In a previous article, we discussed how feeling faint or light headed is caused by the brain not being properly oxygenated – but contrary to popular belief, most of the fainting done by people in corsets was not due to suffocation. Most genuine fainting was said to be rather due to abrupt changes in blood pressure. (This is just one of many reasons why it’s important to lace down gradually; tying your corset too tight, too quickly can cause acute changes in blood pressure and make you feel lightheaded.)
Today we’re not going to focus on blood pressure per se, but we’re going to specifically touch on the “Victorian fainting culture” – what do I mean by that? Well, have you ever wondered why there are so many stories of fainting during the Victorian era, and why the “swooning Southern Belle” is depicted so often in period movies? Have you ever wondered why people claim that the Victorians invented the fainting couch solely for this reason? Let’s analyze a few different reasons why upper class Victorian women could have fainted:
Shortness of Breath (from possible overexertion)
I’m not denying that some women could have genuinely fainted from shortness of breath, but this scenario was likely far less common than some individuals claim. Someone could feel woozy if they were laced more tightly than they’re accustomed to, for a special occasion (like a party or ball). It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a woman of wealth to own more than one corset, and sometimes her formal corset would be slightly smaller than her day corset to give a more dramatic or impressive silhouette (I should add that I don’t personally consider it responsible to tightlace past the point of discomfort/pain; nevertheless, other people do go the extra inch for a special event). Add an evening of more exertion than usual (like hours of dancing) and dehydration on top of that, and it would not be outside of the realm of possibility that a woman would faint.
Let’s not rule out the possibility that women may have fainted from simply overheating. Consider the Full Monty of undergarments: a chemise under the corset, bloomers, the corset itself, a corset cover, possibly a hoopskirt, several petticoats, and then over that would be a blouse, an overskirt, possibly a jacket, train for the skirt, and perhaps a little hat or bonnet on top of your head. Clothing can exceed 20 lbs at times, and there would be around 4 layers of clothing between your skin and the air – which, even if made from the lightest linens and using the thinnest corset, would still add up in weight and insulation. If you could imagine wearing all this in the middle of summer in Texas or Georgia (since the media love to depict Victorian ladies as specifically Southern Belles), and air conditioning won’t be invented for another 100 years, it’s safe to say that you may feel considerably overheated – and this can lead to fainting and heat stroke.
It is so very easy to become dehydrated. Even today, some sources state that 75% of North Americans are chronically dehydrated – we do not drink enough water or eat enough hydrating foods. Corsets are able to exacerbate symptoms that you would not normally notice when you’re uncorseted – i.e. while corsets are not to blame for our chronic dehydration, wearing a corset may make you more aware of your body, and you may feel dehydrated faster and with more intensity than if you were uncorseted. When I started corseting on a regular basis, I noticed that I felt thirstier than usual. When I started setting alarms for myself to drink 2-3 liters of water each day, I started feeling much better both in and out of the corset. Fran Blanche of Contour Corsets has written about blood volume, dehydration and corseting on her blog here.
The scenarios already mentioned above (overheating, overexertion etc.) can lead to further dehydration, which may cause fainting much faster or more frequently in an already chronically dehydrated person. Staying hydrated is so very important if you choose to wear a corset.
Yes, fainting from shock does happen. I have two stories where I’ve almost fainted in my life, and neither of them involve corsets: I remember being about 6-7 years old, trying to make a paper palm tree, and I accidentally stapled my thumb. I took one look at my thumb and I remember developing tunnel vision and ringing in my ears (classic vasovagal response). According to those around me, my face went pale and my lips turned blue. I never lost consciousness, but I do remember instinctively lying down quickly. A similar thing happened the very first time I put in contact lenses. Fainting from shock, with or without corsets, is a real possibility.
But would Victorian women be so sheltered as to faint at the slightest bad news? It likely depended on the individual’s temperament, and also their family’s status. The very high class were probably not exposed to the blood and gore like those living on a farm, nevermind being desensitized to shocking news and images and media the way we are today. News came from newspapers, magazines and word of mouth. Public executions were not done everywhere, and likely not attended by all people. It’s therefore not hard consider that if a sheltered person were see or hear something out of the ordinary (something appalling or grotesque) they may have reacted somewhat more dramatically and could very well have even fainted – whether intentionally or unintentionally, which leads us to the last point…
Mock Fainting (or what I like to call “Feign-ting”)
Many Victorian women were probably taught to pretend to faint in uncomfortable situations. Remember that it was unbecoming for a proper lady to throw a hissy fit (lest she be diagnosed with “hysteria” and hauled away). What’s a woman to do when she:
wants to quickly become the center of attention at a party?
sees someone annoying and wants to avoid talking to them?
is angry about certain circumstances but society doesn’t allow her to throw a temper tantrum?
(And as one viewer mentioned in a recent comment:) needs to escape to the toilet but doesn’t want to announce something so unbecoming?
The answer to all of these? She faints. Or feigns fainting, in any case. Fainting was said to be one of few ways to abruptly change a subject or leave a room while still saving face and being considered a lady. “Fainting culture” indeed!
What about all those fainting couches?
Many people will claim that the Chaise Longue was invented in the Victorian era – in reality, they existed in Egypt and Greece at least 2000 years prior, and possibly as far back as the 8th century BCE. Unfortunately, taking a millennia-old piece of furniture and reinventing it as a strictly Victorian “fainting couch” (and treating their invention as a direct response to the corset) did nothing more than glorify and perpetuate the fainting culture and help Victorian women look fabulous while they were (pretending to be) unconscious.
While fainting in a corset is not impossible, there is much more to the wilting Victorian lady than what we’re usually taught. It’s worth noting that while many people faint for many reasons, it is NEVER “normal” to feel faint whether in or out of a corset. If you faint on a regular basis or for unexplained reasons, always see your doctor.
But there is a big difference between genuinely feeling lightheaded vs feign-ting for the “fun of it” – and I would prefer that the perpetuation of the swooning corset-wearer stereotype would stop today. So the next time you’re at a Renfaire or convention and you see someone at the corset vendor’s kiosk, melodramatically swooning and pretending to fall over for the “fun of it”, be sure to let them know that their melodramatic performance is hardly an original act.
