‘Chest binding’ is the gender-neutral term for what should really be called breast binding as it refers only to teenage girls who want to flatten their breasts to appear male. Euphemistic language hides reality and therefore our framework of understanding. We are very grateful to Dr Em for writing this insightful piece which analyses breast binding through the lens of the reality of the lived experience of teenage girls within a highly sexualised culture.
After obtaining her PhD from the University of Cambridge Dr Em directed her energy into feminist campaigning and writing. She works with the feminist group Object! to challenge the sexual objectification of women and children and helped launch the Women’s Declaration of Sex Based Rights in New York in March 2019. She can be found on Twitter @PankhurstEM.
This essay is an important contribution to the understanding of a completely new phenomenon and we hope it will be widely-read by teachers, clinicians and all those involved in the care and protection of teenage girls.
Breast Binding, Sexual Objectification and Grooming
Breast binding may be a response to porn culture and the sexual objectification of teen girls. Liberal feminism (what I consider the anti-feminist backlash), otherwise termed ‘f*ck me feminism’ has failed our teenage girls and young women. Instead of challenging the culture of sexual objectification of women and girls and the pornification of our lives it has individualised the problem. This has promoted the notion that transitioning to a boy is a valid option to escape the pressure. As sex becomes increasingly violent, painful unpleasurable acts are normalised, sexual harassment reaches epidemic proportions and rape convictions cannot be achieved even with video and/or confession, who wouldn’t want to opt out of this?
Breast binding has become big business. For example, ‘Marli Washington, 26, a transgender man and founder of GC2B Transitional Apparel, an online binder company, wrote in an email that the company had had “at least a 200 percent growth” since 2015.’1
Additionally, I think we need to question whether female teenage ‘chest-binding’ or ‘breast-binding’ should be considered a safe-guarding issue akin to self-harm and non-contact sexual abuse? This article will consider whether breast-binding is a response to the sexualisation of teenage girls, where breast binding is promoted, and how it normalises children purchasing ‘essentials’ from sex shops. I will then analyse how obtaining binders may open a window of opportunity for the sexual grooming of young girls.
What is ‘Chest-Binding’?
Transgender ideology is promoting the practice of breast-binding amongst girls and women in the U.K. Breast-binding involves wearing extremely restrictive material for long durations of time to either prevent the natural development of breast tissue or to hide one’s breasts. The practice damages the formation, density, and distribution of breast tissue and causes pain, difficulty breathing and in some cases a build-up of fluid in the lungs. Gendered Intelligence, a transgender group which the government has previously ‘worked in partnership with’, endorses the practice of breast-binding and argues that ‘Binding is a way to make your chest look flatter’.2 Likewise, Transition Ftm UK declares that
A binder is what we use to flatten our chests in order to give the appearance of a male chest. It can help a lot with passing and is usually quite common in transitioning. It can also help with our dysphoria. Some of us (me) we weren’t exactly graced with small chests, that can’t be hidden by layers of clothing, so using a chest binder helps compress our chests enough to pass as male.3
The practice of breast-binding is comparable to chest-ironing which the United Nations recognised as a form of gendered violence against women and girls similar to FGM.4 Breast ironing refers to the painful practice of massaging or pounding young girls’ breasts with heated objects to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts. Breast ironing is often performed in order to misguidedly protect girls from rape, unwanted sexual advances, early sex, and pregnancies, all of which people fear would result from the appearance that a girl has reached the age of puberty.5 Magdalena Randall-Schab, secretary of the UK National Committee for UN Women’s London branch, said breast ironing had continued “under the misguided intention to ‘protect’ women and girls from men”.6 In regards to a human rights review of Cameroon the U.N. urged
the State party to enact national legislation to prohibit female genital mutilation, as well as any other harmful practice, such as breast ironing, in all instances, to strengthen its awareness-raising and educational efforts, targeted at both women and men, with the support of civil society, and to eliminate the practices of female genital mutilation and breast ironing and their underlying cultural justifications. It also encourages the State party to devise programmes for alternate sources of income for those who perform female genital mutilation as a means of livelihood.
Why shouldn’t these United Nations guidelines apply to the binding of women and girls’ breasts in the United Kingdom? Like breast ironing, breast-binding is an attempt to prevent the appearance of puberty in natal females. Could the increase in sexual harassment and sexual assault at schools be linked to British girls and women wishing to delay the appearance or prevent the appearance of their breasts?7 Could transgender ideology be offering the wrong answer to a culture of sexual objectification?
