identity politics

On Butch Breasts, Binders, & Bras

I’ve returned to earth – mostly – from the altered state of consciousness of the Power, Surrender, & Intimacy workshop by Body Electric that happened here in New York City over the weekend. I have so very much to say about it, but that’ll have to wait for now, I need more time.

What I do want to write about is breasts. Specifically, mine – more generally, butch breasts.

Last week, I went for one day without my binder, which is really just a tight sports bra that clasps in the back rather than being a solid over-the-head slip-on. I wanted it laundered for the workshop, since I’ve been wearing it practically every day since I bought it.

I wore a backup bra that day, and all day long I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, in storefront reflections, in my button-down work clothes, or when I looked down. I remembered how I used to hate the uniboob problem, which many of my friends and lovers deemed unsexy or mannish, and it’s not that I like the uniboob look particularly, but as my gender has changed and grown and dropped into itself, the uniboob doesn’t look like a uniboob anymore: it looks like a chest.

It is not that I want to do away with my breasts. Don’t misunderstand me here: I think breasts are butch, just as I think the menstrual cycle is butch and pregnancy is butch and cunnilingus is butch – everything the female body does can be butch, because butch (in my use of the word*) has to do with masculinity on a female body.

And because I believe that the things a female body does are butch, and because my gender philosophies are deeply rooted in love and acceptance of my body as it is and in not classifying human experiences as owned by one gender or another, I have been holding back my desire to delve farther into my own masculinity. I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid it means I’ll be leaving my roots in female-ness behind, I’m afraid of being seen as reproducing the heteronormative paradigm or embodying penis envy. I’m afraid of being rejected by feminist and lesbian communities for being too masculine, for becoming the ‘enemy,’ for rejecting femininity instead of reclaiming it.

Breasts are a big piece of this fear for me. Mine are not so small – part of why I rarely pass: a 36DD, and have been since middle school. I’ve said since I was a teenager that a breast reduction is the only surgery I would consider. I read about Jess’s surgery – or others’ surgeries and body alterations – and I’m jealous.

But I’m afraid of what it means to want that alteration, to want to physically change my body to better fit a gendered idea.

After that day last week of wearing a regular bra, I started wondering: why do I even have this in my closet anymore? Why do I own this? My exploration of my own masculine/butch/boy/male embodiment is young – I’ve been calling myself butch since 2001, but only in the last three years have I really embraced it and actively, consciously developed it. And now, the farther I get into my explorations of gender, the farther I want to go.

It takes time to cycle through a wardrobe, and I don’t quite have the disposable income to go purchase all new bras – but I certainly won’t be buying any regular ones anytime soon. I’ve gone through this with my underwear already, years ago now, have cycled through all the old girl undies and haven’t owned any of those in years, only have boxers and briefs now. But that feels less obvious than binders and sports bras – no one can tell I wear only briefs except my lovers, I guess, but everyone can tell I bind my chest.

And see, what’s what it is now: my chest. Very different than boobs, breasts, tits. I have those, sure, but they’re underneath, they’re the other layer, the inner ring, something that now gets protected and covered, not out of shame or denial but simply out of layering, complexities, performance, a rich inner life, a duality, a whole person – me.

* Some say men can be butch, that “butch” is a term for a queer masculinity, or a non-traditional, progressive masculinity. I’m not certain I agree, but we definitely lack language to discuss different types of masculinity, and I have definitely observed some men who have a sense of butch energy.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

19 thoughts on “On Butch Breasts, Binders, & Bras”

  1. Daisy says:

    Very interesting post. I appreciate how you've really illuminated the gender spectrum here, the shades of gray amongst cisgendered, genderqueer, and trans. Too often I think we dichotomize into "wants to completely transform bodily" and "completely satisfied with bodily gender," when really people, cis and trans and otherwise, are wandering in between.

  2. First off, I love your blog and read all the time. This post is bringing me out of the woodwork.

    My gender-queer partner has been going crazy over her (large) breasts and trying to create a cohesive acceptance of both her body and gender identity. I love her breasts and the way she's made such a socially saturated feminine performance part butch. I read this post, read it to her, and we've been talking a lot about the points you've so exactly raised. Thanks for that.

    And I'll take my first comment chance to say that you're my one celebrity cheat. I'm all in for monogamy but for that one fantasy exception, which today my dear, is you.

  3. Jess says:

    Hey Sinclair. I definiitely feel you on the "real bra" thing. Before I had my surgery I had one "real bra" left. It had cost a ton so I couldn't stand to throw it out. Finding a real bra was always difficult for me because they didn't carry my size(38 or 40 EE) in most stores I went to and internet shopping was not really big back then.

    My surgery has definitely improved my life. Now I stand taller, I've gained confidence in public, I look much better in my shirts, and I can bind with a simple sports bra. I even appreciate my scars.

    I do wish I had gone all the way to flat, because I still feel that my body doesn't represent the way I feel inside. The main reason I didn't was because I was concerned about losing nipple sensitivity (TMI?) and I did anyway on the left side. One would think that all of the years it took me to make the decision that I'd be completely happy with it. Can't win.

