Corsets and health  
Main page
Modern day
"How to"
19th Century
50's corseting
Health
Links

Is Corseting harmful to health?





Modern women achieve and maintain small waists without adverse health effects
Image is of the beautiful Annalai
Now or then, few would prefer the robust
Venus shape over the trained figure, but some question what the effects are on health
19th c. Royalty Queen Maud of Norway, demonstrated traditional figure training and maintained a 18" waist

Please keep in mind that extreme forms of corseting are not common today, nor were they in the past.
In general modern wearers  enjoy comfort and support from their corset. This page is intended to present some of the health controversy that is associated with the extreme forms of corseting, with the suggestion that if no issues are indicated at this level, there certainly are no issues with the general more relaxed  forms.

Proponents of tight lacing and corsetry will likely agree with what I assert here, but those who are against the practice or are convinced of it's negative health impact, will view this page with skepticism. It is for this latter category that I will attempt to provide insight into the matter. Of course this is just a continuation of the eternal "Corset Controversy".

Is corseting harmful to health? The short answer is: "No, it is not"
Yes, you can still breath, eat, and have children, keep your all of your ribs
and nothing bad is going happening to you!

But, some clarification is called for: The recent re-popularization of corseting and tightlacing warrants a deeper look into the interaction with the body. Anything can be made harmful, but from what we know today, corseting or tightlacing have not been demonstrated to be inherently harmful. The diseases traditionally associated with very tight corseting during the 19th century, have now been either attributed to other causes, such as poor diet and hygiene, infectious diseases or environmental issues. For example, the infamous "corset liver" or "Riedel's lobe" turned out to be a natural occurrence and demonstrated in male and female individuals who never tightlaced. It occurs more frequent  in tall and slender individuals. The famous "wandering kidney", appeared in both men and women, but especially in women with repeated pregnancies. During the late 19th century the "treatment" was a straight front corset, that was laced very tight over the abdomen, creating an upward force, stabilizing the kidney.Corsets also did not cause hysteria or scoliosis, or liver disease.  Ironically, 19th c. tuberculosis occurred more frequently in men than women, in part because TB usually would find root in the lower portions of the lungs, a risk that is reduced by the fashionable tightlacing of the lower chest. One treatment was to minimize lower chest motion by tight bandaging of the lower chest for men and in the case of women, by tightlacing!

Regardless of personal opinion, by following the guidelines of an initial 2-4" reduction followed by a slow progression towards greater reductions, there are no health risks associated with the practice. Valerie Steele, a modern fashion historian, researched this topic in  "The Corset: A Cultural History", but also in other titles from her. She shows that although tight corsets can be very restrictive, they do not damage a person's health or create long term issues. With the help of physicians, confirmed and concluded that the infamous "corset evils" were based on myth and limited medical knowledge of the past. The so-called corset diseases occurred equally frequent in women and men who did and did not wear tight corsets, rather these diseases appeared to be the result of poor hygiene and poor nutrition.

The only health effects that have been confirmed and that are seen in today's tightlacers, are reduced stomach capacity (note stomach bypass surgery is 90%!) and the a reduction of maximum breathing capacity anywhere from 10% to 25%. Neither of these are or create health risks, and the reduction in stomach capacity is certainly a welcome aid for anyone watching their weight and overall health! During the 1950's it was not uncommon to verify a corset's proper fit with x-ray scans before and after the application of the corset, to confirm repositioning and support for the abdominal organs. Valerie Steele's study was complemented by the CT scans of modern tightlacer Cathie Jung with a 15" waist and it  showed that even with her decades of extreme tight lacing,  the effect on the position of the internal organs was not quite as dramatic as expected, certainly not beyond that what is seen during a pregnancy. Also, when the corset was removed the organs returned to their conventional positions without there being any observable change in their function.
19th century physicians (e.g. Cambridge study) admitted to their frustration that in spite of life long tightlacing, their habitually corseted female patients outlived their husbands on average by many years, often decades.

