Trans Summer School: Gender Expression Gear

Trans Summer School!

We all engage in gender expression to some degree, be that embracing the styles and symbols that are expected of our gender, rejecting them, or inventing new ones.

For trans folks (and non-binary, genderqueer, agender, and all other gender non-conforming folks) gender expression can be a lot more tricky than it is for many cisgender people. How do you find clothing when many companies don't acknowledge that people who are built like you exist? If you body doesn't quite have all the bits you wish it did (or has some bits you really wish it didn't), how can you present your body in a way that makes you feel like yourself?

This guide is designed to help you answer those questions and more. We'll cover everything from bras to STPs and do what we can to help you find what you need to express your gender the way that you want to.

Clothing

Where and how you go about getting clothing to match your gender depends on your support system and your resources.

If you have supportive family, they might be able to help you buy new clothes. If resources are tight, thrift stores are an excellent option. They also work well if you want to buy clothes but are afraid a parent will throw them out if they find them. You’re out less money than if they’d been bought at a retail store. You may also consider placing unwanted items for sale at a consignment shop if they are in excellent condition and haven’t been mended or altered, and using your store credit to pick up clothes you like.

Some retailers cater to trans and otherwise gender nonconforming clientele. Their prices can be high — many use ethical labor practices, which can drive costs up — but if you can swing it over time, a selection of a few nice pieces can become the backbone of a bigger wardrobe supplemented by less costly items.

Trans clothing swaps are explicitly for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people and make an excellent resource. They give participants the chance to trade in the clothes that don’t match their identity and pick up items that do. Some are done in person, but people also organize them online. You can find local swaps by searching for “trans clothing swap” and your area (or the nearest big city), or checking out a local (or semilocal) LGBQT resource center — you could also organize your own! An LGBQT center might be amenable to letting you use their space for a few hours for a clothing swap.  We've compiled a brief list of some of the bigger online-based swaps.

Swimwear

Beaches and swimming pools can feel off limits to trans and otherwise gender nonconforming communities, because so much swimwear seems designed to reveal as much of your body as possible, including parts that you may not be comfortable with other people seeing. In the last few years, companies have started designing swimwear with members of these communities in mind. There are also ways to adapt certain generic swimsuit pieces to fit your needs, and sometimes good options come from surprising places, like companies that specialize in modest dressing — they make swimwear that tends to obscure the places you don’t want people looking at too closely.

Binders, Packers, & Bras Oh My

Some items are designed specifically to help transgender and otherwise gender nonconforming people manage their gender dysphoria or engage in genderplay, while bras and underwear sometimes benefit from a little boost. Many of these items are available from specialty stores, some of which are linked below, and you can also find them in LGBQT-friendly sex stores, like Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland. However, be aware that these stores typically don’t allow customers under 18 in because of zoning laws.

Binders

A binder is a top that compresses your chest. If you've got breasts you want to make disappear, binders are your friend. It may take patience to find one that works for you, because some binders can be uncomfortable and may make it difficult to breathe, and when that happens, you’re either wearing the wrong binder, or you’re not fitting your binder correctly. If your freedom of movement or ability to breathe are restricted by what you’re wearing, you’re endangering your health. If you have asthma or any other respiratory illness, you should really talk to your doctor about binding, because it could be dangerous for you. (If you’re not out, or comfortable being out, try asking your doctor about similarly restrictive garments like tight sports bras and wet suits.) Fortunately, there are lots of options available and many online retailers will happily accept exchanges, allowing you to order several different models to find the right fit.

Never wear a binder for more than eight hours, and always take your binder off to sleep. On an airplane, where dehydration and immobility can cause circulatory problems, make sure to drink lots of water and move around, taking some stretches throughout the flight. When you’re exercising, you’ll need to take your binder off for safety (sorry!). A comfortable sports bra (many folks swear by Frog Bras) can help keep things under control, in combination with a loose top to help obscure your silhouette.

