Binding: It's what's for dinner!
Binding: It looks good on you!
Binding: It's the other white meat!

All right, enough now.

Binding, in this case, is the process of shrink-wrapping your breasts. Birds do it, bees do it, drag kings and transmen and guys with gynecomastia do it. Well, maybe not the first two. Hilary Swank did it. Drew Barrymore did it too, and now so can you!

There are two major factors involved in binding:

  1. Breast density
  2. Breast and chest size
and (at least) twelve ways to bind:

    Things (More Or Less) Designed for Binding
  1. The Frog Bra, a sports bra from women-owned Title Nine Sports in Berkeley, California; their catalog boasts, "It's almost like not having breasts at all. Well almost."
  2. A regular sports bra, sometimes in a too-small size.
  3. Abdominal binders, which are designed for abdominal or rib support.
  4. Men's compression undershirts, designed especially to flatten out the curves of a man's figure.
  5. Corsets.
  6. Diving belts, the European kind which are wide rubber objects.
    And Others
  1. Plastic wrap, shown off to great effect in the book Boys Like Her by Canadian performance group Taste This
  2. Ace bandages
  3. Control-top pantyhose with the crotch and feet cut out so that the crotch becomes the neckline and the legs are sleeves
  4. Wearing lots of clothes (especially an open jacket, a vest, a heavy coat, or an overshirt)
  5. Duct tape
  6. Packing tape (the lesson here being that a desperate FTM will try anything, even if it rips off his nipples)

This guide is aimed at people on the FTM spectrum, including drag kings, because that is my general area of expertise. Feel free to /msg me with protests about this, questions, suggestions, or advice based on your own experience.

Remember!

The crucial thing about binding for any trannyboy is that all these methods work very differently on different bodies. Too many people only hear about one or two possibilities and are disappointed when the apparently omnipresent Ace bandage, or the abdominal binder all their friends swear by, just leaves them looking (god forbid) busty.

In the same vein, it is also important to remember not to look down at your chest and freak out after you bind. You're looking down at it. It's going to look bigger from that angle. Nobody else has that angle. Chill. Go look in the mirror - or better yet, find someone you can trust to ask how it looks, since it's easy to become paranoid when it's just you and your mirror. I find that the longer I look at myself, the more my chest grows - a technique which unfortunately is fruitless if one actually wants larger breasts.

Warning

You can create cysts in your breasts by binding too tightly too often. Some transsexual guys take the optimistic view that this at least makes it easier to get insurance companies to cover chest surgery. Remember that cysts can be extremely painful and frightening, especially when they are mistaken for breast lumps.

And speaking of breast lumps, let's take a moment for a public tranny health announcement from momomom:

You may or may not know women's health is my speciality area in nursing and really in life. Subspecialities in lactation and sexual assault. That being said just as a background for why I lecture and to point out I know what I'm talking about. SO.... there is a small body of research that finds even normal bras may contribute to breast cancer by limiting lymph drainage. Nothing definitive, really more speculative than anything. But I do tend to believe it. So I would want to see some unbound time for the sake of the physical body's health as well.

The other thing is a question and a promotion for self care. In the transgendered community how much emphasis is placed on breast self-exam? It is so important. I hope a way exists to get this msg out. I don't work with men but I suppose the potential same issue would be young men needing to do testicular self exams (cancer of the testicles occurs mostly in YOUNG men). I am just hoping that transgendered persons are getting the msg that although they may not welcome these body parts they find themselves stuck with they need to take the same health care precautions as those who do, in other words, not to let aversion turn into a dangerous denial. *steps down from the soapbox*

Momomom is absolutely right, folks. There is too little education out there about this stuff. You know the doctors aren't watching out for our health! Well, a few of them are; most of them just don't know anything about cancer risks, or even appropriate bedside manner, for transmen. Remember Robert Eads, the transman who "died in 1999 of metastatic cancer of the ovary, after being refused treatment by numerous physicians because they did not want to treat a transsexual patient." We have to be able to take care of ourselves, because the medical community is too often unable or unwilling to do it for us.

Now to mix and match.

There are four major permutations: big and dense, big and, er... floppy, small and dense, and small and floppy. (Alternatively, Webster1913 seems to suggest the word "rare.")

This is, of course, a very binary way to look at things. What does "dense" really mean? How big is "big?" I will try here to use these very basic categories to give you some idea of what works for different bodies and why, so that you can see how they might apply to your own.

