7 Things You Should Know Before Buying Your First Chest Binder

For many transgender men and gender nonconforming individuals, chest binding can be an essential part of getting dressed in the morning. Whether for personal preferences, body dysphoria, or a sheer desire to fit men's clothing better, binders are excellent for flattening the chest to create a more conventionally masculine silhouette. It's a silhouette that has the power to give many people, myself included, a boost of confidence, while bringing some of us a step closer to being our most authentic selves. Although getting your first binder can be a fun and transformative experience, stopping to consider what's best for you and your body is crucial before taking the plunge into body positive binding.

While it can be magical, binding (if done improperly) has the potential to hurt you, both short and long term. Using tape and certain types of bandages can quickly become a health hazard with the potential to "cause scarring to your skin, hurt your mobility, and [...] cause [...] fluid build-up in lungs or even broken ribs," according to news and entertainment site AutoStraddle.

I spoke to Zil Goldstein, a nurse practitioner at the Center For Transgender Medicine And Surgery at Mount Sinai, who tells me, "The risks from binding are back pain, skin issues, and it restricts people's breathing. People have pain and postural issues from binding and the thing that is best for avoiding that or minimizing that is to limit the number of hours per day that you bind."

In addition to taking careful precautions with your own binding, it's also useful to know that more fashionable options are out there. Your chest binder doesn't have to be boring or skin-toned (although there's nothing wrong with that). It can be just as much of an accessory as your favorite choker, and just as fun-looking as the rest of your clothes.

Here are some important things to be aware of before shopping for your chest binder.

1. It's Better Not To DIY

As a broke college student, doing things myself with the few resources I have is often the most practical way to live if I still want to afford almond butter from Whole Foods at the end of the week. But when it comes to binding your chest, it's usually best not to cut corners.

According to AutoStraddle, using things like Ace bandages or even duct tape is not only incredibly uncomfortable, but has the potential to be life-threatening.

Based on what Goldstein has seen, however, store-bought binders, DIY binders, and duct tape or bandages can yield extremely similar results (with the exception of tape causing more skin issues than bandages and binders). "There's probably not much of a difference besides ease of use," she tells me. "That's the big advantage with commercial binders because it's impossible to wrap an Ace bandage around yourself."

From my experience, store-bought binders are ultimately easier and also prevent you from binding too tightly. They aren't always cheap, but there are plenty of affordable options on eBay. If money is tight, you can receive a donated chest binder (as well as donate your old ones) through sites like MORF.

2. Measure Yourself

When shopping for a binder, you'll need to know your chest measurements in order to determine what size binder you'll need (especially since every manufacturer makes slightly different sizes). As TransGuys.com advises, be sure to measure across the part of your chest that comes out the furthest, as well as the area right below your breasts (you will probably need both of these numbers as a reference for your binder shopping experience). Finding plus size options can often seem trickier in the chest binder world than in the rest of the sartorial one, but some retailers like Les Love Boat offer sizes up to 5XL.

Finding the right size binder is crucial for both your health and comfort. Binders are already tight, so don't opt for a smaller size just because you think it will be more effective in concealing your breasts.

"If someone is wearing a binder that is one or two sizes too small, which people commonly do, they're going to be more likely to have problems," Goldstein adds. This includes the aforementioned issues, like back pain and breathing problems.

If after purchasing, you find the binder to feel too tight or restrictive to your breathing, listen to your body and please take it off. According to TransGuys, you should be able to take deep breaths in your binder without difficulty.

3. Don't Wear It For Too Long

According to alternative lifestyle site Qwear, you should be binding for no more than eight to 10 hours a day and should definitely be taking it off before bedtime. "Once you do remove your binder," wrote Qwear blogger Logan, "Cough hard a few times to loosen any fluid that has built up in your lungs. This is very effective." I've found that ending the day with some deep breathing exercises can also help my body restore itself after being bound all day long.

If this is your first binder, wearing it might take some getting used to. If you experience itchiness, back pain, or general discomfort, feel free to take it off, even if it's only for a few minutes. Once again, the rule of thumb is to always listen to your body.

4. Know Your Options... And Anticipate Bumps In The Road

From my experiences, binders normally come in two styles: short tri-tops (which reach right below the breasts) and full length (which extend over the tummy). There are also strapless options, which may seem appealing to those who prefer strappy and sleeveless tops. However, I've heard from countless trans friends that because of the lack of support straps offer, using strapless binders can increase the risk of scarring or aching in the same way an Ace bandage might.

However, Goldstein doesn't believe there's much of a difference between straps and strapless regarding safety. "There are two ways you can wear a binder," she tells me. "You can wear a binder that pushes everything upwards, or you can wear one that pushes everything downwards. The downwards direction tends to be more effective in creating a flat chest." The strapless option would probably push the breasts down, with consequences that are only different from pushing upwards because of the effect on your skin. "The support issue is mostly a question of stretch marks, and most people don't really care about that," Goldstein says.

You can purchase binders through online vendors like F2MBinders and Underworks (the latter also offers binder swimsuits!). Sometimes, you can even find them in your local sex shop (the first binder I ever laid eyes on was at Babeland).

Regardless, binders certainly have the potential to be very painful. If that is the case for you, and you've already sorted out any potential sizing issues, don't simply suffer through it. Body dysphoria is terrible, but there are other ways to bind that might be more comfortable for you, like with compression bras.

5. Consider Binding With Sports And Compression Bras

Adidas 3-Stripes Racer-Back Bra , $30-$50, Amazon

If you're a bit worried about the risk involved with a chest binder, or want to slowly graduate into life with a flatter chest, sports bras and compression bras are totally viable alternatives. Check out Champion's PowerSleek Sports Bra, recommended by AutoStraddle. I personally love Adidas' high support sports bras. The greater support and the smoother the look, the better.

Champion's PowerSleek Sports Bra , $42, Amazon

Binders aren't often conducive to exercise, so switching into a sports or compression bra while you work out is essential. Plus, you don't want to sweat anymore in your binder than you already do. Which brings me to my next point...

6. Keep It Clean

Chest binders are not cheap, so take care to keep yours clean and in good condition. Wash it regularly to prevent any itchiness or rashes, especially during the warmer months. Since binders are made mostly of elastic, hot water and machine drying aren't usually the best cleaning options. Wash your chest binder in cold water on a delicate cycle, or hand wash it with detergent and warm water. Hanging your binder is the best choice, for both drying and storing purposes. The latter should help maintain its shape.

7. Check Out Chest Binders With Fun Patterns

Galaxy Binder, $50, shapeshiftersinc.storeenvy.com

Online shop Shapeshifters has the most fun selection of chest binders hands down, including ones decked out in mermaid scales and galaxy prints. Liven up your outfits with these adorable binders, via prints and colors that are anything but ordinary.

While getting a chest binder can be one of the most body positive things you'll ever do, remember that your health and comfort come first. If your binder doesn't fit right, or you find that using binders is too painful for you in general, it's OK. Body positivity is a process, and if you stay determined and in tune with your body's needs, you will find what is best for you.

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Images: Courtesy Brands