And now, a safety tip:. Ace bandages are public enemy number one, because so many media portrayals of trans men show them using Ace bandages to bind. If you’re new to exploring gender expression, you could easily assume that Ace is the go-to choice. But they’re actually bad for you to use. Ace bandages are designed to constrict and immobilize, which is exactly what you don’t want to do. They can mess with your breathing, bruise your ribcage, and even cause you to tear a muscle, and you definitely shouldn't’t wear them while engaging in strenuous activity. The other DIY item you may be tempted to use is duct tape. After all, there’s nothing duct tape can’t do, right? Well, it can’t act as a safe binder. It’s not breathable and can cause pain and tearing when you try to take it off.

Sometimes, the odds are stacked against you and you’re blessed with more than your fair share. No matter what kind of binder you try on, your chest might be impossible to conceal. Fortunately, there are lots of fashion options you can use in combination with a binder to minimize the appearance of your chest, including artful layering and loose tops.

Always take good care of your binder. Follow the laundering instructions carefully and make sure to wash it regularly, like you would any article of clothing. (For discreet laundering, slip it into a pillowcase or hand wash.) The material should be a natural fiber that wicks away moisture, or an acceptable blend of synthetics — something like neoprene isn't’t a good idea, because it traps moisture and can cause chafing, blistering, and discomfort. If you do notice some irritation under your binder, consider wearing a cotton undershirt under it, or sprinkle some baby powder before you put it on. Persistent chafing, blisters, and redness are a sign that you’re not wearing the right garment. If you start feeling itchy or uncomfortable during the day, don’t be afraid to duck into the backroom for a couple of minutes to release your binder for a little “chest break.”  

If at all possible, see if you can obtain multiple binders. That way, if one gets lost or damaged you’re not scrambling to find a replacement. Having multiples also helps you avoid “washing this binder” becoming your only hobby.

So how do I fit a binder? Great question! Every binder is a little bit different, and every body is too. Start by following the measuring guide provided by the retailer or manufacturer. If you can, use tailor’s tape to ensure you get accurate measurements (and don’t tug that tape, because you’ll stretch it!). Follow the directions for putting your binder on — some use Velcro and are designed to be wrapped and adjusted. Others are built more like undershirts or very full-coverage sports bras, and are pulled on as a single garment. Wriggling in and out of a binder can be a pain — we find that it helps to turn it inside out, put it on like a skirt, and then flip it up so you can slip your arms through. It feels dorky, but it works! Then, make some adjustments to get your chest looking and feeling even, and check in with yourself.

Is it so tight that you can’t breathe, are dizzy, or feel like someone’s wringing you out in a vise? Your binder isn't’t fitting right. If it has adjustable components, loosen it up. If it doesn't, it’s time for the next size up. Your binder should be snug, but loose at the same time, like a cat’s collar. Do you feel like the edge of the binder is digging into your armpits? You may be able to trim it (and ideally hem it to maintain the fabric’s integrity). Is the bottom rolling up? You can also trim and hem that! Do you feel like the seams are itching, scratching, or digging in? Try an undershirt, and if that doesn't’t resolve the problem, it’s not a good binder for you. Try bending, twisting, stretching, and taking some deep, even breaths. If you feel at all constricted, your binder is too tight.

If you’re disappointed with the look of your chest, don’t panic. You might need to try a different binder. (Separately: Please don’t stack your binders!) If you have a very large chest, it’s time to start thinking about layering and wearing loose tops (a nice button-down can hide a shocking amount). Try not to slouch, because you can give yourself back problems. You might find some good tips at trans and otherwise gender nonconforming fashion sites, where lots of people have had similar problems — like one of the authors of this very tutorial, who had a DDD cup prior to top surgery, and got very skilled at creative fabric arranging! Reviews like this roundup by Sam Dylan Finch can offer insight into the different kinds of binders available and which one might be right for you.

How do I get a binder? There are lots of options, depending on the level of support you can access. If you’re out and your family is supportive, you may be able to go with a family member to a retail store, or borrow a credit card to order online. If not, don’t despair. Some trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people get around family problems by putting cash directly onto a retail gift card, which can be used like a credit card, but without the paper trail. If you’re low income or otherwise in a bind, so to speak, lots of trans organizations deliver free used or donated new binders to those in need. If you really cannot access a binder, an unpadded sports bra can work. Make sure you try it on before you buy it, because some models still push your bust out, which is the opposite of what you want.

Show me the binders! Okay, okay. Here you go.