If you are a woman reading this, when was the first time you were cat called? I was around 11, in my school uniform. There is a problem in male culture with fetishizing and sexually objectifying teenage girls.8 Young women are absorbing the message that their value is in how men and boys see them, do men and boys approve of them? Their self-worth comes from external affirmation, not themselves. This message is being amplified: look at the need for ‘validation’ in transgender ideology. Furthermore, teenage girls are immersed in a culture of ‘likes’ and ‘claps’, of show and performance. They cannot move without a camera, or possibility of a camera on them. Their lives are recorded and uploaded. I was lucky enough to grow up when the first camera phones were being promoted as the new thing and social media was MySpace or MSN. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have an ever present threat of online social judgement stalk me during this time of self-discovery and growing.
The online social judgement is clear in it’s demands: one is either ‘f*ckable’ or ‘invisible’. As Gail Dines informs in her talks, if you don’t believe that teen girls self-sexualise ask a group of girls and a group of boys to split up and pose for selfies — the results are shocking.9 Teen girls are feeling pressured to send explicit images of themselves in order to gain and maintain male attention. Kerry Smith of Plan International UK, which works for children’s rights, told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that “Girls are being pressured — sexting is a gendered issue — more girls are being asked to share” and that “There are double standards. When they do (share), the girls are shamed, not the boys who are holding the phones or the pictures or asking for them”.10
Culturally we continue to send girls mixed messages — they are to be both the gate keepers of male sexuality, producing the harassment they face through their existence, and non-sexual in case they are branded by their own communities. This focus re-enforces the concept that it is their bodies and their sexualities which define them, which express their inner worth. Porn teaches both girls and boys that the woman is there to sexually satisfy the male, an idea which saturates our culture and teen girls’ daily lives. Who wouldn’t want an out from this if they could take it?
Trans, wrongly, offers a third solution as it desexualises the girl but continues to allow them to be visible. The development of breasts is a big deal for teenage girls as it often opens the floodgates of sexual commentary and begins the policing of their bodies. The distinction between boys and girls becomes sharpened. From what one can wear to the swimming pool or beach to the fact that social media bans the show of female nipples as sexual content, which results in breastfeeding images being removed while pornographic content proliferates.11 The missive is clear: these and thus you are now sexual.
School uniform policies have a similar focus on bras and rather than changing the flimsy material of the shirts, girls are forced to adjust the colour and style of their underwear lest it distract the boys and male teachers. This is not new. In 2008 it was claimed that teachers at the Kings School in Winchester would be checking children’s, particularly girls’, underwear to ensure it met the official school policy. Bras became a focus – the colour (white) and the padding (none). It was alleged that ‘15-year-old Chelsea Hay and 13-year-old Kirby Moore were told at a girls’ assembly that coloured bras were ‘offensive’.12 In 2016 it was alleged that teachers told female students at The Barlow RC High School in Didsbury, Manchester, that they cannot wear coloured bras because ‘boys will be distracted’ from their lesson.13
In 2019 it has been reported that a mother was left enraged ‘after her daughter’s PE teacher told [her] nine-year-old [daughter] to wear a bra’.14 This focus on female children and female teenagers’ developing breasts is persistent and widespread. What does this teach the girls? That their bodies are now under the male gaze and being sexualised by their peers and educators. That they must make adjustments for male comfort. These messages from school about the focus on breasts are then re-enforced through advertising, online photographs, movies, pop videos, newspapers and the conversations of their male peers which they overhear. One can understand how appealing the notion of being a boy would be to these girls.
Where is breast-binding promoted?
The NHS now recommends breast-binding as a means for young women and girls to ‘pass’ as members of the opposite sex.15 Within this guide under the subheading ‘Internet Resources’ the NHS provides details of websites such as T-Vox which acknowledges that young women and girls must ‘give [themselves] breaks from binding’ as some methods
‘cause back or rib pain, restrict breathing, or cause skin problems’.16
Under a subheading entitled ‘The Ten Binding Commandments’ T-vox states that
If you hear a rattling or wheezing in your lungs when you breathe in or out, take off your binder NOW and cough hard a few times to loosen up fluid. This means you have been wearing your binder too long or too tight.
