Finding The Right Support

My LGBTQ+ Teen Wants To Try Chest Binding. Is It Safe?

Dr. Kryss Shane discusses this gender-affirming practice and what parents should know.

A teen looks at their body in the mirror.
MoMo Productions/Getty Images
Celebrate Pride

If you find that your tween or teen has been chest binding — or if they come to you expressing interest in doing so — you might have some questions about how you can best support them.

While it might be new to you, chest binding is a very common gender-affirming practice among transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, as well as others in the LGBTQIA+ community. As Dr. Kryss Shane, LSW, LMSW, tells Scary Mommy, chest binding is the practice of wrapping athletic binding or wearing a binder garment to flatten the chest, helping to alleviate body and gender dysphoria without surgical methods (aka top surgery).

Along with products designed for this purpose, there are several methods of binding one may use — more on those in a sec. First, a bit more about binding in general and how it can provide comfort to your child whether they're experiencing bodily changes due to puberty or are in their later teens and about to embark on adulthood.

What is chest binding, exactly?

Likening chest binding to wearing compression/shapewear garments, Shane says that binding "helps the wearer feel more comfortable in their body based on how it changes the body's shape under clothing, simply offering a chance for the wearer to feel more confident in their appearance." Others might want to "pass" as more masculine, with binders offering a way to do so in a non-permanent, easily reversible way.

Unfortunately, several binding methods can be potentially uncomfortable or even unsafe, so if your child comes to you with questions or is seeking assistance, being supportive and affirming is the best thing you can do, says Shane. Many times, teens express interest in binding when they "begin to show breast curves or when they become more obvious in clothing," which will vary based on your child's development.

As with many aspects of gender dysphoria, chest binding is shrouded in societal stigma, which leaves many LGBTQIA+ and gender non-conforming youth feeling ashamed or afraid both of their changing bodies and of the ability to change their appearance. Research is extremely limited, but in 2019, the New York Times spoke to more than 200 readers of varying ages who have reported chest binding. Respondents noted that despite physical issues related to binding, the positive effects on their mental health make the practice worth it and, in some cases, an absolute necessity for their psychological and emotional well-being.

How to Safely Chest Bind

"Those who have support are often able to gain binders or have help being wrapped — this is ideal," says Shane. "For those who lack familial support, they may choose to bind using whatever they have access to. This may include duct tape, which can peel the skin when removed; binding too tight, which can cut off circulation and prevent deep breathing; or wearing them for too long if they are hard to get right without help, leading to hygiene issues."

The NYT report details additional health concerns faced by people who bind, including the risk of overheating during exercise or in warm weather, backaches, shoulder tightness, dizziness from too-tight binders, sternum and rib pain, chafing and bleeding, and asthma issues.

If your tween or teen expresses interest in chest binding, start a dialogue if they're open to it, says Shane. "Talk with your child to find out their goals. They may want larger clothes to hide curves, or they may want financial support to purchase binders. Make sure you talk about hygiene (including how to wash them following garment directions, how to wash their body after removal) and also discuss plans for times when swimsuits or changing in front of others may occur, such as gym class."

While some will use Ace bandages, duct tape, or wear multiple sports bras and shirts to flatten the chest, products designed for binding (such as TransTape and garments by Underworks, gc2b Transitional Apparel, or Shapeshifters Inc) are much safer and more comfortable if using a proper fit. Helping your tween or teen with their measurements and supporting them as they explore different products is a great way to show them that you are there for them in a non-judgmental way. If purchasing binders is not accessible, Point of Pride and FtM Essentials offer free binder programs for those needing them.

Binders should feel snug without restricting their ability to breathe and should not be worn for longer than eight hours at a time or during sleep. The Cleveland Clinic also recommends taking days off from binding, when possible; opting for lightweight, breathable fabrics; staying hydrated; and keeping an eye out for any potential side effects, especially with regards to breathing and/or skin irritation, bleeding, cracking, and pain.

Ultimately, your support is the most crucial aspect of chest binding, as the practice often allows wearers to feel confident and secure in their appearance, says Shane. "Binding without support can be harmful both in the use of problematic items (duct tape or the like) as well as reminding someone each day that they are struggling to bind without the support of those in their home. No one ever wants to feel unsupported, but for children and teens, the burden feels even more intense as they have not yet fully grown into having healthy coping skills."