What Binding My Chest Taught Me About Being a Man
I wore my first binder constantly—I even wore it to bed. Then I learned that masculinity is about more than having a flat chest.
Kai Isaiah Jamal. Photo by Amelia Fearn
As we brace for 2019 and stack up our resolutions, Broadly is focusing on finding motivation for the hard tasks that await us—like getting out of bed. So, throughout January, we're rolling out Getting Out of Bed, a series of stories about all things related to rest and resilience. Read more here.
Truth is I didn’t at first. Truth is, my favorite feeling is running my fingers down my cotton T-shirt when my chest is flat and right. Truth is, my favorite feeling is standing sideways in a mirror and not seeing anything that resembles what I know lays beneath. But learning to let myself breathe and forgetting what we are taught about “perfect bodies” was really how I got a good night’s sleep.
My first proper binder was gifted by a friend for my birthday. They knew my funds were low and my dysphoria was at its highest.
Before this gift, I can’t remember not walking through the street that lead to their house without gripping my T-shirt away from my chest. It was summer, and summer can be the hardest time for me: The way bodies are presented to us on billboards with tans and toned muscles on golden beaches and turquoise sea, ensuring that we know what a “summer body” is and how far away we are from the image they try to sell. The jealousy when men are running around topless in parks with footballs and flat chests (it isn’t even one of my aspirations, but it visually pulls my heart to my stomach). The overheating on tubes and trains where an extra layer is beckoning sweat from you and you can’t work out if standing by the slightly ajar window means everyone will stare more than it feels like they already are.
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But this day was my birthday and my friend has handed me a gift that is about to change my life a little. So I go into the bathroom and try it on. Of course—like many, I’m sure—I find myself tangled, with an arm in the wrong hole and a whole heap of bunched up fabric too gathered to pull straight and I can’t lie, I remember giving up straight away, feeling stupid to think that I could ever have resources that were going to make this any easier.
But it’s my birthday and I need to see a flat chest so I try again and the feeling that comes as I pull the vest down to my boxers and look up into my reflection is still indescribable; is too big to be able to reduced into a poetic phrase. I cry a little, though it still is the best cry I think I’ve ever felt. No sadness, just a belief again in the meaning of hope and thinking that maybe this world still has a place for me. I model my new silhouette to my friends downstairs, my eyes searching for every reflective surface and a smile beginning to ache my cheeks.
After that high, I naively wore the binder constantly; I never wanted to take it off. I walked down that same street and onto a busy train, chest forward, putting the real meaning into the “happiest man alive,” with no care for what somebody saw when they saw me. I navigated with nearly no anxiety for about a week. I was forced to a stop by a red heat rash under my shoulder blade, this thick vest against my skin in the hot summer’s heat. I again felt stupid—or maybe it was embarrassment for foolishly thinking that this binder could defy the phrase “too good to be true.” I guess I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach of giving up imagining what summer would feel like without the weight it carries for me.
When I took off my binder, I had to accept that I had to practice what I preach about looking after your body. I put the binder to one side and put on a T-shirt. I’ve never felt mourning like it. It was a dull ache that spread all over my body in a matter of seconds. My posture found its way into a slouch. The pride I had felt with my almost perfect shape felt like one of those dreams you wake up disappointed to come back to reality.
It was at this point that I had to have a conversation with myself to find a way to try to unlearn all the ideas I had about “the perfect body” or what men should really look like, because in fact it is also this. Me. I had to relearn a new perspective on the fluidity of masculinity because there are so many more narratives of masculinity and the shapes of our bodies. I had to allow myself to trust that I, too, deserved a space in that sphere.
I didn’t leave the house much that week. Instead, I bathed in Sudocrem and glistened with witch hazel. In rubbing the ointment into my skin, I realized this was the first intimate moment I had had with myself for a while. At the time, self-care seemed more of a hashtag than a practice. I had forgotten what it felt like to touch my skin in such a way—for such a long time, I had stopped my eyes from even looking at parts of my body.
You shouldn’t wear a binder for more than eight to ten hours because they can restrict your breathing, and in the same breath they are something that makes me feel like I can actually breathe for the first time. Like I am alive. But that conversation with myself allowed a new sense of freedom. It stopped me hurting myself with the pressure of what men should look like in summer. I mentally removed the images of an open shirt in a evening breeze. I was not erasing myself from the visions I once had of masculinity. Instead, I was re-sketching my narrative into those visions.
Now I find, in the moments just after I have taken my binder off, I no longer think that it is the vest that is making me man merely because it is making me flat. In fact, I am a man regardless of whether my summer body this year looks like the ones I saw everywhere (which of course it didn’t, because we still aren’t using trans models in the campaigns like we should).
Some days I forget to take my binder off and I wake in the night, with an apology to my body for harming it with societal ideas of shapes and silhouettes. Some nights I’m cool with that, some nights it’s hard. Most days my binder is my best weapon in war, my favorite comfort, my biggest validation.
But truth is, when I lie topless with my lover in the summer haze I occasionally forget gender conformity and the way it wants me to breathe. And I just breathe exactly how I do. Because how could that be anything but glorious? How could that be anything but right? Who are they to say that men cannot change their shape? Truth will be, I will have always been a man, with a body that doesn’t mean any less. Then, finally, I will be able to rest.