Please note that this article is provided for information purposes, and is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. Please contact your trusted physician if you plan to wear a corset for any reason.
Hey everyone! I’m creating this in the middle of a heat wave, it’s a humidex of 40°C here or (~105°F) and I realized that I hadn’t really made a video solely dedicated on preventing overheating while waist training. (Despite my Caribbean heritage, I’m actually a bit heat intolerant so I have to be extra careful not to get heat exhaustion, so I have plenty of experience with trying to stay cool in the summer.)
When you’re wearing a corset, you have several extra layers of fabric around your core, holding heat in — so it’s all the more important to stay cool and hydrated.
I will make another video in the future on tips for wearing corsets as part of your cosplay, but for now, let’s jump into my 3 tips for keeping cool in general, whether you’re wearing your corset over or under your clothes:
1: Invest in a mesh or ventilated corset
Choose a corset that’s thinner or more breathable. Mesh corsets are the first and obvious choice that comes to mind, but they have their pros and cons. I have a whole other post dedicated to comparing mesh corsets here. Mesh corsets are more thin and breezy, which allows heat and sweat to escape — but they usually don’t have the longevity of an all-cotton corset.
Victorian corsets were often made from a single layer of strong cotton, which you can do as well. Upon the resurgence of the corset’s popularity in the last ~10 years, single-layer corsets used to relatively unpopular because they seemed a bit flimsy compared to the “4-5 layer super-duper heavy-duty training corsets” that certain OTR corsets were touting as higher quality — and subsequently, this formed the misconception that fewer layers meant less strength — but it makes more sense that a single layer of good quality coutil is more breathable, and also stronger/ less resistant to stretching out compared to 3 layers of cheap elastic satin, for instance. and as the community of waist trainers has grown in recent years, including many who train throughout the year and some who live in hotter climates year-round, I think the demand for thinner and more lightweight corsets has grown.
Victorians also had mesh and ventilated corsets to help keep themselves cooler (despite the several layers overtop). Lace Embrace Atelier makes recreations of mesh and skeleton corsets, as well as corsets made from cute cotton eyelet fabric.
Narrowed Visions also has recreated 1895 ventilated corset below which looks gorgeous. (I had experimented with making my own skeleton corset, which came out hideous but it was a good learning experience that later led to my sports mesh corset.)
2: Stay hydrated.
It’s probably obvious, but it’s too important to leave out. Even if you don’t think you’re sweating under your corset — believe me, you are. Even if you’re in an air-conditioned building (and air conditioned spaces tend to have dry air), still take in water. But especially if you’re out and about, bring a water bottle and sip it every half hour at minimum, and do not down it all at once. Because if you feel dehydrated and nauseated, and then you chug a pint of water all at once, you’re probably going to feel even more sick. If you’re sweating profusely, you’re also losing salt, so put a pinch of salt or an electrolyte mix in your water bottle and sip frequently.
If you have a tendency to overheat, one amazing thing that was recommended to me was a bodice cooler or bodice chiller. It’s essentially a metal vial that you put in the freezer in advance and stick it in your cleavage or down the front of your corset to keep you cool. This works better with overbust corsets than underbust, because most overbusts leave you a bit of space between the breasts and at the sternum, whereas underbusts tend to fit more flush around the ribs.
Now, these are surprisingly difficult to find. Sometimes they are sold at Renfaires, they can be made from metal or glass — I’d personally be afraid of putting glass that close to my solar plexus (but if it’s designed to go from hot to cold frequently, then most likely it will be tempered glass that’s resistant to shattering). I’ve found one on Etsy here made from stainless steel — it’s available in several different colors and designs, and best of all it’s $20 USD which is much less than you’ll find at most Renaissance Faires.
If you can’t find a bodice chiller nearby, you could also get one of those long stainless steel chillers designed for beer or wine. I have actually not bought a bodice chiller yet, but what I have done is take small freezies or ice pops, wrap it in a paper towel so the plastic doesn’t risk cutting me (and the paper towel also catches condensation and prevents frostnip), and the best part is that they’re easy to find and only cost ~20 cents each. Since they’re sealed, you can pop them back in the freezer when you’re done — but let’s be honest, I usually end up eating them.
What did the Victorians do to keep cool?
While Victorians didn’t have air conditioning (currently my best friend), they did have ventilated, mesh, or skeleton corsets as mentioned above — other ways that Victorians kept cool was by using fans and carrying parasols to shade themselves from the sun. There are patents dating back to the 1800s showing that they even had ceiling fans in some areas, although they worked using a spring and crank, and were usually operated by slaves / servants (another reason why we can feel better about modern air conditioning). Lastly, Victorian women also had summer dresses made from lightweight cotton and linen, which despite wearing multiple layers can sometimes still be cooler than modern synthetic fabrics.
Ready to buy a mesh or a lightweight summer corset? Hey, I’ve got them corsets in my shop! Support this blog and stay cool this summer at the same time.
The history of the “medical condition” of hysteria is a long, winding, somewhat convoluted one. In its earliest definitions, hysteria was a term to describe trauma or disease of the uterus (hence the word “hysterectomy” to remove the uterus) – or even to describe a vengeful or mischievous uterus that detached itself from the pelvic region and wandered around the body.
4000 Years Ago, Ancient Egypt:
It’s said that the concept of the wandering womb came about around 4000 years ago in ancient Egypt, although the term “hysteria” wasn’t coined until around 2400 years ago by Hippocrates. Now, in general there was some stuff that Hippocrates got right – indeed he’s considered the father of western medicine. But he had some really interesting and wrong ideas about the uterus.
In old Greek, “hystera” (without the i) referred to the womb, which is where we get terms still used today like “Hysterectomy” – removal of the uterus.
2400 Years Ago, Ancient Greece:
Hippocrates lived around 400 BCE, and wrote / taught about the “wandering womb” – that the uterus was not anchored in place but was like an animal with a mind of its own, traveling around inside the body and wreaking havoc on other tissue and organ systems like a delinquent. All the symptoms caused by the womb’s antics is what they collectively described as hysteria.