Brand-spankin’ new binders:

Free -- yes, free! -- binders for people in need:

Taking a trip to bra town

If you’re a transfeminine person looking to enhance your top half, you’re in for the adventure of trying to find a bra that fits. Fortunately, there’s reams of material available on the subject — including measuring guides if you don’t have a local trans-friendly bra store or lingerie department. But we’we've got some style tips for you, too.

Consider a front-closure bra. They’re a lot easier to put on, but they’re also spaced slightly more widely than other bras. If you have a broad chest or shoulders, they’ll fit more comfortably. While you’re at it, if you’re having trouble with bra strap length, consider getting a convertible bra — the straps are longer because they’re designed to be worn in so many different positions. And if those skinny little straps are digging into your shoulders and driving you up the wall, there are bra strap pads available. They’ll cushion and widen your straps so they rest more comfortably.

If you find yourself hating underwires or struggling to find an underwire bra that fits, don’t panic. Wire free bras are readily available and they can be a much more gentle fit. Some are also super cute: Bralettes are lovely little lacy frothy confections and bandeaus are pretty sweet too. It can be a little trickier to use inserts with these designs, so keep that in mind while you’re trying them on.

Bra inserts and breast forms. If you want to enhance the appearance of your chest, bra inserts are readily available from a lot of retailers and they’re often pretty affordable. Some bras are specifically designed to work with inserts, with pockets so they don’t make a run for the border. While you totally can use a pair of socks, they’re going to be hard, lumpy, uncomfortable, and not very natural looking, unless you’re visiting Planet Sockboob. Basic inserts are totally worth the minimal investment.

When you find a bra you love, buy more than one. Manufacturers redesign and discontinue their models all the time, and it’s heartbreaking to say farewell to an old friend and realize that you’ll never be able to replace her. Keep some backup bras around.

Take care of your bras. After seeing some eye-popping price tags, you might understand why we’re so emphatic about this one. Like your underpants, bras hang out close to your skin picking up sweat, stretching out, and getting into trouble. Many bras can actually be safely washed in cold water in a lingerie bag (or pillowcase) on a gentle cycle with mild detergent, and then hung to dry (don’t torture your bras by running them through the dryer). Hand washing will definitely help them last longer, and is a must for silk and fragile lace, unless you enjoy picking shreds of a beloved bra out of the washer.

We’we've got some shopping guides as starting resources for you:

Finding bras and breast forms

Packing like a Pro

When it comes to equipment for your bottom half, if you’re a transmasculine person your options depend on whether or not you want to pack (a.k.a. make it look like there is a penis in your pants). Some folks use a sock to help create a bulge, while others prefer a packer. What’s a packer, you ask? It’s a soft, realistic looking penis made out of materials like silicone. For some people, packing can create a sense of confidence and comfort. If you’re using a packer, you’ll need underwear that’s either designed to hold a packer or has a snug fit (like briefs or boxer briefs). Some people prefer to wear a separate harness to manage their equipment.

Treat your packer with love. To help them last as long as possible and to keep them from getting, well, icky, you need to keep your packer clean. Most packers sold should include directions for the care and keeping of your new friend. If they don’t, all you need to know is what material your packer is made of. If it’s silicone, it’s durable enough to be boiled. If it’s made from elastomer/cyberskin/softskin or rubber it will need a gentler touch. Hand wash it with soap and warm water, then dust with cornstarch. If you need to put your packer away, make sure it’s all the way dry before you store it (or put it in a sealable plastic bag) or you’ll end up with gunk on your junk.

There are tons of different packer styles and designs available, including a range of skin tones, circumcised and uncircumcised, soft, semi-firm, and firm. Some companies also make “pack and play” packers that stay politely tucked away most of the time, but include a flexible rod so they can be bent to stand at attention.

Packing underwear and harnesses

If you’re not packing, or you can’t afford/don’t want packing-specific underwear, the world of boxers, boxer-briefs, briefs, and anything else you can imagine is your oyster (here’s some underwear inspiration, courtesy of Autostraddle). If you find that underwear cut for people assigned male at birth is uncomfortable, or you have underwear drawer snoops who might comment, a growing number of underwear companies are making “boyfriend-style” underwear with the look and feel of boxer briefs and similar designs, but a cut designed for people with a curvier body shape and wider hips. It’s a great option for going stealth!

