"Corseting the Human Body - Chapter 3"

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.

Chapters:

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



Chapter Three - Permanency


In Chapter Two, I discussed the effects of tight-lacing with corsets on the physiology of the individual organs. In this segment I like to present my findings and conclusions with regard to permanent effects of the practice of corseting.

Before studying the permanent effects, it is useful to categorize corset uses. 

1. Support of back and abdomen
2. Enhancement of body shape (occasional wear)
3. Modification of body shape (extended wear)

In these cases there is an varying degree of a long term effect. To analyze what these are, we need to understand which parts of the physiology are intended to be affected.

Support:

In this case the desired permanent effect is to reduce the bending and load stress of the spine. By compressing the thoracic and abdominal torso, upper body weight is carried both by the abdominal content and the containing corset, by increasing intra abdominal pressure (IAP) and stiffening of the torso, which then resists bending and so avoids potential injury to the back and muscles. 

The permanency here is a relaxation of abdominal and back muscles, which in itself is comforting and relaxing to the wearer. In turn, this reduces the stress and discomfort from muscle spasms and pinched nerves that usually accompany improper posture for extended desk activity and improper stances during strenuous activity.

For support, the area of constriction is usually limited to a 6-9" region. Any subsequent waist or abdominal reduction will be accepted but is unintentional. True permanent effects are not seen, as muscles are typically not immobilized by the limited level of constriction. 

These garments are now available in a variety of forms, but most are stiffened with half a dozen stays and closed with velcro straps. They have become very common wear these days, at least in the USA, and are often recommended for anyone performing physical labor.

Physically, there is no dependency formed by daily use. No other permanent effects are observed.


Enhancement



Figure 1 - Fashionable modern day dress with very modest corset constriction.

For enhancement of the shape, the intent is to improve the waist- to- hip ratio (spring), which is perceived by most men and women as a more pleasing or enhanced feminine shape. On average, this implies a 3..4" reduction. For example, a 35-28-36 (.78 ratio) figure could become 36-24-37 (.65 ratio). The compression of the waist counteracts the effects of gravity and, for middle age women (and men), this tends to restore a more "youthful" figure. The displacement effect is less in younger or athletic wearers with firm musculature. In these instances, ribbon corsets can be used without much risk of abdominal bulging. For more developed figures, corsets with an extended apron are needed to support the lower abdominal wall.

I would categorize occasional corset wear as enhancement, where "occasional" would represent less than 10% of the day and night time. During the "off" time, the body will completely return to its uncorseted shape. I will get back to this later.

Continuous pressure on soft tissue will displace its fluid and, to a lesser extent, its fat content, similar to a ring on a finger, or a tight belt on a skirt or trousers. These will leave a clear imprint behind when worn for an extended period of time. When the external pressure is removed, the tissue will expand again. Depending on the duration of the compression, the expansion may take more time if the compression was applied for a longer period as well. The effect is therefore not permanent, although lasting for a limited amount of time.

Wearing corsets for a few hours in a week will have no permanent effects at all. There is risk, however, that, during this occasional wear, the wearer may get carried away and over constrict (over 4"), creating heartburn, constipation and muscle aches. Ironically, these types of ill effects from corseting are more of a risk factor with occasional wearers practicing extreme tight-lacing for a few hours a week, than for habitual tightlacers whose bodies have been allowed to adapt and, consequently, accept considerable reductions without ill effect. There are several modern day examples of this.

In summary, the occasional use of corsets (< 10% of the time) has limited permanency associated with it. As the duration increases, however, the "permanent" effects are a degree of what I will describe in the following segment.

I have more or less implied that enhancing the shape is a moderate reduction (<4") and is associated with occasional wear. The fact is that reductions of more than 4" are more difficult to tolerate in comfort if the corset is only on for a few hours in the week. Note that this 4" is only a general guideline. This varies from person to person, with shape, size, age, etc.


