Waist Trainers

This research paper is a study of the waist trainer as a point of intersection along two intertwining histories: white women’s corsetry and black women’s hyper-sexualization. Investigating the return of the corset into contemporary mainstream, the writer looks at the pressure on women to alter their bodies in order to appear at once respectable and desirable. The waist trainer allows white women to appropriate ‘desirable black features,’ like a large butt, yet distance themselves from a constructed image of black women’s deviance. The paper cites bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Valerie Steele, and Jill Fields.

From Corsets to Waist Trainers: Shaping the Ideal Woman

Referred to as the modern-day corset, the waist trainer is a restrictive body-shaping garment that cinches the waist and redistributes body fat to the breasts and the hips, creating an hourglass figure. Although corsets and waist trainers overlap in purpose and physical structure, we tend to perceive corsets as obsolete items prescribed to women by outmoded, patriarchal fashion standards.[1] On the other hand, waist trainers appear to align more closely with common contemporary body modification trends like plastic surgery. The existence of corsetry products in this day reflects a beauty ideal that demands that women look like Kim Kardashian or other light-skinned ‘Instagram baddies.’ Instagram baddies are usually women who have a large following on Instagram due to their possession of ‘ideal’ contemporary beauty, often accompanied by a big butt, a “slim-thick” figure, and a “bad ass, new style hip hop aesthetic.”[2] For most, this look requires extreme change. How does historical context cause us to view the corset and the waist trainer differently? In what ways has society evolved to prompt the reincarnation of the corset and the hourglass figure? The increasing popularity of waist trainers in 2018 is founded on an intersection of racialized and gendered histories. It is equal parts rooted in the socially complex signification of the corset in relationship to the female body, and in the trends of appropriating black women’s bodies throughout time. The waist trainer provides a model for how this commodification still exists today. The waist trainer shapes the body in a way that draws attention to three distinct body parts; this essay will do the same. It begins with the breasts, demonstrating the tension between sexual restraint and liberation that the corset represented for white women in the past. Then, the butt will focus on the stereotype of deviant sexuality in black women and the way this is used to justify their exploitation. Finally, these topics will be brought together at the waist, where the essay will interrogate the waist trainer as a meeting point between these two intertwined strains of history.

The Breasts: Corsets and the Good Girl/Bad Girl Dichotomy

Although the cultural atmosphere in the U.S. has changed in many ways since the peak of corsetry, certain foundational concepts embedded in this practice have left a significant mark on women’s sexuality today. One important example is the idea that women’s bodies in their natural state are inherently wrong. Waist trainers, like corsets, are designed to transform women’s bodies. Their ‘faults,’ like an untoned stomach, are minimized, while their ‘assets’ are highlighted. Traditional 19th century corsets functioned primarily to slim the waist, but one cannot ignore that they simultaneously accentuated the semi-exposed bust.[3] Because women wore dresses that covered most of the body, abundant cleavage was a key point of sexual symbolism; it invited the viewer to imagine nudity without being explicit. Corsets defined beauty through exaggerated “dimorphic curves of the female body,”[4] setting a standard that could only be met artificially. Some health experts of the time like Havelock Ellis went so far as to theorize that corsetry was an evolutionary necessity. Apparently, women had evolved more slowly than men and therefore needed the extra support to stand up straight. Ellis also claimed that “woman might be physiologically truer to herself if she went always on all fours,”[5] implying that women were not only physically but mentally inferior to men, and in need of correction. Without a corset, women might as well be animals. In order to appear civilized, she must tame her primal sexual nature. A woman wearing only a corset is one in the process of dressing/undressing yet not completely nude. She represents the male desire for nakedness, but contains the underlying fear of the unattractive natural body, and of a woman’s sexuality in the absence of man-made control. While it was no secret that corsets constructed the ‘desirable’ body, there was still an expectation for the woman’s body to retain shape even when the restrictive garment was taken off. The myth of the ideal body has made it so that inherent femininity is essentially deviant, and this deviance works as a tool to control what women wear. It makes sense even more so now, at a time when it is rare to see an unedited photo, that women are similarly pressured to alter their bodies to an unnatural extent.

