"Corseting the Human Body - Chapter 2"

Corseting the Human Body 

by DR. ANN BEAUMONT  2000-01

This article is written for the sole purpose of general education on this topic. Its intent is to provide factual modern and historic relevant information such that actual and prospective corset wearers can objectively consider the short and long term effects.

I have made an effort to ensure that the information provided is accurate, and will gladly receive and discuss questions on this. Again, the intent is education.


1. Mechanics of Corseting
2. Effects on Physiology 
3. Permanency 
4. Health

Chapter Two - Effects on Physiology

In Chapter One I discussed the mechanical effects of torso constriction by corseting. In this chapter, I will cover the systematic effects and the modified physiology of individual organs. It is important to have a reference when considering these effects. For example, the position of internal organs differs amongst individuals, but also within the same individual, depending on time of day, due to muscle tone, the digestive state and posture.

When looking at historic photographs of the representation of rearranged organs, one has to keep in mind that "natural" position is very vague. For example, the stomach position varies between male and female anatomy; in the female it is in a more vertical position than in the male, in large part due to hormonal action.  During puberty, the female waist contracts while at the same time hips and pelvis expand. The waist circumference of a female teenager will shrink several inches during puberty as a result. This "natural" constriction, along with the widened pelvic region causes the stomach and large bowel to have a distinct orientation. 

Figure 3

Figure 3 demonstrates the relative movement and position of the abdominal organs. The torso on the right is representative of a young female who has never laced. (Uterus and ovaries are not shown, but are located in front bottom of the small intestines.) 
The left torso represents a similar female, but with exposure to permanent maximum or extreme corseting since childhood (representative of a 6" to 8" reduction).

The markers indicate:

1. Green - Diaphragm
2. Dark Blue - Liver
3. Light Blue - Stomach
4. Red - (transverse) Colon
5. Yellow - Small Intestines.

Specific effects on these anatomical regions are varied: Above the diaphragm, there is some effect on the lungs. These do extend behind the liver somewhat, and the degree of expansion of the lower lobes is very limited, which creates the potential for mucous build-up and development of a slight cough, which attempts to clear this. This build-up can be triggered by any of the known airway irritants, such as dust, smoke, pollen etc. The remedy for this is to perform daily bending and rotation exercises of the upper chest without the corset, or with it only moderately tight, to allow for sufficient mobility. 

The diaphragm itself is indirectly affected by the increased IAP (see Chapter One), which increases the tension of this structure. Bear in mind that it is extremely tough and difficult to injure. However in abdominal breathing its function is to push down on the abdominal content, thus expanding lung volume at the expense of abdominal volume - either by compression of the abdominal organs, or simply by translating the motion by abdominal expansion. This is the protrusion of the upper and lower abdomen during inhale. In thoracic breathing, the diaphragm provides the bottom working surface (like a drum's surface) against which the ribcage can expand, along with lift from the ribcage muscles. The abdominal content moves then much less, depending on the degree of abdominal constriction or IAP.

Overall lung capacity is reduced in a corset that is designed to produce a very narrow lower chest, but can be somewhat compensated by expansion of the upper ribcage, which is normally seen in prolonged corset wear.

Liver - The liver is always touted as the "afflicted" organ, because of  modified shape and somewhat rotated position. Note that in a healthy individual, the liver constantly renews itself at a slow rate. While doing so, it will adapt to the body over time. These changes can be from weight gain or weight loss or from constriction. Hence the liver of a women with a 20" waist will be smaller than what it was two years before in her 27" waist. It would be incorrect to assume that her liver was compressed by this proportion.

This adaptation only takes place over many months of time, not days or weeks. What this means is that the impossibly small waists of some 19th century women were not achieved by careless compression, but rather a consistent process of continuous pressure, sometimes only moderate pressure. The actual shape is somewhat arbitrary, and is seen to vary from person to person, with, of course, a general (average) similarity. As a result, I am not convinced that any kind of liver problems are implied by prolonged tight corseting. Ironically it is the prolonged wear that enables the body to adapt in a natural manner.