The wandering womb was said to cause heart problems, liver problems, respiratory problems, it could cause a host of neurological issues, everything from headaches, to epileptic seizures (known as “Hercules’ Disease”), to unexplained paralysis (which might now be classified as conversion disorder).
Symptoms of hysteria include:
Sleeping too much, or too little.
Becoming disinterested in past hobbies, or too interested or obsessive in hobbies.
Showing apathy or lack of care, or having anxiety, irritability and caring too much.
Having high libido, or low libido.
Being too quiet and mute, or being too talkative and loud.
I think you get the idea. There was a very narrow range of “acceptable behavior” and if a lady swung too far out of that range on either side, she could be diagnosed with hysteria.
1500-500 Years Ago, Middle Ages in Europe:
In the middle ages, hysteria was tied to sorcery, witchcraft and demon possession and so – naturally – of the treatments was exorcism. Hysteria was a disorder of exclusion – if every other known disease had been ruled out and doctors couldn’t come up with an official diagnosis, then they believed that it was a disease brought about by something “intangible” and “not well understood” and therefore a result of the devil. And of course, since women were thought to have brought about original sin (re: Eve and the serpent), women were thought to be either naturally prone to “evil”, and/or more naïve and impressionable to evil spirits. Exorcism often involved physical and mental torture of the patient, and many women didn’t survive this “treatment”.
150 Years Ago: Victorian Era in Europe:
By the 19th century, at the height of Victorian fashion, hysteria had become a blanket term for emotional, sexual or mental disorders suffered exclusively by women. Some people blamed quintessentially “feminine” objects and garments for the disease (like corsets!) while other people thought that corsets helped prevent hysteria. But honestly, when I first started researching the history of hysteria, I was surprised by how little it was tied to the corset (the real history of corsets and stays are only close to 500 years, while hysteria is 4000 years old, so this is unsurprising).
Hysteria was a particularly popular diagnosis in the 18th and 19th centuries – in fact the 2nd most diagnosed condition after fever. According to author Laura Briggs, one doctor in the 19th century had a 75 page publication listing all the possible symptoms of Hysteria (and said that list was still not exhaustive)! It was estimated that 25% of the female population was affected by hysteria in some form or another. So Hysteria was still this vague, catch-all, umbrella diagnosis that could manifest in any different ways (it had hundreds or thousands of different “faces”) – as long as the patient possessed a uterus. If you, as a lucky owner of a uterus, disturbed the peace in any way, you could be diagnosed with hysteria and hauled away to a sanitarium or insane asylum.
We’ve discussed the many “symptoms” of hysteria, but what were the causes?
Some claimed that hysteria was due to the uterus becoming too dry and light. (Did the uterus become a helium balloon and just float off somewhere else in the body??) So doctors recommended ways to keep the uterus moist and weighted…. Except not really, because another source said that hysteria was caused by too much fluid retention in the pelvic region, specifically because the female was not purging her body of “female sperm”. (!?!!?)
In the 1700 and 1800s they also blamed “bad air” for hysteria, so when a woman “got the vapours” it meant their womb was acting up. You might have heard of smelling salts which were used to rouse fainting women (this worked by creating a sharp inhalation reflex, which was said to oxygenate the body), but the salts also were supposed to help with hysteria. Smelling salts were not pleasant in aroma; they were made with ammonia. Taking in the pungent odors through the nose at the top of the body was thought to repulse the uterus so it would be driven down through the body. Doctors also recommended applying sweet perfumes and scents to the groin to lure the uterus back to its assigned seat, so to speak.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of contradiction and nobody could really agree as to what caused hysteria, what the mechanism is, or how to cure it.
The horrific “treatments” in the name of hysteria:
Smelling salts, while not pleasant to actually smell, was probably one of the ‘preferred’ treatments for mild hysteria. Others recommended spreading dung on the upper lip or in the genitals (which is anything but hygienic).
Hippocrates said that pregnancy could keep the uterus anchored in place and prevent it from wandering – but the caveat, he says, is that the action of childbirth could cause the uterus to act up again and encourage it to wander. So, he seems to have implied that regular relations with one’s husband to keep the patient like constantly impregnated would be the answer.
Rachel Maines, author of “The Technology of the Orgasm”, has written extensively about the “treatment” for hysteria involving what we would now consider sexual abuse. Forced vigorous pelvic massages – manual stimulation administered by the doctor, or this task could be delegated to the nurse or midwife. According to this chapter in her book, when doctors complained that they were getting too tired stimulating the patient or it took too much of their time, that’s when sexual vibrators were developed as a popular substitute.
Lucy’s Added Thought: Even though hysteria is millennia older than the Victorian era, perhaps one of the reasons why it seems to be so intertwined with this era (apart from more literacy and more surviving written documents about the disease during the 1800s), is that there seems to be this connotation that compared to all other times in history, the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain seemed to be the most sexually repressed and these values were said to be spread to other cultures and countries around the world through colonialism during this era.
1885: Sigmund Freud and Male Hysteria:
Sigmund Freud was erroneously blamed for the widespread belief of the wandering womb, when really the theory had existed for millennia. When I looked more into it though, Freud started learning more about Hysteria from Jean-Martin Charcot around at the end of the 19th century, around 1885. Charcot popularized the theory that men could suffer from hysteria as well, especially soldiers. Many of the symptoms Charcot described would later be known as “shell-shock” and then post traumatic stress disorder. Freud put forward the belief that female and male hysteria was basically the same thing, related to anxiety neuroses – which was sort of laying down more framework for what we now know as anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, and PTSD although that wasn’t what they was called yet.
So in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Freud and Charcot and a few others were working to reclassify many of hysteria’s symptoms into new diagnoses, admittedly a lot of those were also wrong and often harmful and now rejected too – but they did claim that hysteria was a psychological, neurological and emotional disorder presented by survivors of trauma. It was not physical disease reserved only for those who own a uterus, and they promoted hypnotism and talk therapies. Freud even diagnosed himself with hysteria at one point, but there was so much resistance around male hysteria from the rest of the medical community that he flip-flopped and started calling hysteria a “feminine” disease again later on.
