Corsets may seem like a vestige of Victorian England, but thanks to a rebranding as “waist trainers,” and some key celebrity fans, they might be more popular than ever. Celebrities are wearing them to the gym, and basically everywhere IRL where they can’t use Photoshop to get waistlines worthy of Disney princesses.
But what’s all that compression doing to their guts? You can’t squeeze a few inches from a waistline without displacing something, right? And with highly influential people like the Kardashians touting their benefits, plenty of young women might think they’re a good option for getting a slim waist. We talked to medical professionals -- and I test-drove a waist trainer -- to find out what’s going on.
Squeezed like a tube of toothpaste
The 1.1 million people who “liked” Kylie Jenner’s waist-training Instagram can’t be wrong, can they? Yes. Yes, they can. According to Dr. Gina Sam, Director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at The Mount Sinai Hospital, “Corsets cause compression of your organs, including the stomach, small bowel, colon and lungs.”
Picture a tube of toothpaste squeezed in the middle: When you cinch in your waist, your upper organs move upwards and lower organs shift downwards, says certified dietitian-nutritionist Gina Keatley. Deep breathing becomes difficult or impossible. With prolonged waist trainer wear, Kylie could develop permanent disorders like heartburn, acid reflux and eventually gastroesophageal reflux disease.
There’s also this: “The movement of the organs can put pressure on the abdomen, which has been known to cause constipation,” Keatley says. Hot.
But people have been doing this for years, right?
It’s true that women (and some men) have been waist training for centuries. “The concept has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the Victorian era and is now very popular in South America,” says Ruben Soto, CEO and founder of HourglassAngel.com. Soto says waist training is a gradual process that isn’t risky when done correctly. “Yes, it can be harmful and it can compress your organs, but only if [it] is not done properly,” he says. “It should not be forced by, for example, wearing a waist trainer that’s too tight to get faster results.”
So I’d be fine if I wore a waist trainer a few hours for the sake of health reporting… right?
“Due to the health risks, it is not safe to wear [a waist trainer] for an event or date night,” Dr. Sam stated, and though her response was emailed, I imagined it delivered with a very stern tone.
A burlesque dancer’s tips
Screw you, medical professionals -- you can’t tell me how to live! I decided to go full steam ahead with my waist-training experiment. But first I wanted to talk to someone with lots of experience. Luckily, I live in New Orleans, where you can’t go to a dive bar or gala fundraiser without tripping over a burlesque troupe’s corset ties.
“Listening to your body is the best way to do it,” advised Mina Mechante, a burlesque dancer and sales associate at Trashy Diva Lingerie, which sells corsets and waist trainers. “I put my corset on before I do my hair and makeup and get it snug, but not as tight as I can make it. By the time I’m done, my body is used to [the corset], and I can get it a little tighter.”
Mechante often is active in her corsets, wearing them while performing, go-go dancing, and biking. “When you put on the corset, you realize, yes, you can breathe normally. It’s more of a mental thing.”
Trying on the waist cincher
The waist trainer from HourglassAngel arrives in a narrow white box that reads “Where great women begin.” Because obviously, to be a great woman you need to compress your colon and bowels. The rubber latex garment feels sturdily athletic, like one of those yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets from the aughts. I exhale and fasten the first hook.
Even for a novice, getting into a waist trainer isn’t that difficult. I hooked the top, then the bottom, and worked my way toward the midsection, where a puffy white bagel of belly flesh squeezed through the gap. Miraculously, the waist trainer closed. Even more miraculously, I felt a little squished, but fine. Better than fine, in fact. I felt smoking hot.
I wore the waist cincher during my bike commute, partly because I wanted to see if Mechante’s claims held up and partly because I did not want to take it off -- that’s how good I looked with an inch gone from my waist. As Dr. Sam warned, deep breathing was arduous, and midway through the 4.5-mile ride I felt slightly nauseated. Nobody at work commented on my newly curvy figure, but that’s probably because they are nice people and not sexual harassers.
To cinch or not to cinch?
I lasted about an hour and a half before peeling off the sweaty cincher, which is consistent with the subjects of a 2010 study published in Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health. Though they were supposed to wear the corsets for five hours a day to determine whether waist training contributed to weight loss, subjects were noncompliant. “They didn’t wear the waist trainer because they were uncomfortable,” Dr. Sam says.
Was I uncomfortable? Yes. Will I wear a waist trainer again? Probably also yes, even though doing so “promotes an unrealistic view of the body,” Keatley says. Because, as Mina pointed out, “Everyone gets to feel like Jessica Rabbit, and that’s fun.”