Eating, sitting and pooping are generally considered life skills and yet I spent a portion of today – Easter Sunday, one of the High Food Holidays, no less – unable to do any of the above. The problem started, as it often does with me, with a mystery package dropped on my doorstep by the invisible fairy-men from the land of Fed-Ex. (Seriously I never see those guys/girls – they ring my doorbell and run so fast it’s like my packages appear by magic. Maybe they heard of the day I had to chase two of my kids all the way down the block wearing nothing but a towel? Yeah, I’d run too. Anyhow.) Sweet reader G (love you, girl!) is a costumer in California and came across an old time-y girdle in the discard pile. Rather than see it go to the great vintage shop in the sky she packaged that baby up and sent it my way!
My squeals of excitement rivaled those of Kim Kardashian on her first wedding day. See, I’ve always wanted a girdle of my very own. Being a vintage aficionado I quickly learned that there are a lot of styles from the 40’s and 50’s that you simply can’t recreate without the same foundation garments they wore. I’ve tried every iteration of Spanx and Flexees and they just aren’t the same. Back then it was common to start a girl “girdle training” when she began puberty, often as early as 12, so that her young body would grow to conform to the shape dictated by the device. Which is how you got Rita Hayworth-esque women with their itty-bitty waists and ba-da-boom hips. (Yes, that’s the official term.) And they weren’t just for movie stars – girls considered their girdles to be every bit as necessary as (or even more so) than a brassiere.
You think the pattern makers are exaggerating the proportions? After trying on a ton of dresses from that era I can assure you they’re not. Modern-vintage dresses, like those from ModCloth or the Betty Page Store, are sized to accommodate a more natural waist while still creating a similar silhouette. But until you’ve tried on the real thing you have no idea how tiny women’s waists were then.
You may remember a long time ago when I wrote a post about Audrey Hepburn and how I always wanted her build, complete with totally unattainable 20-inch waist. (Note: Post is slightly triggering for eating disorders – sorry, I was in a bad place then.) That post is still the #1 most-read post on this site. I know. IT BOGGLES. If you want to drive yourself nuts go read the 150+ comments which devolved into an argument about whether or not the original It Girl had an undiagnosed eating disorder, had her growth stunted due to childhood starvation in Holland during World War II (apparently she ate tulip bulbs she was so hungry), or both. But if I’ve learned one thing from having to sort through all those comments it’s that a tiny waist is still something a lot of women think about and wish for. And with G’s gift I almost got my wish. See this?
The girdle took FIVE inches off my waist and while I didn’t quite reach the 20″ mark, it’s the closest I ever care to come in this lifetime. P.S. Yes these are my pajamas and yes I belted them. For you. You’re welcome.
For comparison purposes this is my natural waist:
Brag moment: I made my Easter dress this year from some vintage fabric salvaged from a nasty housecoat!
I almost think the first picture, with my exaggerated hip-to-waist ratio, looks kind of cartoon-y. My waist was smaller, yes, but nothing else was! So by comparison my hips and legs look gigantic. Now before we go into why people – yes both men and women now – use them and what the pros and cons are, we have to address the question that made us girls ditch them in the first place: Are corsets fun fantasies that make women feel sexy and feminine or tools of male oppression meant to keep women weak and hypoxic? Here’s my answer: Both, probably. A lot of women like them. Even modern women. And a lot hate them. I don’t get too worried about this argument however because frankly women do a lot of uncomfortable things in the name of beauty and unless you’re willing to condemn lipstick (hello, lead!), high heels (remember the cautionary tale of Sarah Jessica Parker?), aerosol hairsprays (who needs an ozone layer?) and the like then I don’t know if there’s much high ground to stand on. Besides, I’m not wearing a corset because of a man – my husband actually thinks they look kind of silly – I’m wearing one because I love old clothes! Which is, um, totally better! Or something.
But all of this is very boring and why-should-I-care if you’re not a vintage clothing nut(case) like I am. Except that girdles are making a huge comeback as – what else? – a weight-loss tool. Also called corsets, shapers, waist cinchers, Squeems (a popular brand name) and fajas, this age old undergarment is back in a big way. But do they work? The arguments in favor are many: that they reduce bloating, that they train muscles back to proper alignment, that they help fix poor posture, that they compress your stomach to the point where you simply can’t eat as much and that they help a woman get her shape back faster after pregnancy.
