Over the course of my life, I have cried many times while looking in the mirror. Some tears have been shed mournfully, and others, joyfully.
I came to view myself as transgender at seventeen years old. Within a few days of coming to terms with this identity, I bought an ace bandage to bind my chest. At two o’clock in the morning, when my entire family was in bed, I snuck into the bathroom and wrapped the bandage once, twice, three times around my chest. Again and again, I wrapped it tighter, until finally, my torso was flatter than I had ever seen it. I pulled on a sweatshirt, took a look at myself in the mirror, and wept. That bandage was relieving me of what the trans community calls “gender dysphoria,” or the unsettling feeling of being disconnected from our bodies due to gender expectations and presentations. I don’t remember how long I looked at myself in the mirror that night, in pure joy.
But within a few minutes of putting on the binder, my entire upper body ached. With every breath, the bandage worked to further constrict my movement, leaving me breathless. And not in the way that I had hoped.
The next day, I ignored my instincts that told me to leave the binder at home and instead wore it to school. By the end of the day, my spirit was overjoyed—friends seemed to affirm my new look, right away, which made it easier for them to get my new name and pronouns right—but my body felt deflated. I couldn’t breathe. When I got undressed later in the afternoon, I found bruises lining my ribcage. My shoulders ached.
I kept wearing that bandage on my chest until a few months later, when I found a chest binder that was specifically designed for bodies like mine. Though it made chest binding a bit easier, I still had aches and pains that refused to subside. For six years, I bound my chest. For six years, I struggled to breathe on a daily basis. For six years, I had to decide between satisfying my soul (by choosing to bind) and satisfying my body (by choosing not to.) For six years, I took my chest binder off at night and could take my first full breath of the day, but I couldn’t look in the mirror. For six years, I tried to convince myself that having chest surgery wasn’t necessary, or even possible. There were plenty of reasons why I believed I couldn’t have surgery—financial inadequacy, fear of what others would think or say, and the concern that I just wasn’t trying hard enough to love my body as it was.
By the fall of 2014, I felt defeated. I was trying to become more physically active for the first time in my life, but I could hardly breathe. I could barely run half a mile before giving up and walking, slowly, back home.
A check-up with my doctor confirmed what I had been denying for years: my body could not handle being bound, despite how free it made me feel. My lung capacity had been reduced by 40% because of the binder.
My body knew, it seems, that chest reconstructive surgery was a kinder option than wearing a binder day in and day out. Eventually, I under-stood that too. Eventually, I found peace about it. That winter, I was able to find the funding that I desperately needed for surgery. And on April 21, 2015, I shed my binder for the last time. With it, I shed the need to choose between my inner self and outer self. I wandered into the hospital for surgery that day without a fear or concern on my heart.
A week later, my story seemed to come full circle as my surgeon unwrapped the post-operative ace bandage from my chest and allowed me to look at myself, fully, for the first time. I wept again, but this time, my body seemed to be weeping tears of joy for my soul.