A Feminist Corset? 

corset

The corset. A means to female empowerment?

Why would my wife like corsets? Especially since she’s feminist?

One of my male feminist friends wondered about that.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Alexander Fury brought this news alert: the corset has become:

A symbol of empowerment, of sexual freedom, of control. She’s the one holding the laces, the one constructing her own femininity.

And not just that. Two-inch nails and four-inch heels are also now feminist.

Really?

The means of constraint, discomfort and disempowerment are empowering?

A 14 inch waist is feminist?

Making disempowerment visible creates empowerment?

The first step to “corset = empowerment” was making the invisible visible says Fury.

As when Madonna donned the constricting garment as outerwear, not underwear.

Hmmm, advertising our restriction is empowering?

Odd. When men did wear corset-like underclothing a couple of centuries ago the contraption was highly suspect and kept secret, says Fury, lest men come across as passive, receptive, objectified… a man as a woman.

Feminist? Or internalized?

Corsets don’t seem feminist to me.

The desire to wear one seems less feminism and more socialization (your society is in your head).

Women are primarily valued for their looks, and in our society a corseted body is thought sexy. So the corseted woman is sexy… high status… valued.

Valued in her restriction.

That’s feminist?

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 17, 2017, in body image, feminism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. I worked in a company that was 80% female and our top executive staff may not have made that ratio, but I think close to 50%. Middle management and first line management definitely reflected that ratio.

    My close personal friends also reflect that ratio.

    I don’t know of anyone wearing corsets. But, it has been a while since I’ve been to either sourthern California or NYC

  2. Sounds more like marketing than feminism.

  3. Corsets were the ultimate symbol of oppression because you literally needed help just to get into them.
    But today, corsets, like heels and nails and anything else, are a CHOICE. You can wear whatever you FEEL like wearing. Choice = feminism. There is no feminist uniform.

    • Yeah, but then there’s the question of what is a choice and what is internalized sexism.

      When your culture tells you that discomfort and disempowerment is sexy — but without putting it that way –AND Highly valued, it’s not hard to imagine someone wearing a corset to be sexy and Highly valued without really being aware of the disempowering side of it.

      But I’m sure that many people will see it the way you do. So thanks for chiming in to represent that view.

  4. I agree with Jay that the feminist implications of corsets, heels, painted nails or any other fashion choice made by a woman is in the choice. Do I think any of these items on their own are inherently feminist? No, I don’t think there’s anything particular about a corset or its design or history that is more feminist than any other choice of clothing or undergarment. But I think having that choice available is valid and good. Some women are more comfortable in vintage undergarments than modern styles. And I certainly see the appeal in reclaiming a symbol of constriction and oppression, especially since most modern “corsets” aren’t that constricting at all. If a corset allows a woman to feel sexy, to get in touch with her sexuality and feel good about it and celebratory about it, instead of shamed for it, then I’m all for it. Additionally, I think there’s a difference between “choosing a garment or style because it’s fun to dress up for a special occasion” and “I can’t leave the house without X because then I’m not meeting unrealistic societal standards of beauty. Do I need to have a perfect hourglass shape at all times? Of course not. My worth is not in my attractiveness or conformity to a beauty standard. But is it fun to dress up for special occasions? Sure is.

    • I think choice is valid and good. But I also think people can internalize ideas that seem like a choice but end up harming themselves. But I appreciate that not everyone is going to see things in the same way.

  5. This point of view opens up a large storm of questions I have asked over the years, when studying the “feminist” ideals that have been promoted through pop culture. I believe the image of a feminist that the media wants to present–i.e. sell–is a woman who hates the color pink, wears bright red lipstick, carries a violent weapon, and wears dangerous looking high heeled boots.

    I draw this image from music videos like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”, Victoria Secret ads, and clothing lines. I don’t think this image aligns with the true idea of a feminist, but it does align with the idea of a profitable feminist.

    I think people view corsets as empowering because they look badass. Feminism doesn’t have to look badass to be feminism. Feminism can be a woman who loves the color pink, loves fluffy cats, and wants her daughter to have an education equal to her male classmates. Can corsets be empowering? I think the reason behind the corset is the most important thing to consider. If a woman wants to wear it, she has a right to do what she wants with her body. However, to call that thing empowering would be only taking into consideration what is empowering for her, and not for others who may be harmed by that very same thing.

