Thursday, April 18, 2013

Corset Myth #3: Corsets Are Bad For Your Health

Previous posts in this series are here and here.

Corset Myth #3: Corsets Are Bad For Your Health

This is a really difficult myth to escape.  Corset wearers are used to receiving comments online whenever they post pictures of themselves in corsets about how bad the corset is for their body.  These comments are generally based on nothing in particular, except for the fact that everyone knows corsets are bad for you.

But where did this idea that corsets are bad for your health come from?  Well, for one thing it's repeated ad infinitum in modern media and fiction.  But the first rumblings about negative health effects of corseting started in the Victorian period, and generally came from two sources: doctors and quack medicine purveyors, and the corset industry itself.

So first let's consider how much we should trust anything a Victorian era doctor says about anything.  No, really, think about that.  Now consider that corsets were blamed for a lot of conditions when they affected women and the doctors didn't understand what was happening.  Never mind that these same conditions also affected men.  The problems which doctors of the time would attribute to corsets we now understand to be symptoms with other causes. (See this excellent article for specifics. )

So why would corset manufacturers talk about negative health effects of corsets? Why, to tell you that THEIR brand of corset didn't cause those problems, of course.  So called "health corsets" were big business at the time, though looking at the patent drawings, there is rarely any significant difference from other corsets.  They are still corsets meant to tightly cinch the waist, which is what people would assume causes the health problems.

But what health problems are corsets supposed to cause?  You know, I'm not entirely sure, because anonymous internet commenting is so rarely specific.  People will mention skeletal deformation and moving organs around.  So let's talk about those.

You've probably seen images something like this, which are sometimes used to show the extreme effect corseting has on the body.  First of all, comparing the effects of corseting in the Victorian period on women's bodies to modern corseting isn't really fair, because in the period girls started wearing corsets at a young age, and their rib cages grew into a conical shape as they aged.  This is an effect that is nearly impossible to achieve by someone who starts wearing corsets as an adult, once the bones have fully ossified.  The only part of the ribs that can actually be reshaped with dedicated, daily waist training are the floating ribs.

While I'm on the subject of ribs, can we please put to rest for once and for all the idea that women have EVER, especially in the Victorian period, had ribs surgically removed?  I had someone bring this up to me just a couple of weeks ago.  There was no such thing as elective cosmetic surgery in the Victorian period.  Mostly due to the extreme chance of death that ALL surgery carried in the time before the discovery of antibiotics.  Moreover, Victorian women had no need to have ribs removed, because lifelong waist training meant their ribs were already trained to a stylish shape.

But for the most part, modern corsets do not compress the ribs, and instead focus on the fleshy waist area between ribs and hips.  You will see, even with serious tightlacers, that their ribs tend to be much larger than their waist.   As I mentioned, it takes daily wearing, sometimes up to 23 hours a day to reshape the floating ribs.  So the typical way in which we wear corsets today (for special occasions, for costuming, on the weekend) has really no chance of making any permanent changes to the skeleton.

What about the organs?  Does corseting sometimes shift and restrict the organs of the body?  The answer is yes, but it doesn't follow that it is harmful.  The biggest effect corseting has on the body is that it restricts the space that the hollow organs such as the stomach and intestines have to expand.  Which means that you can't eat as much while wearing a corset, and should avoid all carbonated beverages, since there isn't room for expansion.  Trust me on this one, you will become very uncomfortable if you are tightly laced and you drink a bunch of carbonation.

But the extent to which corseting shifts your organs is extremely minor compared to how much they shift during pregnancy.  This is one reason why women can achieve much greater reduction with corsets (at least initially) than men, because our organs are meant to easily shift around.

The final negative health effect of corseting that will sometimes be mentioned is that corseting weakens the muscles of the back and abdomen.  You will often hear that Victorian women couldn't even stand up without their corsets because their muscles were so weak.  That claim brings out my skeptical face, because certainly women spent time out of their corsets and were able to move around.  I will allow that possibly some women had difficulty standing for lengthy periods of time without a corset.  But you have to remember, again, that these are women who wore corsets their entire lives and therefore never developed the musculature all of us have as a matter of course.

Can habitually or constantly wearing corsets weaken the muscles of the back and abdomen?  Yes.  By taking the strain off those muscles, they get less use.  Corset wearing does not result in six-pack abs.  Is it possible that weakening these muscles by daily corset wear over a long period of time could result in back problems when not corseted?  Yes.

