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Physical transformations

Custom body binders help customers shift their shapes

BRATTLEBORO—Tucked away in a residential Brattleboro neighborhood, one small company is helping thousands of people safely change their bodies.

Shapeshifters is owned by life- and business partners Eli and Krista Coughlin-Galbraith. From their dining room workshop, via their website Shapeshifters.co, they have sold over 1,500 binders.

What’s a binder, and who wears them?

Eli explained what a binder is and what it does: “It’s a piece of clothing that turns the appearance of boobs into the appearance of pecs. It’s a chest-squishing apparatus.”

Although Shapeshifters doesn’t have demographic data from every customer, they do have information from many of the people who ask questions and offer feedback.

“We hear the most from transgender men and transgender non-binary people,” Eli said.

Binders began as medical devices for “cis-men [people assigned male at birth who identify as male] who have boobs because of gynecomastia and would rather not,” said Eli, noting cis-men tend to order binders from medical supply companies.

Cosplayers, theater people, athletes, and ballerinas also wear binders, Eli said. Krista noted “many cis-women who want less of a chest wear them, too.”

The word Eli and Krista stressed when talking about their binders is “safe.”

“You see a lot of DIY internet tutorials” on how to bind one’s chest, said Eli. “The worst and oldest is Ace bandages.” Those, Eli said, restrict further throughout the day, and have cracked wearers’ ribs.

Other unsafe, yet common, binding methods are duct tape, plastic clingfilm, putting on two sports bras — one backwards, and wearing a medical binder one size too small. These, Eli said, also constrict the wearer’s ribs and interfere with breathing.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of good education about binding,” Eli said.

In mid-July, Shapeshifters was featured in a Buzzfeed article, “8 Ways To Safely, Discreetly, And Affordably Get Your Hands On A Chest Binder” [www.buzzfeed.com/skarlan/never-in-a-bind].

Superheroes to the rescue

Eli and Krista are really into comic books and superheroes, and part of their Shapeshifters story is that they combined forces — and superpowers — to serve their customers’ needs.

Krista said she brings the superpower of being plus size, and Eli brings the superpower of being transgender. “Both come together to help our customers,” they said.

“We fit a lot of niche issues not addressed by other binder companies,” said Eli. Some examples: using fabric for people with sensory issues, or that will match different skin tones; and making binders for people with scoliosis, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (a genetic disorder which causes afflicted persons to easily dislocate their joints), insulin pumps, asthma, and mobility issues.

Shapeshifters added sports bras to their product line to serve another need — Krista’s. “I wore a slightly larger binder at a convention, and said, ‘maybe we should make bras,’ so we experimented and figured out a way to alter what we already had to make a super comfortable bra,” she said.

Eli and Krista make every Shapeshifters item to order, using measurements supplied by the person who will wear the item. For this reason, the only way to get a Shapeshifters garment is to order it directly.

“We’re the only binder company really doing plus sizes above a U.S. extra-large,” Krista said. “Anybody above a B- or C-cup won’t get satisfaction” with other binders, Eli added.

Shapeshifters does not charge extra for plus-size clothing. “It’s an ethical point for us,” said Eli.

After Shapeshifters added a plus-size line, the feedback from these customers praised the comfort of the binders, which is somewhat unusual for anyone binding, and rare for a plus-size person who is binding, said Eli. A popular comment was, “I want to wear these, instead of I have to wear these,” Eli noted.

Eli’s first home-made binders were for personal use because “I presented myself as a transgender dude, and that was the simplest answer. I could present ‘masculine.’ I presented ‘dudely,’” Eli explained.

When Eli was a student at New York University, and had access to health care, “I started to admit I was having gender troubles. I got a gender therapist. I ordered a binder from a popular company. When I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror, I thought, ‘There I am,’” Eli said.

But the binders were uncomfortable.

“One reason I started making binders in the first place was, I hated every single other binder out there. I mean, I needed them, but as a piece of clothing, I hated it,” Eli said.

After graduating from NYU, Eli took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology to pursue an interest in sewing and pattern-making. To complete an assignment, Eli made Krista a comic book character corset dress.

Eli began making more superhero costumes for friends, which required working with spandex. While shopping in a fabric store, Eli learned about “power net,” the mesh that provides a flattening effect on a body, but is still comfortable for all-day wear — a fabric perfect for binders.

Power net “is the standard, safe way to make a binder,” said Eli. “We use spandex as an overlayer because it looks pretty,” Krista added. Popular prints at Shapeshifters include glittery and metallic fabrics, rainbow stripes, puppies in space, and kittens.

From NYC to VT

Shapeshifters began in 2014 as part of a cooperative online store, when Eli was also working full-time in a midtown Manhattan law firm.

A year later, Eli moved the online store to a separate URL, did a relaunch, “and it went viral on Tumblr.” What Eli kept hearing from customers was, “Oh my God! These binders don’t look ugly as sin!”

In late-2015, “the orders blew up!” said Eli, who was still working full-time at the law firm.

“I spent all my spare time on binders,” Eli said. “At first, it was all me” — designing, cutting, sewing, marketing — “then Krista jumped in and started cutting.”

Word-of-mouth increased and the orders kept coming in.

Soon, Eli went down to part-time at the law firm. But the cost of living in the NYC area was proving too high, even with the success of Shapeshifters.

Eli and Krista were frequent visitors to Townshend. Eli’s grandfather is the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith — the couple got married at his house in September, 2014. When they came up, they found themselves reluctant to go home.

“We kept saying, ‘This would be a great place to live. People like each other here and there’s a community,’” Eli said. “At the end of one of our vacations here, I said, ‘What if we just moved here?’” Krista said.

So, in April, 2016, they packed up and moved to Brattleboro.

Krista soon noticed “our business went up and our cost of living went down.”

“We were able to afford health insurance,” said Eli, who added, “so many things got easier. We could go out to dinner once in a while!”

Shapeshifters will be moving again soon. Eli and Krista applied for and received approval from the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. to rent some production space in the Cotton Mill. They plan to hire a few part-time workers over the next few months.

“We’re drowning in orders,” said Eli. “We do everything in our dining room, mostly on our table. The entire operation happens in a 15-feet by 15-feet space.”

With the move to a dedicated production space, Eli said, “we get our dining room back.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #422 (Wednesday, August 23, 2017). This story appeared on page D3.

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