Modern day physician Dr. Richard Zinkan commented how "although there comes a limit as to how far a corset can ultimately be tightened, the inner organs are not adversely affected by it, and corsets have been part of various treatment plans for many years". It is now recognized that figure training with gradual long term tightlacing does not impact one's health. This leaves us the option open to accept corseting again as an effective and safe practice, provided the guidelines are being followed:   Go slow and relax the laces when it becomes painful, and watch your diet! No fatty or oily slow digesting foods .   In addition, modern construction techniques provide garments that are anatomically correct and reduce effectively while being comfortable.

Corset diseases:
The corset, and particularly tight-lacing was blamed for almost any ailment known to man. But even the physicans so ready to assign serious consequences to tightlacing had to accept several true facts:
Bright's disease: or kidney necrosis was reported far more frequent in males, yet the tightlacing was often pointed to as a primary cause. In reality the kidneys are very well protected by the ribs and spine and are in front shielded by an aircushion provided by the intestines.
Pulmonary infection: Long term habitual tightlacers with rigidly confined lower chests use upper thoracic breathing, which tends to discourage various pulmonary infections to take hold. Scoliosis: is prevented from taking hold in early tightlacers.
Rib-removal: this was never practiced, as it was never necessary, especially with long term tighlacing. The floating ribs present very limited resistance.

PostPartum corseting:
Another medical use of corsets is for post pregnancy or post-partum use, to help healing of  the abdominal wall, which may have torn or over stretched during the later months. The condition where the muscle wall actually separates vertically is called "Abdominus rectus", and it is usually advised to wear a postpartum belt or girdle to aid the healing process.  The effects of going without any support is a sagging lower abdomen, which appears resistant to situps and other training. Over time it can even  lead to ptosis or a dislocation of the viscera. The original cure during the corseting era was the early application of the corset, but with an extended lower apron, or coverage for the lower abdomen.
Nowadays, postpartum mothers form a growing group that has returned to the corset and tightlacing to restore and maintain their figures. Usually a corset can be worn within a few weeks and if desired a tightlacing program can be started. An underbust style allows for unhindered nursing, while providing the necessary support. A corset in combination with daily abdominal excercise, including the Kegel excercise is a very good combination to restore the figure.

The idea of post partum corseting or tightlacing is not new. The Indonesian women have used the Benku (very tight abdominal wrapping) for centuries, which is applied directly after birth, and it performs the same function as post partum corseting.


Bracing:

A parallel with traditional corseting is found in brace treatment for scoliosis (lateral curvature of the spine). Here the compression is at the same level as very tight traditional corseting. It requires about the same period to get used to, similar to figure training with  4" to 6" waist reductions. The usual treatment period is during the teenage years and concludes in early adulthood. The effectiveness of these braces is a direct function of the duration worn and the degree of tightness that can be tolerated by the wearer.
As with figure training these are periodically made tighter, as the tolerance of the wearer increases and gets used to the constriction. Effects on eating and breathing are the same as well.
An interesting development is that an increasing number of former brace wearers switch to wearing fashionable corsets as adults and find them infinitely more comfortable than their brace. While these continue to maintain critical support, they also provide shaping and like the brace are worn under clothing. The treatment period is during the developing years and the flexible skeleton yields easily to the bracing and leaves their owners with narrow waists and narrow lower ribcages. In turn, just as during the historic figure training, it enables them to tightlace during adolescence and adulthood very easily. In this case, custom fittings are a must, due to the potential for some asymmetry.

