by Mel King[easy-media med=”8374″ mark=”gallery-6llSwa”]
The alarm clock crackles on with the intermittent strains of a weak-signaled radio station. It’s too loud, but it’s always too loud, and I have become adept at sitting up to turn it off quickly. I haven’t gotten enough sleep, but I pull my body up and to the bathroom, undressing quickly and taking a scalding shower. After my shower, I dry off and immediately begin to get dressed.
Standing in front of the mirror, I look down at my chest for the first time all morning. I used to spend this moment seething with hate and rage. I’d stare at my chest thinking I hate you I hate you I hate you, like I could will them away if I tried hard enough. When my brother and I were younger, my mother said to me, “You don’t have to like him, but you do have to love him.” That line echoes in my head from time to time as I get dressed. With top surgery pending, the effort to reconcile my chest has been rendered obsolete. I don’t have to love them. I do not even see them as separate entities because to do so would grant them permanence.
Getting dressed has become a waiting game.
Now, I barely register the sight of them. I see the acne that has developed on my chest, the hair that has begun to sprout, but my gaze does not rest on the chest itself. This disconnect is never a conscious thought. My actions have become mechanized with the monotony of protecting myself from my own body. I put my binder on first. I always put on my binder first.
My binder—a “compression vest,” built with layers of spandex specifically to bind a chest—takes no less than two full minutes of struggle to put on. Glancing quickly, one might think it an undershirt at first, albeit a peculiar one made out of spandex. It’s long enough to come down over my hips, which is the first part of the process: pull it down taut. Then, the binder gets pulled up, folded in half, folded under and up once more. After this, I push my chest up and separate them, manipulating them to simulate pecs. Over the binder go my undershirt, t-shirt, and usually a button-up.
In these moments of getting dressed, I am not thinking about the inability to truly catch my breath all day or the pain that will undoubtedly rip down my back at around 6:30 every night. When I first learned about binders, no one told me about the shallow breathing or the pain, but these are routine now. Maybe this is how my body has learned to cope: it understands that it didn’t do what it was supposed to, and now it has to deal with the consequences. Which is not to say that my body does not retaliate. The welts that have begun to form in my armpits are testament to its constant struggle.
I will not leave my room without my binder; it isn’t even an option. I usually get dressed in the bathroom, so I can put my binder on as quickly as possible after showering. When my girlfriend asks me to run to the store and get something, when I get called in the middle of the night on duty as a Resident Assistant, when I am running late for work and have ten minutes to run thirteen blocks, the binder is always the first thing I grapple with.
This wasn’t always my process. I used to just wake up and take a shower, pull on a t-shirt and jeans and be done with it. But then they showed up. I probably should have expected it, should have been more prepared. Still, I naively believed that I would eventually grow up to be a guy. I just knew it was going to happen one day, that I only had to wait it out.
I waited until my sixteenth birthday, until much too long after my chest had begun to change from its former surfboard flatness. I waited until I knew, unequivocally, that there was no going back; I would never grow up to be the boy I thought I’d be, at least not without assistance from the outside world. The intervention came slowly at first: I found that if I bought a sports bra that was at least one size too small, the elastic would hold my chest down just enough to be passable in baggy clothes. I spent the next two years in clothes that were not my size, trying to be someone else. As much as I was performing masculinity for the world, I was also trying it on to find out what it meant to me.
When I moved from Albany to Brooklyn for college, I also began the move toward a self that felt truer, toward a gender devoid of questioning and confusion. Instead of the trans women decades my senior I’d met in Albany, I found connections to other, younger trans guys like myself. We built a makeshift family around a shared understanding of what it felt like to walk around in a body you knew wasn’t all yours, even if parts of it were.
This community, these men and boys, taught me so much without ever giving instructions. They showed me how to assert myself, how to navigate the world in masculine ways, how to own my maleness. I observed how they acted and interacted with each other, living examples of the words they spoke. I paid careful attention to how they learned to navigate new spaces: a teacher transitioning in the classroom learning how to reintroduce himself to colleagues and students, a softball umpire navigating his new role as a man on a women’s team. Like me, so many of these men had led lives that strongly biased them against men. Together, we now strive to enact a masculinity divorced from anything we’ve been exposed to. We had all seen men, cisgender and trans, who had buttressed their own strength with racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence. Too many of us had been on the receiving end of masculinity gone awry. We’d seen distant fathers who were emotionally vacant, brothers who couldn’t put down their virulent homophobia long enough to say, “I love you.” When I was starting to steal swipes of Gillette foam to shave my hairless face in high school, my own working class father had no time to answer questions about how to stop nicking my jaw. Now, when I pull on my binder every morning, I feel my community bound up with me in solidarity. Gender theorists talk about performing gender, about putting on gender every day. I know that my masculinity is, like anyone else’s, borrowed and ill fitting at times. So many who have come before me performed masculinity—male, boy, son, butch —and when I pull layered spandex over my skin, I know that history is being pulled on, too. I hope that when my binder is no longer necessary, post-surgery, that this history stays with me.
Over the past two years, this has become my daily reality: wake up, shower, fight with my binder, get dressed. The discomfort and struggle are part of my routine now. The pain that shoots down my back from the compression, the way that I can’t quite ever catch my breath, is part of how I know my body is actually mine. I have surrendered the ability to fill my lungs for the prize of being perceived as male. When I have surgery, this routine will be cast aside, maybe literally laid upon a fire and burned away. Getting ready to leave the house will not take effort; I will simply put on my shirt and go, no longer besieged by the ritual of survival. No longer deprived of the simple act of breathing.