Dense/Large

Larger men in general often find that a compression vest, or compression shirt, such as those made for gynecomastia, works well. It is important to consider (and take pride in) the phenomenon of "fatboy tits." That is, to remember that men have breasts too and many men have a strong A or B cup all on their own. Skinny small boys are (often) expected to have flat chests, or slightly enlarged pecs from (supposedly) working out; stockier, broader, or rounder guys are expected to have some curve to their chest. Consider it a fringe benefit.

The point of a compression garment is that it adds another layer of fabric whose cut and/or composition is designed to flatten one's silhouette. They do not necessarily compress the body. They can be an interesting choice because they come in several different designs: there are vests that are like tight-fitting undershirts that zip up the front, there are looser A-line shirts, and there are garments that have short legs and sleeves to smooth out the entire torso. The downside is that they can be an unwanted and uncomfortable extra layer in hot weather, particularly because many of them can't be worn under a regular t-shirt as the lines of the binder will show. They are also generally pretty expensive, running around US$50.

The pantyhose method may work in these cases. Control-top pantyhose compress the breasts somewhat, while also disguising their lines. Basically, they summarize your breasts. You can trim the "sleeves" to whatever length you want. The choice of different colors also gives you a chance of matching your skin tone (assuming that stores where you live carry pantyhose in your skin color) which means that it won't be as obvious if it happens to show at the edge of your shirt, and it won't be as likely to show through a white shirt.

What you do is get a pair of control-top pantyhose and use scissors to trim a neckline out of the crotch, being sure to leave the crotch seams intact. That is, just cut out the vulva-shaped panel that pantyhose usually has, so the fabric won't run. Then cut off the feet and wear the pantyhose upside-down like a shirt. C'mon, goth bois wear fishnets like this all the time. (Well, maybe out-of-date goth bois. I'm not good with style.)

The downside to pantyhose, besides the fact that you have to stick your head through the crotch, is that the control top often decides to roll itself up, charging right up and over your breasts as if the summit of the mountain is in sight and world fame is in the offing.

Depending on the shape of your chest and looseness of your clothes, you may find that the frog bra (described below) works for you. It is particularly effective to wear one that is too small, but it can also be particularly painful, especially with denser breasts. Some people find that a frog bra in the right size for their chest does enough for them -- it should at least keep anything from moving up there in a way that says "Hey! I have breasts!" If you have a large ribcage, however, the elastic may cut into you, so it's best to experiment.

One transman with a 38DD chest found that nothing worked for him until he hit upon the idea of trying a corset. (He described it as "one of those old lady corsets" - not, I assume, one of those leather or PVC jobs.) He bought one made for a 26-inch waist, the smallest one that he could force to close around his chest.

He said that the most important thing is to make sure that it does not constrict your diaphragm, advice which should be applied to all forms of binding. He also found that sweat spots appeared on the sides where the binder ended, so he made a sweatband out of a 6-inch strip of muslin that he folded up till it was one inch wide and sewed flat, adding eyehooks to the ends.

Rare/Large

If you are transgendered and/or transsexual and happen to be on hormones, the testosterone will probably make your breasts less dense. This is nice because it means they'll hang lower and flatten more easily. This is good for binding methods that squish.

We all know that Saran wrap does not make a good bra and neither does duct tape, at least for larger breasts. And they do have some serious downsides. Both can create a lot of sweat because they don't breathe. If you bind too tightly, you won't breathe either.

Plastic wrap at least comes off easily. Duct tape is made for sticking, and it can really hurt on its way off. More than one layer is also very difficult to tear off, although scissors will do it. If you really want to bind with this stuff, I recommend going to duct tape does not make a good bra and essentially following the instructions there.

Plastic wrap is nice because you can wear it under a shirt to go swimming. It's also quite wide and designed to hold tightly, which makes for greater control and compression. On the other hand, too many layers of it makes this interesting crinkly noise that nobody will be able to figure out.

Hopefully.

There's also the frog bra, for the less DIY-inclined. You will definitely be paying for all the ways in which it improves on plastic wrap, as it costs about US$30 -- plus shipping and handling if you don't happen to live near their Berkeley, California retail store.

