The Wasp Waist: Effects of Body Modification
The physiological effects I intend to discuss here are caused by the use of corsets for body modification. It is NOT necessary to "tight-lace" in order to wear a corset for fun, theater, or Civil War or SCA recreation activities. It is perfectly possible to wear a corset with no adverse effects, with the possible exception of being a little tired of having your body held in an unnatural position. Please refer to the section on corset care if you want information on how to wear a corset in this manner.
Corsetry has recently become very popular, and for this reason I feel it is very important that information regarding the dangers of using them for body modification also be available. There are also people who think the very notion of wearing a corset is barbaric, unthinkable, and symbolic of centuries of feminine subjugation. I disagree with this assessment, but detailed here are many of the reasons for this perception.
The Myth of the Shrinking Violet
For centuries, society firmly held the belief that women were weaker of mind and body. Treatise upon treatise was written on womenís weaknesses: women are timid, women faint at the first sign of danger, women are prone to disease. The truth behind many of these assertions is that for centuries, women had been restricting their lung capacity with heavily boned corsets. Smelling salts became an essential household item because women whose reduced lungs could not support the bodyís increased demand for oxygen in stressful situations would "faint dead away" at the first sign of excitement.
Bravery, valiance, heroism, and proper immune function all require sufficient blood oxygen levels. There are, of course, social reasons why these myths came into being and continue to persist, but the influence of the physical effects of corsetry on the perception of women cannot be ignored. To understand how debilitating reduced lung capacity can be, we need only look at asthmatics, long time smokers, and those who suffer from emphysema and lung cancer.
It is amazing that women whose lungs had been unnaturally compressed by the tight-lacing process accomplished all that they did- and they did accomplish a great deal. The rights of women to vote, to hold property, to participate in higher education, and to hold public office were all won by women who, for the most part, had worn corsets their entire lives. Many of these women also realized how hindered they were by this inability to catch their breath, and loosened or cast off their corsets altogether to take better advantage of their freedom.
Two Solid Objects Cannot Occupy the Same Space
Overlapping Rib Cage
The rib cage has a great deal of flexibility. This fact is one of the things which makes the "wasp waist" possible. To mold the body into the hourglass shape, the lower sections of the rib cage are pushed inward by the corset. The two sides of the lower rib cage, normally separated by a space, approach each other as the waist is progressively constricted. Eventually, of course, the twain must meet. It is erroneous to suppose that further body modification is then not possible, however, because the two halves of the rib cage can and will overlap with continued tight lacing.
Compression of Internal Organs
The internal organs are much softer than the bones in the rib cage, and can be forced to a much greater degree. The lungs, for example, can be crushed to the point where the miraculous little sacs that collect oxygen for the bodyís use will not inflate. The stomach can be squeezed down to a flat little envelope that will accept very little food, resulting in heartburn and indigestion. The bladder can be kept to a very small size resulting, of course, in reduced capacity. All of the major organs in the torso are eventually affected by this phenomenon, and in every case their function will be impaired.
The total effect of an overlapping rib cage and compressed internal organs would be of extreme discomfort and of uncertain health. Women who haplessly followed the fashion trends in the heyday of the corset often found themselves spending a great deal of time with their physicians. Many doctors tried unsuccessfully to convince their patients to loosen their laces as a way of relieving their aches and pains, but women were often as fondly attached to their corsets as some modern women are to their make-up. These women demanded pills, powders, and potions to relieve their discomforts. The effect on women of multiple medications on top of the existing difficulties caused by their corsets can only be imagined.
The Hardiness of Infants
Additional complications arise with pregnancy. Suffice to say that evolution has equipped us with powerful means of continuing the species. For that reason, womenís bodies will strip themselves of essentials to provide for the growing life inside them. The infant receives first claim to oxygen, nourishment, and abdominal space. Women with compressed abdominal and chest cavities have fewer reserves in these areas. Pregnancy in a woman who is or has been practicing body modification is likely to result in significant complications that may endanger the motherís life as well as potentially harming the child.
The Importance of Exercise
Physical exercise has been shown to be important in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, hypertension, and virtually every other non-infectious debilitating disease known to modern medical science. It is also beneficial in boosting energy levels, controlling body weight, and improved immune function. It is not impossible to exercise in a corset. It is, however, nearly impossible to exercise in a corset which is laced tightly enough to compress the waist. It is also extremely painful to do so.
I Want To Pump You Up
The muscles in the upper and lower back are vital to our health and comfort. If you doubt this, just ask anyone who has ever suffered a back injury. Continuous, long term corset wear will cause these muscles to atrophy. Eventually, it becomes impossible to go without the corset. The greatest danger in this area is avoided because we no longer corset girls from infancy, but the possibility is there. The loss of muscle strength in this area has implications other than the inability to go without a corset, since any weakness in the lower back opens the area to injury.
An injured lower back is a constant source of misery. It is also a significant impairment which makes it impossible to lift a crying child, help a fallen person to their feet, carry a suitcase, rearrange the furniture, or go on a hike. I have known people who were periodically confined to bed by a lower back injury which occurred months or years before.
I Sing the Body Electric
This article is intended as a general overview of the potential hazards of using corsets for body modification. In the interest of specific and general health concerns, I must strenuously advise against the use of corsets for body modification. I would like to take this opportunity to ask that anyone who has information on the effects of corsetry which I could post or link to this site please notify me by e-mail so that I can continue to make this site more informative and interesting.
Absinthe and Old Lace is a firm advocate of health before societal ideas of beauty.