By Hannah Sundermeyer
Beauty is pain, but they never told me it would hurt this much.
I shoved my skin into angry folds in an effort to make the eighteen tiny metal hooks meet one another. Taking shallow breaths, I sucked in until I could see my rib cage protruding in the mirror. I grimaced at the pain-stricken reflection looking back at me as I continued to try and wrap the thick black fabric around my abdomen.
In a quest for an hourglass figure, women across the country are going to desperate measures to achieve the look that many can only achieve through Photoshop. We live in a generation that seeks instant gratification and quick fixes, especially when it comes to our bodies.
The shape wear industry is expected to earn around $680 million dollars by the end of this year, with the help of celebrity endorsements booming the sales of modern day corsets, dubbed “waist trainers,” and spandex. In an interview with Net-A-Porter, Jessica Alba said she used not only one, but two different types of waist trainers to maintain her figure and get rid of post-baby chub. Amber Rose flaunts her miniscule middle on social media, and credits her Waist Gang Society corset for her self-proclaimed “milfin” body.
I was interested to see if the results that many celebrities advocated for were true. In preparation for a looming spring break trip, I also was looking for an additional supplement to my workout regimen. On the afternoon of September 12th, I ripped the plastic off my Premadonna waist trainer with both a sense of anticipation and dread. I spent four incredibly long weeks wearing the garment seven to eight hours a day. However it always felt like much, much longer.
Posted to thelingerieaddict.com, a waist trainer works efficiently because women’s rib cages are naturally flexible. Along with bones in the pelvis as well as organs, ribs and all of the above are malleable during pregnancy, which is why the rib cage is connected to the breastbone with cartilage. As a woman’s body grows and changes the internal components are able to adapt along with it. However, waist training manipulates that flexibility in an unnecessary way. Does it work? Yes. But it does not serve a natural purpose like that of carrying a child.
Corsets are defined as a fitting undergarment stiffened with whalebone or similar material and often capable of being tightened by lacing, worn especially by women to shape and support the body. Shockingly, women have been squeezing themselves into these contraptions for the last 500 years.
According to VictoriasPast.com’s “Mini History of the Corset,” “Women were thought of as the weaker sex, therefore their minds and bodies were weak. So the corset was deemed morally and medically necessary. Tight lacing was considered virtuous—a loose corset was probably a sign of a loose woman.” However, working class women were excluded from this trend, as a corseted waist often reflected wealth and social status. Smelling salts were also a commonality, as Victorian women fainted on a regular basis due to a lack of oxygen.
In Valerie Steele’s book “Fashion and Eroticism, Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age,” it is stated that on average, women’s waists have been recorded from as small as 14 to 22 inches. The designer Christian Dior later brought them back into popularity in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a slim waistline and bigger hips became coveted in the fashion world. However the title corset was retired, replaced instead with girdle.
The corset comes equipped with three rows of bra like hooks. After a quick Google search, I planned out my “cinching schedule” according to the blog posts of fellow waist training enthusiasts, and with the extra strength of my roommate, strapped myself in. At the conclusion of each week it is advised to move on to the smaller set of cinches. My initial thoughts on the first day were that there was absolutely no chance I’d be able to fit into the smallest set anytime in the near future.
I was absolutely miserable for 99% of the time. I now know why Kanye West is never smiling in any of his paparazzi photos—because he has to put up with Kim in a waist trainer.
Cinching yourself into this modern day torture device is only half the battle. Once you have it on, everything becomes a million times more difficult. Sitting in class? It digs into your boobs. I had to get up for a “bathroom break” and take a lap around the building at least five times to get rid of the pain. Working out? I hope you don’t expect to breathe. Lying down seemed to be the only time during the day in which I felt somewhat comfortable.
I have to admit; there are some days where I just couldn’t bear the thought of spending 8 hours with my kidneys hand in hand and my stomach in my throat.
The impact on your organs is just one of the supposed factors that go hand in hand with this body-morphing trend.
“There is extremely little scientific data out there on this, but for a good reason. Why would anyone suspect that this would do any good for you?” Dr. Mary J. Minkin of Yale School of Medicine said.
Manipulating your body in such a way could imminently suggest harmful effects on your inner organs; however she disagrees.
