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  • Faith Kuzma

Burn your Binders, Girls!

Updated: Apr 11

By Faith Kuzma

The British are very clear about the malfeasance of promoting breast binding and other self-harm practices as advocated by Mermaids, the discredited non-expert lobby group that claims to empower “trans children” and young people to “be their best selves.”  

Now included in the non-expert lobby category is John Lewis, the “UK’s favourite department store.” John Lewis is presently facing boycotts after promoting breast binding and other objectionable content in its new internal staff magazine, “Identity.”

Breast binding constitutes harm, makes girls vulnerable to predatory behavior, and has been investigated by Greater London’s Metropolitan Police as potential child abuse.

This self-harm may be harder to recognize in countries beyond the reach of Mermaid’s high-profile binder giveaways to young girls (without their parents knowledge or consent). In actuality, breast binder give-away programs have popped up everywhere, including in Canada by government-funded youth and 2SLGBTQAI+ organizations in Nova Scotia and British Columbia, and by BindersOUT, a breast binder distribution program based in Toronto.

Burn your binders, Girls! Binders Out image at left; woman wearing a binder and flexing her armat right.

Wearing a binder signifies “coming out” as “trans.” In the photo of a young woman wearing a binder on the right, her arm is flexed in a gesture common to male strength competitors. This is not like the fist-pump gesture, which typically accompanies “we the people” movements. Instead, here, the muscle flex is a caricature, a pose, as if to say, “Look at my prowess.”

Breast binding is an LGBTQ marketing tool

Regarded as a necessary harm, binders are sold as liberating. This is evident in the way binders are marketed. Consider, for instance, the familiar scheme of incorporating customer photos into an ad campaign as with Wonababi, an under-garment company based in New York and China. In this campaign, girls send in selfies wearing their binders which are then captioned by the corporation as “emancipating.”

Burn your binders, Girls! Wonababi LGBTQ marketing image of six girls wearing binders standing in front of a rainbow

Leveraging the LGBTQ market, the popular brand Wonababi sums up what they are selling: “We are valid and to be seen.”  Aimed at youth for whom psychosocial development necessarily involves a negotiation between an emergent sense-of-self and of others by means of dress and appearance, the company capitalizes on this stage of coming-of-age.

But do their liberating slogans match the reality of binding? The lofty ad copy signals the product's placement as part of LGBTQ celebrations, associating binding with the courage of activists assembling around a civil rights cause. Being seen at a protest might land one in jail, so the interpretive framework of fighting for justice is combined with a kind of selfless disregard for personal safety—generally a virtuous trait.

In this case, however, kids can skip the protest and go directly to “standing in” for a cause.

Despite the bravado, Wonababi’s success is less due to signaling minority rights affiliation as it is to suggestive sale. Its ad campaign intimates that binding is a powerful impression-management tactic, allowing girls to forego the usual psychosocial negotiation of self in favor of a pose and a demand.

Burn your binders, Girls! Wonababi ad of a teenaged girl with short blue hair wearing a binder, flexing her arm and taking a selfie.

Wonababi stamps their motto, “We are valid and to be seen,” onto the selfies girls send in. Not visible in the photographs are damaged breast tissue, bruising, misshapen breasts or disfigurement, injured ribs, and choked lung capacity.

Breast binding is performative

Confidence calms the social anxiety that is common to youth. But stylized postures of strength, such as muscle flexing, have less to do with authentic physical power as they do with performing a tough-guy look. Embodying boyish risk-taking and wearing a binder that uses compressive material to flatten breast tissue, is branded as “strength and resilience.”

Unlike a corset which accentuates the female form, a binder minimizes or erases the distinctive female silhouette in favor of an unsexed or boyish contour. But the resulting euphoria for its wearer of appearing sexually incognito is fleeting, bound up in the ability to pass and dependent on squeezing into a slave’s yoke that causes, among other injuries, lung atrophy.

Breast binding hurts

Appearing as mere fashion, binders mete out pain. While producing unbearable compression as a literally brutal fashion statement, binding paradoxically acts as a cloak of invisibility. Girls wear binders with the bravado of not worrying about what others think. Binders provide an aura of toughness.

Burn your binders, Girls! Picture of three teenaged girls wearing binders, flexing their arms.

"‘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.” – Transgender Trend

However, from what young women like American Kat Steckappel say after reclaiming their female-bodied identitybinders, ultimately, do not deliver as promised.

"It’s time," she says, to "resurrect the zeitgeist of the 'Burn Your Bra' era."

A “Burn Your Binder” movement is thus overdue, and in fact, this spirit was summed up in Steckappel’s 2016 viral video titled Destroy Your Binder. In describing it, Steckappel wrote, “I see female (AFAB) gender dysphoria as continuous with the experiences of female people more generally…of what it's like to live in this world in a female body.”

Burn your binders, Girls! Victorian anatomical drawing of a "The Ideal Female body deformed by  tight corseting.

Kat Steckappel’s profile photo on Youtube

Steckappel articulated the significance of binding as needing “to be seen as ‘more than’ a girl” and “more than just a piece of meat with breasts.” 

More recently, a girl from rural Australia named Rowan similarly disclosed a desperate contempt for her own female form and the resulting need to be seen as “not female.”

“Just the idea of being perceived as female makes me want to peel the skin from my flesh,” she said.

Because they inflict pain, binders relieve pent-up self-contempt and validate distress in a tangible way

Such hatred for her own female flesh was literally Steckappel’s story. In an effort to invisibilize her body, she described binding as part of a self-destructive mindset of “having to perform even more suffering on myself.” 

