We need to call breast-binding what it really is

Yesterday I shared a post on the rise of breast binding among school-age females in the UK. I’m not supposed to call them young women. They’re non-binary individuals or trans men and that, we are supposed to think, is what makes the binding okay. Whatever the risks – “compressed or broken ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, back pain, compression of the spine, damaged breast tissue, damaged blood vessels, blood clots, inflamed ribs, and even heart attacks” – binding is justified because of the psychological benefits. There’s no other way, you see.

I look at arguments such as these and I literally want to scream.

I don’t disbelieve the accounts of pain and suffering. I don’t doubt the psychological distress of not wanting a breasts or a female body. I believe it all and empathise. Nonetheless, I find contemporary responses to this suffering unconscionable. Treating dysphoric young females as subjects in need of physical correction is both deeply regressive and misogynistic. We’re not giving these girls a chance.

I know what it is like to fight against the growth of a female body. I even know what it is like to “win.” Anorexia stunted me, both emotionally and physically. At 41, I’m the same height I was at 11, when I first became ill. I will always be a smaller person than I could have been. I chose to be this way. I didn’t see any other means of survival.

I used to be taller than my peers, but I watched them overtake me and thought to myself “well, let them. They can bear to grow. I can’t.” I’d look at other girls getting changed for PE, their breasts swelling, their hips widening, and I’d think “I couldn’t live like that. I could not bear it, the feel of that flesh on me.” I was terrified by the thought of my periods ever returning (I started at 10, stopped at 11). I was constantly checking the back of my skirt for some tell-tale rust-red stain. I’d rather have died than be fat, or what I thought of as fat, which was “adult female shaped.” I had to be straight, flat, undeveloped. I didn’t know of any other way to feel safe.

I could no more say to my anorexic former self “why not love your curves?” than I could say to a gender dysphoric female “why not accept your body and let it grow?” It wouldn’t work. The distress and fear inhabit every part of you. The thought of self-acceptance is pitiful and insubstantial when you’re dealing with the sensation of flesh touching flesh, curve folding on curve, all the moisture and scents that fill you with disgust. But what I will never, ever do is say to a girl who is suffering as I did “you are right. That body you reject can never be yours. You are destined for a lifetime of hunger and pain, of medical experimentation and the excision of hated flesh. You cannot live any other way.” That is not how you validate a girl’s experience of herself. That is not how you say “you matter and I believe you.”

We need to call the rise of binding, puberty blocking, mastectomy, testosterone prescriptions and hysterectomy for girls and young women what it is: Female Reproductive Mutilation. Just as with FGM, it is a practice in which females are complicit not because they are foolish, nor because they are morally weak, but because they are trying to survive in a culture which does not respect the full humanity of a female body that grows freely, intact and unharmed. The feelings of a girl who wishes to take a knife and slice off her own breasts are absolutely valid. She is not faking it. We should be listening to her, respecting her suffering. But this complicity? This acceptance of the hatred that has been growing in her year on year?

I think more highly of women and girls than that. I will not accept the racist Western bullshit that decrees that when others remove the clitorises of girls, they are barbaric, but when we bind their breasts and cause their uteruses to atrophy, we are merely respecting their true identities. We are not. We are turning away from their pain, concluding that if they are willing to take it on themselves, who are we to stop them? It’s a horrendous abnegation of responsibility.

I know what it is like to want to disappear. I know what it is like to reject femaleness. I also know that you can reach a point of wanting to grow, of finding a way through it, even though the discomfort never fully leaves you. We are denying girls the chance to make that choice later in life and we are endorsing their suffering now. It is unforgivable.

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