chafing and irritation. Make sure to lay your binder flat between uses.
- Make sure to stretch and practice breathing exercises while not binding: It’s important to stretch out the body if you are binding regularly to open up the chest and release tension in the upper back and shoulder area. There are many different exercises to help, including this chest opener stretch (if you have access to a foam roller), the doorway pec stretch, a pec self-massage using a tennis or lacrosse ball, or any of these thoracic spine stretches. These are also great stretches for people who used to bind but no longer do or have ever lived with chest dysphoria, as the body can often hold tension in these areas for many years after.
You can also practice a number of deep breathing exercises throughout the day. If you continue to have ongoing pain, discomfort, or difficulty breathing when binding, please talk to your healthcare provider. Ana María Agüero Jahannes, a bodyworker of Wild Seed Wellness has created a guide specifically for trans folks who bind.
Are you ready to get started with FOLX? Go here to start the estrogen HRT process and go here to start the testosterone HRT processes. Existing FOLX members with questions about binding can message with their clinician. For non-members with remaining questions, reach out to us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.