    Nice post. :)

  4. dylan says:

    Ah great post. I love when you take a break from all the sex to think and write on very specific identity/gender/body topics.

    I am completely comfortable with my chest, but I am also tiny and therefore don't have to bind and am still able to appear flat chested in clothing. I love being shirtless and when I look in the mirror what is reflected back at me is definitely representational of what I feel inside. If they were bigger however, I don't think I would feel the same way. I'd bind for a while, but I think I would ultimately have top surgery.

    As far as bras go… I never wore one but then when I cut my hair short I started to pass as a guy and at the time, during highschool, it was really uncomfortable… so I started wearing a bra to add that signifying curve that everyone looks to when they can't figure out your face. Now, I'm kind of in a transitional space… I'd really like to ditch the whole bra deal… but then again, I don't want my nipples showing either. Sooo… I'll have to devise some sort of plan.

    Thought provoking entry and it came at a really good time!

  5. This post reminded me of a friend I lost touch with – her and her girlfriend were the 'dykes who raised me' as I call them.

    She always thought of and called her tits her pecs. I liked that. :)

  6. susu says:

    A very thought provoking post. I agree that there are many types of masculinity within both sexes.I am very comfortable being a woman. I choose to express my femininity in a untraditional manner. Otherwise I am not being true to my inner self.
    Is surgical altering yourself and taking T wanting to change your sex? or just making your body look how you feel inside? Because everyone is different there are probably many opinions

  7. linaria says:

    My partner has perfect breasts. Absolutely perfect, one-hundred-percent lovely. I play with them at every opportunity (and sometimes at inopportune times…I can't help it) and I'm pretty sure she likes it. They're about a 36C (or 34D, 40B, there's no standardization in that industry). But in no way does that interfere with my perception of her emerging masculinity, nor have any effect on the way I think she looks in dress shirts or whether I will call her Sir. It's a non-issue for me…as I hope it would be, in a perfect world.

    But me? I am very, very, femme, and have breasts that are Quite Large. They make me incredibly uncomfortable and I've often considered reduction surgery. So I think…these are universally female questions, although I recognize that butch women may have a different angle on the same problem.

  8. hey SS–what brand sports bra do you use? i'm always looking for new suggestions for binders that aren't exactly binders…

    thanks for the post!

  9. Jero says:

    radicaldoula.. great question. I'm curious too..

  10. KLK says:

    I'm 34-36C and I wear champion sports bras (because I'm ALWAYS at practice). My tits used to bother me until I started using my bra to carry my wallet/cellphone. Heh now my cleavage is just another pocket to me. I'm not sure why I pass so much considering I'm frequently pulling things out of my bra in public….

  11. I also run into the big breasted issue, being that I am 36DD. I wore sports bras for about 2 years before my back started to ache from lack of support and now I've transitioned into real bras again.. come to find that I actually really like the way I look in it. I don't feel any less butch or any more femme– I just feel like me. I like the way my body looks in my boxers and bra.. I like the way my shirts look over my bra-ed breasts. I feel like it makes them look smaller (maybe that's why I like it better?) and I feel more much confident knowing that they are being contained and made to look the same size (because it really sucks when my nipples are off center..) it's just very comfortable to wear a real bra for me and since I've found one that I like I think I'm sticking to it :)

  12. Jade says:

    One of the images that will be forever seared into my brain is my butch lover, leaning against the wall in her CK boxerbriefs and her black UnderArmor sports bra.

    To this day, it melts me into a puddled mess of femme.

  13. i've never seen a woman who looked less butch because of her breasts, and, though i couldn't have thought how to word it, i think it's essentially because of what you said about "chest" versus "breasts."

    dylan – i highly recommend undershirts! as someone whose only use for a bra is to cover up nipples, i've found that an undershirt does almost exactly the same thing as the sort of completely plain bra i wear. you can get boy's ones if the men's aren't tight enough to hold things down =) (note: undershirts are not just for butches – cut the bottom couple inches off and you can wear them under girly-tees and such, too) and, of course, there's the bonus that there is very little sexier than a hot girl in an a-shirt.

  14. Johnny says:

    Today is the first day in 6 months I wore a bra again, just round the house cos I'm washing my Binder. It's strange to keep catching sight of yourself and seeing a differently gendered figure. My girlfriend, who sees me naked all the time, is even finding it strange, exclaiming "hey, your a girl". I dont want to take T, or get chest surgery cos I like my tits, in the privacy of my own bed and home they're fun and I'm glad they are there. But, in public I know I don't wanna go out wearing a regular bra again, only my binder, even though its not fully effective and I rarely pass as a guy on account of my naturally curvy waist and large breasts. Im glad others feel the same way.

  15. This is a really interesting post. I had breast reduction surgery 2 years ago–not because I wanted to be more masculine…but because I had headaches and back problems. But I was in a more masculine state of mind when I had the surgery and it definitely helped out the illusion. All in all, I think my surgery was worth it. I'd definitely go back and do it again…and again..and again if I had to. I went down from a DDD to a small C. Smaller than I had hoped, but now I love my new body.

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