The corset is regarded as one of the sexiest undergarments, with its ability to define the hips, enhance the bust size, and most notably, shrink the waist.

This last point, though, can come at a price.

Squeezing four inches or more from your waist to achieve the “perfect figure” has consequences.

The Victorians found this out as a result of tightlacing. When tiny waists were trending at their peak, some women would faint from their corsets being too tightly laced. The constant use of corsets could even lead to misshapen and damaged ribcages.

When corsets were worn in the Victorian Era, they were often introduced at a very young age and worn by women after childbirth to shrink the size of the waist.

A long corset made by CK in Belgium, circa 1890. From the collection of L. Hidic, corsetsandcrinolines.comvia The Antique Corset Gallery.

They actually did accomplish this, as women’s bodies changed in the form of ribs being displaced, compressed lungs, organs crushed against the spine, while others were forced down into the lower abdomen.

Women continue to be pressured to meet an ideal size to be considered attractive, and they give in because society has conditioned us to believe that our value lies in how attractive we are to men.

This made it difficult for the women to breathe, their hearts to pump, and their guts to digest what they could manage to eat.

The latter point is what may have led to recent years have seen an uptick in the use of what is essentially a modern corset: waist trainers.

Kim Kardashian, Snooki, Nicki Minaj, and Jessica Alba reported using them to help them lose weight. While wearing a waist trainer is unlikely to actually help anyone lose weight by virtue of the fact it isn’t doing anything to remove fat cells, it can indirectly help wearers lose weight, though not through any healthy means.

See, being cinched into a corset prevents the stomach from expanding when you eat, causing you to feel full faster, so you limit your portion size. And if you end up eating too much with it on, it could cause vomiting.

Yeah – not great.

It can also lead to heartburn, since extreme compression of the abdomen leads to an elevation of the diaphragm and pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, the collection of muscles at the low end of the esophagus, where it meets the stomach contributing to acid reflux. The lower intestines can also end up being pushed into the pelvic region, this can cause kidney, gastrointestinal and lung issues.

They can also potentially cause bruising and yes, fainting.

Setting aside the “health” benefits, corsets are nothing new to our contemporary trends. Up until the punk movement of the ’70s, corsets were strictly undergarments, never intended to be worn in public. In their quest to be shocking, punks started wearing old-fashioned lingerie as outerwear.

Haute couture designers like Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier quickly put this brazenly sexy look, drawn from the bondage porn of early decades, on the runway. Then, in the ’80s, mega pop stars like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna brought it to mainstream America.

Madonna on the Blond Ambition tour, 1990. via Getty Images

In more recent years, they’ve flooded the fashion ecosystem. On Emma Watson’s Elle UK cover, on Maria Borges for Grazia Australia, on Natalia Vodianova for Porter, and on Madonna for Vogue Italia.

They showed up on celebrities like Rihanna — on-tour via Adam Selman, on the runway via Fenty x PumaKylie Jenner, and Gigi Hadid.

While corsets have enjoyed a comeback, and have even been given some slack in regards to how oppressive they are, it’s important to remember that they were not always made for the benefit of women.

(Let’s be honest — Bridgerton showed that perfectly, in the “fitting” shots of women getting dressed, the cuts seen on Daphne’s back, and the ever-present swoons.)

Though it is often women who are mocked for putting themselves through such unreasonable measures to achieve a perfect figure, our patriarchal society has done a lot to contribute to that.

Corsets create the epitome of a hyper-sexualized female body, from enlarging their breasts to slimming their waists. In turn, they’re setting, yet again, another ridiculous beauty standard.

Though it is often women who are mocked for putting themselves through such unreasonable measures to achieve a perfect figure, our patriarchal society has done a lot to contribute to that.

Of course, there’s a long history behind that cinched waist, so let’s dive into it.

If we go back in time, we see a heavy patriarchal force firsthand in 1675, when Louis XIV ordered that women’s corsets and habits be exclusively made by men, despite having all other women’s clothes designed by women.

While corsets were often worn for the purpose of supporting breasts, in the same way that bras are now, their history is quite complicated.

Back in 1600 B.C.E., the first version of what we would consider to be a corset was a tight band of cloth that held up the breasts. This particular garment was called an apodesmos. But there was another garment, called a strophium, used by the Romans, to bind women’s breasts and slim their bodies down to the ideal shape.

We’ve often been told that men during the Victorian Era supposedly loathed the corsets, leading to the widespread erroneous conclusion that women strapped into corsets simply to feel more attractive.

This illustration from a 1900 issue of Ladies Home Journal shows the change from Victorian to Edwardian silhouettes.

Yet that argument is quickly squashed when the initial layers are peeled away, and we learn that men considered women with curves to be the most desirable and attractive — the curvier, the better.

Ultimately, that history hasn’t faded away, even in our current era.

Yes, corsets can be sexy, and, yes, they have provided support for people with back problems.

But – and this is a huge one – a lot of the drive behind the current trend of wearing them now comes down to body shaming and diet culture. Women continue to be pressured to meet an ideal size to be considered attractive, and they give in because society has conditioned us to believe that our value lies in how attractive we are to men.

While wearing a properly fitted corset on occasion to feel sexy isn’t necessarily harmful in moderation, the fact remains that women doing anything harmful to their body for the sake of a thinner waist has always been, and always will be bad.

 

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  • Amanda Justice

    Amanda Justice was born and raised in Los Angeles but has spent a significant amount of time living in middle Tennessee as well as England and New Zealand before returning to California. She has a Bachelor’s in English Literature and a Master’s in Journalism and when not writing she enjoys traveling, reading horror, urban fantasy, and romance, gaming, and watching campy fantasy shows.

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