I was first introduced to the concept of what’s known today as waist training when I was 12, via a well-worn copy of Gone with the Wind that I’d found on my grandmother’s bookshelf. The novel begins with a rapturous description of its 16-year-old protagonist, who has pale green eyes, thick black brows and, we’re told, a “17-inch waist, the smallest in three counties.” I immediately tracked down a tape measure to check my own dimensions, and, as I’d suspected, they didn’t quite conform to the antebellum ideal—my midsection was a comparatively bloated 26 inches, which meant that I was bigger than not only Scarlett but also her less-attractive sister Suellen (who, Margaret Mitchell writes, would faint whenever her stays were laced tighter than twenty inches), as well as God knows how many other terrible, fictional teenage girls in those three Georgia counties.
Nevertheless, I soon managed to put it out of my mind—after all, what is adolescence other than a time to discover and catalog the many, many ways in which one is doomed to fall short of physical perfection? But I thought of it again this past June, when I was forced to repeat the ritual. My editor had asked if I’d be willing to give waist training a try, and with a mixture of morbid curiosity and sincere optimism, I’d agreed. In recent years, corset-wearing has gone from being a weird hobby practiced by the kind of woman who might willingly enter into a sexual relationship with Marilyn Manson to a relatively mainstream weight-loss strategy, touted by everyone from Amber Rose to the sisters Kardashian, and I was intrigued. Furthermore, I was six months postpartum, and I figured if it was good enough for Jessica Alba—who admitted that she’d worn “a double corset day and night for three months” after the birth of her second child to get her body back—then it was surely good enough for me.
But when the shapers arrived, I quickly realized that there was precisely zero chance of me following in Alba’s footsteps. For one thing, although they technically “fit,” I experienced a feeling of genuine panic before I’d fastened even half of the hook-and-eye closures. I put the trainers aside and called a few experts instead.
Camilla Lee, a nutritionist in Brooklyn, warned me straight up that waist training probably wasn’t going to work. “The only way it could possibly lead to weight loss would be by putting pressure on your stomach, resulting in a feeling of fullness that might deter eating,” she explained. “But to get this effect, you’d have to wear it frequently enough to risk damaging your internal organs,” as well as, in the nearer term, acid reflux. Dr. Andrew Miller, a plastic surgeon with offices in New York and New Jersey, pretty much agreed, adding that prolonged use of an improperly fitted corset could cause a lung condition called atelectasis which, in turn, can lead to pneumonia. “And it’s not going to change your appearance permanently,” he said. (Guess what he suggests instead?)
I suppose that my silhouette was slightly improved by the corset. Though it barely made me half an inch smaller, even while I was wearing it, it did force me to stand up straighter and it kept all of my flab neatly corralled into a firm hourglass, rather than flopping around as it usually does. But I didn’t relish feeling like an overstuffed sausage. In the end, I decided to regard it as a particularly heavy-duty piece of shapewear, something to possibly bust out the next time I have to put on a cocktail dress. Though I probably won’t; a constant physical reminder that my body is not totally acceptable to society as-is simply does not seem like the kind of thing I want to bring to a party! (Yes, that’s how Scarlett O’Hara used hers, but—on many levels—she’s not much of a role model.) Interestingly, though, as I write this, some nine months after delivering my daughter and despite my malingering, I am back at my pre-pregnancy weight, down approximately ten pounds since the day I ordered the waist trainer. Which means one of two things: Either it’s so magical that simply having it in the house is effective, or more likely, that the other things women are encouraged to do while wearing it—including exercising, eating right and, in the case of those recovering from birth, simply letting time pass—deserve most of the credit.