There have been a lot of headlines about ‘waist training’ lately, and with that has come a great deal of confusion, misinformation, moralising and some sensational claims. Many in the vintage and retro community have asked me about ‘waist trainers’, so in this blog I aim to cover some of the basics and direct readers to further information.
What is a waist trainer?
Waist training corsets and waist training rubberised/latex fajas should not be confused. Both are sold as ‘waist trainers’, but they are very different garments.
‘Faja’ is Spanish for girdle. Girdles shape the body slightly, and have been used for decades to support the body and create a pleasing or slimming line beneath clothing through the waist and/or bottom and hip areas. Fajas marketed at the moment as ‘waist trainers’ specifically target the waist only, using rubberised compression, and are believed by some to be helpful postpartum, to encourage the a woman’s body to regain shape after childbirth and reduce water retention. They are also used post-surgery to reduce swelling from liposuction of the abdomen area. Many are latex and meant to be worn against the skin to cause sweating. (This can be very dangerous if you have an allergy to latex.) Fajas, like standard girdles, are fastened with a hook and eye design.
A ‘corset waist trainer’ is a very different type of garment. A waist trainer of this kind is an underbust corset which is intended for regular wear while waist training. It is constructed with steel bones, has far less flexibility, and fastens with laces which are tied to apply pressure on the torso and reduce the waistline, and once seasoned (all corsets must be seasoned to fit the wearer, like a pair of stiff shoes) can be gradually tied more tightly over a period of weeks, months or years to incrementally reduce the waistline further.
Waist trainers, corsets and girdles should not be worn during pregnancy.
What are the primary differences between a girdle, corset and waist cincher?
Girdles: These have stretch and are generally fastened with a series of hooks and eyes. While worn, they result in low to moderate shaping of the body, depending on their design. A Rago girdle is shown at far left in the image at the top of the blog, and some vintage examples are shown below.
Faja ‘waist trainers’ are girdles that cover only the midsection and are often made of a rubberised material or latex. They may or may not have some plastic bones, have a low amount of structure depending on design (you can see the rolling or folding of the material below, on the right) and apply about equal pressure on the various parts of the tummy, like ‘shape wear’ does, but are far less breathable due to the material used. They can come in different levels of compression. As a girdle, it fastens with a hook and eye structure.
Girdles or fajas are stretchy and do not need to be seasoned.
Corsets: These have multiple steel bones (they used to have real whale bone), are not ‘stretchy’, have a highly structured breathable construction and are fastened with laces which are used to both tighten or loosen the corset and secure it in place. They are meant to be worn with a thin layer or ‘corset liner’ between the corset and the skin – a simple, breathable silk or cotton camisole can be used, with the straps tucked into the corset if desired. They come in various lengths and designs to suit different body shapes and heights, and come in overbust and underbust styles, with varying levels of curve, and with or without hip gores to accommodate people (like myself) with wider hips, as seen below.
Both styles of corset tend to push the chest upwards, but overbust styles support the breasts fully while underbust styles sit under the chest. Corsets result in moderate to high – or even extreme – shaping of the body while worn. Among modern corset enthusiasts, wearing an underbust corset inconspicuously beneath clothing is called ‘stealthing’. Unlike fajas, full corsets should not be worn while working out.
If it doesn’t have multiple steel bones, a busk, and doesn’t lace up, technically it is not a corset, but may be a bustier, girdle or ‘corset-inspired’ garment.
While corsets have been widely demonised, there is a lot of sensationalist myths and misinformation about them, stemming partly from the circulation of a handful of extreme examples of tight-lacing and the association of the corset with pre-emancipation Victorian times. Many myths about corsets have been debunked by academics like Dr. Valerie Steele, among others. (A review of one of her works is here.) Obviously, opera singers regularly perform in full corsets, as do burlesque dancers and others. From some of the headlines, however, you could be forgiven for thinking corsets prevent people from breathing, let alone singing soprano or vigorously dancing.
Corsets certainly aren’t for everyone but they can be worn safely and responsibility, providing varying degrees of pressure/support to different areas of the torso due to their highly structured design.
Some corset wearers experience health benefits such as improved weight management and self-esteem, a sense of reassuring ‘body armour’ (corsetry was a major aspect of early body armour for centuries), improved posture, and a reduction in pain or discomfort from heavy breasts, back injuries, and scoliosis. As a scoliosis suffer I can attest to temporary pain reduction while wearing a well-fitted corset, albeit for short periods. As with anything, good sense must be used, of course. Cheap or improperly worn corsets can cause injury, in much the same way bad shoes or other ill-fitting garments can.
