Medical Question #I

MEDICAL ADVICE FROM

DR. HELEN STERN


Q: Are there any negative medical effects of wearing corsets. Anything that's that unnatural must have some effect, no? When a woman's waist is "trained", what exactly does that mean? Are organs shifted semi-permanently? Is that bad? --Janice (3/22/97)

A: The possibly negative medical effects of wearing corsets are a long-standing issue. Of course the debate was much more intense long ago, when practically all upper and middle class women as well as their female servants were familiar with this particular garment. However, it is necessary to distinguish between WEARING a corset and being (tightly) LACED. Corsetting in itself has no adverse medical effects, except that the wearer often gets so used to the stiff support that she feels uncomfortable without it.

Tight-lacing is a very different matter. The use of a constantly and increasingly constricting garment on a young, soft and pliable body means that it willy-nilly adapts to the outer pressure. In extreme cases, when a woman has been subjected to many years of very strict lacing from an early age, her naked body will become a true copy of her corset! This is due to the compression and inward bending of the lower ribs, which reshapes the lower thorax irreversibly into a narrow and long cone. This moulding has been named "waist training" or "figure training." Even modern waist cinchers and firm girdles used over several years may cause such permanent changes, although of course to a much lesser degree. The severely laced and reshaped waist means a forced adaptation of the inner organs to the pressure and the artificial form. These changes are well known and affect all organs encased by the corset. The diaphragm is pushed upwards, immobilized and made useless for respiration, a fact which remains unnoticed by the lacee herself. But, quite visibly, to the experienced eye, she is now breathing by thoracic movements only. The liver is quite punished and sometimes severely remodeled, although it fortunately still functions well. A number of parallel, permanent grooves on its surface indicate the compression - sometimes even a particular extra liver lobe will be almost detached and hang down in the abdominal cavity. Such "corset lobes" have been surgically removed, as reported in medical literature. The stomach will move into a more vertical position and even become hour-glass formed. The kidneys will be pushed downwards and, of course the intestines and particularly the transverse large bowel will be dislodged, impairing the digestion (a common suffering experienced by fashion puppets).

However, many girls in the 19th century, even as pre-teenagers, submitted, mostly voluntarily,  to continuous waist-training, a few of them even at night, so their soft ribs and organs had ample time to adapt to the dramatically narrowed waist, which preserved their functions. It is notable that the gradual tightening extended over years and which at most implied temporary discomfort, but no torturing pain, despite what modern women conclude from photos of wasp-waisted ladies. Corset wearing was moreover ´de rigeur´-- not to use one was considered immoral. Importantly, no statistics really prove that the lacing generally abbreviated the life span.

One of my relatives, a girl of 15 in 1895, wrote a letter, still in my own family archives, to her older sister. She complains that "my new, made-to-order, high sateen corset is beautiful, lengthens my waist and is very comfortable, but unfortunately has been made too narrow over my hips, which as you know are rather broad, and irritates my skin." But obviously no problems with her lengthened wasp waist! It seems to have been made small enough and without complaints or suffering. The gradual change of the young body also prepared ladies to easily adopt the "Gibson" fashion launched around 1900, with the female figure pushing out from the dress. This strange fashion meant a violent, extreme transformation of the body stance, throwing the woman into a remarkable forward-leaning position in need of strong scaffolding to be able to endure a whole day. The unconditional and indispensable foundation garment for this was the so-called straight-fronted ("S-shaped") corset, which looked extremely uncomfortable. The body was stressed against an impressively long, straight and unyielding busk pushing in and flattening the stomach and from there rising outwards, forcing the swelling bust prominently forward. This corset also maximally excavated the back of the victim, emphasizing the effect of the busk. Broad, tightly stretched front suspenders were the final instruments in creating a statuesque, extremely sway-backed woman, with an impressive bosom, bulging hips and distinctively large bottom. The upper and lower parts of the lady were kept together by a narrow, totally inflexible waist.

Whereas a "never-laced" woman of today could not tolerate even a moderately tightened straight-front corset more than temporarily, even then with great discomfort, the fin de siècle generation of ladies used to daily lacing (possessing irreversibly deformed corset figures) were well prepared to immediately and enthusiastically accept the new fashion and the new contraption beneath the dress.

Most women, though, who once as girls and young women were ardent tight-lacers, changed to looser, more comfortable corsets as they became middle-aged. But of course they still daily went corseted for comfort and to keep their figures their best. You may imagine the difficulty of getting rid of a stiff, high bandage which has encased and supported your body and back for 20-30 years. Impossible!

Today, when a number of ladies are going back to lacing, the medical facts are still the same. Of course the lower ribs and the internal organs are affected, corresponding to the degree of pressure exerted. However, when corsets are used only temporarily or for "special occasions" the changes are reversible. Anyhow, we who are addicted and used to daily lacing know that as long as we feel well and enjoy our nicely curved and supported figures, there is no danger.

(3/22/97)-I


Return to Main Medical Advice Page

Return to LISA's Main Page