Meanwhile there was still a lot of messed up shit happening in the name of “treatment”. It seems that spreading dung on yourself and exorcism had both fallen out of favor by this time (thank goodness), but of course there was still sexual abuse and smelling salts as I had mentioned earlier, they were also injecting things into the uterus, cutting or burning away the genitals with fire or chemicals (Dr John Harvey Kellogg was said to be particularly supportive of female circumcision), using electroconvulsive therapy or shock therapy, among other stomach-churning things. And this was all happening well into the 20th century.
1920 – 1980: The Fall of Hysteria:
Hysteria as a diagnosis plummeted drastically after the 1920s in part due to women’s suffrage, but also a huuuuuge factor was because so many people, men and women, across different countries and cultures, started to present symptoms of PTSD during and after WW1 and WW2 that doctors could no longer deny its association with experience and trauma, and that it had nothing to do with gender. However, hysterical neuroses was still mentioned in the DSM-II in 1968, and was only officially deleted when they came out with the DSM-III in 1980.
Like I said before, Hysteria has about 4000 years of history, and it’s a convoluted history. Obviously there were multiple and contradictory hypotheses that existed at the same time about both the cause of Hysteria and the symptoms as a result of the condition, and also there’s a lot of disagreement about the timeline of it and who believed what about it prior to the 1900s. Also it’s worth noting that I am not a historian (I’m trained in modern biology) but I’ve tried to touch on events as fairly as possible in this article and clear up some misconceptions about hysteria.
I’ll post links below if you want further reading on this topic. Comment below and let me know the most absurd thing you’ve heard about hysteria!
A month later in November, Oz’s producers contacted me about doing a second segment about waist training on the show (in which I declined to participate since I had seen his angle on it the first time).
Ann Grogan (Romantasy Exquisite Corsetry) has already responded to Dr. Oz in an open letter on her own blog, but I have also been asked by a dozen or so people to write my own response – make no mistake that I am not a medical expert, but I do believe that the results are worth talking about and sharing. I’d like this to become a conversation between the corsetry and medical industries, and for us to come to a mutual understanding that not all shapewear is the same and not all of them are suitable for all applications (including and especially waist training).
First video: theoretical discussion and MRI results
Corsets can theoretically squeeze your lungs, compress the ribs and reduce oxygen intake
This is true if the corset is not made to fit your body and deliberately tightened to reduce the size of the ribcage. It’s also more likely to be true with an overbust corset rather than an underbust, as it encases more of the ribcage. In my article about corsets, lungs and breathing, I address some common concerns and myths regarding corsets and respiratory infections. My response article to the “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home” episode on corsets also showed that the maximum loss to the reporter’s vital capacity was about 10%, even after strapping on an overbust corset for the first time, lacing down several inches immediately (and over a bulky sweater) and then proceeding to sprint up and down a staircase repeatedly for several minutes – altogether a scenario that would have never happened in the Victorian era.
There are corsetieres who are dedicated to patterning their corsets to deliberately curve around the ribcage and accommodate the ribs instead of affecting their position, for those who find it more comfortable and prefer this silhouette. Now, it is possible to reduce the lung capacity slightly simply by the nature of pushing up the stomach and diaphragm slightly, but again this depends on the reduction held – and in many cases the temporary reduction in capacity is small enough that it would only be noticeable in situations of hard exertion, not tidal breathing (a normal breath while at rest only uses about 15% of the vital lung capacity, and many sedentary people very rarely use their full capacity).
Corsets can cause acid reflux
If the stomach is pushed up, heartburn is possible – especially if you eat a semi-large meal prior to lacing up (but who does that?). Corsets can exacerbate reflux in those people who already suffer from GERD (a condition caused by a loosened lower esophageal sphincter, production of too much stomach acid, hiatal hernia, abdominal obesity, etc).
Pregnancy can often cause heartburn, not only because the baby is competing for space and pushing up on the stomach, but also because the elevated hormones can cause the sphincter of the stomach to relax. Common tips given to pregnant women include eating small meals (and eating slowly), avoiding foods that are commonly known to bring on heartburn (like spicy food and caffeine), and keeping hydrated and drinking fluids throughout the day – all healthy tips that can be done anyway, and all tips that have helped corset wearers to avoid reflux as well. I eat small, regular meals by choice and I cannot remember one incident of heartburn I’ve experienced while wearing a corset.
Some may be interested to read Sarah Chrisman’s experience in how wearing a corset had helped to stop her GERD (which she previously believed was a chronic, hereditary condition that she’d have to deal with for life).
That said, if you know that you experience GERD, if you have a hernia or any other health condition, it’s always a good idea to speak with your trusted medical professional before trying a corset.
MRI results of a waist trainer
For contrast, I want to compare Dr. Oz’s methodology and subsequent results with the MRI results of a tightlacer on Dr. Hirschhausen’s show. On Hirschhausen’s show, Eden Berlin (the tightlacer and willing subject) wore a custom fit corset made by Tonia of Korsett Manufaktur Tomto, specially constructed with plastic synthetic whalebone instead of steel, and also nonferrous grommets so as not to react in the MRI machine. The results demonstrated how a well-fit corset does not seem to drastically affect the morphology or position of kidneys or lungs. Even her liver looked similar in shape and simply shifted upwards slightly. The only organ that got ‘trapped’ was her transverse colon, and Eden mentioned that she had been rushed in putting on the corset and lacing down 5 inches within mere minutes – she said that if she had more time to lace down slowly and properly, she may have been able to shift that colon down appropriately, as Fran Blanche describes in her tightlacing articles “The Cycle Method” and Divide and Conquer”.
Why corsets are not the same as stretch shapewear
I have several criticisms with the way Dr. Oz performed his version of the experiment, namely the fact that he used a rubber cincher instead of a corset. It’s understandable that they would opt for this, as 1) the rubber faja is gaining popularity as exercise gear these days, and 2) since it tends to contain no metal, it is a quick and easy ‘substitute’ for steel boned corsets.
