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Photograph of celebrity Plastic Surgeon Dr Robert Rey's Shapewear range at Target
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The Nightmare of Shapewear

Caging the Free Body into a Sexual Silhouette

At school, roughly in the 7th grade, we learn about tissues, veins, nerves and other organs that keep our body functioning. It is this knowledge that helps us visualize our insides for the first time, things we couldn’t see in the mirror. We make sense of our sensations and discover a whole world underneath our skin.

Biology may not be everyone’s favourite subject, but by simply having a body, it is the closest we come to experiential learning. We experience the world through our bodies. We experience freedom. Not just the macro freedom to move wherever we want at whatever time and to love/consent to whoever and whatever we like, but also at the micro level, to breathe and to make sounds. To jiggle and wiggle, to expand and contract, to simply be. Several freedoms, those of food, clothes, sexuality and more are intimately related to that of the body.

When used in the context of our bodies, verbs like nip, tuck, cinch, trim and constrict are alarming.The makers of shapewear, also called ‘compression wear’, use exactly those verbs to make women’s bodies sound like they have an acute and urgent need to be controlled and various parts of women’s bodies, concealed. Shapewear includes a whole range of expensive items: tummy tuckers, thigh shapers, waist cinchers, full-length bodysuits. If this was not enough to rein our bodies in, new inventions include arm-tights and booty bras. Determined to give you a ‘perfect silhouette’, shapewear has been best described as ‘Photoshop for your living, breathing, three-dimensional body’.

Shapewear originated in the West, following the legacy of the Victorian corset. In India, several brands sell these items, especially in the online space. Recognizing the nature of the market, Indian brands have also launched sari shapewear that promises to give you a ‘Mermaid Fit’.

Perhaps theyforgot that we have to walk in saris, not swim in them.

All shapewear restricts free movement. Sweating, chafing and blood clots are common after-effects of wearing it for long. By squeezing internal organs, it can cause nausea, acid reflux and heartburn.Women wearing shapewear, especially full bodysuits, are less likely to go to the bathroom to relieve themselves, leading to irritable bowel syndrome.It also induces shortness of breath and even panic attacks. A common piece of advice given in the context of shapewear is that you should never wear/remove it when alone, as you might get stuck and suffocate.

This sounds like a total nightmare. What has led us to treat our own bodies as objects to be stuffed into and contained forcefully within ‘shaping’ garments? What if, in the event of an apocalypse, waist-shapers and tummy-tuckers are amongst the few objects that survive to tell the tale of our times as humans? What would it say about our society?This is not a judgement on the individual buyers of shapewear but of a society that pressures them to do so.

This parody of Spanx, a leading shapewear brand, captures the bizarre obsession to ‘shape’ our bodies. Before weexplore why shapewear exists, let’s take a look at its marketing terminology. This is how shapewear is described by brands:

The ‘flexible’ and ‘seamless’ fabric is resolved to ‘smoothen’, ‘sculpt’, ‘iron out’, and ‘streamline’ all of the ‘stubborn inches of cellulite’ that you, ‘busy’, ‘confident’ woman haven’t been able to shed by exercise due to lack of time. Thus, shapewear vouches to ‘empower’ you to wear any outfit of your ‘choice’! Also, that tightness that everybody keeps frowning upon, it’s nothing but a ‘firm hug’ your body deserves so that you look sexy and ‘curvaceous’.

If you are still not convinced about this ‘magical’ garment, let’s explore the ‘science’ behind it. This is not just a tummy tucker; this is a waist ‘trainer’. Waist training is proven to get you in your best shape* (*if coupled with diet and exercise), by ‘strengthening your core’ and ‘improving your posture’. That ugly amount of sweating, don’t worry, that is just you ‘perspiring’ out all the ‘toxins and impurities’. And that acute discomfort, it’s a boon really, as it will ensure you have ‘smaller intakes of food’ making you slimmer.

