How Healthy Is That Wasp Waist?

You may have seen Web articles like this one displaying the tiny midsections some movie and television stars are obtaining through “waist training,” which typically involves corsets and “tight lacing” — or pulling a snug undergarment even tighter with ribbons, buckles or straps. But what are the long-term effects of this fad?

Achieving a wasp waist may be a fad, but it’s not a new one. Corsets were introduced in the 1500s and have enjoyed waves of fame, most recently in the 1800s (picture Scarlett O’Hara’s famous 17-inch midsection). Once made of canvas or other fabric stiffened with boning, today’s modern corsets are often Latex concoctions marketed to be worn for exercise as well as leisure. One supposed benefit is weight loss — through excess sweating and loss of appetite due to the stomach being squashed. And of course, there’s the aesthetic draw of an exaggeratedly small middle. The corset or cincher makes the waist smaller while worn, but may also reduce the midsection by forcing the body to redistribute fat and even organs.

Physicians warn that waist cinchers may be dangerous. Impaired lung function may lead to carbon dioxide buildup and shortness of breath. Other doctors have observed pinched nerves, stomach pain and acid reflux in corset-wearers.

Regular waist training — wearing cinches or corsets at progressively smaller sizes — can lead to even more serious problems. Women in past eras have even had ribs removed so they could continue “slimming down.” Victorian beauties were famous for fainting at the slightest excitement, and for being unable to exercise.

Centuries ago when corset-wearing was widespread, doctors did study its effects on women. Physician Samuel Thomas von Sommerring wrote a book called On the Effects of the Corset in 1793. He observed that years of intense compression of the ribs and internal organs led to scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and even, he thought, contributed to tuberculosis and cancer. Whether or not he was right, today his name has been given to “Sommerring’s syndrome,” a form of hiatal hernia caused by wearing tight girdles and corsets.

The links in this article lead to individual physicians sharing their views, not to reports from research studies. That’s because corset-wearing is relatively new in our era, so long-term scientific data is difficult to obtain.

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