The way a stretchy rubber or neoprene faja is constructed, it is not custom-fit to the individual’s anatomy, and it’s designed to compress everywhere that it touches – from the ribcage to the hips. It will compress whatever gives the least resistance, whether that is the sides of the waistline or the front and back; whether that includes the floating ribs or not (Marianne has an article on The Lingerie Addict about different the compression feels between corsets and shapewear). Because each individual has a different amount of muscle tone or body fat percentage, because each person has very slight differences in position and size of their internal organs, because the exact amount of compression on the body is difficult to control because it fastens with hooks and not laces, it’s very difficult to predict how the outcome would look in each person. Only two days ago someone commented on my site asking if it’s normal to experience uncomfortable pressure on the back from rubber cinchers (to answer this quickly: pain is never normal; if you ever experience discomfort, the responsible thing to do is to loosen or remove the garment).
By contrast, a corset can be drafted to accommodate each person’s individual anatomy and we can control exactly where the compression is occurring and how much (0 inches, 2 inches, 4 inches) due to the adjustability of the laces.
In a custom-fit corset, there is a gradient of pressure that is maximized at the skeletal waistline (the squishy area below the ribs and above the pelvis), dissipating to zero compression up over the ribcage and down over the hips. The compression is also focused primarily laterally (on either side of the body, and not from front and back). In most cases, a strong front busk will prevent dishing or collapsing of the waistline in the front of the body, and a proper corset is also specially drafted to ensure no compression of the back, as it should support a healthy posture and maintain a proper lumbar curve. A well-fitting corset should be drafted in such a way that if the organs come into play, then the hollow membranous organs like the intestines flatten in response to the compression, and the corset should not affect the retroperitoneal organs such as the kidneys, as shown in Hirschhausen’s results.
Stand-up MRI imaging vs traditional reclining patient
Dr. Oz used a stand-up MRI facility to do the test, which may show a slightly different view of the organs compared to the conventional MRI scans where the patient is lying down. I believe that stand-up and positional diagnostic imaging is a fantastic tool, especially considering that most corset-wearers are standing or sitting for most of their day and not reclining – but this also means that Oz’s results cannot truly be accurately compared with Hirschhausen’s, since the position of the organs may shift slightly depending on the body’s position, with or without a corset.
My friend and fellow tightlacer Michael informed me that when internal diagnostic imaging was first discovered (e.g. X-rays where you could see the positions of solid organs like the heart and liver against less dense organs like the lungs), there were several unnecessary surgeries performed to “correct” the position of the organs. Before stand-up imaging, physicians’ only knowledge of organ positions in the human body came from examining corpses (who were obviously reclining) and from performing surgeries (where patients were also reclining), and they didn’t realize that the organs can and do slightly shift from standing to lying down.
I’m currently investigating this history further to verify the details – but it’s easy to imagine how, for instance, breasts can look incredibly different from standing to reclining even with the presence of Cooper’s ligaments keeping them relatively in place, so it’s not hard to believe that the position of the organs can also slightly shift from standing to reclining as well, despite ligaments and the visceral membrane keeping them relatively in place.
It’s not known whether Oz’s subject was scanned while standing up or lying down, as the brief video clip merely showed her “spinning” somewhat in the machine. Perhaps she wasn’t standing nor completely reclining but was at a slight incline. It is also unknown whether the angle of imaging with and without her rubber cincher had been performed at the same angle. If they had by chance been performed at different angles, this change in position may have skewed the results from the cincher.
Should we be scared by a grooved liver?
Dr. Oz expressed some shock upon discovering indentations in the woman’s liver caused by the ribcage – I was hoping that he would explain how such indentations would prove deleterious but unfortunately it was not mentioned (or the clip was cut short). However, indentations of the liver are not all that uncommon. Although the liver is one of the more solid organs, it is still described as pliable, and the shape and size naturally varies.
In a 1986 publication in the JPMA, the liver shapes of 500 live humans were studied via radio-colloid imaging. Over 15% of the subjects showed indentations of some kind on the liver, and these are from healthy individuals who were not wearing corsets. This is consistent with the indented livers I’ve seen in rat dissections in school. These slight variances in liver morphology are not necessarily tied with the health of the individual.
Another issue to bring to light is that organ crowding and indentations may also occur in those who are pregnant, those who have a high percentage of visceral (intra-abdominal) fat, and those who have skeletal issues like scoliosis, which shortens the torso and the amount of space for the organs within it – yet particularly in the last case, bracing a scoliosis patient often involves torso compression of a couple of inches, in the interest of stabilizing and correcting the spine – would this not further compress the organs of a person who is already experiencing compromised organ space? The history of the modern brace lies in corsetry, and research in the physiological effects of corsetry is not a vain apologist activity. More research into the functional effects of organ crowding may lead to new innovations in the medical field as well.
Video 2: Interview with Dr. Nicole Florence, bariatrician
Can Waist Training lead to Weight Loss?
Dr. Florence states that there is no clinical evidence that waist training can result in weight loss. That’s not for want of trying though, as a 2010 study by Wikstrand et al attempted a trial of wearing “soft corsets” for a period of 9 months to maintain weight loss – however, the results could not be properly evaluated due to low compliance (the subjects didn’t wear their corsets). I was as disappointed as the next person.
I tend to agree that weight loss is not necessarily guaranteed with the use of a corset, and the corset should not be treated as a substitute for diet or exercise (I’ve spoken at length about this before) – however, it can be seen as a non-surgical aid in many individuals. As mentioned above, I would personally be delighted to perform long-term studies on corset wearers, and rely on real data instead of anecdotes, given the funds and the opportunity. Universities and research centers may feel free to contact me if you’d like me to lead a proper trial in your facility. (I’m not kidding.)
Since Dr. Florence is a bariatrician, I would also like to study real quantifiable health risks associated with moderate corset wear as compared with gastric band surgery, where 10-20% of patients require a second procedure to correct complications, up to 30% of patients develop nutritional deficiencies / absorption disorders, and up to 33% of patients develop gallstones according to the Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric and Metabolic Institute, with a 53% chance of gaining the weight back within 15 years according to this 2013 study. If I were in the position to opt for either bariatric surgery or corsets, I’d personally try the corsets first, but that’s just my subjective stance.
Do corsets lead to eating disorders?
