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Chest binding enables many people to express themselves more authentically, allowing for an increased sense of gender or body congruence and confidence in one’s appearance.

These benefits can support self-esteem and identity affirmation while also helping to manage chest dysphoria, which is the distress someone experiences in relation to their chest.

When deciding whether chest binding is right for you, it’s important to take both the positive outcomes and potential risks into consideration.

This can help you make informed chest binding choices that account for the various ways this practice can affect your body, physical health, and emotional well-being.

Chest binding, also known as binding, refers to the process of compressing or minimizing your chest tissue in order to create the appearance of a flatter chest.

While chest binding might be more commonly practiced among transgender, nonbinary, and androgynous people, the decision to bind one’s chest doesn’t actually indicate or determine identity.

Chest binding is for anyone who wants to flatten or minimize the appearance of their chest, either occasionally or regularly.

People bind their chests for many reasons.

Some of the more common reasons include:

  • to conceal or minimize one’s chest for a flatter appearance
  • to manage gender dysphoria, including chest dysphoria and social dysphoria
  • to support mental health
  • for drag, role-play, or cosplay
  • to affirm gender identity or expression
  • aesthetic preference
  • to fit into clothes designed for “men” with more ease
  • to present or be perceived as masculine or a man

The most common products and strategies people use to bind include:

  • shirt layering
  • commercial binders or compression tops
  • sports tops or bras, which are sometimes layered for additional support or compression
  • kinetic tapes designed for skin adhesion and tissue support

Commercial chest binders and compression tops come in a wide variety of designs and colors, but typically fall into one of the following three categories:

  • minimizing compression tops similar to sports bras
  • short or half-length binders cropped above belly button
  • long, full-length binders that cover the waist

When wearing a binder, it’s important to find the right style and size for your body.

This will depend on:

  • your goals for this particular binder
  • your body type
  • what feels good to you, both physically and emotionally

Most binders have a level of compression that feels tighter than other undergarments.

A binder that fits properly shouldn’t cause skin irritation, physical pain, or excess discomfort when worn appropriately.

Wearing a binder that’s too small can cause:

  • discomfort and pain
  • breathing issues
  • skin, rib, or lung damage

It’s important to read the vendor size guide and measuring instructions to ensure you’re ordering a binder that achieves your goals while causing the least amount of health issues.

Even with extensive research, finding the right binder can take a bit of experimentation and likely a couple of returns, so make sure you check out the store’s return policy before you hit purchase.

Do your best to be patient with yourself and kind to your body throughout this process.

In order to measure your chest for a commercial chest binder or compression top, find a flexible measuring tape.

If you don’t have one, you can use a string and measure the length of the string using a printable ruler.

First, place the flexible measuring tape or string against your bare chest and wrap it all the way around.

Then take note of the following measurements:

  • below the armpit, where the chest tissue begins
  • largest or widest point on the chest
  • under chest tissue, where the band of a bra might sit

Next, measure the distance between your shoulders, point to point (instead of all the way around).

After taking these measurements, compare them to what you see on your vendor’s size chart.

Pay special attention to the measurement that reflects the widest point on the chest. This is typically the measurement that “chest size” references.

If your measurements fall between sizes on the size chart, opt for the larger size.

Many brands are used to fielding questions about sizing and styles, so don’t hesitate to reach out to customer support for more information.

A decade ago, there might have only been a handful of companies that manufactured tapes and garments specifically for flattening the chest.

Now, there are many options.

Some of the more common and reputable chest binding vendors are:

There are a number of other online stores — like Amazon, FTM Essentials, and Transguy Supply — that carry more than one brand and style.

Chest binders aren’t frequently sold in brick and mortar stores (yet!).

If you’re on a tight budget or in need of a free binder, there are programs that can help.

The Binder Drive, for example, gives free binders to Black trans and nonbinary people in the United States.

The Point of Pride Free Chest Binder Donation Program provides free chest binders to any trans person who’s unable to afford or safely obtain one.

How you use your chest binder will depend on the type of chest binder you choose.

Binding with kinetic tape

Everyone’s skin reacts to adhesive differently, so if you plan to use kinetic tape, start by applying a small test strip to the intended area.

This will allow you to take note of any pain, itching, or other irritation before you move forward with a full application.

Keep an eye on the test strip area for a full 24 hours before deciding on next steps.

Irritation can be a good indication that the chosen tape — or tape in general — isn’t the best method for you.

If everything looks good, you’re ready for a full application.

Begin by covering the nipple with soft gauze or tissue to protect this sensitive area from the tape adhesive.

Tape is typically applied in strips with overlapping layers to provide fuller chest coverage.

