So there’s a “new” “diet” craze allegedly sweeping the nation: the CORSET diet. The basic idea, near as I can figure, is that you pay a doctor to put you in a corset. And then via the employment of what actual corset enthusiasts for years have called “waist training” -- which is really just wearing a tightly laced corset a lot -- you make your waist smaller.
[Hacky LA plastic surgeon who totally didn’t invent this idea] says compressing the bottom ribs both up and in makes the space between your ribs and hips look smaller, and the possible side effect of such discomfort might even make you eat less.
And here’s a video about it from ABC News, complete with gratuitous "Sex and the City" reference:
There are only a couple of problems with this. For one, it’s not a diet. A diet, either by the colloquial or the dictionary definition, is a matter of what one eats, and this has nothing to do with eating, except as a “possible side effect.”
It’s not new either. By definition, a corset is not new. Although boned corsets date back to the 16th century, they gained their most ubiquitous popularity during the Victorian era, and were worn by the overwhelming majority of women in Europe the US from the mid-1800s until the years following World War I, at which point newfangled bras and girdles (not to mention weight-loss dieting) started to become the preferred underpinnings for the discriminating and fashionable lady.
But here’s where I’m probably going to surprise you: there is actually nothing wrong with a corset.
I'm not going to be all BLAH BLAH CORSETS ARE OPPRESSIVE TOOLS OF THE OPPRESSION AND TERRIBLE because I don't think that corsets, as a garment alone, are terrible. The social standards that required all respectable women to wear corsets were terrible, certainly, as is pretty much any convention that demands that women’s bodies all look alike, by whatever means necessary to make this happen. But the corset itself? Not a terrible thing. Indeed, when worn as an aesthetic choice, I would even go so far as to say that corsets are pretty awesome.
But I mentioned respectable women above. In its heyday, corset-wearing was very much a matter of respectability. By the height of the corset’s popularity in the Victorian era, only slovenly, unintelligent, self-indulgent and impulse-driven poor women went without corsets -- and any woman who roamed freely without her stays on, no matter her economic status, was thought to have loose morals and to be lacking in the expected self-composure and control (how little things change -- one could argue that such women were the precursors to the “fat sluts” some people feel entitled to ridicule today). Indeed, a woman without a corset was thought to be indecently underdressed. Pregnant women wore corsets, even, and only toward the end of their pregnancies switched to special corsets with adjustable front lacing to account for their growing size. Children as young as six were put in corsets by their mothers.
The corset of this period represented far more than the constantly-shifting fashionable silhouette; it represented good character and morality, at the same time that it represented a precisely framed feminine sexuality by creating the appealingly narrow waist, and these two aspects combined meant that a properly-worn corset was a sign of a properly controlled and socially acceptable feminine sexual desire. After all, women are supposed to want sex -- they’re just not supposed to want it aggressively, or too much, or to have it on their own terms.
History is written by those who conquer, and so it is with the history of corsets. Our horror of this garment today can be traced to 19th-century concern trolling from anti-tightlacing activists -- most of whom, notably, were men. “Tightlacing” as a concept has no single definition, but in a general sense it was the practice of some women to draw their stays particularly tight, to achieve a dramatically smaller waist. Depending on the source -- and by this time many tightlacing devotees were writing in to the magazines and newspapers that condemned their choices, which means we have their stories in their own words -- many women (and a few men) were able to achieve waists of twelve to eighteen inches, with radical outliers claiming measurements as low as nine or ten inches. (For more on this subject, check out Valerie Steele’s excellent books on corsets and fetishization -- most of the information in this piece is drawn from her work, and she is by far my favorite fashion historian.)
“Tightlacing” is what those creepy illustrations depicting internal organs crushed by corset-wearing were warning against, and depending on who you believe, it was considered to be a public health crisis. “The Corset Question” or “The Corset Controversy” became a popular topic of debate in the press, with a variety of perspectives, from those who advocated “healthful” and moderate corset-wearing on one side -- and it was widely believed that wearing a corset imparted generous health benefits to women -- and dress reformers who saw the corset as an instrument of oppression and torture on the other, with those women who liked to wear their stays tight smack in the middle.