Stomach - An empty stomach is very small and occupies little space. In the reference figure 3, it is shown distended, as after consumption of a large meal. The rigid corset envelope will force a downward movement, but, at the same time, significant external pressure. Note that the stomach itself functions by muscle contraction, thus compression of its content. To some extent, it will be helped by the external pressure, but with a limit. If the pressure exceeds the strength of the sphincter, stomach acid will be pushed up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and a potential base for ulcer formation. The same can happen at the transition from the stomach to the duodenum and allow acid to enter the intestinal canal. Changes in stool consistency and color are indicators.  Note: this can also happen by slouching after a meal, without a corset!  The primary effect of tight corseting and thus compression of the stomach is its reduced capacity. By eating more frequent and smaller meals, these issues are avoided and no ill effects will follow. 

A secondary effect is the difficulty that may be experienced in the transition from food from the esophagus to the stomach. Compression of the lower chest, waist and abdomen will increase IAP, but also push the empty stomach against the diaphragm, making it difficult for the food bolus to overcome this barrier into the stomach, creating a feeling of discomfort "as if the food will not go down."  Given some time and adequate fluid intake, this will pass. It is important to eat slowly, and ensure that, after swallowing, time is given for transition. If done so, habits will improve, such that there should be little or no problem.  Of course one solution is to eat with the laces loosened, and then retighten them directly after the meal.

What should not be ignored, however, is that the overall capacity for food will be reduced, in addition to the early feeling of "fullness". These combined effects allow the corset to function as a dietary intake control. This must be done carefully and gradually, as the body takes quite some time to adapt naturally.

The colon -  This in my opinion is the truly affected organ, and care should be taken to avoid problems. The colon starts at the bottom right, goes up (ascending colon), then traverses the upper abdomen under the liver and stomach and curves back before descending down the left side into the lower pelvis, where it transitions to the rectum. The colon's function is to perform several final digestive stages, including the removal of water from  content. As a result, the content progressively becomes less and less liquid. Thus, the flex point under the stomach may give rise to pinching problems. Note in Figure 3 that the transverse colon makes a much deeper curve, thus making the transition to the descending section sharper, and here is the potential for constipation.

Besides a healthy diet, rich in fiber, the corset structure is critical. It must avoid sharp indentation of the waist, as this likely will directly pinch the colon. In my opinion, the waist curve should not be sharper than 90 degrees. (about what it shown in Figure 3). Also, the location of the narrowest point should be above the colon, or in other words, a very low and tight waist may cause the colon to go up through the waist constriction and down again, creating two pinch points. As constriction in the waist is at a maximum, the colon would have to work against this pressure, which will create gas build up and constipation. Contrary to popular belief, it is better to wear the waist an inch too high than too low. Of course it constrains breathing more, but certainly has much less compromising effect on the colon.

In the health corsets this was also one of the considerations, as shown below in a picture of Camille Clifford. 

Figure 4

Figure 5
In Figure 5, we show the adapted anatomy of a young woman with extreme constriction. In spite of the modified appearance, the gradual process has allowed the body to successfully adapt. 

Small intestines - In general, there is little or no effect, provided there are no multiple passages through the waist, creating potential for pinching of the canal. The small intestines will normally be mobile, simply from bodily movement, but also from digestion. Hence, there are considerable reserves.

In summary, the overall effects are moderated by the rate at which constriction is increased, e.g. one inch per month vs. one inch per week. At one inch per week there, will likely be problems as described above. At one inch per month, there will minor or no problems. Most important is to listen to the body. If any kind of discomfort is felt, the reaction should be immediate moderation. By following this rule, safe body modification can be practiced. Discomfort levels vary per individual and, especially women, tend to have high thresholds compared to men; thus, especially for women, it is important to listen and respond to the body signals.

As a closing remark to this chapter I need to comment on the fact that both Figures 3 and 5 are extreme cases. I selected them from various historic sources. With the help of some image manipulation I have created a reference point for you. For most of the wearers who practice moderate reductions from 3" to 5", the effects I have described will also be moderated.

I do feel however that for proper analysis, the extreme cases provide better reference. My intended point has been that allowing the body to adapt gradually provides a basis for healthy corseting. Going too fast and too tight can create a host of health problems. Corseting and even very tight corseting in itself is not the issue, as long as the guidelines are followed.

In the next chapter I will discuss "permanency."

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