When applying the strips, press your chest tissue down and toward your armpits. This will allow you to place the tape with the tension needed to hold the tissue in this downward position.

After the strips are placed, rub the tape to activate the adhesive. Kinetic tapes can be worn for up to 4 to 5 days.

When you’re ready to remove the tape, saturate the strips with natural oils (such as coconut or olive oil) or hot soapy water. This will help the tape peel off more gently and minimize potential irritation.

Wearing a commercial binder or compression top

The easiest way to use a commercial binder or compression top is to put it on inside out and upside down. This might sound silly, but it works!

First, step into the bottom of your binder and pull it up to your abdomen or pant line. With the armholes hanging toward your feet, reach for the armholes of the chest binder and pull the garment up to your shoulders.

At this point in the process, your chest binder should be right side up and right side in (instead of upside down and inside out).

You can adjust the bottom of the binder and your chest to suit your own personal needs by pushing the nipple and chest tissue toward your armpit.

This will help you achieve the flatter chest shape you’re looking for.

Commercial binders shouldn’t be worn for more than 8 consecutive hours or while sleeping.

The leading study on chest binding and health outcomes in adults showed that binding frequently for longer durations is associated with an increased risk of binding-related health issues.

If you feel increased confidence in your body and appearance when binding, it might be tempting to wear it as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are times when chest binding isn’t advised and should be avoided.

Wearing a full or high compression binder while playing sports or working out typically isn’t recommended. The binder can inhibit deep breathing, mobility, and perspiration associated with physical exertion.

From a physical health perspective, wearing a sports top or garment with lighter compression is often the safest option during physical activity.

There are known emotional benefits and physical risks associated with chest binding. But there currently isn’t any long-term research on the ways binding may affect:

  • the body
  • gender dysphoria
  • self-esteem
  • overall mental health

The most notable study on chest binding reports data from an online survey of 1,800 participants, 79.5 percent of whom identified as transgender.

According to the 2017 paper published using this survey data, 97.2 percent of people reported at least one negative outcome related to chest binding.

The most commonly reported side effects included:

  • back pain
  • overheating
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • itching
  • poor posture
  • shoulder pain

People with larger chests were more likely to report skin issues such as:

  • tenderness
  • tissue changes
  • itching
  • acne

Despite these negative physical outcomes, those who decide that binding is right for them frequently report:

  • heightened self-esteem
  • decreased gender dysphoria, anxiety, and suicidal feelings

One important finding that isn’t always included in community resources shows that commercial chest binders — such as those from the vendors listed above — are the method that’s most often associated with negative physical outcomes.

The methods associated with the least amount of negative side effects are layering shirts and wearing sports tops or neoprene compression garments.

In an effort to minimize the risks and concerns associated with binding, researchers and medical professionals emphasize finding the right binder style and size for your body.

Taking frequent binder breaks and days off will give your body and lungs room to breathe and move more freely.

Choosing a binder that’s made of breathable materials and washing it frequently can help minimize the risk of fungal infections and rashes.

If you’re considering binding or already bind regularly, it can be helpful to talk with a doctor or other healthcare provider about the precautions you should take and ways you can care for your body.

Doing so will help create space for future conversations about any potential negative side effects you might experience.

The circumstances related to COVID-19 can have health implications for those who chest bind.

Contracting COVID-19

Although people who bind aren’t expected to be at greater risk of infection, binding while experiencing COVID-19 related symptoms could exacerbate symptoms and the infection.

That’s why it’s best to avoid binding if you’re sick.

It’s also important to note that people who bind and have preexisting respiratory conditions, such as asthma, are at a much higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

Managing COVID-19 symptoms

Practicing deep breathing and stretching regularly can help reduce soreness and minimize damage to the neck, back, and rib cage that may result from intense coughing.

If you don’t feel you can completely avoid binding while experiencing symptoms related to COVID-19, consider making a few adjustments to your binding method and routine.

During this time it may be helpful to reduce the:

  • level of compression on your chest
  • amount of time spent wearing the binder
  • number of days spent wearing the binder

Additional research about ways binding can affect physical and mental health is needed to better support and guide people looking to make healthy and informed chest binding decisions.

With accurate information and adequate access to health-conscious options, you can take control of your body and self-expression.

We hope this resource helps you feel more confident about making the decision to bind in a way that feels right for you.

Mere Abrams is a researcher, writer, educator, consultant, and licensed clinical social worker who reaches a worldwide audience through public speaking, publications, social media (@meretheir), and gender therapy and support services practice onlinegendercare.com. Mere uses their personal experience and diverse professional background to support individuals exploring gender and help institutions, organizations, and businesses to increase gender literacy and identify opportunities to demonstrate gender inclusion in products, services, programs, projects, and content.