If you continue to hear rattling of fluid in your lungs for more than 24 hours, see your doctor. Do not ignore this; you could be heading toward pneumonia. Always cough hard a few times when you take off your binder for the day. This will loosen any fluid that has built up in your lungs or the pleura of your lungs. Be sure to follow with a few deep breathing exercises to open the lungs.17
The NHS is not the only way the U.K. government is endorsing breast-binding for women and girls. This dangerous practice is promoted by an online transgender group which the U.K. government consults with.18 Indeed, the U.K. government published a guide for providing services for transgender children ‘in partnership with Gendered Intelligence’ in 2015.19
Schools are endorsing the practice by making allowances for breast-binding rather than addressing the underlying issue.20 The Sun has reported on new guidelines issued from local authorities in Cornwall, Lancashire and Scotland to ‘properly accommodate transitioning pupils in school’ by allowing transgender pupils extra breaks during physical education lessons due to breathing difficulties as a result of chest-binding.21 Is the U.K. government advocating through association and allowance a form of self-harm which has been condemned in a different variety by the United Nations?
The practice of ‘chest-binding’ or ‘breast-binding’ has entered the mainstream. An article in the popular online newspaper Buzzfeed by Sarah Karlan promotes the binding of a young girl’s breasts as a procedure which can be ‘absolutely life-changing and lifesaving’.22 It describes how
‘A typical binder is not only very tight but usually made of durable nylon and spandex — making them notoriously uncomfortable to wear’.23
Karlan quotes one Elijah Renard, a Canadian video game designer who has been binding for over three years, who argues that
‘Binding is not without physical risks, but for many people who decide to bind, these risks are worth the emotional relief and safety they provide’.
This description would appear to place the practice within the category of self-harm.
Similarly, Lane Moore wrote an article for Cosmopolitan magazine entitled ‘A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Chest Binding’ which quotes one Jackson Treece, 29, who claims that
‘[Binding] offered me the ability to shove something that was bothering me to the back of my mind and not have to worry about it’.24
Treece’s statement is followed immediately by the claim of one Ollie Fjor’Skera, 25, who says
‘[I] really don’t like binding… It hurts, it makes my shoulders sore, it’s hard to breathe’.25
The article further quotes Caleb, 23, who says that
‘Binding constricts your ribs and diminishes your lung capacity, so I was really sore the next day or two, and had to take it extra easy on myself’.26
The author on Transition Ftm UK complains that
‘Unfortunately I found I couldn’t keep [a Binder] on for more than a few hours at a time before it affected my breathing and began digging into my ribs, but it definitely did the job. It gave me the flattest chest ever, however I suffered while wearing it’.27
The NSPCC’s own guidelines on self-harm under the subheading ‘Why children harm themselves’ explains that
‘Often, the physical pain of self-harm might feel easier to deal with than the emotional pain that’s behind it. It can also make a young person feel they’re in control of at least one part of their lives’.28
Why would breast-binding as a supposed remedy for feeling uncomfortable with one’s body, or having body dysmorphia, not be recognised as a form of self-harm by the NSPCC or the NHS?
Binders, Sex Shops and Grooming.
The NHS guidelines provide a link for where girls can purchase breast-binders. The NHS recommends
A reliable binder like one from http://ftm.underworks.com will help give you a male-appearing chest.29
It appears that http://ftm.underworks.com provides NHS endorsed breast-binders. Another group which the U.K. government consults with is Mermaids U.K. On the Mermaids website, following an attempted disclaimer, where to purchase breast-binders is then listed.30
In the mainstream media breast binders are products which can be found in sex shops. For example, the previously referenced article by Sarah Karlan in Buzzfeed describes the length of time wearing a binder as ‘6-8 hours, usually a full work or school day’ then quotes Renard who states that ‘I like shopping online but some sex shops will carry them’.31 Similarly, the Cosmopolitan article is advising girls to shop in sex stores. For example, it quotes a Dan Simpson, 36, who says ‘there’s a store in Chicago called Early To Bed that lets you try binders before you buy one’.32 Early to bed sells sex toys alongside binders and has videos where a child’s cartoon character talks about their first vibrator.33
Both mainstream articles promote sex shops. These may be directed at an American audience and merely accessible as the first internet links to U.K. girls but it is normalising that young girls would enter and make purchases from sex shops. In the words of Sarah Karlan, sex shops are now promoted as offering teenage girls products which are ‘absolutely life-changing and lifesaving’.34 Does promoting the use of sex-shops to children not come under the NSPCC’s guidelines regarding non-contact sexual abuse of children? Could it be considered ‘encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts’ and ‘not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others’?35
Moreover, breast binders pose a potential ‘in’ for the sexual grooming of teenage girls. A Daily Mail reporter posed as a 13 year old girl in order to obtain a breast binder without her fictional parent’s knowledge. The undercover reporter ‘contacted Manchester based MORF, part of the LBGT Foundation, after an angry mother told us that the group had sent her 14-year-old daughter a chest binder without consulting her’.36 The result was that ‘after two short phone calls to the helpline number on its website, our investigator was told a chest binder would be sent in the post free of charge and with no indication of what the package contained’.37
The experiment was even more chilling in light of how it may be used to groom unhappy teenage girls. Grooming involves a carefully combined set of stages and a victim to be identified. All these stages occur but not necessarily sequentially and a predator may move in between depending on what stage needs strengthening at any particular time:
- What does that child need? (Love/attention/excitement) to
- I’m the only one who understands you/ loves you to
- Create secret between abuser & child to
- Use secret to isolate child from guardians and others through fear and or shame to
- Manipulate child.
