Why is Mermaids promoting breast binding at events for young people?

Girls might be putting their health at risk, but this did not appear to worry those at Mermaids. Instead, watching these young people return from the breast binding session made the blogger’s ‘queer heart soar.’

Mermaids is arguably the most influential charity focusing on transgender rights in the UK. It claims to have been supporting transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse children, young people, and their families since 1995, and has been at the forefront of key policy changes affecting transgender people in this country. Today, however, the charity is distinctly evangelistic.

This approach worries me greatly. As a teacher, I know how impressionable young people can be. I think it is deeply irresponsible to suggest, as Mermaids do, that children have a gender identity that can differ from the sex that was ‘assigned at birth’.

This evangelistic approach from some in the trans movement can also lead to worrying outcomes. This week*, for example, Mermaids posted a blog on the news section of its website about a ‘residential’ weekend it recently held. According to Mermaids, these weekends are generally aimed at the ‘young and not so young’ to ‘empower and enable families and young people to access the best care possible.’

The blog about the residential weekend was written by Mermaids’ own Digital Enhancement Manager, who was humbled to ‘meet trans children and their families’ at the event.

They also wrote:

‘The highlight for me was our binder safety session, where trans masc and non-binary young people were able to learn how to properly measure and fit their binders, before going off to try them on. Watching them come back into the room, grinning from ear to ear, was witnessing gender euphoria in action and it made my queer heart soar.’

Carrie Lyell, Digital Engagement Manager, Mermaids

This is a horrifying revelation. Binding is never completely safe. Breast tissue is not meant to be compressed, and the practice can cause problems that range from chest and shoulder pains and shortness of breath to dizziness, respiratory infections and fractured ribs. One large study found that over 97 per cent of women surveyed reported at least one negative outcome from breast binding.

Girls might be putting their health at risk, but this did not appear to worry those at Mermaids. Instead, watching these young people return from the breast binding session made the blogger’s ‘queer heart soar.’

Mermaids do not disclose the age ranges of the children which attended the residential event, nor the age of those who were able to participate in breast binding. Photos on their webpage promoting future weekends show both pre-schoolers and late teens. The words of children are used to sell the events. One 12-year-old recalls that, ‘Eating together and chatting was a really relaxed way of getting to know people. I remember not wanting to leave my first one!’

The blog also revealed other concerning aspects of these events. It noted that: 

‘From frustration and desperation over waiting times for NHS treatment to concerns about mental health and bullying, the harsh reality of what it is to be a trans kid in the UK today was evident.’

Carrie Lyell, Digital Engagement Manager, Mermaids

But previous generations did not suffer from these problems, even those of us who grew up to be transgender and eventually transitioned. Without the promise of treatment and the creation of the concept of the trans child, we just got on with process of growing up. It might have been lonely struggling with gender issues without the language to share them – I’m not suggesting we go back to those times – but I worry deeply that the approach taken by Mermaids and others is causing the very problems that they report.

Mermaids also appears to be creating a community set aside from the rest of the world. The blog adds:

‘So while outside of the venue’s doors a war against trans people raged, it felt incredible to be in a safe, affirming space where we could just be. Without judgement and without apology.’

Carrie Lyell, Digital Engagement Manager, Mermaids

But nobody can live in a bubble forever, certainly not children who will now be back at school where Mermaids suggest that a war is raging against trans people. This framing of the issue is just not true, but if children believe it then no wonder their mental health is suffering.

I spoke to Stella O’Malley for her views as a psychotherapist who works with children struggling with gender and identity. She told me that, ‘The light and casual tone of the blog does not correspond with the very serious issues that were at stake.’

She added:

‘Pretending that transition is a joyful experience that requires little more than emotional support does not help these vulnerable kids. We need to help gender distressed minors to navigate the realities of transition; this is a difficult process that carries a heavy burden on the body.’

Stella O’Malley, psychotherapist

She is not alone in her concern. James Esses, co-founder of the group Thoughtful Therapists says that,

‘Telling children, already vulnerable in the world, that the rest of society is at war with them is both cruel and untrue and can only serve to isolate them further, including from their families.’

James Esses, Thoughtful Therapists

The situation is serious and it is urgent. Children who are struggling with gender and identity do not need to be told that the world is at war with them. And no young person should be encouraged to bind their breasts.

This blog is visible to any child who visits Mermaids’ website. Perhaps the next child who views this will be vulnerable? Or possibly struggling with their gender and identity? How might they feel when Mermaids tells them that there is a war raging against them? In my view the organisation needs to be examined in the same way as we would view a religious cult that was promoting such messages. Harm is harm, from wherever it comes.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 5 November 2021: Why is Mermaids promoting breast binding at events for young people?

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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