When worn correctly, quality corsets should not cause pain or shortness of breath. If you walk into a shop and cinch yourself tightly into an off-the-rack corset (or have someone else over-cinch you, as I have experienced) it will not feel good because it isn’t seasoned or fitted to your body shape, and may be on too tight (which can also damage the unseasoned corset). This is not an indication of how regular corset wearers experience their own corsets.
‘Waist cinchers’, if they have steel bones and lacing, are corsets, only shorter in length. An example is shown in centre in the image at the top of this blog, and at the bottom of this blog with a crinoline and under clothing. This shorter length is good for shorter torsos, or those who want less restriction/coverage while still enjoying effective temporary shaping of the waist. They sit lower and don’t go as far up the back, so provide less back support and no bust support. For more info, see a video of Lucy from Lucy’s Corsetry helpfully comparing an elastic or faja ‘waist cincher’, corset ‘waist cincher’ and a full ‘underbust corset’ here.
Another type of garment, sometimes confused with a girdle or ‘waist trainer’, is a lumbar support or back support brace for those with back injuries. They go around the waist and can be tightened, usually with velcro, and provide support but are not for ‘waist training’. They are used for medical purposes and can be seen in many pharmacies.
Both women, men and non-binary people can wear corsets, girdles and ‘waist trainers’. They aren’t just for women.
What is ‘waist training’?
Waist training involves changes in diet and exercise, along with the regular wearing of a ‘waist trainer’.
Until very recently, most did not consider the wearing of a faja or girdle to be ‘waist training’. Some wearers swear by their faja girdle ‘waist trainers’ and wear them regularly, while many find the claims about them to be exaggerated or simply untrue. They can be worn while working out.
‘Waist training’ with corsets is a practice involving a regime of wearing corsets to gradually reshape the torso and has been practiced for centuries. Waist training of this kind is classified as a form of semi-permanent body modification, and takes serious care and commitment. There are several levels of waist training with corsets, from wearing a corset for a few set hours a day to much longer periods, including full day and/or night wear, usually in a custom made corset to fit the wearer. If you are considering waist training with a corset, read extensively on the subject, consider your choices carefully, speak to others with experience and speak to a trusted health professional.
There are a number of programs for both kinds of ‘waist training’, but I will leave those interested to research this for themselves if they choose.
Never do anything that is painful or causes dizziness or shortness of breath. If a corset or faja hurts, irritates your skin or causes breathing problems, loosen it or take it off immediately.
Does waist training cause weight loss?
For many people, this is the big question. The answer is, no. And yes. Wearing something tight around your waist, like a training belt, waist trainer, solar belt or corset, will naturally restrict your appetite. Wearers tend to feel more ‘full’ and less eager to overeat when they are wearing the corset or trainer. This can assist the wearer in breaking unwanted eating habits. Reduction in food intake or others changes of habits are the widely accepted cause of weight loss from waist training, when it does occur.
Some latex fajas or ‘waist trainers’ claim to ‘burn fat with a thermogenic effect on the abdomen’. These effects are unproven. Waist training with fajas or waist girdle ‘waist trainers’ or ‘solar belts’, as they are sometimes called, may add support to your posture, but any spot reduction is temporary water weight loss, not fat loss. Be wary of any claims otherwise. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Simply wearing tight rubber around your waist will not make you lose fat. It will make you sweat, however. (If anyone has hard scientific studies on ‘thermogenic effects’ of latex girdles please post below.)
Caroline Apovian, M.D., professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and a spokesperson for The Obesity Society puts it this way: ‘If you’re going out and want to look really thin, I don’t see a problem with wearing one of these for an evening,’ she says. Wearing a waist trainer may help boost some people’s confidence and encourage them to eat healthy. ‘If you look in the mirror and like what you see, it can potentially be a good thing.’ As for the claims that fajas actually reshape the body or trigger fat loss, she says there’s no evidence. ‘In my opinion, that is complete nonsense,’ Dr. Apovian told Health Magazine.
Waist training in steel boned corsets is very different in that it can semi-permanently re-shape the waist, and some who waist train in this way experience weight loss (again from eating less while wearing the corset), while others do not, but can still achieve a semi-permanent smaller waist circumference after long periods of training. Some examples of this can be seen on this blog at Lucy’s Corsetry: Waist Training Before and After. (*Note: these are un-retouched examples of results of corset waist training, not ‘faja’ waist training.) These examples show a variety of results achieved over time, ranging from a few months to a few years, however these results cannot be seen as typical for all waist training. It does, nonetheless, show very clear examples of how the body can be modified without cosmetic surgery or gastric banding surgery, which can obviously bring its own dangers. If you look up ‘corset waist training’ you are likely to come across extreme results, though moderate re-shaping results are far more common.
