“Have you heard, corsets are coming back again?” a friend asked recently.
“Oh no,” I groaned, and thought back to my childhood and the sight of Grandma’s pink stays pinned up on the Hills Hoist. I recall staring at the cream laces and whalebone ribs and wondering how she did them up let alone why she wore them.
Little did I realise that for six centuries, fashion dictated bizarre waist narrowing for middle and upper class women in order to fit the idealized notion of the attractive female form. One French Queen in the 14th century declared a 14 inch waist for all her ladies in waiting! Even 2nd century poets idealised the small-waisted woman for her beauty and femininity.
Corsets cruelly controlled women’s physical and mental health, causing them to faint as they struggled to draw enough air into the top of their lungs. No wonder they had heaving breasts – they were trying to breathe! Women were considered delicate creatures with bird-like appetites, when in reality the tightness of their corsets shifted their organs and prevented eating more than a small serving. This was external gastric banding in the name of ‘beauty’, not for health.
In the 1800s, physicians objected to the associated health risks of trying to achieve ever smaller waists. Religious leaders thought the exaggerated female shape set the scene for depravity and feminists objected to the real and symbolic control of imprisoning women in corsets.
Googling ‘corsets’ recently, turned up 3.7 million sites of corset-related information. Madonna, Kylie and modern fashion designers have brought about a resurgence in the popularity of the corset, which is regarded as a unique form of sexual self-expression. It seems corsets have gone mainstream, also staying popular for bridal, evening wear and fetish lingerie or gothic costumes.
After Googling corsets, my thoughts turned back to Grandma, wearing those laced whale-bone corsets as she worked in the hot summers of Queensland, running the family hotel. As she lifted, cooked and carried, the intra abdominal pressure rises would have stretched her pelvic floor muscles down. The tight corset would have prevented her waist from expanding – her diaphragm would have been unable to move up and down, in turn limiting her pelvic floor capacity to lift and hold up against downward intra abdominal pressure. It’s no surprise she had surgery for a prolapse (hysterectomy) in her early 50s.
Pursuing a concept of beauty or femininity by restricting the waist and forcing pressure onto the pelvic floor exacts a cruel price. Let’s hope women don’t fall for this again.
The Self Imposed Muscular Corset
In the Bond girl photo, it’s obvious that Halle Berry on the left has coordinated abdominal muscles. Ursula Andress on the right has learned waist narrowing as a way to flatten her stomach. This ‘self imposed muscular corset’ is increased with anxiety, stress, chronic coughing with chest disease and some forms of exercise training.
Imagine you have a blown-up balloon in your hands. Push the top of it up under a ledge then squeeze in the ‘waist’ of the balloon. The under part of the balloon (your pelvic-floor equivalent) will bulge down. Now make the connection – pulling in the waist increases pressure inside the abdomen and stretches the pelvic floor downwards.
On the other hand, some women with a strong abdominal bracing muscle action keep their pelvic floor muscles tightly drawn up for long periods without relaxing the muscles, causing the muscles to shorten and stiffen. Both the short, tight pelvic floor and the stretched down floor experience bladder and bowel problems along with sexual dysfunction.
Pelvic floor problems improve with learning to relax the waist and chest wall muscles, and by training the pelvic floor muscles to switch on, co-contracting with the inner cylinder of core muscles. When this action is coordinated with all the abdominal muscles, it flattens the abdomen.
So next time you’re passing a mirror or shop window, grow tall and draw up your pelvic floor (as you breathe out) instead of sucking in your waist. If your waist looks like Ursula’s when you draw up your pelvic floor muscles, this is a sign your floor, core and abdominal muscles are working in an uncoordinated pattern.
Maybe all those centuries of tightly laced waists to impossibly small dimensions have left us with a cultural imprinting of the ‘ideal’ feminine form, and the incorrect and damaging habit of sucking in and naturally ‘corseting’ their waists.
Contributed by Mary O’Dwyer, pelvic floor physiotherapist with over 30 years of clinical and teaching experience. Mary’s book Hold it Sister! is out now. See www.holditsister.com for more and sign up to receive Mary’s newsletter, packed full of healthful information for every woman. You can also access archived newsletters and take a free Bladder & Orgasm Risk Profile, assessing your personal pelvic floor risk factors.