“There’s a lot of room in the belly for intestines to move around. Is somebody going to strangulate their bowels? It’s hard to imagine you could get anything tight enough to do that for you. So there isn’t any data suggesting permanent organ damage, it’s just awfully uncomfortable more than anything else. “
If somebody wants to lose weight, Minkin recommends simply adjusting your diet and getting a lot of exercise. When it comes long-term effects, wearing a waist trainer doesn’t do anything for weight loss. She says that wearing the heavier shape wear will increase your sweat production, but when you drink water, you will gain it all back. Waist trainers will not help you lose any fat.
“This is nothing new. If you go back to reading Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” Scarlett O’Hara supposedly had a 17-inch waist that she got from wearing a corset. Basically, people wore these ridiculous corsets in the old times, and they didn’t die,” Minkin said.
While I am far from a fictional 17-inch waist, I pride myself on being incredibly health conscious, especially when it comes to eating right. However I noticed when wearing the waist cincher I could barely finish my measured portions without feeling uncomfortable. The corset acts as a deterrent to overeat, which I’m sure plays, a role in the additional weight loss that wearers associate with the garment.
Amy Schroeder, a senior from Colby, Kansas, has been wearing a waist trainer off and on for the last five months. Initially she decided to purchase it because she read the garment helped with posture. However, as a signed model with The I & I Agency, she decided it might also help her maintain her thin body type.
“I remember my agent telling me that I couldn’t be eating fast food and that there was no in-between, between being a model and a plus size model,” Schroeder said. “You have to either be incredibly skinny or noticeably plus size.”
Even after a few months of use, she noticed an improvement in her posture and waist size. Schroeder has now limited her corset use to her workouts only because she feels like she is getting the full effect when she’s active.
“It makes you sweat even more and I think it helps shape the changing muscle,” Schroeder said.
I’m going to be blunt. This thing makes you sweat like a portable sauna. The tightness of the garment results in a bit of, well, “drippage” all over your torso. I mean, what could be more attractive? I ended up cutting off the tops of old tank tops to slide over my stomach to create a makeshift barrier and soak up the sweat. This tight and moist environment can cause a variety of skin infections and irritations like yeast infections and folliculitis. (Imagine itchy, red bumps a million times more irritating than your worst case of razor burn.) In some extreme cases, irreversible scarring also can occur.
According to an article published in the LA Times in April, shape wear can also cause a neurological condition called meralgia paresthetica, “which causes painful burning and tingling in the thighs when there is too much pressure on nerves that run through the groin.” This can result in infertility and other reproductive issues.
I chose to not to tell my mom initially about my little experiment, as she worries more than the average parent. But one weekend when I came home to do laundry, I got lazy and she found it hanging from my hamper.
She started texting me to stop. You cannot be wearing that waist-slimmer thing. I have heard so many stories of all these women not able to have kids now and kidney damage. Hannah this is super serious and non-repairable.
Despite the maternal warnings I was receiving on an almost daily basis, I was determined to finish out my trial, despite the angst—both mental and physical—that I was experiencing. For the record, wearing a waist trainer for seven hours a day makes me a very grouchy individual.
Why the hell are women held to these outrageous standards? According to Bradley University’s The Body Project, “The compelling fact here is that just as women started to make dramatic gains in the areas of education, employment and politics, the ideal female body began to look like a malnourished preadolescent girl, weak, emaciated and non-threatening. Women may have been gaining in freedom and power, but they were increasingly encouraged to discipline their bodies through diet and exercise to conform to ideals that were almost impossible to achieve.”
By week three and sans roommate assistance, I could easily cinch myself into the last row of hooks, quite opposite of my initial prediction. I have to admit; despite the drastic measures you have to go to, it really does work. I started feeling more confident with the waist trainer on underneath clothing, giving myself the illusion of curves on my more naturally straight midsection. Whenever I wore tighter fitting clothes, I received multiple compliments on how small my waist looked—but at what cost?
Throughout my journey with a waist trainer, I feel as though it serves as more of a psychological reminder to eat smaller portions and get active, as much as the corset is a physical one. It’s not easy to forget that you are dieting when you spend most of your day in a state of semi-bearable suffocation—but my best advice? Eat right, hit the gym and skip the waist trainer to save your sanity.