Personally, I have very severe back problems, that started at the age of 17 and involve deterioration of my spine.  I started wearing corsets as an aid to my back problems, because I couldn't stand for longer than 10 minutes and couldn't sit upright longer than 30 minutes.  With a corset, I can stand for up to 30 minutes and sit for up to 4 hours.  So it's a significant aid for me to have the support of the corset and the light traction it provides my spine.  So I certainly believe that corsets can be extremely beneficial for back problems.  But I will also always recommend that anyone who wears corsets daily also commit to doing some back strengthening exercises.  Yoga is fantastic for this, but you can also find simple routines and exercises online to make sure your back and ab muscles don't deteriorate.

So as I hope you see, there simply isn't evidence of serious health problems arising from corset wearing.  Even with the most severe reductions of tightlacing waist trainers, corsets can be worn safely.  Naturally if you have any discomfort or problems that arise, you should loosen or remove your corset.  Trying to tighten a corset too severely or too quickly can lead to temporary problems.  Also some things such as overeating, consuming carbonated beverages, not hydrating, etc, can lead to problems while wearing a corset and you should educate yourself about corseting "best practices."  But wearing a corset is certainly not dangerous and does not damage the body.

Do you have any stories about corseting and health?  Are there other myths you want to see me tackle?  Share in the comments.

Corset Myth Series:
Myth #1: Corsets Are Painful
Myth #2: You Can't Breathe In A Corset
Myth #3: Corsets Are Bad For Your Health


  1. Is it possible that the gradual waist training that resulted in the reshaping of women's ribcages could contribute to the lung capacity in general?

  2. I have a good friend who is generally very well educated and intelligent, but she seems convinced of every corset myth out there. I started making and wearing corsets about eighteen months ago and have been trying to re-educate her about them. It's difficult though, I think mostly due to the fact that she has never worn a corset in her life and that her mother once told her that if a corset isn't carefully and professionally made to your exact specific measurements it can damage you internally. We often hold onto things that our parents have told us for a long time simply because we're raised to believe that they're infallible. Oh well.
    One thing that annoys me about those diagrams of the women with and without a corset, they make it seem as though the image on the left is what they look like when they're not wearing their corset and then they lace themselves up and look exactly like the image on the right, which we both know is total bogus. It takes a lifetime to train your waist like that and when it's that disciplined there's really not a whole lot of difference between corseted and un-corseted. I know I don't have to tell you any of this it just feels good to rant a little because I've been fighting these myths for a while now too.
    By the way, your blog is amazing. It's been my main source of inspiration in Steampunk fashion and has helped me greatly in making my own corsets. You're wonderful.

  3. About 4 years ago I was fitted by a Professional Corsetiere in a long legged high waisted boned and zippered panty girdle Rago 6210. I found besides the fitting the consulting was amazing. I happen to have a mild case of scolosis, plus as I have become older with the negative effect of gravity and standing erect I developed a stomach which effects my posture with lower back pains and my clothes did not fit right. No matter how much exercising I did I could not correct this problem. After the fitting in a girdle and with some of the helpful consulting I feel great, my stomach now is well supported I can sit stand and get around in comfort. I found out that a corset does help pull in my stomach and help reshape me, which could take a few months. After the few months my corsetiere recommended I should be daily in a girdle that once my body was reshaped a decent girdle like the Rago 6210 would hold me in and keep my shape. I did some further research into what my corsetiere told me just to confirm what I had learned, what I found out and this is not really known that there are some serious health benefits to wearing a corset or a girdle everyday. It has a lot to do with the fact that we has humans stand erect, standind erect gravity has a negative effect on our internal organs if we choose not to wear either a corset or a girdle everyday. What happens is a corset or a decent girdle will hold and support your internal organs and your stomach and back muscles in their normal natural position, this I personal found when my stomach is daily well supported I am amazed how much more energy and confidence I have and how great I feel. Yes it does take some getting use to, but the healthy benefits are for sure there without question. After a few weeks of being in a corset and then a girdle you do get to the point where you do feel very comfortable and you do need the daily support, but you do feel great without question.

    1. Glad to hear about your positive corseting/girdle experience. Compression of the abdomen also reduces menstrual cramps, conveniently.

      Personally my posture has improved a LOT since I started wearing corsets. I've very top-heavy and my spine has always been very curved in the bra region as a result. The portion of by back is noticeably less curved now when I'm standing, uncorseted, naturally. I do think that our modern solutions to supporting our figures, i.e. nothing but a bra, is a really poorly designed one for our body mechanics.

    2. Violet I have done some research into girdles and corsets I found to my pleasant surprise there are some very serious health benefits to wearing either a decent vintage girdle or corset everyday. Since we as humans stand erect, standing erect and gravity over years has a very negative effect on our internal organs, bones
      joints and muscles. What decent foundation wear does is counteract this negative effect of standing erect and gravity by holding our internal organs in their normal natural position.

