Corseting Women: Reducing a Woman’s Place in a Patriarchal Culture // Amanda Lappin



There has been a war on fat through out the ages. Specifically, women have been held to a standard to remain thin and avoid fat at all costs. Women who are fat are labeled greedy, lazy, or lacking in self-control. As Hartley (2001) states, “fat is female” and therefore unbecoming.
Both in Victorian times and today, women’s fat is pathologized. Remedies are suggested to help women take up less space physically. In the Victorian times, women were encouraged to use corsets to physically reduce their bodies and the amount of space that they occupy. Today, women use waist trainers to lessen their presence. Luckily, in both Victorian times and today, there are advocates for women’s bodies and their right to take up space.
Women were encouraged to remain thin in the Victorian Age. Fat was considered an inconvenience to both the woman with extra weight as well as those who were around her. “Wherever the fat woman finds herself in a crowd – and where can she avoid it in the metropolis? – she is in effect an intruder. For she occupies twice the space to which she is entitled, and inflicts upon her companions, through every one of her excessive pounds, just so much additional fatigue and discomfort” (Fletcher 1899, p. 411).
Just as in Hartley’s (2001) article, taking up space is considered a sense of entitlement, as if each person is allotted a specific amount and to take up more is greedy. If a woman takes up more space, she is literally encroaching upon others. “A woman is taught early to contain herself, to keep arms and legs close to her body and to take up as little space as possible” (Hartley, 2001). This was no different in the Victorian Age. Women were encouraged to wear corsets to reduce the size of their waists drastically. Various books gave specific waist size requirements based on height. Corsets were used to achieve ideal waist sizes. Women were physically restrained and reduced.  Corsets are described as “hampering all the litheness and freedom” (Fletcher, 1899).
Not all people in the Victorian Age were supportive of corsets. One man writes: “To me a woman is beautiful when she dresses to her natural figure. If she is fat, let her dress becomingly and naturally for a fat woman and try not to appear thin. If she is thin, there is no use of her putting on more than nature has given her in order that she may appear well-rounded” (Sargent, 1900). An anonymous woman wrote in to the Toronto Times against corsets stating, “better far ‘unfashionable waists’ than years of pains and aches. We women are heirs to enough suffering without courting any more. Mothers, don’t, oh don’t, tight lace your daughters! And don’t let them tight lace themselves” (Anonymous, 1883). Medical professionals also spoke out about corsets physically moving organs and reducing lung space (though research is mixed on whether corsets have negative health consequences).
Current celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Amber Rose have popularized waist trainers or waist tamers. Waist training is “the process of using a steel boned corset to modify your waist into an hourglass shape with semi-permanent results” (Dudek, 2013). Waist cinchers “target the abdomen specifically” and aim to reduce weight in the abdomen (Dudek, 2013). Waist cinchers work to “tame” weight in the belly and are usually made of latex.
Feminists have fought, and continue to fight, against beauty standards that are harmful to women. Waist trainers and waist tamers are continuing the idea that women do not deserve to take up space. Not only does waist training send negative messages about women’s bodies, it also physically harms them. Some women report not being able to breathe as well when wearing a waist trainer.
There has been controversy in both the Victorian Age and today about whether corsets are anti-women or anti-feminist. bell hooks states that “rigid feminist dismissal of female longings for beauty has undermined feminist politics” (hooks, 2000). Dismissing women for using waist trainers is not necessarily feminist. However, I think we need to explore why women are using waist trainers and what messages it sends to them about their value and worth.  Exploring the role that clothes play in our culture is very important for women. Examining the history of women’s clothing helps us understand women's place in society.
“The clothing revolution created by feminist interventions let females know that our flesh was worthy of love” (hooks, 2000).

References

Anonymous. (1883, May 5). An admirer of a small waist: A few pertinent questions. The Toronto Daily Mail. Retrieved from https://news.google.co.uk/newspapers?id=UP1MAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9jQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4608,2577118&hl=en

Brinton, D.G., & Napheys, G.H. (1870). Personal beauty. Sprinfield, MA: W.J. Holland. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=PDUEAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=fat&f=false

Cassidy. (2014, September 3). A difficult history: Corsetry and feminism, part one. A Most Beguiling Accompilshment. Retrieved from http://mimic-of-modes.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-difficult-history-corsetry-and.html

Dudek, C. (2013, August 28). Steel boned corset vs latex/spandex waist cincher. The Orchard Corset Blog. Retrieved from https://orchardcorsetblog.com/2013/08/28/steel-boned-corset-vs-waist-cincher/?_ga=1.265749519.1480099143.1469818949

Fletcher, E.A. (1899). The woman beautiful: A practical treatise on the development and preservation of woman’s health and beauty, and the principles of taste in dress.. New York, New York: W.M. Young and Co., Publishers. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=SMMxAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hartley, C. (2001). Letting ourselves go: Making room for the fat body in feminist scholarship. In J.E. Braziel &K. LeBesco (Eds.), Bodies out of bounds: Fatness and transgression (pp. 60-73). Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.


Valenti, J. (2007). Full frontal feminism: A young woman’s guide to why feminism matters. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.


Further reading

Seleshanko, K. (2012). Bound and determined: A visual history of corsets, 1850-1960. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Steele, V. (2003). The corset: A cultural history. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Wasp waists and feminist debates: Unlacing the Victorian corset controversy. (2010). https://alyssatomolonis.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/wasp-waists-and-feminist-debates-unlacing-the-victorian-corset-controversy/


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