(Right)    "Lyon" style corrective scoliosis braces are worn as tight as is tolerated and follow the same gradual step by step training pattern as what is used for figure training with 24/7 wear.
The narrowed ribcage and 4" to 6" waist reduction are unintenional effects. It takes months to arrive at the targeted level of correction and associated constriction, no different than with figure training, and aside from the assymetry, the mechanisms are the same.
In a detailed study by B.E. Brodhurst, 1852, on the relation of scoliosis and tightlacing, he and his colleges had to conclude that, in spite of their general disapproval of tightlacing, early tightlacing in young women (age 11..13) with spinal curvature, arrested the curvature and it would remain limited, thus presenting an effective cure for the problem. Scoliosis usually sets in between ages 12-18, while corset wearing would have started around the same age, although actual tightlacing would usually begin later at age 15 to 17, at which time scoliosis if present would  already have been in progress. Again it demonstrates that the prejudice against tightlacing was as unfounded then, as it is now.
Example case: Dr. William Adams (1882) reported on a family with several girls, all with a degree of scoliosis, one had significantly less curvature and at a later age exhibited only a limited curvature. The difference between "his patient with the small waist" and her sisters was that she had practiced tightlacing from an early age, preventing the scoliosis to develop curves. As her bone structure matured, the corset had provided critical support, thus preventing the problem to take hold.


During the 19th century, fashionably styled corsets were sometimes used to treat  scoliosis (left) in adolescence and mature individuals.

These would be labeled as "Medical Corsets", but would be shaped according to the prevailing fashion with the tapered upper body and narrow waist.

The corrective pads would be placed inside the corset, as to preserve a  smooth exterior line.
Modern "under arm" style scoliosis braces can be worn less consipicously under clothing, but nevertheless produce a dinstinct "corseted" shape.


Skeletal modification:
Depending on the degree of training or constriction, there is the much debated skeletal modification, the ribcage in particular. For ease of training, modern corsets generally focus on the soft area between the ribs and pelvis. However, 18th and 19th century hi-fashion styles preferred a narrow tapering of the lower four or five rib pairs, sometimes with enough compression for these ribs nearly touch in front. The ribs below the sternum (the false and floating ribs) are very flexible and especially in women, these can be moved inward with relative ease with corset lacing. For many, this tapered chest is the ultimate goal for figure training and represents the ideal shape. This more constrictive style requires more commitment and a longer acclimatization or training period, because of the increased feeling of restriction that is experienced at the beginning of the training period. But even this more significant form of figure training has not been associated with any long term health effects, other than the intentionally altered shape of the lower ribcage, the reduced maximum breathing volume and reduced stomach capacity. The organs within the lower ribcage will follow the outline of the changed ribcage shape, but without negatively affecting function. These organs are semi liquid and very mobile and flexible. They move when we move, bend stretch, as well as with every breath and with a change of stomach volume when consuming a meal. Just from breathing motion alone the organs below the diaphragm move several inches, demonstrating their fluidity and mobility. It leaves the primary effects to be a reduction in capacity of hollow organs such as the stomach, intestines and the lungs, and an altered position of the ribs.  Compared to pregnancy, the displacement experienced during pregnancy is far greater than from any tightlacing.

This stem-waisted shape is achieved by practicing long term tight-lacing.

In order to achieve this level of shaping, the costal arch or triangular space, in front below the sternum and between the
floating ribs, will have been reduced to a minimum dimension
C&S Constructions






Ribcages as shown in "Corseting the human body" at the LISA site, demonstrating the
lacing effect on the flexible false and floating ribs below the sternum.
Also shown is the compensatory expansion of the upper ribcage, which  will enhance the bustline.