A postwar iteration of the corset resurged in the U.S. as a nationalist project. Because of material scarcity and increased female labor during WWII, the state-sanctioned fashion trend for women was a utilitarian, straight silhouette.[6] After the U.S.’s victory, women’s undergarments became a tool to symbolize a return to peace, economic abundance, and social normalcy. This so-called normalcy included age-old markers of gender difference in body shape. Christian Dior’s “New Look” was adopted from France to facilitate the nostalgic reconstruction of the ultra-feminine housewife.[7] Unfortunately, this wholesome middle-class ideal was closely linked to racial purity. Men desired the dimorphic curves that they believed increased sexual appeal, but they feared women’s independence—sexual or otherwise. As corsets turned into lingerie, which became a mainstream fetish, Americans attempted to preserve white women’s ‘pure’ and domestic femininity by mapping their sexuality in direct opposition to black women’s. In order to distance themselves from sexual ‘immorality,’ they instead “sexualize[d] their world by projecting onto black bodies a narrative of sexualization disassociated from whiteness.”[8] If corseted white women were symbols for their country as a modern, civil society, then black women had to take on the image of primitive, animalistic desire. The very materiality of the corset contained these conflicting associations. Since their conception, corsets signified respectability and status because they physically bound the body “and, by extension, the physical passions.”[9] At the same time, one can imagine the unlacing of a corset for the purpose of sexual intimacy as a visual metaphor for unleashing a woman’s sexuality. The allure of the corset is in its concealment from public view and the idea that a white woman’s unbridled sexuality only exists in the private sphere. Social context pressured white women to be at once “respectably nice and desirably naughty”[10] but that “could not be constructed as it is without corresponding controlling images applied to U.S. Black women.”[11] White women could transition from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ once they were hidden from public view, but society assigned sexual deviance to features of black women, like their skin and bodies, that were inherently external, permanent and could not be concealed.

The Butt: Appropriating Black Women’s Bodies

If a choice so banal as underwear selection forced white women into categories of “good” and “bad,” thereby robbing them of their right to more complex sexual and moral identities, then the perception of black women’s bodies robbed them of any choice at all. Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins explains that the social system that categorizes women into “good” girls or “bad” girls doesn’t operate so much based on the actual morality or sexuality of the woman, but more the construct of what a “good” girl or “bad” girl looks like according to society.[12] This means that sexual normalcy or deviancy is projected onto one’s body shape, race, and skin tone, “assigning all Black women, regardless of actual behavior, to the category of ‘bad’ girls”[13]. But where does the misconception that inherently links black female identity to sexual deviancy stem from?

            When white women use waist trainers to produce their hourglass figure, they aren’t necessarily consciously appropriating black women’s bodies. However, the contemporary cultural gaze has increasingly fixated on the butt as a site of visual erotic pleasure. When white women wear waist trainers, it’s likely that they don’t just desire to slim their waist, but to also make their butt more prominent in relation. Having a large butt is a significant factor within the controlling image[14] of sexually deviant black women, and has been used to oppress and objectify them. Because of this deep, complex history, one could argue that the trend of white women artificially enhancing their “thicc” body type is a new way for them to unrightfully claim black culture for their own benefit. White appropriation of blackness is normalized today because the U.S.’s history of slavery has accustomed the public to seeing black bodies reduced to their parts that are available for our exploitation. “White fear of black sexuality is a basic ingredient of white racism,” Collins quotes from black intellectual Cornel West in her book Black Sexual Politics[15]. This fear today, as well as society’s attraction-repulsion relationship with black female bodies, has led to their sexual exploitation and commodification. This exploitation of black sexuality is not only rooted in colonization and slavery, but was a foundational and intentional strategy of oppression: “colonial regimes routinely manipulated ideas about sexuality in order to maintain unjust power relations[…]In the United States, for example, slaveowners relied upon an ideology of Black sexual deviance to regulate and exploit enslaved Africans.”[16] White colonists needed black women to represent sexuality that was uncontrolled, uncivilized, and outside of their sphere of social acceptance in order to justify systems that so dehumanized black women. At a time when slaves could be bought and sold openly, black women were literal commodities, seen similarly to animals and reduced to their “salable parts” as judged by their masters.[17] The commodified black woman is “fragmented”; she is not seen as a whole being but a sum of parts that were useful to “the White master.”[18] Her sexuality could be “reduced to gaining control over an objectified vagina,”[19] which is comparable to the butt as a symbol for black female sexuality—an image that has permeated popular culture from Sarah Baartman to the music, entertainment, and social media of current times.