Body modification

Continuous pressure on the skeleton will tend to gradually force the bones to "grow" into that shape. The ribs (especially female) are flexible, and thus, because they flex, they will not bend permanently like a strip of aluminum. They are more like spring steel - very flexible, but no permanent bending. In order to permanently reshape the ribs, they need to be exposed to inward pressure for several hours (>4) per day for several months to allow bone minerals to be re-deposited from the inside to the outside of the curve. This effect is fairly permanent, although, when pressure is removed within a year, everything may gradually return to the unmodified shape. This effect slows down with age, but will occur at any age. The notion is that a body shape is a function of the base skeleton, muscle tone and common positions of the body. This is how exercise can "sculp" the body. Someone who leans every and all day on one elbow will develop additional padding and bone minerals on that location. Putting pressure on the ribcage will, over time, reshape it, but it will require the corset to be on for several hours per day for months.

Depending on the design of the corset, the lower chest will be compressed into a funnel shape (see Chapter One) to a degree depending on the amount of applied pressure.



Figure.2 - Typical hourglass shape - note the near 90 degree angle in the waist,
but also the relaxed chest constriction. Only the lower ribs are affected.

In a typical hourglass shape, the ribcage is not extremely constricted, hence the constant pressure on the ribs is limited. In a wasp waist style corset, on the other hand,  there is significant pressure on the lower ribs. This rib pressure has two effects: As mentioned, bone minerals will transfer, creating a new curve for the rib, providing less resistance to the corset, and allowing the torso to accept the form of the corset. This is a relatively slow process and, depending on age, may take several months, or even up to a year. To clarify: To accommodate the reduced ribcage diameter, the ribs will angle slightly downward, but also be forced to bend inward in a smaller radius. Some of the  movement is from the rib joints at the spine and from the cartilage attached to the sternum (see Chapter 1 - Ribcages). The reduced radius of the rib is accommodated by adding on the outside and removing on the inside, effectively creating a smaller radius over time. The ribs will tolerate only a given amount of inward bending at any time, but effectively this is the primary site of figure training. Continuous light or moderate pressure will suffice to produce the funnel shaped chest. The degree of tolerable compression, or inward pressure, is a function of wearer comfort or tolerance. I would suggest, however, that if constant discomfort is experienced, the corset is simply too tight. When wearing the corset only a few hours each day, the effect will be much slower, although it will certainly show over a period of a few months, but to a lesser degree if the corset is on for more than 8 hours a day
.

A reduction of 4" on a 30" waist is tight, probably comfortable to most wearers, and can be adapted to fairly quickly within a few weeks. As far as permanency, the ribs will be affected as indicated, depending on the hours per day that the corset is on the body. Anything over 2 hours is likely to have some effect, but it may only last a few hours as well; therefore, no permanent effects are likely to take place. If the garment remains tight on the body for 4 hours or more, the ribs may also become sensitized, as the "conversion" process will likely be underway ( although the rate of this will vary greatly from person to person and with metabolic rates and level of musculo-skeletal activity.) 

Internal organs are affected by becoming more mobile, allowing further constriction. Over time, abdominal organs (corseted or not) sometimes develop interconnective fibers, making the content less mobile over time, unless one is exposed to vigorous exercise. Ironically, daily tightlacing will have a similar effect as exercising on the abdominal content. The pressure from waist constriction will move the organs around. (See Chapter Two). Note that the degree of movement or relocation is not dissimilar from when the torso is bent, for example to pick something up from the floor while sitting in a chair. Organs can move around more than most people realize. Simply compare the position of the ribcage and abdomen when someone is standing and stretched out, versus sitting down, or laying down, or bending sideways. This mobility is what allows corseting to modify or enhance the human shape. This increased mobility will allow for further reduction of the waist over time and permit reductions of 6" or more without much
difficulty or adverse effects. To demonstrate this point, perform a simple, although inverse experiment: Pull in your stomach as hard as you can and measure the waist, then expand it as much as you can and measure again. Note the difference which is a direct result of the degree of available organ mobility! Also consider the movement of the abdominal wall in abdominal breathing. 

