Are waist trainers the modern-day equivalent of the corset?

Fashion through the ages has been marked by a series of memorable (and perhaps questionable) choices. From the shoulder-padded 80s to the pointy boobs of the 50s, there’s no lack of weird fashion. However, weird is one thing… painful is another.

When thinking of painful fashion, the corset is likely at the top of your mind. Known for crushing rib cages, remodeling internal organs, and shortening breath to the point of collapse, the corset exemplifies the adage ‘beauty is pain’.

Corsets are coming back in fashion with a vengeance. And with their return, corsets are sparking important conversations about their medical impact and societal influence.

A brief history

Corsets, as we know them today, were predominately worn by women (and sometimes men) from the 16th century to the late 19th century. However, there are depictions of corset-like garments from as far back as 1600BC, so the use of external materials to shape the body was not a new idea even in the 1500s.

In essence, corsets are fabric undergarments – reinforced with bone or steel – that are designed to constrict the torso. Initially, corsets were designed to mask the body by creating an inverted cone from chest to hip. It was only in the 1800s that they started taking the familiar shape: an extreme hourglass figure with a cinched waist and exaggerated chest and hips.

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

Images of women with tiny waists are not new to us, but it’s easy to forget that women looked like that. Some women boasted waists smaller than 17 inches… that’s less than half of the current average (38.7 inches in the US).

In addition to these ridiculously small measurements, it was common practice to put corsets on children. The idea was to ‘train’ their bodies into slender figures while they were still malleable. Can you imagine lacing a 5-year-old into a corset today?

Modern equivalent

Thankfully, we no longer require children to wear corsets. However, there has been a marked increase in dramatic shapewear and corsetry in modern times. And one of their uses might be as controversial as corseting kids… use by post-partum Moms to hide their bodies.

The shift in body ideals from the androgynous, skinny look of the 2000s to the Kardashian-esque hourglass figure of the 2010s has created a market for extreme body-shaping garments. You cannot go online without eventually seeing a waist trainer or a tightly corseted celeb.

Of course, it must be said that corsets have been used for decades by special interest groups like drag queens, cosplayers, and fetishists, but they certainly haven’t been used so frequently and nonchalantly in modern times as they are now.

The problem

While there are obvious medical issues inherent in the use of corsetry, it is the societal impact of waist trainers in particular that is causing the most concern.

“Known for crushing rib cages, remodeling internal organs, and shortening breath to the point of collapse, the corset exemplifies the adage ‘beauty is pain’.”

On a societal level, the use of waist trainers – especially post-partum – sends a dangerous message. It implies that a slim waist is the most important thing, which not only damages self-esteem but in the case of post-partum mothers, is selling a narrative that is not safe or even feasible.

Additionally, a huge issue with waist trainers comes less from the medical perspective and more from their false claims and unethical advertising. The simple truth of waist trainers (thick, elasticated bands worn around the stomach and waist) is that they will not cause a permanent shrinking of the waist – something constantly purported as a benefit to wearing them.

Instead, they’re a product created for the sole purpose of giving women false hope. Want a waist like Kim Kardashian? Advertisers (and the Kardashian family themselves) would have you believe all it takes is to wear a waist trainer. Not have genetics, a team of stylists, plastic surgeons, personal trainers, corsets, and photoshop on your side.

Whether you like it or not, it seems as if corsets and waist trainers are here to stay – at least until the hourglass figure is sidelined for the next trend. And hey, who knows? Maybe the boxy look of the 1920s flapper girls will come back in style.

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