      I agree with you choosing to wear just a bra is very foolish, a bra should definitely be worn with either a corset or a firm boned zippered vintage girdle. I also believe it is very important to find a professional corsetiere for a fitting and some helpful consulting.

      Come and join us sometime:

      or you can also post your comments on:

      We would love to hear from you.

  4. Hello, this is just a fifteen year old girl from a small town that was first introduced to corsets by Elizabeth fainting in Pirates Of The Caribbean. And then with her cousin fainting on her wedding.. also in a corset.

    I just wanted to thank you for clearing up a lot of things for me, I've always loved corsets but thought that they would be painful to wear. Now I know differently. So thank you for that.

  5. I've spent the last few days reading as much as I can get my hands on about corseting. I have a bad back that is surgically irreparable (due to my being "too young"), but requires a lot of medical procedures. My mom has scoliosis and has similar back pain. We've both said for years what we needed was a "true" corset with real support. All we'd been able to find were the knock-offs with plastic boning. A whole new world of steel supports has just opened up to us and we're so excited to see the possibilities of support and pain relief!

    We've both sewn since we were children but hesitate to tackle making something so complicated as a corset. We need them to come down past the small of our backs and I'm unsure from the online shopping if that's a possibility due to hitting the front hip/lap area unless we do have a custom made. Do corsets hit the tail bone area in the back, or do they cut off above that?

    How hard is it to make a truly well made, supportive corset if you've never done it before but have plenty of sewing experience. (We can both tackle a wedding dress without batting an eye.) What would be the best pattern to start with for underbust? I've looked at a lot of patterns and just don't know where to start!

    Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with the rest of us!

    1. I know a lot about being "too young" for back surgery. I've been hearing that since I was 17.

      Corsets don't usually go as low as the tail-bone, even long-line corsets, but one thing to keep in mind is that the corset will help your back even if it doesn't go as low as your injury. The corset takes some of the weight of your body, acting as light traction so there will be less pressure on your lower spine/discs even if the corset doesn't go that low. I also have low back problems, and I do find that the lower the corset (and also higher in the back) the more it helps.

      If you and your mom are that comfortable with sewing, making a corset really shouldn't be that difficult. I recommend you read through my posts on the topic. I made my first corset after I'd only been sewing a year and it came out great. Mostly just be ready to make several mock-ups to get the fit right. Other great resources are Foundations Revealed (some free articles and some subscription only) and if you want some support for questions the facebook group Learn to Make Corsets Like a Pro

    2. Thanks Violet! I've read through your posts and some of the articles you linked to. I didn't know about the Facebook page, however, so thanks for that!

      Isn't it frustrating being "too young" to be fixed? Now in my late 30's and nearly 7 years of pain, I'm so glad to have found what I knew had to be out there! Those silly elastic-waisted belts they gave me weren't much help when they roll up, or down, or sideways. If they'd stay put, it would help a lot more!

      We've decided an underbust pattern is where we'd like to start. I've looked at all sorts of historical ones, and "brand name" ones, and considered getting a few cheap ones off eBay to cut up and start from. Is there a particular pattern that you'd recommend using as a jumping off point that's fairly easy to work from? I've read some scary things about the Laughing Moon patterns and hesitate to get those! I've even been brainstorming some ideas to make a longer back (sort of a hi-low) pattern which will definitely take some mock-ups to get right. Thanks again for your words of wisdom! :)

    3. Many people do not understand the difference between a corset and a girdle. A corset is great for helping you reshape or remold your figure. A corset laced up will pull in your stomach and hold your stomach in, a girdle will not do that. A corset is great also for dieting and losing weight, you find in a corset you will limit how much you eat. To reshape and remold your figure the way you would like it can take several months you just need to be patient - once your figure is the way you like it is recommended at that point to wear a decent firm heavily boned and zippered panty girdle, a girdle will help support your figure, but again keep in mind a girdle will not pull your stomach in like a corset. Both are very beneficial and should be worn without question everyday. It does take some getting use to but the benefits are there for sure.

      When starting in a corset you lace yourself up, you can find after about 20 to 30 minutes you can pull the laces tighter and tighter.

      Something else to consider it is best if you can to find a professional corsetiere for a fitting and some very helpful consulting, there is a fair amount to learn about both corsets and girdles, but the benefits are for sure there without question.

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  7. Hello, I have never worn a corset before, but I love the way that they look. It seems like nowadays, the main purpose of wearing one is to slim your waist but; do all of them do that? I want ones that don't slim my waist, just mainly for the look. ^_^

  8. I recently started corset training and it’s really difficult to get into, because your body is not used to it. However, it doesn’t really do harm as some people think.

  9. I actually use a waist training corset and it works for me. it's always hard in the beginning but it worth it.