One tightlacing enthusiast described her experience in an 1893 letter to the Boston Globe:
I myself have never felt any ill effects from nearly 30 years of the most severe tight lacing, nor have I yet found any authentic case of real harm being done by stays, even when laced to the utmost degree of tightness, both day and night.The pain caused by tight lacing really becomes a pleasure after a short time and however tightly laced, there is always a desire to be just a little tighter.People who write against the practice of tight lacing are either those who have never been laced and have never take the trouble to inquire into the pros and cons of the subject, or those who have, perhaps been once lace up very tightly in badly made, ill-fitting stays with the settled determination of finding them most awful instruments of torture.Those who have been systematically laced up in proper stays from their childhood are the only ones who are capable of forming a right judgment on this subject and I hope you will allow tight lacers the opportunity of defending themselves against the enemies of trim little waist.
Part of the controversy what that tightlacing was also seen as overtly sexually provocative, as much or moreso than going without a corset altogether. Tightlacing was believed to excite women’s sexual desires -- not to mention those of the men who saw it -- and to subvert their proper roles as wives and mothers, and as such it threatened the very fabric of society.
Science and medicine were trotted out to provide dubious accounts of corset-induced abortions, broken ribs, deformed spines, and ruined internal organs -- one horror story of the time even referenced a woman who allegedly "cut her liver right in half" by tightlacing -- all in the name of drawing attention to and public opinion against this “dangerous” practice. One anti-tightlacing diatribe outlined 97 “diseases produced by stays and corsets according to the testimony of eminent medical men.”
Did corsets and tightlacing practices sometimes cause or contribute to health issues? Probably. No doubt, a tight corset would have impaired breathing, and could cause digestive difficulties (mostly constipation), and risks to pregnancy -- and if worn continuously starting in childhood, could probably result in bone deformities, as growth would be shaped by the stays.
But were corsets murdering women by the thousands? It seems unlikely. The terror of tightlacing was really a thinly-veiled terror of independent and sexually assertive women, women who were not content to marry the first reasonable gentleman that came along and resign themselves to a life of quiet servitude in a pleasing but nonthreatening female body.
If any of this sounds eerily familiar, it ought to -- the discourse once applied to proper corset-wearing is today applied to dieting and weight loss, as a means for women to become complicit in the cultural regulation of their own bodies. Like the corset, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with changing one’s food intake or attempting to reshape one’s own body, but these things still happen in a particular social context. A corset is just a corset and a diet is just a diet -- but both take place in a world where these things have currency and meaning, where they may be socially redeeming, when administered with moderation, or frightening and destructive, when taken to extreme ends.
I have a corset. I have a couple, in fact, for reasons relating to my goth past and for historical research. I went and put one on when I began writing this, over a t-shirt that reads “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” to sit at my desk and work and remind myself how it feels to wear one. The corset I put on is a simple underbust, with full steel boning and a steel front busk, too short to be traditionally Victorian, but close enough.
Even laced relatively snugly, I don’t look all that different in it. My posture is definitely better. I’m also weirdly hyperaware of my breathing, because with every inhalation, my whole upper body sort of floats upward in a single motion (big corset selling point, that heaving bosom!). Also there is a funny side effect in which my flesh gets squished up out of the top and down out of the bottom, like an overcooked sausage. But in a general sense it is not uncomfortable or painful. It feels, appropriately, like wearing armor, a popular analogy even in the Victorian era. Spanx are less comfortable, in my opinion.
It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a corset. What makes it complicated is the cultural baggage attached to it.
It would be easy to mock these women currently pursuing corsetry as a form of “diet,” but what good does that do? It only follows the common path of both expecting women to care about their appearance while also deriding those who invest too much in looking conventionally attractive as being shallow, frivolous and dumb.
I could also take the same tack of some of the media coverage of this “trend,” describing the risks of corset-wearing in dramatic hand-waving terms, although frankly I doubt the risks are any greater than those of very low-calorie diets that promise rapid and dangerous weight loss, but those are more socially acceptable and therefore less open to criticism.
A “corset diet” gets press precisely because it employs an approach that many of us have come to think of as archaic, and even barbaric -- we are fascinated and horrified and mesmerized, we want to laugh at women who would take this approach, but many women will also quietly wonder if they might try it too.
Our reaction to this "fad" illustrates our obsession with both slenderness and the lengths to which women will go to achieve it -- the oddness of returning to the corset is just a new variation on an old story. Our culture has a long history of the fetishization of self-injury (real or imagined) in the name of beauty, of simultaneously ridiculing and admiring women who go to great lengths to satisfy the appearance-based expectations placed upon them. As a society, we worry over such women and their methods, while also quietly cheering them on.
The target of our analysis may change, but the process remains the same. This “corset diet” is no different -- it is no more or less oppressive than any other effort at looking thinner. Ultimately it just shows how little things have changed in the past hundred years, at least when it comes to the policing of women’s bodies.