Figure 3 - Small waist and potentially very tight around the lower chest when the top section is laced closed.  Much of the ribcage will be affected.



Figure.4 - Traditional figure, resultant from years of tight-lacing (approx. 1890)

The permanent effect on the internal organs is limited  mostly to their position (see Chapter Two), and to a lesser extent, the size of the liver may reduce, but is primarily a consequence of reduced overall food intake. The pressure on the stomach reduces it's capacity, and acts as an appetite suppressant. (The assumption being that the corset is on when food is consumed, of course.) Because the intestinal system is composed of several hollow organs, from the stomach to the duodenum to the small and large intestines, food content makes up a significant portion of the volume. Muscles under tension also consume significant volume. Between these two, these represent significant reserves on which nature can call  for various reason, but it also enables the corset wearer to modify the shape of the body.

The spine may be affected, as it benefits from the unloading effect that results from increased IAP, and also limiting bending loads due to the stiffer body. According to medical records, in general, tight-laced women rarely had back problems, whereas a considerable population percentage of modern day women do. The referenced spinal curvature (inward in the back) from S-bend corsets was not an immediate issue, as the weight of the body was directly transferred to the hips, still unloading the spine. I have to admit that a woman who is tight-laced in an S-bend can probably not perform significant lifting, as her overall balance is very much forward, but then they were not expected to.

In summary: Permanency in the case of intentional body modification is mostly limited to the ribcage, which, over time will show increased flexibility at the rib joints and increased inward curvature of the ribs themselves. If, however, no corset is worn for an extended period of time, within less than a year the effects will largely have gone, as the mechanism is reversible. The rate of course varies. Of the internal organs, the liver may reduce in size as a result of the reduced food consumption, and the stomach may become "unstretched" or shrink for the same reason. Neither of these effects are considered unhealthy or risk factors.

  

Figure 5 (left)
 Martha Bernays ( 1886) 

tight-laced 

 

 

Figure 6 (right)
Martha Bernays ( 1905) 

no notable permanency

To give an example: Sigmund Freud's wife, Martha Bernays, who in her wedding picture (figure 5 above)1886 (aged 25) shows an obviously tightlaced figure. Prior to when that picture was taken, she would have been corseted for years, as was customary for women her age prior to getting married. Some years and six (!) healthy pregnancies later, her 1905 photograph (figure 6 above) shows a very different shape, with no hint of the earlier tightlacing, although she might have worn one of the more relaxed styles that had become more and more common at that time.

Supposedly, most long term wearers, and especially those who had practiced tight-lacing, continued to wear corsets, simply for required support, even during the 1920's and 30's. The point is, Martha was healthy, and lived into her 80's, without suffering health issues or limiting her child bearing capacity, while having being tightlaced for many years.

Conclusion: Corsets will modify the body if worn sufficiently tight for an extended period of time, yet when not worn,. the effects will, over time, eventually reverse themselves. Some of the reshaped ribcages have been put on display in a few fashion museums, but it is safe to conclude that the individual had remained corseted up to her final days; only then will the effects be "permanent."

Occasional wear will not have any permanent effects at all. A few more examples:

Example 1: Suppose a dramatic 10" reduction is the desired goal for an average 28" waist. By itself, this does not mean anything, other than that significant long term corseting will be needed. If it was possible and someone would be reduced from 28" to 18" in one day, that person would probably suffer serious health issues.  But most likely the discomfort would be intolerable and prevent anyone to go to that extreme in such a short time period. The primary issue being here that no time is given to the body to adapt, and physiology cannot be changed that quickly without preceding training.

On the other hand, with a lifestyle change, a 7/23 (corseted for 7 days/week, 23 hrs/days) schedule and gradual reduction over a two year period, the body will adapt, and, dependent on the comfort of the wearer, the process may produce the desired 10" reduction without problems or health issues, provided there was no discomfort halting the process. This last point is critical. Each individual will have a physical limit past which further reduction is not possible, no matter the external pressure, but this will always be preceded with a comfort limit long before this physical limit or injury occurs. Thus, it is important to relax instantly when pain or discomfort is experienced.