The signification of black women’s butts evolved from voyeuristic fascination to pleasure through modes of entertainment. While black sexuality was becoming more desirable to white audiences, it was still commodified in a way that was reductive, pornographic, and exotified. In the early 19th century, Sarah Bartmann was popularly displayed at fashionable Parisian parties wearing little clothing.[20] The exhibition of her body made a spectacle of her parts that were especially ‘other’ and exotic to European audiences; therefore, “much of the racialized fascination with Bartmann’s body concentrated attention on her buttocks.”[21] After her death, her genitalia and her buttocks were dissected and displayed for scrutiny. This visual fragmentation combined with the existing belief that “Africans had deviant sexual practices”[22] and “were more akin to animals than other humans”[23] led to her buttocks becoming an icon for black sexual deviance. Josephine Baker, who highlighted her butt in her dance performances, helped turn the image of the black woman’s butt from one of inferiority into one of celebratory eroticism, though still subject to the white gaze.[24] As aspects of black culture continually became more popular with white audiences, platforms like mainstream hip hop and social media today helped transform the butt into a coveted, cool commodity.

The Waist: Colliding Narratives

The history of corsetry illuminates the weight on the restrictive garments worn to communicate the sexual nature of the wearer. The corset shapes the human body in a way that symbolizes woman’s precariously balanced duality of naughtiness and niceness; she is at once a ‘bad girl’ who is available for sexual pleasuring, and a ‘good girl’ who is domesticated and subservient. None of these attributes can be achieved with the body one was born with. Women have been pressured throughout history to alter their bodies in order to meet unachievable and unnatural expectations. The waist trainer is a point of alignment between this narrative, and historical perceptions of black women’s sexuality. They collide when this pressure incites white women to appropriate a body type made popular by the hypersexualization of black bodies. The waist trainer posits a characteristic associated with black women—the butt—as the ‘bad girl’ element within a white woman. While they can artificially produce their ‘desirably naughty’ body shape, their light skin and/or racial identity distances them from the perception of sexual immorality so that they can also maintain the status of ‘good girl.’ With the help of a piece of clothing, white women get to pick and choose one aspect of blackness that is highly sexualized in pop culture, and use it to construct their own sexuality. Earlier in this essay, I quoted black feminist scholar and social activist bell hooks, who writes: “early North American society allowed whites to sexualize their world by projecting onto black bodies a narrative of sexualization disassociated from whiteness.”[25] In our current society, perhaps the waist trainer facilitates a reverse relationship, which allows light-skinned women to disassociate the butt from blackness, and re-appropriate it onto their own bodies in order to ‘empower’ themselves, while continually confining black women to the body parts they so desire.

Bibliography

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Fields, Jill. An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

hooks, bell. “Selling Hot Pussy.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. London: Turnaround, 1992. 61-77.

Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. Vol. 5.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

 

[1] Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, Vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 1.

[2] MegaVegasLife, “baddie,” Urban Dictionary. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=baddie.

[3] Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, 98.

[4] Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, 28.

[5] Jill Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 49.

[6] Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality, 256.

[7] Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, 158.

[8] bell hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation (London: Turnaround, 1992), 62.

[9] Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, 28.

[10] Fields, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality, 3.

[11] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2002), 131.

[12] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 134

[13] Ibid.

[14] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.

[15] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), 87.

[16] Ibid.

[17] hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 62.

[18] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 132-133.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 136

[21] hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 63.

[22] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 136

[23] hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 62.

[24] hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 63.

[25] hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, 62.