Speculation and incorrect information regarding the health risks of tight-lacing continues to be distributed by those who just do not know, although this is less so now than a few decades ago ('70's, 80's) when corsets and especially tightlacing were viewed with great hostility. The accomplished tight lacers of today clearly demonstrate how long term training is both safe and effective. There are skin related issues that require attention, such as with chaffing or dry skin, or pressure spots. This can become a significant source of discomfort, if ignored. Also, light weight lingerie corset-like  garments can wrinkle and because of lack of structure can cause muscle pinching or cramps. Lastly, if training guidelines are ignored and the corset is laced too quickly or painfully tight, it is likely to cause some problems, such as muscle cramps. If the painful constriction is maintained, constipation can even occur, if the discomfort was the result of contracting the abdomen too quickly without acclimatization. Poorly made corsets can also be a problem, as they put strain on muscles and skin and cause discomfort. Recent research studies on the immediate effect of tight corsets on breathing and overall fatigue, indicate that there is fatigue when insufficient training is allowed for. Clinical studies on restrictive breathing show however, that with conventional gradual training this is not the case and only the maximum volume is restricted, meaning for heavy exercise there is a limitation, but for regular daily activity there is not. In most cases, the added oxygen requirement is met by a slight increase in breathing frequency.

Tight corsets will make the wearer less tolerant of poor eating habits, such as overeating, fatty foods, alcohol to name a few. Tightlacing in general will significantly reduce the stomach's capacity, very much like stomach stapling but without the surgery. Eating too much can produce heartburn, because of the pressure on the smaller stomach. With normal food intake, the added corset pressure is not an issue, because this tends to be small compared to the natural intra abdominal pressure. When the stomach is too full however, acid reflux can occur. Corset style also matters in this case, for example a pipe stem or a very narrow ribcage will put more pressure on the stomach than hourglass or hourglass like styles.  Simply avoid foods that irritate your stomach and eat only small portions but more often. By itself this is a healthy thing to do. Also, drink lots of water, eat fruits and vegetables to maintain proper balance. Fruits and vegetables and fiber content in general is important for the colon, to avoid constipation. If this is not watched carefully, tightlacing can sometimes cause constipation. And... lastly : do not over tighten. If these guidelines are followed, corseting will promote a healthier lifestyle and because of that can result in an overall improvement in health. Not because of the corseting, but because of improved eating habits and by paying more attention to the body.

The effect on the hollow organs of digestion, such as the stomach and the intestines, is primarily that of a reduction of their capacity. From what we know today, is that no harmful compression actually takes place, certainly not with a 3-5" reduction. In a body with normal muscle tone, there is considerable intra abdominal pressure already, regardless if any tight garments are worn. This is a natural balance that will establish itself between the internal organs and the muscle layers that surround them. For those who have entered middle age, the combined effect of gravity and lost muscle tone will cause this existing internal pressure, to create the unsightly abdominal sagging. The corset will augment or fully replace this muscle tone. The exception is pregnancy where the internal pressure overcomes the muscle tone and with the growing uterine volume (especially past the 5th or 6th month) so will the abdominal volume. The degree of internal displacement and distortion of the organs during pregnancy tends to be far greater than what is experienced from any form of tightlacing, which explains why tightlacing is accepted by the body in a natural manner without adversely affecting it.



These illustrations are from a classic german medical publication "Neue Heil" and compare the trained and untrained skeleton on the left, as well as the altered organ position, shown on the right.

Note that the organs have moved, but only to a modest degree compared to  pregnancy, or... just when we move around!


Pregnancy produces
organ displacement and compression far beyond
any tightlacing

Tightlacing tends to inhibit vigorous activity or exercise. Then, it does makes sense to loosen the corset or to remove it, also to avoid soiling it with perspiration. Someone who is usually very active physically may want to chose a suitable corset style, like a ribbon type corset that will still preserve the small waist, but with less lower chest constriction. However, if your goal is to significantly narrow the lower ribcage, as produced by a wasp waist corset, it is better to trade off particular activities. The other reason for the adopting upper thoracic breathing, is the pressure against the midriff from the abdominal content below. Tightlacing corsets usually extend longer below the waist to prevent undesirable abdominal bulging. This is turn increases the upward  pressure against the diaphragm and thus further inhibits abdominal breathing, but by allowing time to adjust, the overall effect is very tolerable especially for women. Compared to men, women are naturally predisposed to breath less with the abdomen, with or without a corset on, and aside from that, it is not very graceful to watch a rising and falling stomach with every breath. This effect also exists during pregnancy where the growing fetus displaces the abdominal organs and significantly increases the intra abdominal pressure leading to shortness of breath and heartburn. Again there are parallels with pregnancy, where abdominal breathing becomes inhibited as well, and where with improper diet, constipation and hearth burn can occur. One important aspect of training is that over time, the internal pressures from corseting diminish greatly. 19th century research (Dickinson) on this aspect showed  a rapid drop after only 30 minutes, indicative of internal adaptation. This is where the guideline originates to relace every 20..30 minutes and step wise increased tightening in order to achieve the largest possible reduction. Also, it is important to acknowledge that the natural background pressure in the abdomen is not experienced in the same way as externally applied pressure. Also, over time with long term wear, this pressure is no longer perceived in the same way as what is felt directly after lacing in.