The frog bra is a sports bra made with a very high percentage of latex, so it's not suitable for anyone with (or close to someone with) latex allergies. The latex content makes it hold you in very tightly. It's designed so that people's breasts won't bounce when they're running -- hence the "frog" thing. Get it? Frog? Bounce? Well, anyway.

Many people find that getting a frog bra one or two sizes smaller than they would normally wear (e.g. someone with a 36C chest getting a size small) is handy for extra compression. You can also try getting a regular sports bra in a smaller size than you would normally buy; it might be cheaper. It's important to make sure that the bra isn't sewn into the shape of breasts for you; there's nothing like just creating a pair of miniature breasts that you can't get rid of. The frog bra is not designed that way, fortunately, and has been approved by one FTM genderqueer of my acquaintance who used to have a DDD chest. He recommended pushing the breasts out as far toward the side and down as possible ("almost under my arms, really... that's what keeps me from getting the uber-cleavage it otherwise gives me.")

The compression vest is also supposed to work well in these cases, possibly better than for dense breasts, as would the abdominal binder described below. Underworks makes a "body shaper and chest binder" which is supposed to work very well when used with the "breast-shoving technique" described above.

Small/Dense

This is where a lot of people start to bind really tightly. Many densely-breasted people in this category would do well to read the large/dense advice and see how much can apply to them.

What if you have medium-sized dense breasts? This is a particular problem area. (Much like your breasts themselves.) Many people find that a two-part approach works for them, such as a tight binder, like an ace bandage, with something to redirect the attention, like loose or layered clothing. In other words, first compress it, then encrypt it.

There is, in my experience, a particular art to flattening dense breasts. When I used ace bandages, I found that it looked different every time. The key is to remember that breasts are curvy. I often approached it as if they were just sort of a general bulge that needed to be smushed down uniformly. I often ended up with wildly different degrees of compression on different days and bulges in bizarre places. The other problem with ace bandages is that if there is not enough flat space toward the bottom, they will roll up, much like the pantyhose mentioned above.

The other other problem is that they need to be washed and will eventually get stretched out of shape until they are too loose to bind with. All right, I admit it, I hate binding with these things. Many people do swear by them though, because if you can get the knack of it they allow for good control: you can adjust the amount of tension any given area gets, wrap it a few extra times around the middle or a troublesome edge, and so on.

I recommend getting six-inch ace bandages, or a wider size if you can find one. The wider and longer the bandage, the more control you have. This, by the way, is the binding method used by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, so it has that celebrity cachet.

All right, I made that up. But it looked like it when he unwrapped her, didn't it?

There's a kind of bandage, available in many drugstores, that's made to stick to itself and still be reusable. I prefer this because it's a little less likely to come undone or slowly separate as I move around.

Start by holding one end flat against your rib, as high up as you can, and go around your ribcage heading downward. Never bind from the bottom up; they will just want to jab out in strange directions like they're possessed by Madonna.

I think it's easier to do this lying down, and just keep arching upward to pass the bandage underneath. Actually, I think it's easier to find someone else who wants to do it for me. But I know trannyboys and drag kings and other people who can do this just fine standing up. As with everything here, ymmv.

Pull the bandage tightly as you go around, and keep checking the contour of your chest to see where you need to overlap the bandage more or pull it more tightly. For extra security, you can finish by criss-crossing it over your shoulders in an X shape. You can tuck in the ends and hope they stick; some bandages come with little metal clips that are supposed to hold the ends in place; you can also wear a sports bra over the whole thing to help keep the edges from rolling up or slipping or the ends from making a run for it.

A faster but more expensive method is the abdominal binder. These are wide, flat pieces of fabric with elastic panels and velcro on the ends. One side has much more velcro, to allow for some adjustment depending on your general girth.

With an abdominal binder, you hold the more widely-velcroed end on your left side, with the velcro pointing outward. Wrap it around your back and back across your chest, going counter-clockwise around your body. Pull it tight and press the velcro shut.

This is another popular binding method, because the binders are available in many drugstores, have a smooth contour, can be thrown in the washing machine, and come in several different sizes. The downsides are relatively minor: they cost about US$20, which is a lot but not as much as the other pricey methods; and they have a nasty ability to un-velcro themselves with too much movement, but the velcro itself often refastens, albeit more loosely than before. They also have a tendency, with denser breasts, to scoot down and create a horrific "I'm wearing a corset I got at the Renaissance Faire" look. Fortunately, either of the last two problems can usually be taken care of by wearing a sports bra over the binder to keep it from sliding or springing open.