I have always tried to tread lightly on this subject as it is a sensitive topic for many. Dr. Florence believes that wearing corsets can create body dysmorphic disorder or distorted body image, and there was implication that the corset may become a gateway to eating disorders or more drastic body modification.
It’s my personal belief that body dysmorphia starts in the mind and then the body follows, not the other way around. Extreme weight loss associated with conditions like anorexia are the later symptoms – the physical manifestations of the psychological/ emotional struggle that has already existed in the person for months or years prior. Is it possible that some people who already have body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders use corsets as a tool? Yes, I would say that it’s probable that some individuals use corsets for this reason, but it’s insulting to imply that all people who wear corsets are at risk of developing an eating disorder or are already there, especially as I have personally seen corsets used to help some of my friends overcome their personal body image issues and fall in love with their own body. I don’t believe that corsets cause body image issues any more than bra cutlets would contribute to delusions about one’s own natural breast size, or high heel shoes would create insecurity in one’s natural height.
Other health concerns mentioned
Dr. Florence says that corsets can cause pneumonia (again, I’ve written about pneumonia in this article), and that they can cause constipation (I’ve addressed this in my Corsets and Toilet Issues article, although more and more I’m hearing from viewers how abdominal compression has helped keep them regular, interestingly). She also wrote that corsets can cause chronic pain and bruising, to which I respond that if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Pain or bruising when wearing a corset is never ever ever ever normal – and if this is happening, then you are using a corset that is not the right shape for you, or you’re cinching too tight, too fast, or for too long a duration than your body is ready for.
She also mentioned that corsets can cause fainting – she erroneously stated that the origin of “fainting couches” had their origin in the Victorian era to catch women fainting from their corsets, which is known to be untrue. The Chaise Longue has existed for well over 2000 years. Corsets may have caused fainting in Victorian women if overtightened (which was not unheard of during balls and other special events), and yes corsets can affect blood pressure, but women also fainted from exhaustion, dehydration, low blood sugar, overheating and overexertion, just as many people faint today without a corset. Victorian ladies also faked fainting because it was the cool thing to do.
In summary, I don’t believe that Dr. Oz gave the last word or drove the nail in the coffin for waist training, but I do think it’s important to take all information into account. Recall that after Hirschhausen’s episode on corsets, I said, “I would love to repeat this MRI study with different tightlacers to see how the positions of organs change slightly depending on the individual, the silhouette of corset worn, the reduction of the corset, and how long they’ve been training.” My position hasn’t changed; on the contrary, Dr. Oz’s contribution has only strengthened my resolve.
If we’re to truly understand the physiological effects of corsetry, we need a sample size of more than 1, we need some consistency in the type of corset used (not simply *any* compression garment) and we need a consistent method of imaging.
I often receive inquiries from people wanting to specifically buy a “work out” or “exercise” corset. I’m not entirely sure where they got the idea that they are supposed to exercise in a corset (and sometimes exclusively wear the corset during exercise or sleeping hours) but it may have something to do with those elastic shapewear cinchers that seemed to have exploded with popularity over the last couple of years. From my understanding, vendors of these latex cinchers claim that exercising in one of these will cause the wearer to sweat more in their midsection and temporarily lose inches of water weight from this area. However, genuine corsets work by entirely different means, and they are not designed to be worn during heavy activity.
I have always recommended that you intend to waist train (more than 8+ hours a day) then in order to avoid any dependence on your corset, it’s a good idea to start or increase your exercise regimen, particularly your core resistance training (strengthening your abs and back). But do not exercise in your corset – take it off, do your work out, take a shower and put the corset back on. As I mentioned in my previous Corsets and Muscles article: if you do your intense core resistance training at the very end of your workout, you take your shower and put the corset on within an hour of finishing your session (while the muscle fibers are still ‘broken’) then it’s possible for your oblique muscles to build themselves to the shape of the corset and retain more of an hourglass silhouette semi-permanently (even when not wearing the corset). Wearing your corset during your workout is not required for this! Let’s go into some of the reasons why I don’t recommend working out in your corset:
Exercising in your steel-boned corset may ruin your corset.
When you sweat profusely, the moisture, salt and pH of your sweat can damage the fibers of your corset. Silk eventually breaks down even in mildly acidic conditions, and the salt can be corrosive over time too (not to mention salt and sweat stains can make your corset look dingy).
If you happen to sweat on a regular basis in your corset, the fabric can become a breeding ground for microbes. Remember that mold and mildew absolutely love dark, moist, anaerobic environments like the inside of your corset, and this is not healthy to wear next to your skin for an extended amount of time!
Not only this, but the moisture can cause steel bones to rust over time. Remember that even galvanized (zinc-coated) or even stainless steel are not protected forever – over time with constant exposure to moisture and oxygen, they can form rust spots as well.
While you could wash your corset, detergents are often made from salts and have a very basic pH which can further compromise the integrity of your corset, not to mention submersing your corset in water can be a nightmare for the metal hardware.
Additionally, if you are moving vigorously in your corset (say you’re doing high-impact aerobics, kickboxing, lots of bending and twisting in your corset), it’s possible to warp the fabric if your corset over time or possibly even tear seams of your corset.
Weak corset bones (even some lower quality steel boning) can kink, warp or possibly even break with enough force, which may leave you with a misshapen and uncomfortable corset.
Overall, if you work out in your corset, you can expect your corset to have a considerably shorter lifespan.
Exercising in your steel-boned corset may potentially be dangerous for you.
Corsets can also increase blood pressure when worn, so do be careful when exercising in a corset, especially if you have a history of hypertension. It’s a common misconception that corset wearers feel faint because they feel short of breath – realistically speaking, when at rest, a corseter should be able to breathe relatively freely. From my research, fainting has more to do with abrupt changes in blood pressure, so a corseter would be more likely to faint if their blood pressure drops too low or too quickly – so do be aware of your own blood pressure levels, and if you do intend to exercise in your corset at all, then make sure you warm up very slowly, that you don’t go too hard and fast with your workout, and that you cool down slowly as well.