From the conversation Barry can now work out that the ‘child’ requires attention and love (stage 1), and Barry is positioned due to being on the MORF helpline as one of the only people who understands her and her gender identity issues (stage 2). Barry subsequently offered to provide a binder confidentially, creating a secret between Barry and the child (stage 3). It is of note that predators will usually offer the intended victim something first, no matter how small, as it creates a natural human desire to reciprocate kindness.
If Barry had nefarious purposes, Barry could now further isolate the child from parents and guardians and begin to manipulate (stage 4 and stage 5). During the course of the conversation Barry obtained the child’s telephone number, which could provide unmonitored contact, and the child’s home address for the package to be dispatched. It was that easy. The ‘child’ had identified themselves as a potential victim by phoning the helpline, she could now be on the radar of a predator.
The ‘child’ spoke at length to an unknown adult about her breasts and genitals which indicated that the ‘child’ had poor to no boundaries and a possible disconnect from their body. Indeed, the Daily Mail reported that ‘Barry also questioned our reporter, believing he was speaking to a 13-year-old, on her bra size’ asking ‘Obviously I’m not massively familiar with bra sizes so you might have to help me out here’. In what world is it o.k. for an adult male to say this to a child?
Reduced physical boundaries and a body disconnect are things a predator normally has to build themselves in the child but these children are coming with it already in place. Barry offered the child to come to Barry’s location and essentially get undressed and try on underwear. Barry said ‘I’ve been speaking to my colleagues so we do have some binders here. We have a couple of choices here. We can either send one to you or you can come in and try some of them on to see which is the best fit. Whereabouts are you based? Are you local?’38
This should set alarm bells ringing. This proposed meet up to try on binders would be a secret (stage 3), with someone who claims to understand the child better than their parents/guardians (stage 2). Imagine if photographs were taken of the child with breasts or genitals exposed, this could create stage 3 and stage 4 – if you tell your parents I will send the photographs, if you don’t do this for me I will send the photographs. Predators will move into roles where they can gain access to children, and transgender ideology is creating self-selecting victims while normalising the grooming process.
We need LGBT charities to help youth if they struggle with their developing sexual orientation, however, we need these charities to also maintain safeguarding and prioritise the child’s welfare over ideology. MORF and other transgender organisations do not. The Daily Mail reported that
Astonishingly, when we confronted MORF about their decision to send a chest binder to a 13-year-old girl behind her parent’s back, they defended their actions. Speaking on MORF’s behalf, the chief executive of the LGBT Foundation, Paul Martin OBE, said: “We’re proud of how we responded to your reporter because we provided sensible, compassionate advice to someone pretending to be in need”.39
I don’t think adult men asking children about the size of their breasts and offering them to come for a binder fitting is ‘sensible’ or ‘compassionate’ but rather dangerous. Furthermore, the first, the almighty, rule of safeguarding is we don’t keep secrets. We need to teach our children this because predators exploit secrets that they create with the child to enable the fear stage. It is when the child is frightened they can be manipulated. This is not just happening at MORF, it is occurring online and has given predators who wish to hide under the rainbow an easy route to confused children. In what world is it o.k. that confused children spend hours talking to adults online, then meet them in secret to discuss their genitals and breasts? This is not progressive, this is grooming.