Something that this blog has dealt with before is how fitness equipment and clothing works for female-bodied folks (see, for example, posts on bike saddles and sports bras). I’m female-bodied and somewhat gender non-conforming, and as part of my gender expression, I sometimes wear a chest binder. If you don’t know what that is, think of a rather tight, non-stretchy sports bra designed to flatten your chest as much as possible by redistributing breast tissue, and you’ve got the basic idea.
There are a few different reasons that people wear them: they are used by folks who want to pass for male, to fit into men’s clothing better, to alleviate body dysphoria, or to attain a more masculine silhouette. I won’t get too much into my reasons for wearing one, because that’s not the point of this post, but I’ll say that my preferences are mostly aesthetic (with a good dose of “I just feel better when I wear it”). But I don’t feel the need to wear it every day, and I don’t feel the need to wear it while exercising. I would estimate that I wear mine about half the time, and wear sports bras the rest of the time.
Binders come in quite a few styles, but there are basically two types: full-length and tri-top. The full-length binders cover the entire torso, and look somewhat like skin-tight tank tops. These binders have two sections: a non-elastic compression panel that covers the upper part of the chest, like a sports bra would, and below that, stretchy fabric down to the hips. The tri-top binders are essentially the same, but end below the chest, a little lower than the very bottom of the sternum, and don’t have the elastic section down to the hips. At the recommendation of a very helpful customer service agent at GC2b, I opted for the full-length one, and have been very happy with it for day-to-day binding.
The binder I wear: GC2B’s Nude No. 5 Tank
Binding is generally not recommended during exercise, but we all take calculated risks, and I thought that going for a run in a populated area was probably okay, so I decided to do a—wait for it—test run (sorry) in my binder. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I don’t have a very large chest, so don’t have the same issues and problems with bouncing, and haven’t had much difficulty finding sports bras that get the job done. So, all of this is just my experience, and of course will be different from one person to the next. But in my experience, wearing my chest binder while running was actually pretty good. There was no chafing or flapping or anything like that – those would definitely be deal-breakers!
There are three main differences that I noticed. The first is that the underbust seam, where the compression panel meets the elastic panel, became quite a bit more noticeable. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but I think that because I was breathing harder, my ribs were expanding more, and so I was more aware of that seam. It was okay for short periods of time, but it doesn’t take much for something to go from noticeable to uncomfortable to painful (and you don’t want breathing to be painful!). I would be cautious about wearing it for longer runs.
The second difference was that my binder has quite thick shoulder straps (probably about 2 inches wide), and quite a high collar, and I discovered that I really liked that. It felt like the binder was more secure, and helped to keep everything in place in a way that even I, with a not-very-large chest, haven’t encountered before. It felt as though the whole binder was more firmly anchored. It caused less stress on my shoulders and back.
The third difference was the most noticeable: where I live, summer is just getting underway, so the weather is fairly warm. I have always gotten quite hot while performing even moderate exercise (maybe this is why I like swimming so much). Not surprisingly, wearing a second layer that covered my whole torso really made a difference! I felt quite hot very quickly, even though I was dressed on the cool side. When I got home, I was quite glad to take it off and jump into the cool shower.
Overall, I think I would choose a sports bra over a binder, mostly because of the overheating issue. But it was nowhere near as uncomfortable as I had been led to believe by internet wisdom. And it acted as more evidence that my binder is the right one for me! I realize that I’m privileged in not needing to bind all the time – if I did, I would spend more time finding a binder (or other solution) that worked better for me while exercising. For now, though, I’ll probably stick to my sports bras for exercise and reserve my binder for other times.
Alex is a twenty-something grad student who has never met a dog they didn’t like. They are currently playing around a lot with gender expression and vegan cooking. If they could choose a superpower, it would be breathing underwater.