The Complicated Feminist Ethics Of Corsets And Waist Trainers
As a writer, I’m no stranger to the daily onslaught of press releases that find their way into an inbox, and honestly, I probably delete about 90% of them based on subject line alone. The rare few that pique my interest enough to open are ones that relate directly to my areas of interest: maternal health, reproductive health, mental health (sensing a theme?), and the new season of UnReal. I usually bypass all emails related to products of any kind.
But I recently received an email about a trendy piece of fashion that was simultaneously outside my comfort zone and inexplicably intriguing enough that I had to click — Hourglass Angel was peddling a free waist trainer, essentially a modern spin on the corset, the controversial undergarment that’s been used for body modification of both an illusionary and physical sense for centuries.
I was intrigued not only because I’ve never tried such an item on (the closest body modification product I’ve tried are Spanx, which remain balled up in my underwear drawer), but because of how increasingly popular they’ve become. The ubiquitous Kardashian clan’s paid endorsement of waist training has helped launch not only a new-age-corset craze, but an inevitable backlash, with outlets and celebs calling the trend dangerous, ineffective, and straight-up bullshit.
Fervor over the waist-training trend was further amplified when a lawsuit was recently filed against The Waist Gang Society, a corset company that promises a sleeker shape, more fat burned, and weight loss. Customers are upset that they weren’t getting the results they were promised and have sued the company — which just so happens to be the one that the Kardashian clan heavily promote via social media.
In the wake of all this, I wanted to see how I — and my body — would react to wearing a corset, while exploring the question: What role, if any, is fitting for corsets and waist trainers in our modern world?
The first time I tried to hook into my waist trainer, which looked like a metallic corset, I realized I couldn’t put it on by myself — my husband had to help, and together it took us around five minutes to make sure each eye hook was in place and secure. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ll be able to ever get it on myself.
Once on, the waist trainer surprised me in ways that further complicated my already fraught feelings about it. Though I was anxious about how the waist trainer would feel, I actually found it to be more comfortable than I’d anticipated. Nothing really felt squished or too tight, and I was still able to breathe without much effort. It caused me to stand up straighter, immediately making my back feel much better, and — dare I say it — infusing me with a little bit more confidence, as promised.
I wore the waist trainer for around 10 minutes that first time, and though I found it hard to do things like bend over, I managed. In the name of full disclosure, though, I also had the worst gas pains I have ever experienced later that night. Sure, it could have been from the half block of queso de freir I consumed earlier in the day, but we’ll never really know for sure. All I know for certain is that I spent 20 minutes of my life in some of the worst pain of my life, and that includes childbirth.
Since my husband works long hours and even I — a very laissez-faire parent — didn’t think it was cool to ask my 9-year-old son to hook his mama into a corset, I wasn’t able to test it out as often as I would have hoped. But, during the times I wore it, I found myself ogling my own silhouette in the mirror. I liked the actual hourglass shape my body was sporting (I should note, though, that it never continued to hold that shape once the corset was off, possibly because I didn’t wear it as often as recommended).
I found myself questioning if I could really commit to wearing one often enough to achieve the look I was being promised. More importantly, I wondered — why the hell did I want that promised look?
There is clearly something visually alluring about a corset, especially a bespoke, intricately designed one. It’s obvious that hours of work are poured into creating something that is — depending on who you talk to — the epitome of a fashionable aesthetic or the satin embodiment of the physical pain caused by misogynist notions of “ideal” beauty.
The corset has a long history, with the earliest image of one coming from 2,000 BC, when Cretan women wore their own version of the restricting garment. The corset we’re more familiar with became extremely popular in the 16th and 17th century among white, European women of a certain class who wanted to accentuate the female form to an almost exaggerated degree.
Corsets do a number of things by design. They uplift the breasts to allow them to look perky and full, overflowing with abundant cleavage. They also flatten the stomach area with the combination of pulling the entire bodice together tightly, along with various boning techniques that give the corset its structured and slimming look. And finally, they also set off the hips, depending on the shape of the corset, creating a true hourglass figure that not only perpetuates a supposed ideal of beauty, but evokes notions of fertility as well (because if women are good for one thing, it’s baby making . . . ).
For a long time, when I thought of corsets, my mind was stuck on these historical aspects; corsets were only for the wealthy, and they were a way to control women. After all, an intricate corset would take a while to properly put on, and the wearer would need the help of servants to get it on and tied up properly.
I was also, like many, troubled by the physically dangerous aspects. Corsets and their modern-day waist-training brethren can restrict breathing, cause light-headedness, break ribs, and harm internal organs — all at the cost of appearing a certain, coveted way. When corsets were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, some medical professionals explicitly expressed that they could be damaging, especially if worn during pregnancy, which — sadly — was a progressive way of thinking at the time. And, as time went on, the corset itself changed shape and function, eventually turning into the bras we all know and love/hate.
