I bought my first binder during a summer vacation at my parents’ house. I had only the vaguest inkling of how big around my chest was, and I reasoned that binders are elastic, so erring on the smaller side would just feel like I was wearing a corset. I’d worn corsets plenty of times, I thought. In fact, I owned two corsets and wore one to every single themed party I attended, figuring no one’s going to question your costume creativity if you’re gutsy enough to wear a white corset.
I ordered a double-front compression shirt in a size small. It was misdelivered the first time around, which caused me great anxiety, but it did eventually reach me in an unremarkable, utterly nonthreatening envelope. As it turns out, I may be small in relation to many things—small in relation to most refrigerators, for example—and even small in relation to my father, but I am not an Underworks size small.
The biggest exhibition I’d made of my transness at this point was a page and a half of signing the name “Jamie” over and over, which I had secretively penned earlier that summer, one night in a hostel bunkbed in Amsterdam just before falling asleep. That page disappeared, unseen by anyone but me, into the leaves of my diary. Unsurprisingly, then, when this binder came in the mail I was nowhere near prepared to ask anybody for help getting it on.
I retreated to my bedroom and ripped the packaging open with a pencil from my desk. I took off all of my clothes and, seeing no more graceful way to approach, dove arms first into the elastic tube. I was soon to discover that in fact too-tight binders are nothing at all like corsets.
The first and foremost dissimilarity between corsets and binders is that binders have no interest in curves. Binders have the singular aim of making a body as cylindrical as possible. Their strategy: steamroll your lumpy bits as though they aren’t there. Corsets, on the other hand, mean to move existing pieces around into a particular arrangement, and as such must be designed to allow for those pieces (by this I mean boobies) to get inside in the first place.
The conclusion is, while at my smallest point I was probably the diameter of the small binder, and while my boobs could probably have been cinched to that same diameter with the use of a corset, this binder wasn’t ever going to have the privilege of reaching those squashable parts.
I have these shoulders, you see. In spite of my best efforts to pull the fabric in one bunch, one end of the binder had held fast to my raised elbows, and one end managed to make it to my armpits. My arms were pinned against my ears, straight up in the air. My head was entirely encased, my shoulders completely immobilized.
I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances. I ran. Blindly, I ran around the bed, then back the other way. Panting, I forced myself to fall over onto the pillows. As I lay there, my feet and hands dangling helplessly off the edges of the bed, I tried to convince myself that this was not an irreparable situation. Trying to make it funny to myself, I mumbled some of that Macbeth monologue about being stepped in blood so deep it would be as hard to go back as go forward.
I don’t remember how I managed to get myself free, but I know I managed to do it and leave the binder intact enough to return it. My next binder (a size medium) was more successful. I loved it from the first time I put it on. I wore it every day, alone or with others. Still better, I was the closest to loving my chest I had ever been in my life.
I didn’t need my chest to look like I had a Y chromosome to match the other guys’. What I needed at that point was for my chest to obey me for once. My binder helped me to announce something to myself and to anyone who looked at me. It did not announce, “These breasts are not here,” because binder or not, my boobs were too large to be unnoticeable. It announced, “These breasts are not a part of this body.”
Binding was the first thing I ever decided to do to my body purely for my own benefit. Binding was the first thing I ever did to my body to make my body feel like my body. Purely for my own comfort and recognition. Purely for the way it made me feel. I think it was beautiful.
It did physically hurt sometimes; my post-op, single-t-shirt-wearing body hasn’t forgotten that. I couldn’t sit through an entire class period without having to get up, go to the bathroom, and fold myself in half a couple of times to stretch out. Airports were hellish because my back started to ache under the weight of my shoulder bag.
The point is, the things we do to make ourselves feel free sometimes don’t look like they’re freeing. Bundling myself into a binder wasn’t restrictive, actually. I was freer. It made me safe. I remember it lovingly, in rich detail. How good it felt to put the first one (well, the first one that fit) on, to wrestle it down my stomach and button a shirt in front of it. To suddenly bend and gesture and dance, safely contained. My body felt good. It felt like it was mine. I touched my chest all the time in my binder.