    In conclusion, I don’t really know what to say on this issue. If a woman wants to wear a corset, who am I to stop her, besides being worried for her physical wellbeing. I’m against the idea of heavily marketable feminism, something which a corset could easily play into.

  6. The idea that a corset is “feminist” comes from a misunderstanding of the terms power and feminism. While feminism aims to support women in all facets within an unequal society, power focuses more on the superiority of a gender over another. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, the corset has remained as a fashion staple for men and women to attain a socially acceptable body type, which was often associated with upper class members since they could afford the contraptions. In modern day society, women take various approaches to appear visually slimmer such as breaking their ribs, cosmetic procedures, dietary changes, or by utilizing a waist trainer which is a 21st century adaptation of the corset that constrains the body into an “hourglass figure.” Each of these methods has detrimental impacts to health, which goes against feminist ideas that support women’s health rights in spite of the socially constructed ideals of a body type. Due to this, I completely agree with the viewpoint that corsets are not feminist and I would argue that it rather symbolizes the power of socialization.

  7. Rachel Andrews

    Although I definitely agree that, on a general level, the arguments made in the NY times as mentioned above are a marketing ploy, or, at the very least, very idealist thinking, its the choice behind choosing to wear something like a corset that has the potential to be empowering- as it is not our choices but the intent behind the choices we make that can result in a feeling of empowerment. I think the appeal of any accessory or product that is made/advertised to make a women appear more traditionally beautiful often does come from a place of internalized sexism/an internalized male perspective, but wearing makeup, high heels, or a corset (etc) definitely has the potential to empower an individual internally without regard for what others might think. Even though I do personally find it hard to imagine feeling truly empowered by something like a corset I don’t think it would be fair to say that no one has the potential to feel genuinely empowered by wearing or using a product. From a less idealist perspective, however, and on a more general level, I definitely agree that very very few women (I cant think of anyone I know including myself) are free enough from the male perspective to wear something like a corset solely for themselves without any inkling of subconscious desire to feel attractive by standards of patriarchy. However, in response to your friends initial question regarding his wife, it is definitely important to keep in mind that no feminist is perfect and completely free from the patriarchal male perspective.

    • Okay. My measuring stick is this: does it harm you? Plus the question about whether a “choice” might actually be socialization/ internalization.

      And I absolutely agree that feminists are imperfect, including myself.

  8. Araceli Toscano-Hernandez

    I understand Jay’s point that choice=feminism and that there is no feminist uniform.

    But is literally squeezing your organs, pushing your ribcage in, and possibly causing long term problems on your health (mind you this is all your choice) a feminist choice? With your argument, I understand that a woman wearing makeup and long nails is just as feminist than a woman who wears male clothing and sports her natural nails. However, in no way shape or form is this hurting their health. The corset was not introduced to women as a form to feel sexy (for themselves), but to restrain women from doing certain things. It was to literally disempower them; having to reform to uncomfortable and harmful ways is not in any shape way or form, a step forward for women. It is in fact internalized sexism that is so common and normal that one doesn’t even realize it. It’s like wearing a pushup bra to “feel sexy” regardless of the higher chances of getting cancer. Who told women pushed up boobs (big boobs) is sexy? Who filled their heads with these ideas and made them truly believe that they themselves (of any body type) isn’t sexy enough? That women have to reach this high standard of looking “perfect” and when aren’t able to meet it, criticized.

    Take for example the Kardashians. They made a fortune on waist trainers, where women even wore waist trainers to the gym, while sleeping, and even while eating. No woman would wear a waist trainer/ corset, that makes it hard to breath, move, and do simple things like use the restroom or even speak, all in the name to feel powerful. I’m sure it makes you feel sexy because tiny waists are considered the norm for what men like, but using a corset is not a choice made freely, but an unconscious decision to please men, because their is no pleasure from deviated spines, punctured lungs, and early arthritis.

  9. I personally have a corset, that I use for my Adepta Sororitas costume.
    It is not a waist trainer, and honestly it doesn’t fit right because I’m poor and didn’t get a custom one.
    But it is quite comfortable. In the costume, it is part of her armour.
    It doesn’t “restrict” her any more than plate mail would… in fact it’s easier to move in.
    The character (and by extension, me) has modified it with the colors and symbols of her faction, and given it power with runes.
    If you look up pictures of the Sororitas, it is clear that they were meant to be overly feminine in design. But there is a reason. They are the only major all-female fighting force in the Empire of Man, while the males get several factions of Space Marines and several other groups.
    So they flaunt their female-ness.
    Because the fact that they are powerful, AND female, in fact the strongest fighting force of non-GMO humans (it’s a thing), is a huge deal.
    If they hid their femininity, people would say they were ashamed. But they embrace and glorify their own power.