- As always, actual weight loss is achieved with a reduction of caloric intake and/or more exercise. When worn for long periods, anything tight around the waist has the potential to cause health problems, including digestive issues, so look after yourself and listen to your body. If you wear a corset or firm faja often, take extra care to make sure you do some regular core strength and back exercises. (We should all do those anyway.)
Waist cinchers and corsets for fun, photo shoots and film:
For many, a shaped hourglass waist can be temporarily and comfortably achieved, instantly, without surgery, body modification, waist training or weight loss.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to wear a corset very tightly or with a large waist reduction to enjoy the temporary shaping and support it provides as a garment. In the image below, for example, this overbust corset is only worn with a 1.5 inch reduction at the waist, so in this case is performing more ‘structure’ than actual compression, although it visually accentuates the waist, particularly thanks to the flare of the hip gores that form around my curves.
- Whatever you decide for yourself, you should respect the decisions of others. Their body, their choice.
Many vintage models in the past wore corsets, waist cinchers or girdles beneath a garment to achieve or enhance that famous hourglass effect (Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Ava Gardner, to name but a few), and many modern models of retro or reproduction vintage clothing do the same, even if they already have naturally small waists. Likewise, as dresses in the past were designed with such undergarments in mind, they often fit best with vintage-style foundation garments worn beneath. For example, in the image below I am wearing my favourite Agent Provocateur waist cincher beneath a vintage 1950s dress. (You can also see it at centre in the image at the top of this blog, and can compare the length to the girdle and full underbust corset.) For some in the vintage and retro scene, the effect of light corsetry like this is a comfortable temporary shaper, and can help assist with body confidence and fit. It can be particularly effective for those with fuller figures, because the ‘squish factor’ (this is a common term in corsetry) gives them a more dramatic corseted curve. When these are taken off, the waist returns to its usual size and shape.
There is something to be said in all this about beauty ideals and social pressures, but also bodily autonomy and the moral panic around women’s personal and aesthetic choices. Many of the more sensational headlines around this issue play on the antiquated notion that women are incapable of making their own decisions, are masochists or fashion victims, and cannot really know how they feel or what they desire. Of the dangers facing women today, ‘waist training’ rates rather low on the list, but is incredibly topical, often in articles that carry a lot of judgement. Regardless of our personal preferences, we should respect the decisions of others. Their body, their choice. What is pleasurable or necessary for one person isn’t always for another. Look after you, and lace ’em if you like ’em, I say.
On a related note, a recent study in the Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology looked at the skeletons of Victorian women who tight-laced severely enough and for long enough (decades) to permanently alter/deform their rib cages. This kind of extreme alteration of the skeleton could scarcely be achieved by even the most dedicated waist training corset wearer today, because Victorian women started wearing corsets in childhood, and today, corsets are more anatomically correct and maintain a healthy neutral spinal curve. Nonetheless, the study found: ‘the women analyzed here either reached or exceeded their life expectancy at birth, and a few may have exceeded the average age at death, adjusted for infant/childhood mortality, despite the morphological changes brought about by corseting.’ While we can’t ask these Victorian women what their lives were like or why they tight-laced to the extent that they did, it is interesting to note that long-term extreme tight-lacing didn’t correlate with shorter life spans, as some might expect. (More on this anthropological study here.)
Finally, a note on the prevalence of image alteration:
Be aware that many images that are circulated online and in advertisements and magazines are altered, including at the waist. This is also true for images of modern and vintage corset wearers and waist trainers, including images that are made to look ‘prettier’ as well as images that are made to look extreme, for the purposes of sensationalism. Do not take every photo on face value. With some research you will get a better idea of what is real and what is not.
‘Liquify’ is the name of one popular Photoshop tool that is used to alter images of bodies, including altering waistlines, as in this Beyonce image. For the record, I don’t believe Photoshop is evil. It can be very useful for correcting issues in a photograph, creating atmosphere with tints or effects, or creating brilliant fantasy images. It just pays to be aware that images are commonly altered, and this can be particularly relevant in discussions of things like very slim waists. Many people do have naturally small waists, or achieve them with corsets or other methods. Other people are shown with digitally altered waists. Some of these are used to sell ‘trainers’.
I hope this blog has been helpful, and answers some of your questions. Please research further if you are considering waist training, and get advice from a trusted health professional. Whatever you decide for yourself, I wish you luck.
Words by Tara Moss AKA Victory. Images of Tara Moss by Berndt Sellheim All copyrights reserved.