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How 15 years of Corset Training affected my Pregnancy Experience

Did my experience with corset wear help or hinder me – or in any way affect my pregnancy experience? Here I’ve done my best to compare and contrast my 15+ years of corset training experience with my one pregnancy experience, separating them into five different categories: organs, skeletal frame, eating, breathing, and movement. In some ways, my corseting experience has helped prepare my body for pregnancy, making for a more comfortable or even semi-familiar experience – but in other ways, corseting couldn’t have possibly prepared me!

Read more below, and please excuse any typos, as I typed this as a sleep-deprived frazzled ball of newmom stress – hopefully you’ll be able to glean some useful information from this (and I’ll be able to edit this into a more coherent article by the time my kid is in school ;) ).

Organ displacement:

Lucy at 8 months pregnant

Displacing my intestines wasn’t (and still isn’t) a horrible experience, whether during pregnancy or while corseting, as intestines are designed to move – in fact, they move all the time due to peristalsis, and if they didn’t move, we would die out as a species.

While many pregnant folks complain of constipation, I kept my bowel movements regular through diet and regular physical activity as I’ve learned to do while corset training (I will also touch on this in my upcoming treadmill desk update).

But when the baby starts kicking your liver and head-butting your bladder, it gets uncomfortable for sure. Corsets make you more in tune with your body, so I know where each of my major organs sit while I’m in and out of a corset, and I also know which organ my baby was using as a punching bag in the moment. For instance, when my kiddo was having a dance party and I felt a sudden punt to my upper left quadrant (where my liver is), it made a different kind of vibration compared to when he was kicking the front of my uterus (which is stretched and pushed against the inside of my abdominal muscles), or my empty stomach on the left side. Physicians learn to tap on different parts of the body and listen to each organ (which a different reverberation) and they can determine whether the liver is enlarged or inflamed based on this reverberation. If you’re very still and in tune when babies kick you from the inside, you can sense different reverbs as well.

Another thing that an assertive kick to the liver does is cause a vasovagal response, which can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure. The baby isn’t super strong, so these movements didn’t make me drop like a rock, but if I felt a kick in the upper right quadrant and instantly felt nauseated or a little light headed, I knew it was likely due to the baby hitting a nerve that caused a temporary vasodepression. Thankfully that didn’t happen too often – but this is an example of where corsets couldn’t prepare me. Corsets always give an even, constant, slow compression and don’t kick you from the inside without warning.

Eating:

Corsets have also trained me to be okay with eating small portions throughout the day so as to minimize discomfort or reflux. Around 10 years ago I would have labeled myself a grazer. In recent years I really prefer not to graze but rather have two large meals a day – but once I became pregnant, grazing and having small, frequent meals eventually became a necessity, and it was easy to switch back into that mode of eating.

Because of my long-term experience with corsets, I was already familiar with the foods that were problematic to me: mainly dairy (mild lactose intolerance), and high FODMAP type foods like corn and grapes – the foods that cause bloating, indigestion and discomfort during corseting were the same foods that caused problems in pregnancy, so it was easy to recognize and avoid those.

Acid reflux was so much worse with pregnancy – my digestive organs were squished more than there ever was with a corset, but added to this was the hormonal factor: the high levels of estrogen and relaxin causing my esophageal sphincter to relax, which allowed more reflux than I had ever experienced before. Previously, the only corsets that ever caused even a little bit of reflux were specifically underbust corsets finished with a sweetheart shape in the front, (rather than a corset that was straight or pointed upwards at the sternum). The sweetheart shape dips down in the front, leaving part of my solar plexus area completely unsupported, which causes my diaphragm to bulge out over of the top edge of the corset – this difference in pressure is not a good time (I know that plenty of folks love the feel of a sweetheart underbust, and likely these folks have a lower sternum than I do, so that their xyphoid process covers more of their solar plexus and diaphragm than in my situation). But pregnancy was easily 10x worse for reflux compared to my worst corset.

Breathing:

Corsets taught me how to breathe from my chest rather than my abdomen, so I found it incredibly easy to breathe even with the growing belly – up to around 7 months gestation. The final two months were way worse than any corset, for several reasons:

Firstly, most of my corsets are generally rounded in the ribs and they only compress the squishiest part of the waistline below the diaphragm, so my lung capacity typically isn’t as affected by corset wear compared to those who might wear a stricter and higher corset (like a conical rib overbust corset, for instance) – or the growing uterus pushing up significantly on the diaphragm.

Secondly, the increased blood volume. I remember reading that a significant portion of protein consumption by the fetus and placenta (up to 50%) are not for growing the fetus but rather to make hormones that regulate the mother’s metabolism and homeostasis – including appetite and respiration rate, to ensure that there is sufficient nutrients and oxygen for the extra blood cells circulating the body – so there there is a hormonal and body fluid influence on respiration rate over and above the physical hindrance to the descent of the diaphragm.

Thirdly, carrying 35 lbs of extra weight tuckered me out faster than usual. I could walk easily, but dancing or running was more challenging. I would say that in the final 6-8 weeks of pregnancy, breathing was far more labored (ha!) than I had ever experienced in a corset.

Skeletal frame (ribs, hips, and lumbar spine)

In terms of my skeletal frame, I was able to somewhat predict in what ways pregnancy would be a little easier on me, and what ways in wouldn’t. For instance, I know from my measurements that I have a slightly longer torso (this can contribute to carrying small), but also it somewhat protects my ribs from dislocations in the final months, especially as my sternum is very high. My floating ribs are also very flexible, they would swing inward with relative ease with corsets, and could also swing outwards when I used to be a floutist and sang in choir, so this flexibility was used to my advantage.

Where pregnancy was probably a bit more difficult is the fact that I have relatively narrow hip bones. When compared to my friends in school, they often noted that my Venus dimples were closer together than anyone else’s; I was able to buy my jeans from the boys’ section; my gait was narrow (I would walk practically with one foot in front of the other); I’ve never had a thigh gap ever despite having a lanky frame through my teen years, etc.

Around the 6th month of pregnancy, the relaxin started kicking in to loosen the ligaments in my pelvis and widen the joints. My sacro-iliac (SI) joints started slipping, and it aggravated the sciatica that I sustained from my car accident eight years ago. And then about a month after that, I started getting pain in the front (symphysis pubis dysfunction, or SPD). I immediately asked my OB doctor for some exercise recommendations, and I increased my activity at my treadmill desk again through the 3rd trimester. I know that with those who suffer from extreme SPD, they can end up bed-bound, as they need to avoid anything that forces them to even temporarily balance on one foot or the other… including walking. So with SPD, your mileage may vary. (Literally.) I was fortunate not to have an extreme case of it, but if my SPD continued for months or years postpartum, I would certainly make use of my longline corsets to help stabilize my pelvis.

Regarding my lower back, I thankfully had a very positive experience here. I think a combination of my corset wear and my standing desk affected my posture greatly. For the first two trimesters of my pregnancy, I carried small compared to many other childbearers in my family (which, as mentioned before, is partly influenced by the length of my torso), but I think the other part of of it is due to the strength of my muscles in my lumbar spine, and around my hips and glutes – such that even as my center of gravity was shifted forward, I resisted developing that telltale lordosis and anterior pelvic tilt until the very last few months of pregnancy. But the thing about “carrying small” is also that the baby isn’t small – the uterus is just displacing more of your peritoneal organs in the abdominal cavity instead of growing outward past your ribs (see above for my commentary on displacement of organs).

(One last contributor to “carrying small” is a tilted / retroverted uterus, which I do not have, but it’s worth mentioning just for a complete discussion on this topic.)

The only negative effect I experienced with regards to my lower back was about three months of lower back soreness at the site of the epidural injection, and some “back labor” (painful contractions that are felt most strongly in the lower back and tailbone), which obviously subsided after the delivery.

Reduced range of motion:

Not surprisingly, I lost the ability to bend significantly at the waist about 20 weeks into gestation. Corseting prepared me for this loss of range of motion in my torso, and I was able to easily compensate by bending at the hip and squatting (putting more movement through my legs instead of my waist) when I needed to pick things up off the floor, putting my shoes on, etc.

As an aside: regarding the whole “boots before corsets” argument, as a Canadian who is not in the habit of wearing shoes in the home, this typically doesn’t really apply to me; although I have some indoor shoes that I use exclusively for my treadmill desk, and slippers that I use when walking across cold tile. Having a long shoehorn is a nice-to-have, but I can and do put my shoes on without one (in and out of a corset, and also during pregnancy), and I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly limber.

It’s more about having the proper form, as well as not having the corset (or your pregnant belly) hang below the hip flexor. Another requirement is having enough leg and hip strength to squat when picking things up off the floor, which circles back to the importance of physical activity in my third trimester, in tandem with with my years of prior posture training from corsets.

That’s all I can think of at the moment about how corsets may have affected or influenced my pregnancy experience, but I may add more if it comes to me. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer regarding my experience with corsets vs pregnancy, feel free to leave a comment and I’d be happy to add more to this article.

In summary, pregnancy was much more uncomfortable than corseting for a variety of reasons – and that’s coming from someone who has had a relatively easy and uneventful pregnancy experience. I’ll return to this topic again in several months once I have more experience with corseting postpartum, and how it relates to my nulliparous corseting experience – but I’ve only very recently returned to corseting, and would prefer have more experience before commenting on it officially.

If you have any experience with becoming pregnant before and/or after corseting and would like to comment on the differences between the two experiences, feel free to share your thoughts below!

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Corset Wearer’s Organs Illuminated by MRI

 

I can hardly contain my excitement! For the first time, we have public information as to what happens to a corset wearer’s organs through the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). I’ve wanted to do a study like this for years, but time, finances and limited access to imaging facilities prevented me from doing so.

Fortunately, German medical doctor and TV sensation Dr. Eckhart von Hirschhausen took it upon himself to study how a corset moves organs in a tightlacer on his October 2nd episode of his gameshow, Hirschhausens Quiz Des Menschen (“Hirschhausen’s Quiz of the Human [body]”).

Internationally acclaimed burlesque artist Eden Berlin volunteered to be studied, wearing a specialized tightlacing corset made by Korsettmanufactur TO.mTO.  The magnetic pull in an MRI machine is so strong that it is capable of ripping steel out of corsets and through flesh – so Tonia Merz, the corsetiere behind TO.m.O, explained how she used non-metal boning and other non-ferrous hardware in the corset so as not to endanger Eden during imaging.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.02.20 AM

In this episode of Hirschhausens Quiz Des Menschen before viewing the results, the contestants had to guess what would happen to Eden’s body when she’s wearing a corset. Here were the options:

A. The lungs are compromised, so she has a lack of oxygen.
B. The kidneys are compressed, so they are less efficient at filtering.
C. The intestine is deformed, so digestion is slowed.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.04.20 AM

Here are two MRI images of Eden, with her uncorseted figure on the left and her corseted figure on the right. This image is behind her peritoneal cavity, showing her kidneys and lungs. Dr. Hirschhausen explains how the lungs and kidneys haven’t moved much between the two images.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.06.54 AM

This screencap now shows the peritoneal cavity. Dr. Eckhart gestures the normal location of the ascending, transverse and descending colon in the left image, and the transverse part of the colon is clearly viewed (where his hand is).

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.38 AM

Now Dr. Eckhart gestures to the right image and shows how the intestines are flexible. He says that you can see that the transverse colon has shifted so that part of it is above the waistline, and part of it is below. (While it might not have been explicitly mentioned, from the image we also now have confirmation that the liver and stomach move upwards (and the liver remains pretty much in the same shape) and they are not forced down below the waist like some horrendous illustrations once claimed).

Therefore, Dr. Eckhart concluded that answer C (the intestine trapped and digestion slowed) was the correct option.

As a follow-up to this, an MRI was done on a woman in her third term of pregnancy with the baby already in head-down (vertex) position, to show how the intestines have shifted upward considerably (again, the intestines are designed to be flexible). The baby is obviously highlighted in red.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.14.57 AM

One thing I should point out is that Eden is not a daily waist trainer but rather wears her corsets for her performances. It’s also unknown how much time she was given to lace up and have her body adjust to the tightness before she had the second MRI taken – I know that if I give my body time to adjust while lacing down slowly, I can feel an intestinal shift after 20-30 minutes, and find that the feeling of pressure is reduced and I can lace a little tighter than before. Fran of Contour Corsets proposes that over time, a tightlacer can coax the entire transverse colon to sit below the waistline, away from the line of highest pressure from the corset, which can make digestion much easier.

Update: Eden Berlin has commented on her experience:

“The MRI pictures where made pretty much directly after i was putting the corset on and on top of this it is a new corset so still very stiff in shape. I think with a corset that my body was already used to and more time before the MRI picture the result may have been a bit different. But my organs where basicly just moved a bit up or down without changing much in shape.”

And on her waist reduction:

“My natural waist is 63cm… it was a 50cm corset and it was actually completly closed.”

Tonia Merz also confirmed that the corset was made to close at 50cm, and designed to give about a 5 inch reduction. With a 20% change in her waist circumference, this definitely qualifies at tightlacing.

If given the opportunity, 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. Huge thanks to Hirschhausens Quiz Des Menschen, Eden Berlin and Tonia Merz for their incredible collaboration and allowing us to finally see where the organs shift when wearing a corset, and especially to Tonia for her translation of the conclusions!

EDIT, JANUARY 10, 2015: You can now view the full episode here on Youtube (German, no subtitles). The corset topic begins at 35 minutes in, with the MRI portion around 45 minutes in.

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Responding to Media Sensationalism… Again.

One of my friends linked me to Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home yesterday evening, in which one reporter uncovers the dangers of living in the Victorian era. Not surprisingly, corsets were featured (the corset segment starts around the 17:50 mark).

I would like to address some of the concerns mentioned in the video. Now, I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations and say that corsets are everyone’s friend. I don’t believe that everybody should wear corsets and I don’t deny that injuries from corsets have occurred on occasion. But I’m willing to believe that corset-related injuries were more the exception than the norm – just like injuries from everyday beauty products today, like:

  • high heels (bunions, broken toes, hammer toes, corns, modification of posture/weight distribution, broken and sprained ankles)
  • hairstyling products (thermal burns, chemical burns and severe allergies to certain products)
  • pierced ears (infections, keloid scarring, tissue necrosis)

I could go on.

Anyways – onto addressing some of the concerns in the video:

 

  • Liver being pushed upwards, and grooves forming in the liver – yes, I don’t doubt that the liver moves. All organs in your peritoneal cavity are designed to move. If they weren’t designed to move, then pregnancy, exercise, stretching, or even digesting your food (peristalsis) would kill you. Once again, look up nauli kriya on Youtube – the intestines (and presumably everything above it, like the liver, pancreas and stomach) are pushed up into the ribcage using one’s own muscles. Maybe I’m insensitive, but indentations of organs don’t irk me, because I’ve seen from dissecting various organisms in biology lab that organs have indentations from other organs as it is. If you have a large amount of visceral fat, or if you a fetus inside you, you will also experience considerable organ compression.
  • The stomach moving downwards – Ann Grogan (Romantasy) and Fran Blanche (Contour Corsets) both vouch that the stomach actually moves upwards instead of down. Also, the stomach (and intestines) are not solid: they’re hollow membranous organs, often full of food/waste and air, which get pushed out when a corset is properly worn and slowly cinched down. ***Note, as of October 2014, we now have MRI evidence of the stomach and liver moving upwards.
  • Uterine prolapse – I did agree with the woman in the video as she said that the corset may exacerbate pre-existing problems; that is, the corset may not have caused uterine or vaginal prolapse per se, but if the pelvic floor had already been weakened, the extra intra-abdominal pressure may exacerbate this condition. My article on corsets and the reproductive system.

Screencap from the documentary: Lipscomb's tidal volume, uncorseted (red line) and corseted (blue line). Y axis depicts volume from 0.2L to 2L. X axis shows time: blue area = at rest, green area = during exercise, pink area = recovery
Screencap from the documentary: Lipscomb’s tidal volume, uncorseted (red line) and corseted (blue line). Y axis depicts volume from 0.2L to 2L. X axis shows time: blue area = at rest, green area = during exercise, pink area = recovery

  • The reporter’s experiment on respiration/ cardiac output during exercise – it is undeniable that the corset (especially Victorian overbust corset that is restrictive enough to fully support the breasts) is capable of reducing the lung capacity. Due to reduced capacity, the body compensates by taking higher and more frequent breaths to maintain the same amount of oxygen exchange. The conclusion of the experiment was that the reporter took in an average of 200-300 mL more air with each breath. But they’re still not telling the whole story:

    Photo from Hole’s Human Anatomy and Physiology, 8th edition (1999). This graph is actually of the average male – a female has a slightly smaller total capacity at about 4L. Click through to read more.

     

  • The total lung capacity in an average woman is about 4L (4000 mL). The vital capacity (which does not take into account residual volume) is about 3L (3000 mL).
  • The average tidal volume (uncorseted) is about 500 mL. So the tidal volume while corseted is an average of 750 mL.
  • This means that the corset has caused about a 10% increase in breathing, compared to vital capacity (not even the total capacity).
  • Also consider that it was the first day she tried lacing up (so she wasn’t adapted to wearing a corset), she was wearing the corset over a sweater (so her internal measurement was even smaller than 24 inches), and it was an overbust corset (which restricted more of her ribcage than an underbust would), and then did she did cardio exercise (which isn’t recommended while wearing corsets to begin with). Most women today wear underbust corsets which stop lower on the ribcage, they wear the corset over a very thin liner, and a well-made corset today is properly fitted to the body, rather than Victorian corsets which were sometimes made to force the body into an ideal shape to fit clothing of the day.
  • Note the spoon busk that curves around the tummy, hip gores, and expandable side ties to accommodate a growing belly. Some of these corsets also had flaps at the bust to allow for nursing post-partum.

    Women of higher class were tightlaced to reflect that they didn’t have to run around the house. The working/ industrial class and servants did wear corsets, but laced loosely to accommodate for the high amount of activity. One would also consider it insulting to “show up” the  woman of the house by having a more fashionable silhouette than she had.

  • Pregnancy corsets – I don’t doubt that women who were trying to hide their baby bump by tightlacing during pregnancy could have resulted in (possibly/probably deliberate) terminations. But pregnancy corsets were designed to accommodate a growing belly by having adjustable ties around the tummy, while providing back support for the gestating mother.
  • Pneumonia/ tuberculosis – if a corseted woman contracted a respiratory infection, then the corset may have contributed to exacerbating the condition since the woman would not be able to cough up the sputum and clear her lungs. But whether the corset actually caused women to contract the infection in the first place is unclear. Both pneumonia and TB are bacterial infections, commonly spread in a time where germ theory was non-existent or just being discovered. Whether corsets were the cause of respiratory infections is somewhat disputed. Some sources say that the corset may have prevented contraction of pulmonary TB (consumption). (Nevertheless, I do not condone wearing corsets if you have any kind of respiratory infection.) I have an article on the respiratory system here.

    Susan B Anthony ca. 1900, wearing a corset around age 80.
  • The dress reform and the women’s suffrage movement were not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they were still two distinct movements. Many female suffragists (sometimes distinct from the boorish “suffragettes”) still wore corsets, including Susan B. Anthony (often called the mother of the women’s rights movement).
  • Broken and deformed bones – I agree that corseted individuals with bone issues such as rickets may result in a higher risk of distorted ribs, but this is not a common case today. In fact, a 2015 anthropological study on the skeletons of impoverished women in the Victorian era showed that although there was some rib distortion, age markers of these women showed that they all reached and in some cases exceeded the life expectancy of the time.
  • The comment around timepoint 29:45 “There are stories of ribs breaking and piercing the lung underneath.” disappointed me – it’s difficult to tell sometimes what is a factual report or simply an urban legend. Whether or not these stories are true, Sarah Chrisman explains in her book that “ribs” also referred to the whalebone or reed that was used as boning in the corset, which can become dry and brittle over time – so broken “ribs” are said to often describe the ribs of the corset, not of the human body. If you’ve ever had a bra bone that pokes into you, you can imagine the discomfort. If a whalebone were to snap, a sharp shard could perhaps puncture the skin of the wearer – but as flexible steel is now used in corsets, this problem is almost unheard of in higher quality corsets unless the garment has been abused for years.

Well, this was a long post. Hopefully it cleared up some popular misconceptions about corsets in the Victorian era.

What were your thoughts and reactions on the segment?

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Deborah Roberts’ blog on Waist Training experiment (ABC 20/20)

Deborah Roberts measuring her waistline after being laced into a Romantasy corset. Screencap via ABC 2020

Just a few hours ago, the late-night TV show ABC-20/20 had aired an episode on “Going to Extremes”, in which corseting was discussed (in the same light as plastic surgery and feeding-tube diets). While I could make this post easily dissolve into an argument on why I think the simple wearing of a garment (which can be removed at any time) is not necessarily as extreme as going under the knife, the real reason I’m posting is to bring attention to Deborah Roberts’ latest blog entry on the ABC website and discuss the representative doctor’s statement. In this article, Ms. Roberts explains how she received a custom-fit underbust training corset (made by Jill Hoverman) and undergoes a waist training experiment over the course of two weeks, under the guidance of Ann Grogan, owner of Romantasy.

I’m certain I’m not the only one who noted a tiny discrepancy in the mood of the TV segment vs the blog. While I have 100% respect for Dr. Gottfried and still maintain that one should see their doctor and ensure that they’re in good health before and during the process of corseting, I’m extremely curious to know where she found the statistic that “Corsets can squish your lungs by 30 to 60 percent, making you breathe like a scared rabbit”. In my several years of research, I have only found studies that had shown a maximum of 30% reduction in capacity while wearing a corset, with the average decrease in lung capacity among corseted females being only 20% (see my article on corsets and lungs here for more information). Being one who believes in backing up research with proof in numbers, I’d be annoyed in either scenario if I were to learn that the 30-60% statistic came from a study that was only available within the medical community and deliberately concealed from the public, OR to learn that number were mere speculation and stated as absolute fact.

A diminished capacity of the traditionally reported maximum  30% would be less likely to cause hyperventilation (compared Gottfried’s statistic of 60%) since the tidal volume – the amount of air a healthy, uncorsetted individual takes in during a typical relaxed breath – is a mere 10-15% of the vital capacity for an average human. It would, of course, be stupid to run a 100m dash while tightlaced – but under normal, relaxed circumstances I and many other corsetted individuals have never experienced adverse effects in breathing, particularly when using an underbust corset (which was largely not used in daywear during the Victorian era). If anyone can find the study that states capacity reduction of up to 60%, please let me know because it would be worth adding to my research.

In the very least, the written blog is refreshingly corset-neutral and fairly highlights both Deborah Roberts’ positive and negative experiences – and even Dr. Gottfried’s statement is somewhat ‘softer’ here compared to that on the TV segment. I thank Ms. Roberts for being sensitive and sensible around the subject of corseting.

 

If you would like to watch the video of ABC’s 10/12/12 20/20 “Going to Extremes” show, click through this link. The corset segment runs six minutes and starts at the 20 minute mark—about 1/3 through the “bar” at the bottom of the screen.

Deborah’s blog: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/10/10/my-life-in-a-corset-squeezing-into-a-new-dieting-strategy/

Finally, this video shows more of the interviewer’s week-long trial of corset wearing.

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Corsets, Lungs and Breathing

This entry is more or less a transcript of the video “Corsets, Lungs and Breathing” which you can watch here:

Your respiratory system includes your lungs, bronchial tubes, trachea, your diaphragm and your intercostal muscles and other supplementary muscles which help your ribcage to expand and contract. When I originally posted my “Corsets and Organs” video, I included a small bit on the lungs but soon realized that it would be better create an independent video just on corsets and the respiratory system, since there are so many rumours out there relating corsets to suffocation. I’ll first explain how the mechanism of breathing works, then I’ll address the issues, rumours pertaining to corsets and breathing.

How breathing works (in general)

The diaphragm is a horizontal muscle running through your torso below your lungs. In Greek it means a “partition” because the diaphragm can be seen as a cross section that separates your top half and bottom half of your torso. When the diaphragm moves down, it increases the intra-abdominal pressure below the diaphragm and decreases the pressure above the diaphragm. When the diaphragm moves upward, the relative pressures in the abdomen above and below the diaphragm are then reversed.

To start taking a breath in, your diaphragm moves down and creates more space in your body above the diaphragm – the lungs then have space to expand.  There is less air pressure inside your body compared to outside your body, so it creates a vacuum in your lungs and air rushes in passively. When your diaphragm moves back up, this increases the pressure in your upper torso, and air is forced out of your lungs (the same way you would force air out of a balloon by pushing down on it).

Muscles involved in breathing

There are other muscles involved in the breathing process. The harder you breathe, the more muscles get involved. If you’re breathing fairly normally, then your abdominal and intercostal muscles (the bands of muscles in between your ribs) will work to push your ribcage outwards. If you watch sleeping babies, the most natural breathers among humans, you will see their lower ribs and abdomen expanding due to this relaxed style of breathing.

If you’re breathing more heavily due to physical strain or if you’re extremely stressed, then your lats (lower side back), traps (on the shoulders) and pecs (in front of your chest) start playing a role to stretch your ribcage outward more at the top of your lungs. These are the muscles that contribute to the “heaving bosom” that is so associated with corseting.

How breathing works in a corset

Violet Chachki wears the Violet corset by House of Canney on RuPaul’s Drag race, rolling an oxygen tank behind her for dramatic effect (however, in a well-fitting corset, most people can breathe just fine). Click through for a corset tour from Violet!

When you put on a corset, it does not completely paralyze the diaphragm; it can still move up and down (if it couldn’t, millions of women would be dead before they could procreate and the world today would be much less populated). However, you can expect a corset to somewhat hinder the breathing in the lower part of your lungs, especially if you’re wearing an overbust corset. Studies done in the 1800’s showed that lung capacity can be decreased up to 30 percent, with the average being  approximately 20 percent.

Be aware that these studies focus on lung capacity, not relaxed breathing. Most people don’t use their full lung capacity – in this other blog post, you will see that the tidal breath is only about 10-15% of the lung capacity, so you should absolutely be able to get enough air during “tidal breathing”. Only in rare situations would one need to use one’s full lung capacity, such as during vigorous exercise (and I don’t recommend exercising in your corset in the first place). If you put on a corset and feel that you’re suffocating, loosen the laces until you get used to breathing higher in your lungs. Although I would not recommend that people with already reduced lung capacity (from asthma, cystic fibrosis, scarred tissue from previous infections) wear corsets, most healthy people needn’t worry.

Screencap from the “Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home” – I analyze the historian’s breathing in another article (click through)

It is speculated that with enough use of the accessory breathing muscles (lats, pecs and traps) over a long enough time, one can actually expand the upper portion of the lungs to somewhat compensate for the loss of lung capacity in the lower lobes of the lungs, thereby increasing their capacity overall.