Binding was just one form that self-harming took. For all the attention-seeking evident in the selfies submitted to the Wonababi site, close inspection shows evidence of a similar low mood and self-punishing mindset

Burn your Binders, Girls! Self-harm is evident on the arm of this girl who is wearing a binder. She looks sad .

Self-harm is especially evident in this Wonababi photo of binder model “Jay,” defying the overarching and now-universal prescription for “visibility” as the antidote to a perpetual state of perturbation.

Breast binding is a crutch

Breast binding eventually fails to deliver anything but momentary escape. Steckappel finally recognized binding was a harmful crutch. “What I now realize,” she says, “is that [binding] was a lot like when I was cutting myself and using that as a tool to manage my intense emotions.” Significantly, a 2015 UK gender clinic report reviewed 31 studies finding non-suicidal self-harm increased with trans identification.


Breast binding is bondage

Steckappel explains,

“I know my gender dysphoria will never truly go away. It never does. But those moments of euphoria won't either — that's what keeps me going.”  

The visual and physical cue from binding creates a euphoric high which is inevitably pierced by the realization that binding makes one emotionally enslaved to the garment.

One is, literally, in a bind.

Binding limits freedom of movement, physiologically and emotionally. Stuck in a cycle of being seen in a binder is even described in terms of bondage. In a much-discussed 2019 New York Times article, ‘It’s Binding or Suicide': Transgender and Non-Binary Readers Share Their Experiences With Chest Binders, one interviewee commented,

“I feel like I’m chained to my binder in a lot of ways because as horrible as my experiences are, I don’t feel like I have the option to stop. I’d like to say better things about it because it has helped my dysphoria, but the cost of binding is so high that I feel caught in a lose-lose situation.”

Breast binding leads to surgery 

A reddit user, cjskittles, details:

“My letter for T [testosterone] actually states lung atrophy as a risk of wearing a binder long-term. It's part of the rationale for why top surgery is medically necessary. I can't take full breaths in mine and I have had back pain for a long time because of wearing one. It also causes breast tissue atrophy.”

Rowan in Australia relates: “I hate how mentally exhausting waiting two years to get top-surgery is.”


Breast binding does not alleviate gender dysphoria

Recognizing that binding was not improving her anguish led Steckappel to destroy her binder. She had to learn to manage her distress without the binder crutch. “I am committing myself to honoring and validating my feelings about my breasts and my body from here on out, without having to perform even more suffering on myself.”

In the video transcript (the actual video is no longer available online), Steckappel noted her frustrated “hate reading” of the writing of women who’d reclaimed their bodies. She had interpretated the universality of the female experience as proof of her male nature.

But Steckappel began to recognize that “transitioning … and identifying as transgender, was a way that females dealt with the pressures that females are subject to under patriarchy.”

"And once I realized that (laughs)… I knew that if I let myself be honest with myself… about what I had experienced, and where this dysphoria came from… then… I could transition, but the only way I would be able to hold myself together would be… constant dissociation, constant lying to myself, constant pretending, constant… subsuming everything I felt underneath a narrative I didn’t believe."

Steckappel came to see that ongoing, binary-structured gender transition solidifies dissociation and patriarchy. This revelation, she wrote, “was foundational to my personal healing.”

Burn your binders, Girls! Wonababi ad featuring Jay wearing a binder uder a collared shirt, looking standoff-ish at the camera.

Breast binding as a mode of “activism” is suggested by the Wonababi ad copy on this photo of “Jay” that references “breaking barriers.” Notice the neck scars.

Destroy your binder!

In her viral video, Steckappel rallies youth towards the kind of physical freedom once seen in the Burn Your Bra era. For this generation, however, Steckappel articulates feminism this way: “Destroy your binder!”

Detransition over dissociation

Dissociation was also a theme for Canadian Michelle Zacchigna, who goes by the penname Michelle Alleva. “Michelle said transitioning for her, and 'thousands' of others going through detransition, was a coping mechanism for dealing with 'trauma, hatred of ourselves and a number of comorbid conditions.'” Among the many insights gleaned from Zacchigna’s story, and subsequent litigation of the eight doctors providing her affirming treatment, is that their actions delayed her dealing with inner conflicts. Having transitioned as a young adult, her analysis is especially articulate and insightful.

Rather than performing differential care, the doctors practiced “be-kind medicine,” incapable of addressing her anguish and suffering. Zacchigna said that “after lifelong struggles with bullies, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and a suicide attempt, the catalyst for her transition came after she was introduced to the concept of gender identity at 21-years-old on Tumblr in 2009.” She noted her surprise when medical professionals began espousing the beliefs she’d heard on Tumblr, where she’d first encountered the one-sized explanation.

“I brought that [wrong-bodied] belief to health professionals who had been taught that it was kinder to affirm the belief than to question it.”

Just as with the transparently persuasive dynamic seen in the corporate culture, the milieu of the healthcare ecosystem is not just affirming but shielding of self-contempt. Feminists have always been keen on exposing power relations in such instances. Women are thus well positioned to increase public awareness, both independently and with others, by rallying around the call to “Destroy Your Binder”— the most compassionate of responses to the oppression—and compression—of this transgender fashion statement.


Dr. Faith Kuzma is a retired Assistant Professor of English. She has written for Gender Dissent, Salvo, The Canadian Patriot, Psych Reg, Mercator Net and elsewhere.

Find her on Twitter @faithkuz

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