Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three

A Modern Health Perspective

Historical views on corsetry cannot be divorced from the world their creators lived in. When dress reformers wrote about the practice of wearing corsets, they were referring to a context in which women were not sanctioned to be seen without them in public. Is it even possible to infer how they would feel about corset-wearing in a world where it is the extreme anomaly rather than the norm? This was also a context in which medical claims that we now know to be incorrect were taken seriously based on very little evidence. There is no reason to apply Victorian perspectives (feminist or not) to the practices of modern corset-wearers, since none of their experiences would have approached the modern situation.

It never ceases to amaze me that critics of modern tight-lacing or moderate corseting ignore and dismiss the experiences of those modern corseters in favor of the Victorian medical claims. Regardless of the official statistics on total lung capacity and the workings of the digestive system, modern women who actually wear corsets with the same frequency as Victorian women have an understanding of the physical effects of corsetry that is superior to the understanding of someone who has not done the same or specifically studied the subject. For one thing, living as these women do in a world with antibiotics and other medicines, they avoid many of the health problems previously attributed to the corset and thereby prove them to be unrelated.

Scarlet Empress, April 21 2014
An overwhelming amount of evidence from modern corseters is that there are complications that can arise from corsetry - raising or lowering blood pressure, slight constipation, skin infections - but that these are not constant, life-threatening, or dangerous, except in very special cases. There is no reason to speculate that their kidneys, heart, or liver are damaged and will soon cripple or kill them. Cathy Jung, the most famous and most extreme modern tightlacer, has been reducing her waistline since the 1980s and attests to skin issues (though she says that her skin is naturally very sensitive), but she is not suffering the effects of organ damage. X-rays of her torso show that her heart is not affected by her corset. When mainstream media sources quote doctors' opinions on the dangers of tightlacing or moderate corset use, there are no modern studies underlying their statements. Bruising of the liver, spleen, or kidneys, for example, has not been attested by any modern tightlacer to my knowledge.

To go further, modern corseters have found corsets to have some health benefits. They have been used to treat extreme scoliosis; they can support the back during hard work and prevent bending from the waist, like a back brace; after childbirth, they support weakened and overstretched abdominal muscles; as they reduce stomach capacity, they cause the wearer to eat smaller meals, and to avoid fatty foods and fizzy drinks.

There are also many modern women who have worn corsets and reported pain and discomfort. Jessica Findlay Brown (Sybil on Downton Abbey) has said that she "absolutely hates corsets", and others who work at living history museums in costume or in the theatre have agreed at times. In these cases - so often cited as proof that corsets are harmful - the wearers are probably or possibly wearing a corset that has not been made with a proper understanding of how body fat redistributes itself. (Based on Lady Mary's corset, those on Downton Abbey are not properly shaped for the period, covering far more of the bust than was usual, which makes it likely that they are also not built correctly for the body, either. That said, Michelle Dockery has said that she doesn't mind hers.) Professional corsetiers understand how to fit individual bodies, and that adding ease in the hips and bust allows for easier and greater reduction without difficulty. Historically, women might have corsets made specifically to fit them, or more commonly availed themselves of a company with professional fitters and many different styles and sizes of corset to fit different figures. Today, this knowledge is mostly lost, with corsetmakers constantly having to remind the public that they will not be able to simply buy one based on their dress size and have it reduce them comfortably.

Feminist or Regressive?

And now we come to the basic question which caused me to write these thousands of words. Is a modern woman who chooses to wear a corset regularly - whether she is achieving a smooth hourglass shape or an exaggerated wasp waist - an empowered feminist, or is she moving backward?

This is a trick question. It is impossible to answer.

"Third-wave feminism" is a term used to broadly cover the strains of feminism existing in the present. The second wave of feminism focused, like the first-wave feminists discussed in previous posts, on legal and social issues that oppressed women, but much of post-modern third-wave feminism examines the interlocking structures of gender and race and focuses on issues within traditional feminism. A strong but controversial branch (sometimes called "choice feminism") argues for individual agency in deciding whether a particular practice is is personally empowering or misogynist, especially with regard to practices that have been previously considered incompatible with feminism.

