The Corset Shapes More than Our Waists

‘Have you heard, corsets are coming back again?’ a friend asked recently. ‘Oh no’, I groaned and thought back to my childhood and the sight of grandma’s pink stays pinned up on the Hills hoist. I recall staring at the cream laces and whalebone ribs and wondering how she did them up let alone why she wore them.
Little did I realize that for six centuries, fashion dictated bizarre waist narrowing for middle and upper class women in order to fit the idealized notion of the attractive female form. One French Queen in the 14th century declared a 14 inch waist for all her ladies in waiting!  Even 2nd century poets idealized the small waisted woman for her beauty and feminity. Corsets cruelly controlled women’s physical and mental health causing them to faint as they often struggled to draw enough air into the top of their lungs. No wonder they had heaving breasts - they were trying to breathe! Women were considered delicate creatures with bird-like appetites, when in reality the tightness of their corsets shifted their organs and prevented eating more than a small serving. This was external gastric banding in the name of 'beauty' not for health.

In the 1800’s Physicians objected to the associated health risks of trying to achieve ever smaller waists. Religious leaders thought the exaggerated female shape set the scene for depravity and feminists objected to the real and symbolic control of imprisoning women in corsets.

Googling ‘corsets’ turned up 3.7 million sites of corset related information. Madonna, Kylie and modern fashion designers have bought about a resurgence in the popularity of the corset which is regarded as a unique form of sexual self expression. It seems that corsets have gone mainstream along with staying popular for bridal, evening wear, and fetish lingerie or gothic costumes.

My thoughts turned back to grandma, wearing those laced whale-bone corsets as she worked in the hot summers of Queensland managing the family hotel.  As she lifted, cooked and carried, the tightly laced waist would have challenged her pelvic floor muscle control. The tight corset prevented her lower ribs and waist from expanding on inspiration so her diaphragm was restricted from moving down and back upwards as she breathed. In turn the restricted diaphragmatic movement limited her pelvic floor capacity to lift and hold up against downward intra-abdominal pressure. It’s no surprise she had surgery for a prolapse (hysterectomy) in her early 50’s. Some women constantly tighten or suck in at the waist creating a self imposed muscular corset. This altered abdominal muscle strategy results in upper chest breathing, restricted diaphragmatic travel and potential over activity in pelvic floor muscles as they develop an increased resting tone to resist the sustained rise in intra abdominal pressure.

Pursuing a concept of beauty or femininity by restricting the waist diameter and forcing pressure onto the pelvic floor exacts a cruel price.  Let's hope women don't fall for this again.