Now let’s discuss some common concerns relating to corsets and breathing:

Corsets and Singing

In the late 18th and 19th centuries when female singers started to become more popular in operas, they still wore corsets onstage. There are stories of some of these singers dropping onstage from insufficient air (although if these stories are true, they may have actually fainted from changes in blood pressure as opera-style singing takes a decent amount of physical exertion). However, many of these singers did not cinch to 17 inches; instead they used tricks in their costumes to give the illusion of a tiny waist like huge crinolines and large shoulder pads. As an added note (not in the video), many vocalists today train in a corset, as it provides a “wall” of resistance against which the diaphragm can push, helping to develop a stronger and more supported voice.

Pneumonia and Corsets

There are recorded cases of heavily corseted women dying of pneumonia. Pneumonia is inflammation caused by fluid in the lungs, usually in turn caused by a respiratory infection (by viruses or bacteria). An increase of fluid and sputum (mucus in the lower respiratory tract) in your lungs this makes it difficult to breathe even without a corset, so there are rumours that a corseted lady could easily die from suffocation from pneumonia at any moment.

There are several reasons why this theory is incorrect: firstly, it is extremely difficult to have pneumonia and be unaware of it. Pneumonia is usually accompanied by fever and associated aches, sharp pains in one’s chest and back, coughing up mucus/sputum, and gurgling or rattling lungs when taking a breath.

Secondly, we now know that infections are caused by microbes, not by a mechanical binding of the lungs. Yes, being heavily corseted may hinder one’s ability to cough up those microbes and can thus lead to a deep respiratory infection, but often this illness begin as a more superficial infection such as dry cough or bronchitis, which is now faster to catch and easier to treat.

So, what would you do if you get a respiratory infection? Take the corset off! Go to the doctor and have him/her prescribe you some antibiotics if it’s a bacterial infection. Remember also that penicillin wasn’t officially discovered until 1928 so it was very difficult to treat bacterial infections from prior to this time, during which time corseting declined in popularity anyway (partially due to the popular “boyish silhouette” and partially due to rationing of steel and textiles during WWI).

Pulmonary Tuberculosis and Corsets

There were also wide-spread rumours that corsets caused tuberculosis (TB). Once again, TB is caused by airborne bacteria. They’re robust bacteria making the infection difficult to overcome, but today it is still treatable with certain antibiotics (and there are also several vaccines available). Most often you becomes exposed to TB by being close to an infected person who coughs, sneezes or breathes in close proximity to you. Wearing a corset can compromise your ability to cough out pathogens and clear your respiratory system of mucus, but in developed countries the risk of TB is very small. TB is very prevalent in some underdeveloped areas however, so if you’re spending any long amount of time in the continent of Africa you consider getting vaccinated against TB.

Smoking and Corsets

Interestingly, the combination of smoking and corsets only became a large issue in the mid 20th century. Before around the 1920’s, only “lower class” women smoked cigars or cigarettes (there were a few exceptions to the rule, of course). Once cigarettes started being marketed to women in the 20’s, corsets were already out of fashion.

The mechanism of how tobacco damages your lungs is essentially this:
You have thousands of little villi in your bronchial tubes – they look like tiny fingers that catch bits of dust, dirt and microbes that float into your respiratory system. The job of these villi is to catch foreign objects and sweep them up and out (it’s like the microbes are crowd-surfing up to the point where they reach your throat and you can cough them out). When one smokes, the tar in tobacco coats everything in your bronchial tubes, causing them to stick down flat against the surface and making it harder to sweep out any foreign objects. Tar coating your lungs makes oxygen exchange more difficult for your alveoli sacs. Your lung capacity decreases (in the case of emphysema it increases to the point where you can no longer exhale properly), your risk of respiratory infection increases, tumorigenesis can occur through carcinogen buildup and inflammation, and I’m sure the rest of the story is old news. Long story short, if you smoke and corset at the same time, don’t be surprised if you find yourself somewhat short of breath.

Next time I’ll explain how corsets can affect the bones in your body.

Lucy’s Little Life Lesson: Don’t smoke.

*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.*