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Corsets and Skeletal Deformities: Anthropological Study

Venus de Milo vs Victorian corseted woman. *sigh* Not this again.
Comparison of the Venus de Milo vs Victorian corseted woman. How accurate is this illustrator’s representation?

In September 2015, The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology (Nexus) included an anthropological study of women’s skeletons from England and France in the 1800s, when corsets were at their height in fashion. In this research study, PhD candidate Rebecca Gibson aimed to find any correlation between skeletal morphology (shape and relative position of the bones) and lifespan.

She documented how the ribcages and spines of corset wearers were modified from a lifetime of corset wear, and she gives us a window into how these women may have lived in order for their bones to have been shaped to the extent that they were. Gibson states that despite the fact that nearly all women in England and France wore stays between 1700 – 1900, this was a fashion perpetuated by women, for women.

Women themselves used, championed, and criticized corseting, and men often interpreted and disseminated the literature regarding the practice. What this view lacked, and this study seeks to rectify, is two-fold. Firstly, impoverished women’s voices are missing, both from the modern studies and from the written accounts. Secondly, the extant evidence that corseting was inherently harmful comes completely from hyperbolic and unreliable doctors’ accounts and as such it cannot be verified using the literature alone. ~ Gibson, pg 48

What Gibson explains (in addition to Norah Waugh, Valerie Steele and several other authorities on historical corsetry) is that men wrote publicly and extensively about their distaste for the corset; often comparing the (then modern) small-waisted woman to the statue of Venus de Milo. Dr. O’Followell himself (if you remember my previous discussion of his 1908 X-rays of corseted women) made the argument that the Venus is universally and objectively considered beautiful, and through a game of logical hopscotch he concluded that anything not-Venusian (i.e. a nude small-waisted Victorian woman), therefore cannot be beautiful.

Gibson found however that 50 years prior to O’Followell’s study, in his 1868 book Freaks of Fashion: The Corset and the Crinoline, William Berry Lord wrote that “No fallacy can be greater than to apply the rules of ancient art to modern costume.”

Lucy’s note: The apparent volleying of subtle sass between writers during this era pleases me.

If you wish to skip over Gibson’s anthropological study itself, the conclusion is that she showed plastic deformation of the ribcage into a more circular shape as compared to the broad, ovoid flaring of a “control” modern ribcage, and also noted some downward bending and overlapping of the spinous processes in the thoracic spine. However, these deformations were not seen to correlate with a shorter lifespan of the subjects, and on the contrary the subjects reached or exceeded their life expectancy at birth.

Layperson’s explanation: The skeletons of 19th century corseted women were studied to see how their ribcages were flexibly bent into a more tapered shape from the corset. From the photos, you can see literal ‘bends’ in the ribs where the pressure from the corset formed the ribs into the shape of a circle. Also, the spinous processes seemed to be affected too: spinous processes are the small “spikes” humans have on their vertebrae; they look like spikes down a lizard’s back, but in humans these are small and one can occasionally see or feel them as the ‘bumps’ along one’s back. In the skeletons that showed rib shaping from a corset, these same skeletons also had “spikes” in the upper back that bent downward and overlapped like snaggleteeth. Despite this finding, the age at death for these subjects were average or older than the national life expectancy at the time, even correcting for infant/childhood mortality. Therefore, even though corsets have been shown to deform the skeletons of these subjects (and the reasons why will be discussed later), it didn’t affect how long they lived.

Below you’ll find my summary of the study, Rebecca Gibson’s answers to my questions concerning the study, and my thoughts on how this affects what we know about modern body modification through corsetry.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.