Waist Trainers and The Controversial Revival of the Corset

Beauty practices around the world rise and fall as time goes, each one meaning something different for women. The fall of corsets led to girdles, and then to Spanx; now, “waist trainers” are being promoted by popular celebrities across social media, leading to a revival of the corset in mainstream fashion under a different name.     

The earliest known uses of the corset date to 2,000 BC, when Cretan women wore them,[1] but corsets saw a marked rise in popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries. European women began to wear corsets to accentuate their figures, lift their breasts to look perky and full, make their cleavage more visible, and flatten their stomachs, culminating in an hourglass shape that could measure as little as 17 inches at the waist.[2] Restrictive corsets became so normalized that it was a mother’s responsibility to teach their daughters to use a corset regularly, sometimes forcing them to sleep in it.[3] While originally used to keep upright posture, corsets gradually became more restrictive due to a practice  known as “tight-lacing.”[4]

The corset eventually fell out of fashion, replaced by the girdle, which also saw its decline during the 1960s feminist movement,[5] and then by Spanx and most recently, the waist trainer. The ideology that accompanies these constricting garments—of artificially altering the shape of a woman’s body—is also seen in the massive surge of the plastic surgery industry in the late twentieth century through today.[6]

The rise of waist trainers has been described as a new-age corset craze, with its use being encouraged by celebrities such as the Kardashian sisters and others. In 2019, the fashion industry even endorsed this shape by featuring full corsets and waist cinching belts on the runways. This extreme hourglass figure has led to the normalization of cosmetic surgery, dangerous body ideals and fatal dietary measures in order to lose weight.[7] Waist trainers have even been suggested as a way to quickly lose postpartum weight, which is an unreasonable expectation because a body can’t just be constricted back to its pre-pregnant state.[8] Regardless, celebrities have endorsed the use of waist trainers by stating they wore a double corset for months after giving birth to their children in order to get their shape back.[9] This practice has taken off, as seen by the more than one million posts on Instagram under waist training.[10]

Waist trainers have become controversial and inspired a debate, with proponents arguing that the use of a trainer encourages better posture and is an appreciation for the art form of the corset itself.[11] Others state that it allows women to show their body with pride, armoring against some forms of misogyny, but this also leads to the debate about what a woman’s body “should” look like (hint: women do not need to fit this or any other body ideal).[12] Supporters of corsets have suggested the two garments are actually different, by stating that waist-trainers are for quick weight loss whereas corsets emphasize one’s existing figure.[13]

The Latino culture also has a product of similar design, called the faja, which was traditionally used to wrap around the waist and help one’s body recover from pregnancy and giving birth. The goal of the faja was not specifically to encourage a tinier waist but was intended to restore the pre-pregnancy figure. Despite being abandoned for a short time, it has recently returned as a fashion trend embraced by Latinas and many other women.[14] These fajas come in all different shapes and sizes, for women, men and even teenagers, with prices running from $20-$70.[15]

Just like the faja, many companies state that their waist trainer encourages weight loss by increasing perspiration, decreasing appetite, and reducing food intake, while also shaping one’s torso to their ideal figure.[16] [17] However, extended use of these products leads to many critical health issues, such as shortness of breath, stomach pain, skin irritation, lightheadedness, broken ribs, compressed blood flow, spinal deformity, constricted ability to move and sit comfortably, intestinal obstruction or ischemia, collapsed lungs, stunted growth and chronic gastrointestinal problems, to name a few.[18] [19] [20] [21] Some products increase body temperature while working out to encourage weight loss, but if the wearer doesn’t drink enough water, they could get dehydrated or suffer a heatstroke.[22] There is also the emotional pain when you don’t get the results you expected,[23] and there has actually been a lawsuit against a waist training company because the user didn’t get the results promised.[24]

For all of the celebrity hype and endorsements, there is absolutely no proof that waist trainers work or that there is any long-term change. Most users state that their body goes back to normal almost immediately after taking it off, and wearers often feel ravenous after use. The rise of waist trainers is matched with skyrocketing obesity and impossible body ideals being perpetuated by celebrities and social media. However, waist training is not a permanent solution for becoming healthy and causes much more harm than any imagined good. It also does not change the need for diet and exercise, which in good practice, are the few healthy ways to get in shape.

Instead of using garments like these, we need to change the ideals of what a woman’s body is supposed to look like, from a perfect hourglass into an image of a woman just pursuing a healthy lifestyle. A dietician, personal trainer and physician are the accessories we should be using for advice on losing weight safely to reach our goal.[25] The use of corsets, and their modern equivalents, only encourages the spread of unhealthy body images for women. It’s important that we not allow these harmful ideals about women’s figures to be the ones future generations grow to accept, and we should instead encourage them to live the healthiest and happiest life they can.

-C.A.T.


[1] Establishment, The. 2017. “The Complicated Feminist Ethics Of Corsets And Waist Trainers.” HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-complicated-feminist-ethics-of-corsets-and-waist-trainers_b_10282298 (January 19, 2021).

[2] Bobb, Brooke. 2018. “Buying and Wearing a Corset in the Era of #MeToo.” Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/corset-me-too (January 19, 2021).

[3] Gnat Michael. 2017. “The Ties That Bound: Corset Controversy in the Victorian Era.” New-York Historical Society. http://blog.nyhistory.org/the-ties-that-bound-corset-controversy-in-the-victorian-era/ (January 19, 2021).

[4] “What a Waist: Why the Corset Has Made a Regrettable Return.” 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/27/corset-regrettable-return-mothercare-waist-training (January 19, 2021).

[5] Nir, Sarah Maslin. 2012. “Rediscovering a Shortcut to an Hourglass Figure.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/16/nyregion/with-fajas-tight-as-corsets-shortcut-to-hourglass-figure-is-rediscovered.html (January 19, 2021).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Godlewski, Nina. 2016. “A Doctor and Personal Trainer Reveal the Truth about Those Celebrity-Backed Waist Trainers That Dominate Instagram.” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/do-waist-trainers-work-2016-6 (January 19, 2021).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Abcs. 2017. “4 Reasons to Throw Your Waist Trainer in the Trash.” ABCS. https://www.americanboardcosmeticsurgery.org/popular-posts/4-reasons-throw-waist-trainer-trash/ (January 19, 2021).

Image Sources:

Cartoon – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/337277459563716214/

Waist Trainer – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/27/corset-regrettable-return-mothercare-waist-training

Internal Body – https://www.blogilates.com/are-waist-trainers-bad-for-you/

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