Waist training is the process of wearing a modern take on a Victorian era corset in order to (1) provide an instant slimming, hourglass figure effect, (2) motivate one to improve posture and eat healthier, and (3) eventually, over continued use, physically change the shape of the rib cage (smaller).
Several celebrities have made waist training the recent craze, with a number of them taking selfies while wearing the corset, or being caught by the paparazzi with one on. Of course, the American public has to keep up with the Kardashians, and are now buying waist trainers (or shapers, or cinchers) for their very own.
Why an Hourglass Figure?
In the eighteenth century, women believed they could reach the ideal, female body image by wearing a corset. In doing so, the waist was visually smaller than the hips, creating a smaller waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) - a WHR of 1.0 means the waist and hip circumferences are the same.
Famous researchers, Devendra Singh and others, have consistently found a smaller WHR (around .70) to be perceived as the most attractive across most cultures – past and present.7,8 However, researchers have also found that too small of a WHR (.50 to .60) is not near as attractive.9 The image to the right, and some of the above images are in this "unattractive" range.
Why is it "Attractive"?
So, why is a smaller WHR more attractive? The very simple, quick answer is that research supports that a woman's lower WHR is a strong indicator of her underlying health, fertility (immediate probability of conception), and reproductive value.
Thus, a woman's WHR is perceived as attractive, because we have innate, mental mechanisms to identify these signals or cues of her health and reproductive capacity - much like we do with full lips, breast size, lustrous hair, white teeth, smooth skin, absence of sores, and symmetrical features.1,6-8
Throughout history, women have attempted to 'trick' others into thinking their body has a naturally low WHR, using corsets, Spanx, or other clothing-based optical illusions. The current revamp of 18th century corset training is no different. What goes around, comes around.
For example, check out these dresses Rachel Rounds (Daily Mail) tried on for us to see.
Physical and Motivational Effects
Much like other body wrap devices, there is no evidence that waist training, alone, has any impact on fat or weight loss. Also, corsets do not have a substantial impact on metabolism, with only small, temporary changes occurring as the body has to work harder to move around in the awkward device.4
If the corset inspires people to eat less, eat healthier and be more physically active, then weight and fat loss can occur, but it would not be a direct effect of the corset. However, such motivation might be deceiving and short lived. In the psychology and clothing/textile science, "camouflaging" is the term used for the act of disguising one's body with clothing.
In my own weight control research, we found that coping with weight-related stress with camouflaging was actually associated with greater body shame, less control, lower self-esteem, and poorer body image.2
I do know women who wear certain clothing to give them motivation to live a health lifestyle, and feel more comfortable in a public fitness setting - which is great. However, the concern is with those who camouflage, so that they do not have to live a healthy lifestyle. This is worrisome, when our goal is to eat more healthfully and be more active for our physical and mental health.
Breathing and Blood Flow
During the time the corset is worn, there is a significant reduction (up to 29%) in the amount of air we can breathe in and out, which is the opposite of what we want.3 For health and fitness, we actually want to increase and maintain this air exchange (tidal volume), and not reduce it. As a result, shortness of breath is common, especially in a tight-lace of 10% of more of one's waist circumference.3
In addition, some believe the corset will help you sweat your fat away (like other clothing fads). However, with the corset, the body cannot perspire properly (up to 90% reduction), thus limiting our ability to maintain a cooler core body temperature.4 We have all seen the subsequent effect in the movies, where the corset-adorned woman passes out from getting too hot and having shortness of breath.
Wearing the corset will also increase intra-abdominal pressure, causing the heart rate to decrease to help counterbalance the pressure, while blood flow to the finger tips is reduced by up to 36%.4
There are claims that the corset can improve posture, much like a back brace, which could be true. However, the posture improvements are due to the mechanical nature of the corset, and not improvement in the underlying musculature that is typically in charge of maintaining proper posture. Subsequently, the muscles relax, since the corset is doing all the work.
The muscles can then become weakened over time, leaving the spine more vulnerable and prone worse posture when the corset is not worn. Since historic reenactors must wear corsets, researchers has provided them with this important message, "Exercise regularly to maintain abdominal and spinal musculature and prevent serious muscle atrophy with resultant dependence on corset."3
Rib Cage Reshaping
Here is the big one. Traditionally, the goal of corset use is to give both the short-term and long-term appearance of a smaller waist, thus a smaller WHR. You would definitely see a short-term effect, as the corset forcefully squeezes everything into a hourglass mold. Once removed, the effect is lost.
For long-term changes, the hope has always been that corsets will eventually, if worn for years, will begin to reshape the rib cage, smaller and smaller. For example, this image is from a German artist/anatomist on the "effects of the corset" in 1785.5 As you can see, his artistic depiction of the reshaping into a smaller rib cage.
This process might seem really odd, but this was the process they had back then. Women in the 18th century had to start very young to begin the dramatic collapsing process of their rib cage. Today we have had the luxury of plastic surgery, rib removal, and implants to produce similar illusions of health and attractiveness. It is sort of like the use of helmets to re-shape the skulls of infants with plagiocephaly (flat head syndrome), from lying down on their back for too long.
In a similar way, the corset could work to reshape your rib cage. You would have to wear it consistently for a very long time, dealing with the uncomfortableness, while hoping the rearrangement of the underlying organs and digestion difficulties do not cause you any harm – which it can.
I called this one "clarify", because waist training will NOT cause fat or weight loss (BUSTED). However, like other fashion-based optical illusions, it will provide the temporary appearance of a small to moderate waist-to-hip ratio - which is commonly viewed as more attractive. However, too small of waists can be seen as abnormal and unattractive.
There is potential that some might respond with new found motivation to eat healthy and increase physical activity, but our research suggests the exact opposite - with relationships of 'camouflaging' with body shame, low self-esteem, lack of control over one's body, and body image disturbances.
In addition, like in the eighteenth century, prolonged use (years) of the corset can potentially mold the rib cage into a smaller circumference, if you are willing to risk the pain, or underlying physical and medical complications from manually manipulating your rib cage over time. Also, good luck if you have such complications, and you have to try and remold your rib cage back out to its normal, optimal shape.
- Buss, D. M. (2007). The evolution of human mating. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 39(3), 502-512.
- Faries, M. D., & Bartholomew, J. B. (2015). Coping with Weight-related Discrepancies: Initial Development of the WEIGHTCOPE. Women's Health Issues. In Press.
- Gau, C. R. (1998). Historic medical perspectives of corseting and two physiologic studies with reenactors. Dissertation, UMI Dissertations Publishing.
- Na, Y. (2015). Clothing pressure and physiological responses according to boning type of non-stretchable corsets. Fibers and Polymers, 16(2), 471-478.
- Schiebinger, L. (1986). Skeletons in the closet: The first illustrations of the female skeleton in eighteenth-century anatomy. Representations, 14, 42-82.
- Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 293.
- Singh, D., Dixson, B. J., Jessop, T. S., Morgan, B., & Dixson, A. F. (2010). Cross-cultural consensus for waist–hip ratio and women's attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(3), 176-181.
- Singh, D., Renn, P., & Singh, A. (2007). Did the perils of abdominal obesity affect depiction of feminine beauty in the sixteenth to eighteenth century British literature? Exploring the health and beauty link. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274(1611), 891-894.
- Streeter, S. A., & McBurney, D. H. (2003). Waist–hip ratio and attractiveness: New evidence and a critique of "a critical test". Evolution and Human Behavior, 24(2), 88-98.