If you’re here, there’s probably a good chance that you’re still menstruating (and we’ll be addressing menstruation and gender dysphoria in another post). Menstruation is often super uncomfortable for people who don’t want to be having periods, and there are a lot of menstrual suppression options available. In the short term, if you’re still having periods, it does mean you might need to undertake some underwear considerations.

While wearing tampons or using a menstrual cup is a discreet way to manage menstruation that doesn't’t interfere with the line of your underwear, it might not be an option for you, and that’s okay. If you use pads, you’ll want to consider how well they’ll seat on your underoos, especially if they come with wings (or snaps, if you’re using cloth pads).

One option you might want to consider is menstruation underwear. It allows the wearer to free bleed without leaking, although if you have a particularly heavy flow, you might experience some spotting. It’s also super comfortable. Some brave Buzzfeed staffers tried them out if you’re feeling skeptical and want a review!

Menstruation underwear:

The brave new world of STP

Stand to pee (STP) devices behave pretty much exactly as advertised: They help you extend your range so that you can urinate while standing up without getting pee all over your sneakers. Some are reusable, with their own nifty cases for storage, and others are disposable. While some people assigned female at birth can stand and pee comfortably without assistance, it can help to have an STP, no matter what your gender (squatting in the woods is no fun).

Be warned that you might want to practice in the shower before graduating to the toilet, because it takes a while to perfect your aim.

STPs, Whee!

Underwear for the transfeminine

Before we delve into the world of panties, a note: It’s a very big world. Lingerie is a multibillion dollar industry with the product range to prove it, and you can find everything from lacy French knickers to days of the week cotton briefs. That means that you have a tremendous amount of leeway for gender play and expression via your underwear, so have fun with it! As a pleasant bonus, if you’re not out, no one gets to see your underwear without your permission, so it can become a way of feeling more comfortable under your clothes if you’re forced to present as a gender you are not for safety.

If you’re transfeminine, whether or not you want to tuck — shifting your factory-issued equipment to a more discreet location — is the main influencer of what underwear to choose. Depending on your inclinations, you can wear underwear specifically designed for tucking, or you can take advantage of something called a “gaff”: An undergarment that helps you pull your penis and testicles back to create a smooth silhouette, allowing you to wear any sort of underwear you want over it.

You may seem some dubious sources suggesting you use tape to help you tuck. Please don’t do that. There are underwear options for you that are cheaper than a roll of duct tape and not nearly as painful to remove. If you can’t afford a gaff or tucking panties, a snug bikini bottom can work like a charm (and you can often find them on steep discount towards the end of the summer).

If you opt not to tuck, that doesn't’t mean that feminine underwear isn't’t an option for you. Anybody with any genital arrangement can wear whatever underwear they want! However, you may find some styles, designs, and fabrics uncomfortable, so you’ll want to think about that when making purchasing decisions. For obvious reasons, stores don’t accept returns on underwear.

You’ll likely want to look for items in natural fibers like cotton, silk, and bamboo, without scratchy lace. You may also want to seek out full coverage or loose underwear, which will provide support and greater comfort than, say, a thong. Tap pants can be a really comfortable, cute, fun underwear option, and, bonus, they’re super easy to sew if you can’t pick up new underwear or don’t want to deal with a lingerie department or store.

To the shopmobile!

What to do if you can’t be all the way out yet

Sometimes you’ll be in a circumstance where you’re not able to express your gender through clothing, which is frustrating in a world where people like to say that “clothes make the man.” (Or woman, or genderqueer, or androgyne, or neutrois….) Maybe it’s not safe for you to be out yet, or you’re not comfortable making a huge leap in how you dress and would prefer to take baby steps as you explore your gender expression. Heck, maybe you just need a way to feel like yourself while you save up money for the big-ticket items like packers and breast forms.

In those scenarios, there are some small actions you can take to subtly be yourself and express your gender with the greatest degree of comfort possible. Adding a single item to your routine, no matter how unobtrusive, can help affirm your sense of self, whether you’re a girl, boy, or something else altogether. You might find it helpful to pick a few aspirational models and explore how they express their gender — whether you want to implement a simple change like wearing a hat or you want to copy their style more extensively, they can be good starting points for deciding how you want to express yourself.