Depending on your chest size, a sports bra or frog bra by itself might work. It's less likely to make you completely flat, but it can still work to give you an unobtrusive "guy chest."

Small/Rare

Oh, you troublemakers with small, easily flattened breasts! How jealous other people get when they hear "Oh, I don't have to bind, I just wear loose shirts," or "What? Oh -- 32AA."

Layering is a very popular tactic in this situation, whether it's a vest or jacket that covers up "the problem area," or just several layers of shirts and sweaters. People in this category can often also use a sports bra, sometimes even in the size they're otherwise supposed to, to make their chest look more like pecs. For a more formal look or greater security, people often use an abdominal binder with a sports bra over it to keep it from slipping.

One suggestion I've heard but can't verify is that diving belts work well. In the United States, at least to my non-diving eyes, a diving belt is something like a tool belt, with little weights in it; in the United Kingdom, apparently, it is about eight inches wide, made of rubber, and very stretchy.

It's been my experience that most anything will work to bind small, non-dense breasts as far as compression goes, and that the problems in binding here tend to arise from the potential failures of any given binding method -- for example, showing through clothing or abruptly coming undone.

There are a few exceptions. Sports bras, including the frog bra, may work differently depending on chest size. For example, I couldn't use a smaller-than-normal frog bra because small is what would normally fit me, but my roommate (who is also an A cup) uses sports bras to bind by trying different brands to see which ones are tight on him. In general, all of these tips are just basic guidelines; mess around with them and see what works for you.

A final note

My experience with binding as well as with passing in general has been that breasts don't matter.

I know, I just wrote a whole essay on how to bind. And breasts DO matter sometimes. Someone with a 44D or even a 36C who isn't binding might at least trigger gender confusion in others even if they have a full beard. It doesn't necessarily mean they won't pass, though, for three reasons:

  1. Gender confusion can trigger scary questions or harassment from others. But it's not the same as not passing. The person harassing you about your gender or going "Sir - Ma'am - Sir" at the store will often still be reading you as a guy with inexplicable breasts.
  2. In my experience, people read faces first. If they don't see breasts but they do see enough other things that read as female to them, they unconsciously assume that they just can't see the person's breasts in that outfit. Some people don't even look down at the rest of your body. Binding isn't the end-all of passing.
  3. People are weird. We're just weird. Everyone has a different set of assumptions about gender and what a given gender looks like. For example, I once went to two temp agencies in the same outfit, in the same part of the same city, with the same androgynous name, looking for the same kind of work, and got read as male at one and female at the other. Although you can try to send signals that you hope will be read a certain way, ultimately, you can't control what people think about you; you can only control how comfortable your body and your clothes feel to you.

Resources:

  • Loose compression undershirt: Underworks: http://www.underworks.com/products.html#991
  • Tight compression garments:
    • Morris Designs: http://morrisdesigns.com
    • Underworks: http://www.underworks.com/996.html
  • Frog bra: Title 9 Sports: http://www.title9.com
  • Torso-covering swimsuits:
    • Triathlon-style suits: http://www.tri-zone.com/Catalog/ClothesIndex.html
    • Aquablade, also triathlon-style: http://www.speedo.com
    • Swim2000: full bodyskin "racing suits," http://www.swim2000.com
    • Wetsuit style suits: http://www.save2much.com/buy/search/O_Neill_Men_s_3_2_Triathlon_John_Wetsuit_XS_Only
    • General binder suppliers: old but still have some good information:
      • http://www.sexuality.org/l/incoming/f2mcloth.html
      • http://www.otherbear.com/tricks.html
  • Good places to discuss binding and related issues:
    • Young-guys list: http://groups.queernet.org/cgi-bin/mj_wwwusr?func=lists-long-full&extra=young-guys
    • Trannyfags list: http://groups.queernet.org/cgi-bin/mj_wwwusr?user=&passw=&func=lists-long-full&extra=trannyfags
    • A variety of different bulletin boards: http://dmoz.org/Society/Transgendered/Female_to_Male/
  • How to do a breast self-exam
  • Remember Robert Eads:
    • http://www.drbecky.com/eads.html
    • http://www.celticvoice.com/users/transsup/robert.html
    • http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/southerncomfort/ (about the movie Southern Comfort)
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