AJ: So...physically, I'm very skinny and small-chested, currently sized out on the low end not only of most bras but also most clothes. I used to be a competitive athlete, with a very different body shape as a result, so I've had a variety of fit challenges through the years, and I have plenty of Feelings about that (the strongest of which is, to misquote Shakespeare, the fault lies not with us, but with our clothes).
The fit problems, along with my style preferences, have led me to sew most of my own clothes, including underwear. Because bra fitting and design is so challenging, I got pretty interested in it and started reading up--thus how I found Bras Outside the Box, Reddit's A Bra That Fits, and other resources.
I'm also a bit gender-weird. I wear a variety of top-half-underwear including both compression tops/binders and "regular" bras. I don't wear anything padded, which limits my choices a lot, especially in my size range.
Manufacturers seem to assume every person with a smaller chest wants mega-padding; maybe they're right, I don't know, but I seem to see a lot of women online who bemoan the fact that there aren't a lot of real-bra (as opposed to bralette) options for small-chested women who don't want to be heavily padded, especially at <$100. This is especially true in the small-band/small-bust combo, I think, unless you're both able to fit girls' sizes, with their close-set cups and straps and shallow profiles, and willing to wear girls' styles, which a lot of grown-ups aren't.
Bras Outside the Box: What does "gender-weird" mean for you personally?
AJ: I use that term with tongue firmly in cheek...I haven't really found a single term for my gender that feels totally comfortable. Gender-weird is just a play on "gender-queer", which is what I hear the youngsters say these days. It feels like that term belongs to a younger generation than mine. Before there was queer, there was just plain weird!
In a perfect world I'd be androgynous, except that usually when people use that word, they actually mean a person of one perceived gender who's using presentation details (clothes, makeup, mannerisms, etc.) of another gender. When I say androgynous, I mean that you might look at me and think, huh, wonder whether that person's male or female. (And since we're in a hypothetical perfect world here, this thought would be followed by a shrug of indifference.)
In terms of presentation in the non-hypothetical, non-perfect world, I present differently depending both on my mood and what I'm doing (bowing to social norms at work is the biggest thing that causes me to sway a bit more feminine). My personal spectrum probably centers somewhere just to the masculine side of Katherine-Hepburn-in-a-suit.
BOTB: Where do you get your binders? I know next to nothing about these -- are there particular brands or sources you would recommend for others interested in trying them?
AJ: So, I do have a couple of big-picture tips before I talk sources.
One: safety first. Binding improperly can be dangerous to your breathing, which is no joke, so check out these guides on how to bind safely:
Binding 101: Brands, Care Tips, and Health
Two, and this might sound a little airy-fairy, but as someone who's just about old enough to qualify as an elder, my words of wisdom are: if you choose to bind, don't do it because you hate something about yourself, your body, and/or the way you look—do it as a way to love the person you are, and to manifest that person a little more visibly. You only get one physical body in this life, and it's stupid-easy to hate and abuse it for all it isn’t. The more courageous path is to use it as a tool to manifest your awesomeness in the world.
All right, pep talk over; moving on. I've tried a few binding options, including compression sports bras, bandeaus, short tops, and tanks. All have advantages and disadvantages. These suckers are really tight, and therefore really hard to get in and out of. If you have arm, shoulder, neck or back injuries or immobility, I'd suggest a bandeau-style that you can fasten around your waist and then hike up. If you're a wheelchair user or spend lots of time in hard chairs, I'd suggest something with velcro on the side--those hooks and eyes are mighty uncomfortable against a chair, and pullovers require olympic-level wriggling to get in and out.
In general, the easiest way to get into a pull-on binder is to pull it up your legs, rather than down over your shoulders. Again there’re lots of guides online. My personal favorite is a GC2B tank binder, which is US-made of a soft and silky material that binds well, has low-profile edges that disappear pretty well under a thick t-shirt, and isn't tooooo torturous to get in and out of. They have really good customer service as well.
BlueStockings Boutique is a great source for a variety of options (not just binders, but also some in-betweens), some of which are definitely aimed at the gender-nonconforming, and it's a woman- and queer-owned business.
I’ve also been eyeballing Origami Customs on Etsy, which provides hand-built gender-spectrum friendly undies, including binders and gaffs. I haven't shopped here, since I sew myself, but it’s awesome to have that resource available if you aren't feeling the mass-market options, or if they don’t work for your body for any reason.
BOTB: When you look for bras, are you seeking something that works similar to a binder, or do you sometimes want to wear something without compression?
AJ: I don't wear major compression all the time. I think there’s a perception that binding is an all-or-nothing deal, but it’s not. Like shaving your legs, it’s a choice you have to make over and over again!
Sometimes I don't need to bind (thank you, vests and winter layers), and sometimes my chronic illness kicks up and I can't. And sometimes I don't want to! Compression can be uncomfortable, or it can feel tucked-in and secure, depending on the day. My top-undies drawer consists of binders, sports bras, camisoles, bralettes, and, yes, a couple of "real" bras. (A friend of mine calls them "big girl bras". Ha!) Sometimes I wear nothing at all, but even for my small chest, it’s not that comfortable to run, jump, or hurry in that mode, especially since I’m used to some containment.
BOTB: Which bras have you found that fit and work well with your style, if any?
AJ: The first time I put on a bra I’d made—it didn’t fit, of course, and was actually a bit too small, which I didn’t even think was POSSIBLE—it felt amazing. I had never put on a bra that actually touched fabric to my whole breast; my bras had always gaped or stood away from my chest somewhere. That experience convinced me to keep pursuing ‘regular’ bras as an option. Someone on reddit described that feeling as “a boob hug”, which just cracked me up.
I've had no luck with ready-to-wear bras, in part because I'm picky about fit; in part because I absolutely won't wear push-ups; and in part because I have a size and shape that's really not served by the mass market. A Bra That Fits is full of complaints from my fellow small-band-small-bust people re: grading of smaller sizes, and the dearth of shallow, wide, unpadded options for smaller busts.
The bras available in my size generally have wires either one or two sizes too narrow, which is very uncomfortable. 30Bs typically have wires in the 4.25-4.5" width range. Anything less than 4.75" is torturous for me, and 5" is about perfect. Add to this a bony and slightly concave sternum that means full-length wires bruise and hurt like crazy, and, yeah, I'm not very fittable in ready-to-wear.
I'm very curious about the French brand Ysé, which appears to have small-size, unlined bras, but I haven't been really flush enough to order, with the potential for international returns...though perhaps now that the Euro is down I should re-think that decision!
BOTB: Anything else you'd like to share about yourself or your search for a good bra?
AJ: It's strange how philosophical I've been feeling about the search for an undergarment I don't even feel any particular connection to, beyond an intellectual one in the challenge of its construction. I guess my biggest lesson on bra fit is that if something doesn't fit, or if you feel like you'll never find anything, it's not because there's something wrong with your body. It's because of marketing, and statistics, and manufacturing imprecision, and a whole bucket of other factors that go into putting ready-made bras on the shelves.
Not only that, but it's OK to want what you want, whether that's mash-em-flat or cakes-on-a-plate, no matter whether your physical body matches that or not, no matter if it changes over time or from day to day.
Want to share your bra story? Please contact me!