Much has been written about starting corseting at a young age, yet this was primarily intended to reduce the overall training effort and to ensure development of a straight spine. By starting before or at the onset of puberty, much less effort is needed to form the ribs and upper body. By corseting from an early age (10..12yr) , a very slender adult lower ribcage and small waist would result. It also allowed for an easier long term training process. For the modern wearer, who starts at a later age, the very small waist dimensions can still be achieved, but it will take a lot more effort and time. However, the very narrow ribcage shape will be more difficult to attain, but still some late starters have been successful.  - see accomplished modern tightlacers.
An example of early age corseting is found in several cultures, one example being the young women of Circassia, who from a very early age were permanently sewn into a tight corset. As the body develops it adapts very gradually and creates the hyper feminine figure they are known for. It also resulted in a selection process for hourglass shaped women, something of which traces are still found in their off-spring today. The custom was maintained into the early 20th century and supposedly some traditionalists have returned to it, primarily as a form of preservation of their culture.

Lastly, tightlacing of the lower chest reduces stomach capacity, giving a sensation of a full stomach after only a few bites. This can be a helpful tool in a weight reduction program, but only if worn sufficiently tight for 23/7. The moment the corset comes off, one may feel hungry and be tempted to fill the vacated volume! Overall the digestive capacity is reduced because of the reduced abdominal volume. It is reasonable to assume that natural adaptation and anatomical flexibility deals with very tight corseting in the same way it accommodates pregnancy. To confirm this, it is now clear, that women or men who tightlaced were no less healthy than their uncorseted counterparts and this continues to be true today, regardless if they started early or late in life. Any person can become ill, regardless if they wear tight corsets or not. Well known tightlacers of the past, were generally in good health and produced healthy children, confirming preservation of health and fertility, provided the guidelines were adhered to.
For additional discussion on this subject visit the detailed medical section as well as Q&A at the LISA website. Corseting the Human Body by Dr. Ann Beaumont  provides detailed insight in the matter, but above all, the pressure produced by a corset with tight lacing is a comfort rather than a health question.

It should be noted however that women have a natural disposition to accommodate tight-lacing, due to the softer lighter ribs, the larger space between pelvis and ribcage. Consequently, women will tolerate tightlacing to the same degree, with less effort and discomfort.

But, more than anything, observe the rule: "when the corset hurts, loosen the laces, because it is too tight." There is nothing else to it, but before it becomes painful,  it will very likely have been very uncomfortable long before it began to hurt. The low cost lingerie styles that are labeled as corsets are not proper corsets, some don't even have busks or front and rear stays. If anything, their use would not promote corseting and they should not be worn, other than for decorative purposes.

Lastly, let history itself be your judge: There are many famous 19th and 20th century tight lacers, such as Polaire, Camille CliffordLillie Langtry  , Ethel, or British Royalty, who all achieved very small waists and narrow midriffs, yet they lived long lives and delivered healthy children, indicating that there is no impact on childbearing ability. If corseting really was unhealthy, it would have reduced the life span of these women or at least made them very ill, which was not the case.

Return to Main page

  e-mail

 
1