Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Lumpy Bravery: on chest binders and trans superhero narratives

Last week I bought my first chest binder from a reputable online vendor. With vigor, glee, and a hunger for play I clicked the purchase button. It came on a Thursday night. When I had stomach cramps and vicious heartburn that dissuaded me from enacting the fantasy of tearing open the package just when it arrives and trying on its contents that very instant.

The next morning I was alone and had forgotten about the bulging envelope in favor of my morning piss, the laundry & various other mechanics of morning.

I only remembered it while loading up the washer. I realized that all of my sports bras (and by all I mean 3) were starting to exhibit a decent amount of sweat funk. So, with a song in my heart I topped off the washer with my current slightly rank bra before adding soap and letting her rip. Afterwards I thought giddily, 'Oh yeah, I could try it out for a bit'.

I went downstairs and opened the envelope. Immediately I didn't like the synthetic, rough fabric. It reminded me of the surface of a cast. Though less rigid. I slipped it up and over forearms and head, but it got stuck. Awkward on my shoulders. I had to slowly but stiffly tug it down my back bit by bit.

The experience didn't get any better.

I thought I might find a way to press my expectations through the discomfort. But the force of my fantasy didn't push me past the sixty minute mark. Sure I liked the way it made me look in some of my tighter shirts. But the pinch behind my armpits made me wince  and pushed my usually stout shoulders into a slouch. Besides it really didn't do much more than my tightest sports bra already does.

Wearing and taking off the binder just made my breasts feel absolutely massive. Having all of the pressure on my chest, just served to remind me every moment of each inch of flesh the binder touched. I could never not be thinking about my chest and it's size while wearing it. I'm sure I could adjust out of feeling this way but honestly I don't want to. That didn't stop me from wanting to want to and feeling guilty for not wanting to.

The worst part came when I took it off and I was hit in the chest with the realization that the only other garments I'm comfortable (com)pressing my chest were wet and swishingly unavailable. I just sat there with red stress marks in my armpits, my chest achingly huge and aware of itself.

My sports bras do more for me in terms of getting my breasts out of the way when it comes to moving though the world. But more than that, they get my breasts off of my mind, which is great. They enable me to think of my chest as just my chest. This ease and flexibility is an extraordinary tool in navigating my gender.

I mostly ordered a binder out of sartorial naiveté. Because I lust after the clean lines of menswear and want some of my looks to not include a lumpy chest. I have a vague desire for smaller breasts and a more muscular chest but for the most part I love my breasts and have no animosity toward them. (I recognize I am lucky in this regard).

There's a part of me that loves thinking about clothes and presentation as all fun and games, but the truth is, it's only on my best days that I get to feel that way. Many days result is me feeling that my clothes are confining me.

All of the 50 minutes I spent in, putting on, and taking off the binder were painful and unsettling. But I kept it on for that long because I wanted to show myself I was “tough”. Or because some part of my brain shamed me away from comfort by screaming 'Real trans people are willing to suffer to ease their dysphoria (and so you should too).'

The shame and self loathing I felt gave me flashbacks to trying on prom dresses in high school. Except this wasn't about not being thin enough participate in the concept of pretty (which I never got that hung up on anyhow). This time it I felt like I wasn't tough enough to be trans and that because my gender dysphoria isn't actively painful that I am incapable of bravery or sacrifice.

Oftentimes trans* people are laughingly and empoweringly referred to as superheros, badass mutants, or as having extraordinary powers of bravery, endurance, or chutzpah. These are important stories. But they are just that, single stories about individuals. The trans* community is so diverse.

I love the power in these superhero narratives. But the way they glorify, and mythologize trans people's choices oversimplifies the complex and individualized abilities and tactics trans people create to cope with the suffering and discomfort of gender dysphoria. Worst of all it offers very few models and resources for newly out/realized trans folks (like me).

We see these “strong trans characters” and assume that transition and trans lives must include certain activities and compromises to be considered socially acceptable or brave. In Sophia McDougall's piece I hate Strong Female Characters she states that “The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts.” I would a argue that superhero trans narratives have done the same. And while the thing we're on what defensive about is very real and very dangerous we are more than just our fights against our own dysphoria.

I have a trans friend who will brush off or object whenever someone calls her “brave” for expressing who she is. Part of what I read into that refusal is her acknowledgement that being willing to suffer or to choose different forms of suffering is not bravery. She defines her dysphoria as suffering; a constant ache which can spike randomly or in reaction to certain experiences. Whereas I identify my dysphoria as a discomfort I regularly find myself bumping up against. The conditions of our lives and dysphoria differ. So too must our metrics for bravery.

As someone who has to balance the discomfort of my dysphoria with the discomfort of chronic pain and social anxiety, I don't always have the willingness or resources to suffer in order to ease my gender dysphoria. Sometimes I have to choose to ease my dyspepsia or my social anxiety first.

But too often that choice leaves me wondering, am I a coward? Am I  a disgrace to trans superhero narratives every where because I chose not to suffer the discomfort of a chest binder?

Of course not. (says my logical brain)

My body is a multi-purpose space for working on feeling okay. My unique gender and gender dysphoria are only some parts of this work and are not confined just to my physical body.

Because I've got many long term bodily concerns not related directly to my gender, I often prioritize my short term physical discomfort. This runs counter to the superhero narratives of trans folks that I love and clung to in the past and that have become a beacon for young trans people today.

For me complication of this narrative means choosing (for now) to forgo the discomfort of a chest binder. And to continue building myself and my expressions sans a traditional trans narrative.

I've decided that bravery, like dysphoria, has many forms. My bravery is apparently lumpy and unbound.

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