"Corseting the Human Body - Chapter 4"

Corseting the Human Body 

by DR. ANN BEAUMONT  2000-01

All images on this page are enlargeable

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 Four - Health

Defining the topic:

The corset controversy spans centuries, as it had defenders in both camps. Opponents cited that dislodged organs caused various health issues, and proponents who claimed that even the most
extreme forms of lacing were without consequence for health. As evidence was never gathered in a scientific manner, it is difficult, but not impossible, to find a relationship between the two.

For example, in previous centuries corsets were worn during a time of marginal hygiene as well as poor nutrition for many. It then became difficult to extract the true cause of illness. 

First, careful study of women's and men's health in the 19th century reveals that men and women under the same(!) circumstances had similar instances of disease per number of population. As most
of the corset wearers were women, this could be interpreted that their state of health was independent of wearing corsets. Above that, high society women were laced considerably tighter than the average 2-4", yet did not record any higher instances of disease, but rather, their rates were lower. It would be reasonable to attribute this, however, to better hygiene and nutrition. The fact that many of them were long term or permanent lacers allowed their bodies to fully adapt to being in a tight corset, thereby avoiding any real stress on their system (see "Permanency"). In addition, the degree of tightlacing effectively prevented most of them from gaining weight from over consumption.

I would not conclude that tight corseting made these women healthier, but it seems fair to assert that the mechanisms that did affect their health did not involve the corset, and so it did not affect their health positively or negatively.

When studying the average age of these well-nourished fashionable ladies, it is clear that, although many of them were tight laced from teenage to old age, they lived relatively long (60-90 years) in a time when the average age was less then 55. This is a risky notion, as one may again erroneously conclude that the corseted women were longer living, but more accurate is to state that tight corseting does not shorten life expectancy. 
Even an experienced personal injury attorney would have to agree that the historical evidence for the correlation of corsets and disease cannot be conclusively proven.

Traditional supposed corset diseases:

In order to properly discuss the topic, it is essential to look at the so called corset diseases from the 19th century and early 20th century.

1. Tuberculosis. Now we know that this is an infectious disease and is not related to the physical position of the lungs. Also, the lungs are positioned above the corset constriction and adhere to the thoracial wall, and thus follow its outline. Lungs only deflate when the wall or lung itself is perforated in some manner. Corseting can reduce maximum breathing capacity by perhaps 30-60% depending
on the enforced shape of the ribcage, but they would not be deflated.

2. Constipation. Depending on the shape of the corset and where the primary constriction is placed on the body, it can in combination with the wrong diet be cause for constipation. From a pure physiological point of view, if the waist constriction includes the colon, this can occur, if the corset pressure is high enough to obstruct flow. However, this can be avoided first by proper diet, but equally important, moving the corset up slightly so that the colon is no longer pinched. In female anatomy, the organs are predisposed for this "above and below the waist" separation, where tightlacing will cause the liver and stomach to push down on the colon and intestines and avoid problems, as the colon and intestines remain "below" and are not trapped in the waist. Instead, the pliable liver and stomach assume much of the adaptation by conforming to the new position and shape. 

3. Corset liver. The "corset-liver" shows a groove or furrow across the right liver lobe where it conformed to the shape of the lower edge of the constricted ribcage. This occurred as a result of
long term figure training starting early or before puberty, and forced the lower ribcage to develop into a cone shape. The liver would have a more vertical position, with more of the right lobe
extending below the ribcage. Normally, only a small portion extends this low, but autopsies showed that a good third of the liver would be located below the edge. In itself, this is of no consequence,
as the liver is very flexible, but the result could be that a groove would form in the liver where the ribcage edge meets the liver. However in order to create this type of imprint, the corset must have be worn very tight around the lower half of the ribcage, which would limit or inhibit its excursions, along with liver movement, as the diaphragm would not show much movement either. Hence, the total effect was an anatomical variant liver, but, at the same time, this was nothing more than an adaptation to external mechanical limits. The liver function would not be effected by this. 

4. Skeletal deformity.  It is noteworthy that opponents of corseting referred to the body modification as a deformation, as it departs from the natural form. But to those in favor of the corseted shape, these changes were considered desirable. Figure training was, in fact, aimed at making these changes. Primarily, the ribcage would be altered (see "Mechanics of Corseting"), but in some forms, the lumbar spine may be curved further inward in case of the s-bend style. In either case, deformity would imply some level of damage. There is a wide gray zone between damage that causes dysfunction and adaptation to external forces. Every work activity will leave a form of skeletal imprint behind, as the skeleton is dynamic, it constantly adapts to our needs and conditions. In the case of corseting for body enhancement or modification, the body adapts to external pressures, provided it is given time to do so. This will occur faster in a younger age individual, but in theory can take place at any age. The use of the word deformity implies judgment.  If the adaptation occurs due to work activities, it is called adaptation. But if the adaptation occurs because of personal desire, it should be called adaptation as well, provided the body is allowed the proper time to do so. 


Orthopedic and fashionable corseting considered:

I have made mention of orthopedic corset use before. The maximum amount of compression that can be safely tolerated is the same for orthopedic or fashion use. Care must be taken where the underlying bone structure is near the skin, and the design must be such to distribute the pressure by added stays, avoiding distortion of the garment when under stress, and thus stiffening and supporting the contained body.

This safe limit is well indicated by the comfort of the wearer and should never exceed the pain threshold. As the wearer gets used to the compression, it can be gradually increased to meet the
desired effect, but it should never exceed the pain threshold as this is the warning signal of potential problems and damage. 

From the images below it is clear that orthopedics will not necessarily be less constrictive than fashion.

Figure 1: Old style brace to treat a form of scoliosis. This brace-corset was intended for a woman to address her scoliosis without having to forgo the fashionable shape.

The asymmetric structure is indicative of the Victorian way of dealing with scoliosis ribcage pressure point generation. Initially the aim was to 'hide' the treatment within the arrangement of a fashion corset and the notion of 'medical' corsets was created. 

This particular corset has been presented as artwork in some quarters. 



Figure 2: Modern Milwaukee Brace with a very narrow waist. The girdle is the anchor for the brace structure and grabs the pelvis, regardless of the weight of the wearer. There can be considerable abdominal and waist compression.


Figure 3: Milwaukee brace girdle section


Figure 4: Tight-laced figure in "health" corset


Figure 5: Another typical example of 19th century tightlacing


These examples illustrate that similar levels of compression or constriction are commonly used in orthopedics and fashion. 

In conclusion:

It is safe to assume that the corset evils were a reflection of the limited knowledge of medicine during the tightlacing era. Many illogical assertions confirm the distorted knowledge of human, and especially, female anatomy, hindered by taboos and myths. Our modern, more accurate knowledge, allows us to separate true corset effects from arbitrary ones. By objectively studying the evidence and statements and referencing it to our modern day experiences, it is safe to conclude that conventional corset wear is completely safe, and actually promotes a number of healthy behaviors, such as better posture and better eating habits. But, there is a risk of muscle atrophy, because the body will relax more as the corset is made tighter. Thus daily exercise becomes more and more important.

As a closing statement, it is reasonable to assert that corsets do not necessarily make people healthier, but rather they promote a healthier lifestyle for those who prefer to wear corsets.
At the same time, proper corseting does not make people unhealthy either. 

As always, I welcome comments

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