    This sentiment is, I believe, similar to that in real life. Choosing to be powerful while embracing femininity can absolutely be feminist, because you’re showing the patriarchy that the men still don’t have all the power.

  10. I don’t think it is in tandem with feminism. Sometimes, corsets can be really uncomfortable (never have used them but heard) and moreover, it is an endeavour to make the look more ‘feminine’. This, of course, as you’ve said, adds ‘value’…

  11. Stacey kenner

    I own multiple corsets and wear them for the renaissance festivals and for the steampunk conventions. I had always wanted a corset and once I got one I wear it whenever I can. I find that I am more comfortable in a corset than I am wearing most other things. I think that for me wearing my corset is comforting like having a hug. I have more confidence and am more brave when I am wearing my corset than I normally ever am. I don’t wear it for multiple days cause it can start to hurt a bit but I have always figured the confidence and strength I feel is worth it. Having something that I find helps me with my anxiety and makes me feel sexy is awesome but I also realize it may not be that for everyone but I will continue to wear my corset with pride.

  12. People wear corsets for different reasons. For some an overbust corset can be a more comfortable alternative to a bra. For others it can help with back problems (so long as it is steel boned). To the person who said you can’t get into one without someone’s help, that isn’t correct. Once you know how it’s pretty easy to get into a corset yourself. I will point out that this might have something to do with something other than feminism. For many the corset is part of other subculture fashion styles, which for the people in them are often very empowering. I will also point out that most people who where corsets are wearing them as fashion and not to shape their figure. They only can damage if you decide to wear a plastic boned (plastic boning can snap and break and then stab the wearer sometimes very badly) one and try to tightlace or wear one improperly or wear one that doesn’t fit right. I noticed many said they were uncomfortable. I must ask whether you were wearing a proper corset that fit correctly or something else. I have one and have never experienced discomfort in it. I also saw that some were under the impression you could even sit in one…. That’s a sign your corset doesn’t fit correctly then. With that out of the way I think it can be empowering if one is wearing it outside their clothing. It’s flaunting what society has told women over and over: Your undergarments must never show not even a strap! Now most wouldn’t want to wear there underwear outside their pants and if they tried that with a bra it wouldn’t sit right. It’s highlighting one aspect of what is considered beautiful and forcing men to consider how that shape is achieved in a way. Is it not empowering to be thought you can’t do anything because you’re xyz or wearing xyz and turn around and do just that in spite of it? I think this is impart wear some find them feminist. Personally I think clothing is clothing and if you like how it looks or makes you feel happy go ahead and wear it. We choose to make messages about clothing. The over sexualization of short shorts for example. I’m wearing them because its warm not because of how they look. People assume if you’re wearing something its because of some reason but it often isn’t the reason assumed. If she wants to wear it wear it. It doesn’t sound like she’s doing it because society is telling her to.

    • I knew people would disagree with me on this, Even feminist. But I say “if it’s harming is a problem, If it’s not harming is not a problem.”

      • That I can agree to. If someone is doing it to please others or society it certainly isn’t a good thing. At that point it’s in a way demeaning to yourself even if not on a conscious level. And no one should do it if it’s harming their body!

      • I’m learning that not all corsets are harmful these days.

  13. Obviously every individual has their differences of opinions on the subject of whether a woman wears something because of her freedom to choose or whether it be a result of socialization. Personally, I don’t find it productive to label clothing items inherently “feminist” or “anti-feminist.” I think it is important to understand that these labels are a result of a flawed system in which women are picked apart for the choices that they make. While I completely understand that the concept of a corset is problematic (a method to make a woman appear smaller), I also believe that feminism is a movement to empower women to use their voices and make decisions that lift them up. While I myself do not wear corsets, I believe it is always important to use language that promotes a conversation about the problem at the core of the issue, which is patriarchy.

    • I have mixed feelings about them. I’ve learned from some comments here that not all corsets are restricting and harmful. So then there is the symbolism. If it is just symbolically sexy it doesn’t bother me. If it’s symbolically restrictive it still does. Perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder.

      I appreciate hearing a variety of viewpoints on the issue.

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