Shapewear is packaged as a piece of age-old wisdom, now verified by ‘science’ and peddled with post-feminist terms like: confidence, empowerment and self-love. The messaging doesn’t reveal upfront the ugly culture that gave birth to it.

In her book ‘Unbearable Weight’, Susan Bordo opens with a poem by Delmore Schwartz. In the poem, Schwartz uses the metaphor of the body as a ‘heavy bear’, ‘a lumbering fool who trips me up in all my efforts to express myself’. Bordo also refers to the ‘tyranny of slenderness’ as defined by Kim Chernin to describe the culture that led to eating disorders. Shapewear is a physical manifestation of our culture, in which we view the body as an unruly object with bumps, lumps, folds and bulges. We give these things names like ‘love handles’, ‘bingo wings’, ‘thunder thighs’, ‘food baby’, ‘beer belly’ and then look for ways to ‘fix’ these ‘aberrations’. We sacrifice the well-being of our inner organs to express our outer selves as what society designates as ‘sexy’.

Ironically, the elastic material most commonly used to make shapewear, Spandex, is an anagram for ‘expands’. We use Spandex to reduce ourselves into an hourglass figure, or the colloquial ‘36-24-36’, that we see in advertising and media, and now even in a Class 12 textbook! Jokes and stares from our peers as well as the need to have perfect pictures on Instagram push us into buying shapewear despite its side effects.

Fat-phobia and fat-shaming is a reality which affects women much more severely than men. Fat women are seen as less desirable (unless one has a specific attraction to them) and less respected at the workplace and at home.There is a high probability that the weight gain that triggers discrimination is much lower for women than for men. This means even ‘flab’ and ‘chubbiness’ in women is more susceptible to ridicule than obesity in men. Shapewear for men exists, but it appears more like a follow up/secondary sector with completely different marketing, like fairness creams for men, ensuring that women are the main target group for any beauty products.

The fact that we are already comfortable with physical discomfort makes it quite easy to sell shapewear to us. The norm of hairlessness turns pain into a familiar acquaintance. We are used to wearing layers in summer to prevent exposing our skin to the world: camisoles over bras, shorts under skirts and solid fabrics or ‘astar’ under translucent fabrics. Sold to the myth of the ‘free size’, we are used to elastic that causes disruptions in blood flow and red-blue marks on our skin.

We are particularly well-adjusted to the notion that comfortable and sexy are two mutually exclusive options. The lingerie, jewellery and fabrics we choose depends on what we can compromise that day: comfort or sex appeal. We never demand both, or redefine them in a way that they overlap.

Shapewear pushes us to prioritize our sexuality by sacrificing comfort and the freedom to breathe and move. But how is this type of sexuality defined? Going back to the messaging around shapewear: they say ‘bring attention to your curves’, or ‘fat is good only at the right parts of your body’. Which parts are these?Why are some curves more sexually appealing than the others?

While we restrict and conceal bulges and folds around our belly, we enhance our breasts with padded and underwired bras. Spanx has also designed a ‘booty bra’: a garment that will keep your butt ‘perky and separated’. What this means essentially is that our sexuality is being shaped around specific parts of our body, suspiciously aligning itself with the male fantasies as seen in gaming, porn and cinema.

Shapewear is symptomatic of a culture where women have to, consciously or not, discipline and cage our free bodies to suit men and their definitions of sexy. In our white/brahmanical and capitalist patriarchy, the burkha has become a global symbol of women’s oppression while shapewear masquerades as an empowering tool for women.Words like ‘confidence’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘scientific’ try to cover up layers of deep-seated prejudice just the way shapewear tries to hide our bulges. To enjoy micro and macro freedoms of cis and trans women’s bodies, questioning such products is part of a larger feminist project that strives for micro and macro freedoms of cis and trans women’s bodies.

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Article written by:

Rajashree Gandhi is a writer, educator, pickle collector. She conducts writing and creativity workshops for school children. She is deeply in love with the idea of female friendships.

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