Cold Water Immersion and Chest Binding

Many people find that they wish to reduce the apparent size of their breasts. This could be for costuming or aesthetic reasons or might be because they are transmasculine or gender-non-binary. Binding the chest in a variety of ways is a common, none-permanent, way of achieving this and is an important part of many people's daily routine and psychological well-being.

Chest binding can take a variety of forms, from a purpose made binder, to layering sports bra’s, to actively binding the chest with compression, or ACE, bandages. Binding with bandages is associated with a number of risks and damaging health outcomes, but is still very common, particularly for young trans people as the required materials are very cheap and easy to obtain.

Due to the pronounced rise in people, particularly young people, openly identifying as trans, The Outdoors People and Simpson Training are currently working together to study and promote awareness of trans people in adventure education and one of the topics we wanted to examine was the effect of chest binding during cold water immersion.

 

Experimenting

The experiment took place in the River Ouse in York in February. In order to for them to make useful comparisons and keep everyone safe, it was important to us that the people going into the water should be experienced water-sports coaches which significantly limited our available volunteers for jumping in a river in a t-shirt in February!

In the end, the only person we could pin down was the author of this blog post, a 33-year-old cis male.  This is obviously less than ideal and as a result, we can only extrapolate so far as to what this experience would be like for someone with breasts that doesn’t normally bind, or for someone who is more familiar with binding but less familiar with cold water immersion. However, we think the results of this first experiment are important enough that they are worth sharing and hope to engage in more detailed experimentation with more participants next winter.

 
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Methodology

The participant

  • 33 years old
  • Cis male
  • In good health
  • Very practised and experienced at cold water immersion

The Test

While it is not the recommended method of doing chest binding, as it is restrictive and can cause health problems, we deliberately used compression bandages for our experiment in order to examine a "worst-case" scenario and one that is still reasonably likely to be encountered, particularly amongst younger participants.

The participant wore lycra leggings and a cotton t-shirt as representative or what a young person on an adventure education course or paddling taster session might wear.  They also wore a simple buoyancy aid and helmet and were secured to the bank using a throw-line.

Bank safety was provided by someone able to lift the participant out of the water who had a river knife and tough-cut scissors to hand.

Air temperature was around 7-9 degrees c with 20 mile an hour winds and water temperature was 2 to 4 degrees c

The participant “back fell” into the water so that he fully-submerged immediately and then spent a further 60 seconds up to his neck in the water.


Results

After entering the water Craig immediately noticed that his ability to breathe was massively restricted compared to what he would expect under normal circumstances.  While breathing is always limited at first during cold-water immersion, the effect was very pronounced and did not reduce over time the way it would normally.  Even for an experienced water sports coach it was a very alarming experience and could easily induce extreme panic in a less seasoned participant. The effect only lessened slightly upon leaving the water. The wet bandages had to be cut free by another person.

Several hours after the experiment, Craig was still very conscious of pain and muscle fatigue in his chest.


Recommendations

Physical risks to participants

While this is only one test involving only one person, the results were quite dramatic. We don’t think that it is safe for inexperienced participants to take part in cold water immersion activities while wearing this form of binding and tests on safer forms of binding should take place as soon as possible. There is always a chance of people panicking when they enter the water and chest binding appears to make that worse.

People who’ve undergone cold water immersion with a chest binder on may be more prone to subsequent fatigue and tiredness than other group members and the additional wet material around their core may increase the risk of hypothermia.

 

Emotional risks to participants

Please note that these are the observations of a cis male, while they have been read over by trans people and others with greater lived experience and knowledge, they are only of so much value in this context.

Alongside all the usual emotional risks involved in challenging adventure activities, we feel there are several others that should be considered in this context.

Even for an experienced watersports instructor the feeling of having their breathing restricted in that way was alarming and it was a significant emotional challenge for them to remain in the water for the full minute of the experiment.

Many people may not feel comfortable disclosing to a leader beforehand that they are wearing a binder

Craig needed to be cut out of the bandages after the test and this would likely be extremely upsetting for a trans participant, particularly if it was done by an instructor who they may not know well but might be the only person qualified and equipped to help. One trans test reader described this as a “nightmare scenario”.

People may feel pronounced dysphoria or emotional upset if they are asked not wear their binder, or chose to of their own accord, and people who are living as male may not wish to be “outed” to their peers.

Transmasculine people are frequently, and wrongly, judged socially against an unusually high bar of "masculinity"; showing weakness by being more at risk of panic during cold water immersion could leave them at risk of peer-to-peer criticism or even criticism, perceived or actual, from leaders.

 

Further study

In particular, we recommend that further testing takes place involving more suitable participants, but want to emphasise that from Craig’s experience we don’t think people who aren’t already very familiar with cold water immersion should deliberately do this test.

We would also like to see further testing done using other means of binding as these are already known to be safer than compression bandages under normal use.

We are seeking comment from trans people about their experiences of wearing a buoyancy aid and if they would have felt safe and comfortable using one without any additional binding. If you have experience of this then please get in touch.

 

 

If you would like more information on this and many other related topics specific to adventure education, The Outdoors People and Simpson Training co-offer an industry recognised Continuing Professional Development course on Gender Identity and Sexuality Awareness for Adventure Education.