Before trying my own waist trainer, I consulted with a medical expert so I knew what I was getting myself into. I spoke with Dr. Kevin Small, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who told me that he has some reservations about waist training. According to Dr. Small, corsets only provide a “temporary contouring to a woman’s torso, especially if hidden under clothing. Waist training does not replace the importance of a well-balanced diet and routine exercise.”
In addition to the effects possibly being minimal (or non-existent), there can be harmful physical outcomes as well. If the corset is too tight, there can be a number of painful results, according to Dr. Small, like rashes caused by the compressing of the skin. There can be more dire consequences, too. “[Corsets] can also compress the blood flow to the skin with potential open wounds and discolorations. Most worrisome, the corsets can compress vital intra-abdominal structures and cause intestinal obstruction or ischemia,” warns Dr. Small.
And yet, despite all this, the corset remains an alluring undergarment, worn by a variety of people for a plethora of reasons, from pure aesthetic pleasure to desires for body modification. This could be pegged to the superficial culture often associated with the Kardashians and their fellow Instagram stars (like Amber Rose and Snooki) who have promoted waist training. But for many within the corset and waist-training community, it’s less about the original motivations of appealing to the male gaze, and more about doing what appeals to the person wearing one.
It’s ironic that traditional corsets are beacons of fertility, because one form of waist training is done specifically to help heal the body after birth. Natasha V. from San Francisco describes how she wore a corset for a few months postpartum. “In my culture and family, it has been a tradition to wrap your waist with what we call a faixa (or faja in Spanish), to help your body recover from pregnancy and birth. During pregnancy, your skin stretches and your abdominal muscles spread; the faixa is used to help your body recover,” she explains.
While she admits that it’s hard to know if the results happened naturally or if her faixa played a role, Natasha says that regardless, she was happy with how she felt after using the faixa and would absolutely do it again. She also stresses the importance of the faixa in her culture, and notes that the goal in wearing it differs from conventional historical notions. “It’s been such an important part of recovery from motherhood, that there isn’t one woman in my family who didn’t do it. [It is] different than the colonial method of waist-training,” explains Natasha. “The goal was never necessarily to make your waist tiny, but to bring your waist back — or close — to its pre-pregnancy size and shape.”
In addition to cultural reasons for embracing waist training, there may be sexual ones, as well; for many, of course, corsets are used in BDSM kink. And then there are those who use it for performative reasons.
“I got into corsets through acting,” explains Gyda Arber, a writer and director from New York City. “It’s impossible to look quite right in costumes if you’re not in the proper undergarments, so I became a little obsessed with historical accuracy.” In addition to the historical context, Arber found herself interested in waist training — where one specifically wears a corset in order to trim down inches of midsection — when she fell in love with a one-of-a-kind sample dress that was slightly too small, and was unable to have it altered. “I waist-trained pretty consistently along with exercise and diet (and no sugar and no drinking) and was able to drop 15 pounds pretty quick,” she says. “I’m not sure how much the corset helped in terms of actual weight loss or reshaping, but I was definitely a lot less hungry when I had it on, as it does put some pressure on your stomach and makes you feel more full. I was super ravenous when I took it off, though.”
Of course, the very idea that we need to physically restrict ourselves in order not to eat sends a host of problematic messages. And these are the messages that folks like the Kardashians continue to push via their social media pages. But whose fault is that? Theirs for trying to make some cash off product placement? Or society’s for pushing these ideals of what a woman’s body is “supposed” to look like at whatever cost (even her health)?
I’m not the only one who is conflicted when it comes to corsets, but for Arber? She sees no reason you can’t be a feminist and a fan of corsets. “My feminism is intersectional and includes waist trainers. My posture feels better and I feel prettier. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think it makes you a bad feminist to like corsetry. “
She has a point. Many in the corsetry community appreciate them not just for the way they make a body appear, but for the craftsmanship and skill that can go into making them. It is an art form, and some would even challenge that the reshaping of a body using corsets is an art unto itself.
Thankfully, we live in a time where corsets aren’t considered the height of fashion, but we would be fooling ourselves to think we’ve escaped the pressures of bodily “perfection” that plagued our foremothers. There is still a notion of what the ideal female form should look like, and we continue to be inundated with products (from creams to exercise equipment to undergarments to fad diets) that promise to help us achieve unrealistic and occasionally unhealthy ideals.
As for me? I might be pulling out my pretty, metallic corset on occasion from here on out, but just don’t see myself dutifully strapping my body into it daily in order to fit a problematic ideal.
Lead image: flickr/Maite