For example: some women today are choosing to be stay-at-home mothers rather than to work outside the home, and are not being forced into it by economic necessity (the costs of childcare that would be incurred if they were to work). Ideally, a feminist stay-at-home mother would not argue that all stay-at-home mothers are making a deliberate choice and that working mothers are making a bad choice, accepting that the satisfaction she derives from it is personal to herself, while another feminist would attempt to see the situation from her point of view without assuming that the first woman is misguided or lying.

Likewise, many women who wear corsets today feel a sense of empowerment. The shape they give their bodies pleases them, and the feeling of the corset itself is described positively as "hugging". Some, like Cathy Jung, did begin tight lacing on their husbands' requests, but in an informal poll of corseters and non-corseters in their late teens and twenties, within the 79% of respondents who lace moderately or tightly on a regular basis, 93% said that they liked the way corsets feel, 82% wore them for back support, and 87% wore them to look sexy for themselves. (Several respondents mentioned that the sensation helped them with anxiety)

Scarlet Empress in one of Cathy Jung's corsets with a 16" waist, July 1 2014
For some reason, we can easily accept that an historical woman making aesthetic/clothing choices that conflict with the standards of her context - but agree with ours - is behaving as an individual by bobbing her hair, wearing trousers, shortening her skirts. Yet when the case is flipped, and a modern woman makes an aesthetic choice that conflicts with modern standards, she must not be behaving as an individual but as a freak or oddity which must be corrected.

The objective feminist value of the corset itself in a modern context may be uncertain or impossible to determine, but what is more clear is that the frequent treatment of women who wear them today is not within the bounds of feminism. How does it promote equality to stand by outdated (and frequently misogynist) medical science while disbelieving the evidence given from numerous lived female experiences? To say that tightlacers must have a disorder because their shapes are not traditionally attractive? To call them "gross" or judge them as insecure? To state that it's all done for male attention?

Popular feminist history holds that women threw off their corsets in 1920, picked it back up with the New Look of the late 1940s, then shed the uncomfortable girdle in the 1960s. This fairy tale is an important part of how modern women see themselves: we no longer require artificial means to achieve a fashionable figure, because the fashionable figure is one that is unconstrained. Except that this high-minded ideal is both false - Spanx and similar stretchy shapewear are extremely popular, attracting the same type of medical fears based on worst-case scenarios and exaggeration - and disingenuous, since the "natural" body is often altered through intense dieting and exercise, to the point where the corset is now an invisible, unremovable restraint.

Wearing a corset in the modern milieu is no more a promotion of female repression than is regular exercise to obtain a fashionable figure. The fad diets that have predominated since the mid-twentieth century and the rise of malnutrition as a method of shaping the body have measurable negative results that far outweigh the imaginary risks of corsetry. Athletes do actually die from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy related to overtraining; young female athletes in particular are highly subject to disordered eating - and yet you rarely see negative comments on the same scale attached to articles about sports.

There is something about the refusal to accept that corsets do not cause organ damage that strikes me as suspicious. It is as though citing the unproven risks allows the public to express socially-accepted judgement and control over women's bodies: the bodies of women who transgress social norms, in particular. Are the disdain and ignorance displayed over modern corset-wearers essentially a form of concern trolling, pretending worry about tight lacers' health in order to undermine women's agency?

Perhaps this is too extreme a theory. But perhaps those who actually wish to uphold feminism will attempt to understand the women inside the corsets before judging them.

5 comments:

  1. Much appreciation of this series. You're a wonderfully well-informed writer, and it's always a great topic. :-P

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  2. Excellent installment. I have friends who have actually worn their 18th century stays under their scrubs at work to alleviate back problems! And though tight-lacing holds no personal appeal to me, I confess that neither does extreme exercising (P90X holds no appeal for me)--and I'm not going to judge a woman who chooses to alter her appearance using either method.

    I've long held that the simplest definition of feminism is not promoting women's issues or forcing any particular worldview, but simply treating women's voices on an equal plane with men's voices and treating women's experiences as equally valid. To dismiss a corseter's experience is, per my personal definition of feminism, the least feminist thing one could do.

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    1. I agree. Feminism is not compatible with the assumption that a woman is lying about her health or isn't aware of serious health problems. It's tremendously problematic to refuse to listen or to talk over her experience.

      I've brought this up at other times, and some people seem to feel that correcting the misapprehensions is equivalent to saying that all women should be wearing corsets, which ... makes no sense.

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