Although I don’t personally condone working out in your corset, I know several people who do. And these people have a few things in common:
They are all advanced waist trainers (at one point or another they have trained up to 23 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, and they are very familiar with how their body functions while laced).
They all own multiple corsets, and may consider some of their corsets to be expendable. This means that if a corset were to warp, rip or break during a workout (horrors!), they will have backup corsets so they’re able to continue waist training.
They all know how to make corsets – their experience and skill level may vary, but they have all made their own corsets and they understand exactly how much time, materials and labor go into each piece. Some of them are professional corsetieres, and testing out the strength and integrity of their own corsets would be beneficial as they’d be able to determine how much abuse their product can take, pinpoint and improve any potential weak spots in their construction, and set a specific guarantee.
The majority of them are also experienced athletes – they are already familiar with how their body works and feels when they’re pushing themselves in sports, and they would be able to recognize when they’re pushing themselves too far. One of them has worked as a personal trainer, another one does CrossFit and runs marathons, and many of these people have been seasoned athletes for years, some even before becoming interested in corsetry – so I trust that they know what they’re doing and how to read themselves if they are determined to work out in a corset.
I have heard of a few athletes who wear their corset in lieu of a weight-lifting belt in the gym. Although I have not personally tried this, I understand that if the corset were not tied too tightly, a short corset can function very similarly to a lifting belt. If anyone has tried this in the gym and has more information, I would be very interested to learn more from you!
In summary: I generally do not recommend exercising in a corset, and I personally have not and would not work out in my corset. Those few people who do exercise in their steel boned corsets, I trust that they are well-educated about the risks involved and understand how to minimize them, and it is their sole prerogative if they want to put this kind of strain on their corsets (and potentially their bodies as well).
Additional links on exercising while corseted have been kindly provided by KathTea Katastrophy; all from Staylace: (1) (2) (3)
Please note that this article contains my opinion and observations. It is provided for information purposes, and is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. Please contact your trusted physician if you would like to start or change your exercise regimen, or if you plan to wear a corset for any reason.
“History Myths” is a charming blog that reads somewhat like Snopes or FactCheck, except with the obvious focus on popular myths and legends throughout history. While nearly all articles are a fun read, here are a few that would be of particular interest to corset-enthusiasts. It’s also worth it to read through the comments of each article, as some very pertinent points are made by other readers.
Myth #59: Women had very tiny waists in “the olden days” – historical corsets and outfits displayed in museums usually have waists ranging between 21 inches to 35 inches, the average being around 23″-25″.
There is quite a lot to say on this topic, including the fact that many of the corsets of the time were not designed to be closed all the way – it was customary to have a 1-3 inch gap in the back, meaning that an 18″ corset may have been worn closer to 21″. Also, be aware that while many museums display articles of clothing that are best preserved, many of them preferentially display corsets and clothing that would be most interesting to visitors – those being the most elaborate, and those with the tiniest proportions – although they may not necessarily be representative of the average of the time.
Once again, it’s best to read through the comments and not just the articles, as some of the information in those articles have been debated as well. But these articles provide a good place to jump into further discussion.
This entry is a summary of the video “Corsets and Blood Pressure” which you can watch on YouTube here:
As is seen in the video, without a corset my blood pressure was 117/80, which is close to the normal BP of 120/80.
About 5 minutes after lacing down approximately 4 inches in one of my underbust corsets, my blood pressure read 122/88. I will explain what this means at the end of this entry.
Firstly, how does blood pressure work?
When a fluid is travelling through a tube, the pressure depends on a few aspects:
the volume of the fluid (how much is there?)
the viscosity of the fluid (how thick or watery is it?)
the capacity of the tube in a given distance (how much can the tube hold?)
the speed and strength of the pump (your heart)
The systolic pressure (higher number) is the pressure of the blood when your heart is making the pumping motion, so this is highest pressure. The diastolic pressure (lower number) is the blood pressure at the moment that your heart is resting between pumps, so this is the lowest pressure your blood has. At any other time in the motion of the “pumping”, your blood pressure is somewhere between the systolic and diastolic pressures.
Most of the time (excluding when a woman is pregnant) a healthy person will have about the same amount of blood and the same viscosity. This means that blood pressure will mostly depend on the size of the “tube” (arteries and veins). The smaller or skinnier the blood vessel, the higher your blood pressure becomes. Today, one of the most common causes of high blood pressure is arterial plaque. As plaque builds up on the inside of your arteries, the circumference through which the blood has to travel decreases in size. Your heart has to work harder to pump the same volume of blood through it, and your blood pressure increases.
A study on blood pressure and support belts
In 1989, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study called The Effects of a Weight Training Belt on Blood Pressure During Exercise. This study demonstrated that when weight lifting, the support belts that the men wore increased their blood pressure. After testing my own blood pressure in and out of a corset several times, I realized that corsets can do the same! This makes sense, as the pressure from a tight belt or corset can constrict the blood vessels in the abdominal region, making it harder for blood to flow through that region.
How corsets can cause low blood pressure
Let’s consider the first part: your corset is just being tightened and your circulatory system hasn’t responded yet. Since all things are affected by gravity, what usually happens is the blood more easily flows to the lower region of the body, but has difficulty getting pumped back up to the heart. This will cause a greater volume of blood and a greater pressure in the legs compared to in the upper torso, arms and head, where pressure is lower. (By the way, weak valves in the veins can also cause blood pooling in the legs and varicose veins, which is why many older women wear compression stockings to help get the blood back up out of the legs).
Low blood pressure and the “swooning / fainting” lady
If a woman’s blood pressure was low to begin with, then after she puts the corset on, it might be this decreased blood pressure in the upper body (particularly the head) that contributed to a lady swooning or fainting – the stories of women fainting from lack of oxygen or breathing difficulties are largely rumours. (On a separate note, it is also possible to feel “faint” from too much oxygen, which is why hyperventilation causes light-headedness.)
Why does a person faint from low head blood pressure? When a person faints, their body falls down from a vertical to horizontal position. When you’re lying down, your head is at the same level as your feet – your blood pressure becomes more uniform all throughout your body (relatively speaking, lower in the legs, higher in the head). When your brain gets enough blood and enough oxygen, you regain consciousness!