Example 2: Here permanent wear has created a dependency on being corseted. During times when many women actually were permanently tight-laced, the issue of pregnancy was a delicate one. First of all, she would be pregnant for at least one, possibly two months before realizing that she was. Next, the social climate was often such that this state was not to be shown in public. One option was to remain at home, and the other to remain socially active and conceal the condition for as long as was practical with a gradually lessened degree of tight-lacing.

  

Figure 7 (left)

 Late 19th century gestation corset 

 

Figure 8 (right)

  Modern day maternity support corset from "Back-A-Line".

Many of the permanently tight-laced women experienced difficulty sitting or standing when out of their corsets, thus gestation corsets were often needed to support the torso. As can be seen (figure 7 above) the shape is not extreme, and, on the sides, additional lacing allows for increasing abdominal expansion, while keeping the back and the body above the waist supported. Without this corset these women would have been confined to stay in bed, creating numerous health risks associated with lack of movement. Although I do not recommend tight-lacing during pregnancy, I merely cite this example as a historic reference. Also, in numerous cases, support belts or corsets are prescribed for pregnant women, bringing great relief to back issues (figure 8 above). A typical example is the famous Austrian Empress Elizabeth or "Sisi", who was unfortunately assassinated at age sixty, but had an alleged 19" waist measurement. She practiced permanent tightlacing and exercised daily. Less healthy was her obsession with hunger diets. Nevertheless, she carried her pregnancies with success. Considering the unsanitary conditions of those days, the health risks were primarily from various forms of infection, but I will comment on this in more detail in the next chapter. In general, however, it is recommended that habitual corset wearers exercise the back and abdominal muscles 15-20 minutes every day. It prevents atrophy.

Lastly the age factor: A teenager with a still flexible bone structure can figure train faster then a middle aged women; however, the mechanisms involved are functional at any age, but it may take longer. The faster metabolism is likely to adopt faster, allowing for relatively quick reductions in the younger (<25 yr) within a few months. Yet a 40 yr old can achieve the same result without prior exposure to corseting, but may take a few extra months, again all guided by comfort levels. Another element is the teenage body tends to be much slimmer, and producing a 17" or even a 16" waist may not have been fictional, as sometimes has been suggested. Consider a light-to-moderate teenage measurement of 32-22-32 and it would not take any extreme measures to produce a 18" waist, and, with continuous wear, additional reduction is by no means unrealistic. In such a case, when the corset is kept on at a 7/23 schedule, the permanency may be longer lasting. 

In closing, I like to mention that the modern day return of the corset as a fashion item, probably primarily as an enhancement item, is completely safe, provided the guidelines are followed! For body modification, these same rules apply, but more attention to detail is essential to avoid issues (see Chapter Two), and in principle, with proper attention and care, it is safe as well.

The important notion that is difficult to accept by opponents of fashionable corset wear is that modern day women (or men) corset themselves by choice.  This is a personal choice, and should be respected in the interest of freedom of expression. With these articles I hope to continue to bring some degree of reality to the topic. I have made my best efforts to be accurate, and welcome further questions on this topic, as it is difficult to exhaust.

I can only think of all those people (today!) in orthopedic corsets experiencing significant levels of constriction, yet doing so without the negative feedback or opinions, because it is for "health" purposes. The simple fact is that "feeling good" is a primary indication of total (mind and body) health.

Dear Reader,

I now have a request for you: 


Personally, I am very much intrigued by the psychology of corseting. Both men and women who like to wear corsets experience satisfaction at various levels: for some, direct arousal, for others, a long term feeling of well being.  For many others, it is simply underwear like a girdle or bra, just for improved self-confidence; others again simply are helped with the support, or a combination of the above. I have read two of Valerie Steel's books on this topic, but, although very comprehensive and well written, they only partially address these questions.

I would appreciate it if those of you with modern day experience or an opinion would mail your responses to LISA  for publication or merely for archival research.


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