I read a quote on tumblr a while back about “making our bodies into corsets”, and while I can’t find or remember the exact wording, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’ll do my best to paraphrase.
I’ve noticed a weird kind of pity toward women who use shapewear. Google “corseting” or “waist training”, and you’ll find all manner of condescending articles by authors who “can’t believe women are doing this in 2016”. Something about that always chafed me, and the quote I found helped me put my finger on why.
Women of old cinched their waists slimmer, yes. They padded their bottoms and laced panniers to each hip. They poured their breasts into bullets. But at the end of the day, they took it all off. The artifice was acknowledged and set, consciously, aside. Many ’50s dresses are ridiculously, practically cartoonishly proportioned. An 18″ difference between bust and waist? That’s nigh impossible. But here’s the rub – no one expected a woman’s actual figure to look like that.
Dress: 1940s vintage, via War’s End Shop
Everything else: vintage and/or thrifted
And there’s something so equalizing in that. You don’t like what nature gave you? Lace up a girdle and move on with your life. Can’t quite squeeze into that dress? Lace said girdle a few notches tighter. Done! Nowadays? We’ve made our bodies the corsets. We shun cinchers and count calories instead, as though the latter were any less a deliberate effort.
At least you can remove the former. At least you get a break. When we collectively acknowledge that hey, very few of us actually look like this, it lets everyone off the hook. We indulge a shared artifice, and at the end of the day we unhook and unzip and let our bodies breathe. I don’t think modern fashionistas have that luxury. If you want a wasp waist in a vintage one-piece, you cinch and suck. If you want a wasp waist in a string bikini, you have to work for it. There’s no room to hide. You’re living in a panopticon, and nothing is private.
Most of my dresses require a body shape I simply do not have. My waist is squidgy; my breasts are widely set. So what? I wear a corset and a bullet bra and a pair of spanx over my tights. Boom, done. It’s far, far easier than spending hours at the gym, trying to make my actual flesh something it isn’t. If I eat too much Thai food or drink too many Manhattans, my clothes will still fit the next day, because I’ll make them fit.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re all wearing costumes. It’s just that some of us admit it.