How corsets can cause high blood pressure
Now let’s consider the second part: say you have a strong circulatory system and your heart has adjusted to the tightness of your corset. The harder it pumps blood down to the legs, the harder the blood gets pumped back up to the heart – this is a good thing; you’re not pooling blood in the lower half of your body. But the body can only control pressure in a certain part of your circulatory system so much; it can’t control the lower and upper halves of you body independently, so the blood pressure everywhere else (i.e. above the corset in the chest, head, arms) is increased as well.
High blood pressure and the “upset lady’s nosebleed”
Have you ever heard of the myth that a lady shouldn’t get angry lest she get a nose-bleed? This is because (corset or no corset) when a person becomes scared, angry or upset, the blood pressure rises in the whole body as part of the “fight or flight” response. If any blood vessels in that person’s body has a thin or weak lining, then high blood pressure can cause that lining to break. Often the nose has thin, delicate blood vessels, so if blood pressure is high enough it can cause a nose bleed. If this happens in any delicate vessels in the brain, it’s called a stroke.
My corseted blood pressure, 122/88, is considered pre-hypertensive; however I didn’t demonstrate how this pressure can change after the body has settled in the corset for a few hours. Nonetheless, based on the study done in 1989, my personal experiment and the BP monitoring of other tightlacers, it’s been shown that a corset can indeed raise your blood pressure somewhat. To what amount will be different for everyone. This is important because if you are a more mature person who is interested in corseting, if you’re not in optimal health and/or if you are predisposed to hypertension, you must approach waist training with caution.
I will return to this topic at a later time, at which I’ll monitor my blood pressure regularly throughout the day and during various emotional states to demonstrate the large range of blood pressures in one person.
Lucy’s Little Life Lesson: Know thyself (including thy medical stats).
*Please note that this article is strictly my opinion and provided for information purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of a medical doctor. Please talk to your doctor if you’d like to start wearing a corset.*
This entry is supplementary to the video “Plus-Size Corseters” which you can watch on YouTube here:
Larger people can usually tolerate larger waist reduction
If you have a little more to start with, than chances are you can reduce down more than a smaller person. Think of waist reduction as a percentage: say two people are both able to cinch their waists down by 20%. One has a 24 inch waist while the other has a 38 inch waist. The person with a 24″ waist will be able to cinch down 4.8 inches, down to 19.2″. The other corseter is able to cinch down an incredible 7.6 inches, to a corseted waist of 30.4″. Of course, this depends on your amount of visceral fat vs subcutaneous fat, your muscle tone, etc., but chances are if your waist is above 34 inches, you will be able to start with a corset 5-6 inches smaller than your natural waist rather than the recommended 3-4 inches by most corset retail sites.
Larger corseters, larger busts
If you are large-busted, it may be tempting to order an overbust corset for the extra support, as overbusts take much of the bust-related strain off your lower back. However, I recommend that women start with an underbust corset regardless of size, the main reasons being that underbusts are easier to breathe and move around in, they’re more versatile, and they’re easier to construct and get the proper fit, and thus they almost always cost less than overbusts. For more detail about this, watch my video above.
If you order an underbust corset, you will have to wear it with a separate bra. I recommend you have the top line of your corset end at least 1 inch lower than the underwire of your bra, to prevent chafing. Alternatively, wear bras that do not have underwires, such as sports bras, post-operative compression bras. I have personally had success with the Genie Bra (for a short while); it gives support while not giving an unattractive back roll between the bra band and corset. You can also wear your bra overtop of your corset to prevent that “double lift” so you don’t end up with a chin rest, and this also prevents chafing from the underwire.
Remember the law of displacement
Flesh doesn’t disappear in a corset; it has to move somewhere. For many tightlacers (especially the ones that are a little larger to start with) I recommend ordering a corset with underbust and hip circumferences 1 inch or so larger than your natural measurements, so the compressed flesh has somewhere to go.
In terms of the shape of the corset, I recommend corsets with a high back which gently cups around the flesh of the high back instead of giving “muffin-top”, and I recommend mid-hip or long-line corsets which cup the flesh around the hips to smooth out your silhouette.
The number of panels matter (to a point)
My first custom corset only had 8 panels (4 on each side) but currently I prefer my corsets to have 12 or more panels. More panels help to customize the shape of the corset pattern so it fits every contour of your body just the way you want it. More panels also help to distribute extreme curves more evenly so each smaller panel looks closer to parallel in shape as opposed to fewer, larger panels with extreme deviations in measurements – how more narrow panels help is that they allow a smoother line and fewer wrinkles in the corset when done right – i.e. combined with proper sewing techniques and enough bones, which leads us to the next tip…
The number of bones matter (to a point)
Some corsetieres recommend placing a minimum of one bone every 2 inches around the waist of a corset – this means a corset with a 36 inch waist would have no less than 18 bones in it, while a corset with an 20 inch waist may only have 10 bones. This means that not all corsets should be made the same! When ordering a corset, I would advise requesting double boning from the corsetiere – although this will be more expensive, it will eliminate much of the wrinkling and buckling in the corset fabric, allowing for more support, a smoother line on your body, and therefore a much more comfortable experience. If you’re sewing a corset yourself, I would advise placing at least 1 bone every 2 inches around the waist of the corset. The easiest way to do this is likely to place one bone at each seam and another bone in the center of each panel.
Although it is not always the case, larger people tend to carry a higher risk of hypertension (high blood pressure). Combined with a slightly raised blood pressure contributed by tightlacing, one has to be careful to maintain an acceptable level and minimize their risk for stroke. Please monitor your blood pressure carefully, as one can’t actually feel their blood pressure rising. If you experience light-headedness, swollen extremities (particularly legs and feet) or your heart pounding harder than normal when you lace up your corset, do check your blood pressure with a monitor.
In the next post I will go into more detail about corsets and blood pressure, as well as clearing up the “fainting” rumours surrounding corseted ladies.
Lucy’s Little Life Lesson: You’re beautiful at any size.
*Please note that this article is strictly my opinion and provided for information purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of a medical doctor. Please talk to your doctor if you’d like to start wearing a corset.*