I declare a summertime détente: No longer shall I partake in the quirky-flamingo-or-pineapple-print-or-maybe-just-a-shitload-of-little-anchors short-sleeve button-down arms race. I can’t keep up. Until October rolls around, I’m exclusively wearing white undershirts. And while I’m choosing to frame my 24/7 white T-shirt policy as “A Style Choice” instead of “Being Lazy,” I’m also hyper-aware that there’s an undershirt-forward summer style much more powerful than my bum-ass James Dean impression: Binders as a shirt.
I invite you to run a quick Twitter search for the phrase “binder as a shirt,” or its equally powerful relative, “binder as a crop top.” Both searches result in dozens and dozens of pictures of trans, non-binary or otherwise gender-expansive people sporting chest binders as the central part of their ensemble. And while this isn’t an exclusively warm-weather phenomenon, the summertime definitely increases the frequency with which folks who regularly bind opt to shed their topmost layers in favor of displaying the minimum-effective amount of clothing required to appear in public.
For those who have made it this far in life without knowing what a binder is, I’m defining it as an item of clothing specifically designed to make one’s upper body appear more flat. Essentially, a binder compresses (or um, binds) a person’s chest to reduce the appearance of breasts. If you’re wondering why a person would do such a thing, Cate AriMelo Wood, the marketing associate and project lead for popular binder dispensary gc2b, has some thoughts. “I believe our customers’ goals range greatly, from quieting chest dysphoria to finally being able to wear a button-down shirt to aiding in ‘passing’ to feel more safe out in the world,” Wood explains.
Many of gc2b’s clientele — and binder-wearers in general — are somewhere on the transmasculine part of the spectrum and/or experiencing dysphoria around the appearance of their chest. For some, binders can help alleviate that dysphoria, or make passing a bit easier.
That binders are typically used to minimize unwanted contours, or feelings about said contours, makes people wearing them as a statement all the more wonderful. “Why yes, I am wearing this chest-concealing tank top” is a terrific, counterintuitive gesture, one that can transform something often done covertly into a symbol of pride — or at least an obvious marker of membership in the tribe of People Who Bind. In any case, it’s much cooler than my white T-shirt thing.
Wood and the team at gc2b have noticed the trend as well: “We’re also finding more and more people are proud to be binding and proud to be visible, and will even show them off as a statement, which is really beautiful to witness.”
Milo is among those folks proudly wearing their binder as both their only torso coverment and as a means to muddy their gender presentation. “I love wearing crop tops as a general rule, and I think it’s fun to bend the rules of clothes,” they explain. “It feels like a very natural middle ground for presentation for me. Binders are, of course, transmasc coded, and crop tops are feminine coded.” Therefore, they add, wearing a fusion of both “lines up really well with wanting to be perceived as queer and genderless.”
Endlessly versatile, the binder-as-shirt look can be deployed in many ways. Aiding in one’s gender expression, yes, and as a confidence booster, yes, but lest we forget its ability to also serve as a sartorial flip of the bird to haters (past, present and future). As Fallon, another proud member of the binder crop-top collective, puts it, “The binder and jeans look is very empowering to me. It reminds me that no one’s opinions or hate can affect me if I don’t let them. So I mostly do it for self-validation, and maybe as a subtle ‘F You’ to the bigots we all have to deal with.”
An added bonus to the bountiful blessings this look bestows? In the words of Pusha T, if you know, you know. “Most people don’t notice a difference between a binder and a crop top,” explains Fallon. “But I’ll get nods or winks of approval from passing queer people from time to time.” Like any good flag, those who are meant to get it, get it. As for those who don’t, Milo expresses a similar assurance: “Even though I’m almost entirely sure it’s just read as a plain black crop top, it does make me feel more masculine than if I wore any other crop top.”
So, is there any downside? Well, maybe. Earlier this summer, the New York Times, a publication with an already spotty history of covering anything related to trans lives, published a controversial piece on binding that asked if it was “worth the risks” for queer and trans youth. (While there’s definitely a conversation to be had around safe binding practices, that conversation probably shouldn’t include voices from known anti-trans hate groups like 4thWaveNow.) The Times piece was met with swift backlash from the trans community, allies and people with basic critical thinking faculties, to which the paper responded with a half-hearted admission that its piece certainly “prompted a discussion” about binding practices, wedged in at the top of a follow-up piece featuring the voices and experiences of actual human people who bind.
As I mentioned, it’s no secret that binding, if done improperly, can pose some health risks, which range from uncomfortable to dangerous. Sites like gc2b have safety tips for this exact reason. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t a lot of scientific research out there to definitively tell us how binding impacts bodies — at least not yet.
In 2014, Binding Health Project (BHP), a research study started by a group of then-students of medicine and public health at Boston University, conducted a survey of 1,800 transmasculine people to learn about the potential health impacts of binding.
While I can’t share the report, which is still being refined before its public release (I was given a sneak peek), I can tell you this much: The potential health hazards posed by binding improperly should be weighed against the safety risks that binders can mitigate. Or better put, because binding can aid transmasculine people in “passing,” they can keep them physically safe in environments where being read as male could leave them open to harassment and/or violence. (Remember that follow-up Times piece about binding? A common theme throughout was that binding changed — and in some cases, saved — lives.)
For now, though, as more medical research is performed and synthesized to provide better binding safety guidelines, we’re just going to have to do with binders what human beings do with every other item of clothing: Trust people to make decisions for themselves with the information they have — and look good while doing so.