It was that last reason – post-partum recovery – that led me to buy my first girdle. And to this day I say that was one of the best things I ever did. File this under things no one tells you about pregnancy: your organs all squish into weird, wrong places and for some of us our ab muscles even separate (called a diastasis). This does not immediately right itself after the babe pops out. For centuries women have been wrapping their bellies with compression fabric to bring the muscles back together and put everything back into proper alignment. And I swear it works. I’ve had 5 babies and so 5 post-partum recoveries – of which I only used a belly wrap on the last one – makes me a pretty good test candidate I think. After Jelly Bean was born – literally, I mean like 3 hours after she was born – my Trinidadian nurse helped me wrap my belly with an elastic and velcro contraption called The Taut, sold for this purpose. As she showed me how to put it on (lay down flat on your back on the bed, take a deep breath in and then wrap), she told me how all the women in her country did this and how she was always stymied by Western women’s aversion to the practice. “You will love it, you will see!” she crooned. And as soon as I sat up, I did love it. I felt supported in all the right places! It didn’t feel constricting, it just felt like it was holding me in since my anatomy wasn’t able to do for itself at the moment. Not only did I feel great wearing it (I did the whole 24/7 for 6 weeks like they tell you to) but I swear I bounced back from my 5th child faster than I did my first.
This was me, four weeks after Jelly Bean was born. While I’m still clearly a huge nerd – the pose + the white socks + the hat =eeek, but my tummy’s pretty un-swollen! (Not wearing the belly wrap – you only take it off to workout and shower.) Yes, I was already back to the gym… recovering exercise addict, remember?
So it was with that excitement I again laid flat on my back and strapped myself into the girdle from G. The process took almost ten minutes during which I think I sprained my hand. But at last it was on! Glory be! And then I stood up. Fun times were over. This thing was a whole different animal than my belly wrap!
I personally love the nude color. It’s like if your shirt slips up you can just say “whoops! I had my stomach vertically stapled! It’s all the rage, darling! Give Dr. Lecter a call, he’s the best!”
The First Law of Fat Dynamics: When you squish the fat out of one location, it has to escape via another! This time it gave me a huge roll right over the top. Did you know your armpits can get muffin top? ‘Cause they can!
And then: I couldn’t breathe. And I mean I couldn’t breathe. I was taking little gasps like a goldfish out of water. I can totally see now why Scarlett O’Hara was a fainter! Although it might have been for the best since the girdle stinks like old rubber. My hands smell like a drag race.
And then: I couldn’t sit. This girdle was made out of 1/4″ thick rubber covered in nylon with two sets of hooks up the front. And it does not bend well. Sitting was like getting the Heimlich maneuver. From your underwear. When you’re not choking.
And then: I started belching. I’m not sure if it’s because I was still digesting my big Easter dinner (thank you Mom!!) or because my stomach was suddenly jacked up into the spot where my diaphragm normally resides but either way, I was Homer Simpson after a Pabst factory tour.
At this point Jelly Bean walked in, wrinkled her little nose, and said, “Mommy! You has the farts? Out you mouth?!” I wanted to laugh but I couldn’t.
And then: It started to hurt. And I mean hurt like I was doing myself some kind of structural damage hurt.
Everyone online said to start by wearing the girdle for an hour a day and then working up to a full day. I went into it with the intent of doing more than hour. I wanted to be able to tell you guys what wearing it for a whole day felt like! I took it off after five minutes. Ah, relief! I honestly don’t know how women did it. (Or do it.) That was a miserable burrito wrapped in a taco shell of pain and dipped in a vat of sweaty queso dip.
So… I can’t really tell you if my faja “worked.” I kind of like the idea in theory – mostly because I found it so helpful post-partum. But perhaps there isn’t a need for a girdle other than that? All I know is that I’m not wearing that thing again. (I’m sorry G! I’m still keeping it though. I’ll look fondly at it from time to time!) But perhaps I just had the wrong kind? When I brought it up with my friends, I was surprised at how many of them do actually wear some kind of girdle/waist cincher/corset thing on a regular basis. The most common reason I heard was that it helped them reduce bloating – especially that end-of-day weirdness where you start out your morning looking like a normal human being and end the day looking like you had an immaculate conception. And you’re now 5 months along. A couple of other friends said they felt it helped their posture or made their back pain go away. So while I don’t know that it would work well as a weight -loss aid (except perhaps that it squishes your tummy so much that food pops right back out after you swallow?), it does seem like it has some benefits.
Have any of you ever worn a corset, girdle, Squeem or the like? What was your experience? Would you recommend it?