Island youth making their own chest binders for themselves and others

Island youth making their own chest binders for themselves and others

A group of youth on the Island has come together to create the P.E.I. Binders Project, an initiative aimed at increasing access to body binders for trans and queer people in the province — by producing their own.

Body binders are undergarments used to flatten and compress breast tissue for people in the trans and non-binary communities wanting to present as masculine. 

“Things like binders, it’s not like corsets — it’s not a fun thing you want. It’s a thing you need. And if you don’t have access to a thing you need, then you end up living a lifestyle that doesn’t suit you and it can lead to a lot of mental-health issues,” said Shannon Ayles, one of the youth involved.

The binders often help address gender dysphoria, according to the binders group. Gender dysphoria is the distress an individual may experience when their gender identity doesn’t match the one assigned at birth, and is a medically-recognized condition. 

Binders only recently available on P.E.I.

It wasn’t until about May 2018 that there were body binders available to purchase on the Island said Stephanie Dooley, store manager of Wild Impulse — a P.E.I. adult novelty store.

‘We would definitely like to get other brands in. But it was difficult to find a good, strong binder to begin with,’ says Stephanie Dooley, manager at Wild Impulse in Charlottetown. (Submitted by Stephanie Dooley)

The shop sells binders manufactured by a brand called Underworks, and offers two options: a shorter sports-bra-like fit and a longer fit, which falls to the underwear line, Dooley said.

Both options are offered in black, white or nude colours and are available in sizes ranging from extra-small to extra-extra-large, she said. The shorter-cut binder costs about $54 and the longer fit is priced at about $59, she said.

Customers who have come into the stores looking for binders have had positive feedback to the Underworks products available at the shop, Dooley said. But even so — the store would like to be able to offer more variety.

Step in the right direction

“We would definitely like to get other brands in. But it was difficult to find a good, strong binder to begin with,” Dooley said.

“No one is really selling binders. None of our regular suppliers were carrying them. We had to go on a hunt to find them.” 

The prototypes feature stretchy fabric the group says is similar to sportswear material. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Although having one brand of binder available on the Island is a step in the right direction, the youth behind the Binders Project want to help take accessibility for Islanders to the next level. 

“It’s kind of a collaboration. Essentially what happened is, I think we were complaining about binder availability in the Maritimes,” said Gabrielle Ayles, one of the members of the group and Shannon’s sibling.

Body binders are undergarments used to flatten and compress breast tissue for individuals in the trans and non-binary communities wanting to present as masculine. (Sam Juric/CBC)

Having just one brand available in the province is limiting, and even has the potential to harm youth, the group said.

“You have bone changes, you grow in height, you might have different changes in your fat, your chest grows as you grow,” said Kels Smith, one of the minds behind the project. 

“Like someone would go from a training bra to various sizes of bra — binders are kind of the same thing. One size isn’t going to fit you through your entire life.”

Youth who are low-income sometimes forgo quality and appropriate fitting in exchange for affordability and this can lead to youth hurting themselves, the group said. 

Comfortable prototypes

“If you have too much compression onto your chest it can cause damage to your skin, it can cause scratching of the skin and stretching. It can cause damage to your bodily tissues,” Smith said.

‘If you don’t have access to a thing you need, then you end up living a lifestyle that doesn’t suit you and it can lead to a lot of mental health issues,’ says Shannon Ayles. (Sam Juric/CBC)

The youth behind the project have been fashioning their own binders in various colours and materials and trying the prototypes on themselves for about a month, they said.

The prototypes feature stretchy fabric the group says is similar to sportswear material which, so far, tends to be a little more comfortable and soft on the skin than other fabric they currently have access to.

Not-for-profit

The group isn’t looking to make a business but rather want to give youth in need access to binders, they said.

Young people without credit cards to purchase binders online or without a car to be able to purchase binders for themselves are the group’s motivation, they said.

What you had to do was hop in a car, find someone to drive you … pay for the bridge, drive to Halifax, probably pay to stay in Halifax.— Kels Smith

Group members recalled the lengths to which they have gone to obtain body binders in the past.

“What you had to do was hop in a car, find someone to drive you … pay for the bridge, drive to Halifax, probably pay to stay in Halifax,” Smith said.

“Go to [an adult novelty] where you would walk in, try to guess your size, you would pick out a binder [purchase it] and then you would go to the nearby Starbucks … to try on the binder to see if it would fit you,” said Smith.

If the binder didn’t fit, they were forced to go back to the store, return the binder and repeat the process to find a binder that often didn’t fit well, said Smith.

Community interest

So far the group has made four binders for two of their members.

‘If you don’t have access to a thing you need, then you end up living a lifestyle that doesn’t suit you and it can lead to a lot of mental health issues,’ says Ayles. (Sam Juric/CBC)

“That’s something that we really need to work on, is getting a variety of sizes of binders and also of people to put in them,” Shannon said.

“We’ve had interest from friends and various youth. We have a lot of people that we’d like to make them for,” Smith said.

The group is looking to acquire sewing machines to help speed up production.

No plans to stop

Right now they’re relying heavily on Shannon’s hand-sewing skills and ability to teach the others through quick lessons.

Smith said the group is hoping to get a sewing machine to speed up the production process.

The group is planning to have a sewing event in the coming months where people from the community who either have sewing skills or need a binder can come and join the Binder Project’s efforts in creating more accessibility.

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