The Critic, Friday 12 November, 2021
In the nineteenth century, the fashion for small waists was widely criticised by doctors. It was achieved by “tight lacing”: a practice blamed for compressing the ribs, forcing internal organs out of position and leaving fashionable women short of breath.
In 2021 you might think no one would encourage impressionable girls to compress their chests and put their health at risk. Well, think again. In a sign of the times we live in, when “gender identity” apparently trumps good sense, a cosmetics company has teamed up with a trans clothing company to offer breast binders to young women.
The Paddington branch of Lush announced on Instagram this week that it has joined G(end)er Swap to offer a “binder collection point”, inviting girls to book their binders online for a donation as low as £7. As a lawyer quickly pointed out, the booking form does not ask about age, allowing girls under the age of 16 to make an appointment without parental knowledge or consent.
Breast binding, in case you haven’t come across it, is the practice of compressing the breasts to make them appear less visible; it’s often used by girls who believe themselves to be transgender. But the risks are obvious: a study of 1,800 individuals who wore binders, carried out by researchers at Boston University, found that 97 per cent reported at least one negative outcome, including back and chest pain, overheating, itching and shortness of breath. “Transgender community resources commonly discuss symptoms such as pain and scarring,” the authors noted.
Breast binding is a distant cousin of breast ironing — an even riskier (and illegal) practice imported into the UK from Africa. Breast ironing involves massaging a pubescent girl’s chest with hot stones to slow down or prevent normal development of the breasts, supposedly to protect her from unwanted sexual attention. It has disastrous consequences, such as preventing some women from breast feeding, and is a form of child abuse.
When I chaired the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, I heard anecdotal evidence that this practice was taking place in the UK, carried out within the family in conditions of great secrecy, something it has in common with female genital mutilation. Some campaigners believe at least a thousand women and girls have been subjected to it in this country.
No doubt Lush would deny any link between breast binding and breast ironing; but the motivation — fear and denial of the natural female body — is similar. For girls who want to be boys, who have swallowed nonsense about being “born in the wrong body”, wearing binders is sometimes the first step on a road that leads to double mastectomy. The removal of healthy breasts is rightly controversial and a cause of great regret among detransitioners, who have since discovered that having surgery and taking male hormones has not cured their gender dysphoria.
Why on earth would any company effectively encourage girls to reject their perfectly healthy bodies? It is not hard to discern a bandwagon effect, driven by the way in which breast binding is being normalised — glamourised, even — by celebrities such as Emma Corrin, who played Princess Diana in The Crown. Diana famously suffered from an eating disorder associated with body dysphoria, a parallel that seems to have been lost on Corrin when she posted black and white photos of herself wearing a home-made binder on social media. “Very intimate, very new, very cool,” Corrin declared, apparently unaware that denying or disavowing the female body is as old as the hills. She was hailed not just for the photos but for changing her (their?) pronouns to “she/them”.
It’s clear that extreme gender ideology has penetrated celebrity culture, commercial companies, government departments and charities, leading them to compete for the accolade of “trans ally” even if it means pushing harmful ideas onto impressionable teenagers.
Until very recently, no one wanted to fall foul of the LGBTQ+ organisation Stonewall, fearing an accusation of transphobia above all else. Indeed, Lush seems to be trying to atone for making a small donation to a feminist organisation, A Woman’s Place UK, which has repeatedly been smeared by trans activists. “To trans people and allies, we wish to say sorry for some past mistakes in our choice of donation recipients,” the company grovelled in a statement last December.
The Lush donation was only £3,000, but no one can apologise enough for offending gender extremists. One of the company’s main rivals, The Body Shop, highlighted its transgender credentials by trolling the author J K Rowling; in the summer of 2020 when Rowling published an open letter describing her experience of domestic abuse, The Body Shop Twitter account responded by offering to send her a “vegan bath bomb” and a book on trans rights. Now Lush’s Paddington store is encouraging girls to acquire a product designed to hide the fact that they have female bodies.
Lush is easy to mock, boasting about its ethics as though its primary function is much more than selling soap with fancy names. “Our ability to create a warm and welcoming home, a safe environment where difference is accepted and fostered, is maybe our single greatest strength,” it claims. How breast binders fit into that ethos is unclear, but a bit more acceptance of the natural female body would be welcome. What can we expect next, a nicely wrapped foot-binding kit?