Scents: Though scent itself may be genderless, it’s also highly gendered. We tend to think of certain smells as masculine and others as feminine. If you’re looking to present more masculine, a deodorant or cologne that’s marketed “for men” can help you do that. If you’re leaning feminine, look for the (sadly usually pink) rows of deodorants and perfumes for women. Deodorant in particular has the benefit of being cheap, so it shouldn't’t set you back too much. Even changing the detergent you use can make a difference, if you can convince your household to think about switching brands.

Think bright, light, floral scents (roses, lavender, citrus, jasmine…) for a more feminine scent profile, and heavier, earthier tones (vetiver, ginger, evergreen…) for the masculine end of the scale. If you want to get fancy, you can have scents custom-blended or even make your own. We’re big fans of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, which makes an array of scents for people of all genders, and many BPAL fans hold “imp exchanges,” trading off small vials of their scents for people to try. Don’t be afraid to mix and match for more ambiguous, intriguing scents that push at the boundaries of gender, and remember that you don’t need to pile scent on — the old saying goes that if people can smell you, you’re wearing too much. Go lightly to give the people around you a feeling of scent without assaulting them.

If an obvious change isn't’t workable, you can always go neutral. Use scent-free detergent, deodorant, and other body care products to create a neutral profile.

Shaving: Body hair is profoundly associated with gender, and it can cause deep dysphoria, whether you’re longing for a beard or frustrated by heavy leg hair. Shaving or not shaving your legs, arms, armpits, or face can also help you feel as though your gender expression is a little closer to what you want it to be. If you think people will be paying close attention, you can prepare an innocuous explanation — it’s for sports, it feels more comfortable with your clothing, you’you've decided to stop shaving your armpits because you don’t think it’s necessary.

Underwear: If your parents or the adults you live with are not supportive of you, this tip is only going to work if you do your own laundry, are able to hand wash things, or stick with ambiguous underwear choices. If you want to feel more masculine, boxers, boxer briefs, or even a six pack of tighty whities can help you feel good. If you’re looking to feel feminine, you can try wearing undies in fun colors or patterns, or perhaps bedecked with lace. You can also try wearing a bralette or bandeau under your clothes. Since bralettes don’t have padding or wire, it’s easy to wear them without people noticing.

Thanks to the growing number of underwear manufacturers who are producing more gender-neutral garments, you may be able to find things in the section associated with your sex assigned at birth that will still feel comfortable to wear. Maybe that means briefs in pastel colors if you’re trying to soften your look, or boy shorts in simple primary colors or black if you want a more masculine-leaning gender presentation.

Color: Color has a striking amount of influence on how we perceive people, and depending on where in the world you live, you may not be able to make radical changes to the cut of your clothing, but you can play with the boundaries of color. If you’re assigned male, you could explore pastels or subdued prints in your button-down shirts. People assigned female could seek unpatterned clothes or those with simple, bold prints for a less femme look. If you have to wear skirts or dresses for cultural or social reasons and they make you feel uncomfortable, you could experiment with extremely simple, clean cuts without flares, ruffles, rouching, or other details. If you’re not sure about how to play with color, prints, and cuts, check out Pinterest and fashion sites to see what’s on-trend for people of various genders.

Hairstyles: The hair on your head is often used as a social cue to gender you, especially from a distance. If you’re in a conservative region and you’re not out, you might not be able to grow the hair you truly want, but you may be able to change it up a bit. Take advantage of hairstyle lookbooks to push the boundaries. It’s not just about long and short! There are lots of ways to cut and shape hair and some of them can drastically shift the look of your face. Some hairstyles are highly versatile, so you could leave the house with your hair styled one way, and change it up once you get to school or an event. You can also explore wigs, whether in the privacy of your own home or elsewhere — they carry the advantage of allowing you to mess with your hair without, you know. Messing up your hair.

We hope this guide has given you some places to start looking for gender expression gear. While the pace is slow, we're starting to see more and more clothing and equipment resources for gender non-conforming people. And that means there are more ways than ever to present the version(s) of you that feel right.