Health & Fitness

Get skinny in a cinch? Corsets make a comeback, along with health issues

The black satin under-bust corsets that Erin Bray labors over in her sunlit midtown studio are brutally elegant. Steel-boned and rigid, each garment flattens flab with five front buttons. At its back, a thick ribbon weaves through a column of eyelets, ready to be pulled tighter and tighter into a contorted hourglass.

“A proper corset does not stretch,” Bray said. “The more you wear corsets, the more you manipulate your body.”

Bray, a professional corsetiere, has been hand-making the Victorian-era fashion item for more than a decade, usually for brides, cosplay enthusiasts and eclectic fashionistas. Lately, however, her business has been getting a boost from women who are “waist-training” – wearing a corset on a regular basis in the hopes of reducing waist size in the long run.

The trend has skyrocketed in recent months as celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Jessica Alba post corset-clad photos of themselves on social media, calling it a miracle weight loss solution and luring thousands into virtual waist reduction competitions on Pinterest and Instagram. Believers say the practice cuts inches from the waistline, but doctors warn against it, citing the potential for digestive problems and shortness of breath.

Some women delve into waist training in bona-fide corsets like the ones Bray makes in Sacramento. Lately she’s been making two to five per day for local and international customers.

But most who are wrapped up in the waist-reduction trend are using latex “cinchers” – softer, stretchier items that have zippers or snaps instead of laces and can be worn under or over clothing. They run for $40 and up, compared with artisan corsets, which go for about $150 on Bray’s website.

Many women who blog about their waist training journeys say they wear the cinchers for 12 hours a day and sometimes while they sleep.

Dominique Young, who runs an online activewear business out of North Natomas, said she brought her waistline down 6 inches over a matter of months just by wearing the cincher. It worked because she was sweating off pounds even when she was at her desk or at the grocery store, she said.

Her customers have had the same success and keep coming back for more, she said. Young sells 60 to 80 waist trainers in a given month on, and sells up to 200 per month around the holidays. In the spring, she plans to open a Roseville boutique to sell the tummy-hugging garments.

“When you’re at the gym, you’re sweating way more than if you didn’t have it,” she said. “You will start to see your midsection transforming. … This is nothing that’s going to harm your body whatsoever.”

Health professionals disagree. When worn tightly enough for extended periods, trainers and corsets can push the stomach up toward the lungs, simultaneously causing acid reflux and constricting the wearer’s ability to take deep breaths, said Rachel Frieberg, a behavioral health educator and dietitian with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

“There's a lot of fads that come back that shouldn’t,” she said of the corset craze. “If your intestines are being pushed into your lungs, that’s obviously not where they're supposed to be. Your internal organs need that space to function properly.”

Jill Fields, a professor of history at Fresno State, said reshaping the female body, even when uncomfortable, has always been a constant in fashion. In the Victorian era, women pushed their pain tolerance to the limit when squeezing into corsets, to the point where fainting couches were installed atop flights of stairs.

Though the garments never truly went out of style, they’re particularly in vogue right now as women strive for the tiny waistlines they see on the Web, she said.

“That hourglass figure has always been about heightening the differences between the female and male bodies,” she said. “For the women, it’s about that nipped-in waist, which makes the body look hyper-female. It’s an eroticizing element.”

Bray, who wears a corset socially and sometimes at work, said women should not be in pain after they lace up. A corset should be snug but comfortable, and can even provide helpful back support for people who stand and bend over all day, she said.

First-time corset wearers should go only 3 to 5 inches in from their natural waistline, and consult their physicians about any problems, she said.

“You want your body to get used to the corset, the corset to get used to your body,” Bray said. “You can’t go all at once.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola