Shapewear is booming, and body image experts are worried: ‘It’s really dangerous’

No longer synonymous with Bridget Jones cringe, shapewear and control pants have been rebranded as an aspirational must-have, writes Ellie Muir. But does their popularity speak to a wider crisis?

Monday 12 June 2023 06:30 BST
<p>Shapewear products are not only promoted as stomach-smoothing fixes, but for anyone who wants a narrow waist or their figure to resemble a contoured, Kardashian-style hourglass</p>

Shapewear products are not only promoted as stomach-smoothing fixes, but for anyone who wants a narrow waist or their figure to resemble a contoured, Kardashian-style hourglass

In a number of scenes in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, our heroine – a thirtysomething singleton played by Renée Zellweger – squashes the skin of her lower torso into an array of Lycra shapewear, all in an attempt to make herself appear slimmer. When Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver sets his eyes on her high-wasted, nude-coloured underpants in one memorable scene, Bridget blushes with embarrassment. “Well, hello mummy,” Daniel purrs.

At the time of the film’s release, control shapewear – or tummy-tucking underwear designed to smooth its wearer – was marketed predominantly at people like Bridget, someone who was told by society she was “fat” or undesirable unless she had a flat stomach. Today, though, shapewear is branded differently, marketed to young women as a sexy, must-have fashion accessory. Shapewear products are not only promoted as stomach-smoothing fixes, but for anyone who wants a narrow waist or their figure to resemble a contoured, Kardashian-style hourglass. Skims, Kim Kardashian’s self-owned shapewear brand that she founded in 2019, sells viral sculpting bodysuits geared towards achieving this particular body shape. They start at £70.

Since the launch of Skims, as with anything that a member of the Kardashian clan wears or makes, fast fashion knock-offs have swelled the market. Online retailer PrettyLittleThing, which has a murky track record of contributing to a harmful cycle of fast fashion, sells duplicates of the Skims viral bodysuit for around £20. They also sell waist trainers – a corset-style casing worn underneath clothes to aggressively teach your waist to be narrow – for just £12. “Doll cinch your waist in an instant with this waist trainer,” the item’s description reads. The product has boning to make it stiff and restrictive. Venture onto TikTok and you’ll find viral dresses with Spanx-style shapewear, designed to minimise the width of a person’s waist and accentuate their bottom, built into the clothing itself.

While Skims is not solely responsible for this recent boom in shapewear, it has contributed to transforming how we view it – Bridget’s “granny pants” are now glamorous and aspirational. For the brand’s latest collection, for example, buzzy British singer-songwriters Raye and PinkPantheress were enlisted to promote it, along with viral Bronx rapper Ice Spice. The resulting campaign wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Vogue. What this marketing tells us is that fashion isn’t just about the garments you wear, but the apparently malleable shape of the body on which they’re worn.

Early shapewear emerged in the 16th century, not as a trend or body sculpting device, but for practical support. Karolina Laskowska, a lingerie designer and director of the underwear archive The Underpinnings Museum, tells me that the primary purpose of shapewear back then was to support the body much in the same way that a contemporary bra is made to support the breasts today. “A pair of stays [a corset style bodice] would have offered bust and back support for women who worked,” she explains. “These styles were more functional and supportive, rather than trend-driven.”

The beginnings of the shapewear we see today were first seen in the Sixties, when the invention of Lycra, a synthetic-based elastic fibre, allowed for stretchier fabrics. What Laskowska dubs the grandparent of modern shapewear was the “Little X Girdle” by a British brand called Silhouette. “It was a turning point for a shift from traditional structured corsetry into elasticated shapewear,” she says. The item was a seamless, pull-on girdle – an elasticated corset extending from waist to thigh – and was eventually licenced to sell in over 32 countries as turnover increased exponentially. We then saw the evolution of more comfortable, everyday shapewear, like those made by Spanx, an American brand founded in 2000.

They’re so uncomfortable, but they’re so afraid of what others will think about them due to their body size

Victoria Kleinsman

By contrast, modern shapewear is now geared towards sculpting the body to appear differently underneath clothes. And now, fast fashion is getting involved, too. But lingerie designers like Laskowska are increasingly worried about the consumer physically “hurting” themselves with badly made undergarments. “We’ve seen fast fashion adopt corsetry and shapewear trends but it’s not made to fit the human anatomy, since it’s made to be as cheap as possible,” she says. She adds that people could “injure” themselves with elasticated shapewear if they buy a size too small, meaning they could potentially restrict their blood’s circulation.

Victoria Kleinsman, a self-esteem expert and body love coach, works with women between the ages of 13 to 60, and says that she’s seen how her younger clientele are feeling the pressure to wear shapewear in order to conform to the cult of thinness. Some clients have bought pantyhose with built-in cushioning to make the bottom look larger and perkier. Others will wear layers of shapewear to sculpt the body, particularly the waist and stomach, to look slimmer or flatter. To Kleinsman, wearing modern shapewear allows people to apply an “IRL [Instagram] filter” to their bodies. She speaks to women each day who are “crying” to her on Zoom calls because they’re worried about what their bodies look like. “It’s to the point when it’s boiling hot weather [but] they’re wearing spandex shapewear and tights, and they’re so uncomfortable, but they’re so afraid of what others will think about them due to their body size.”

The expert fell into her line of work after she struggled with an eating disorder – she also wore a waist trainer when she was dealing with her own body image issues. “I would go to the gym wearing it because apparently you ‘sweat more’ and therefore lose ‘water fat’,” she says. “Which is b******! It’s physically painful to your physical body and even more painful to your emotional and mental well-being.”

Renée Zellweger’s Bridget holds up her control pants in 2001’s ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’

Kleinsman doesn’t think that this type of elasticated shapewear has anything to do with fashion and it should not be marketed as such. “It’s really dangerous,” she tells me. “Shapewear gives you a fake ‘confidence’ but then underneath it all when that comes off, then, who are you?”

The popularity of Skims and their various knock-offs doesn’t seem likely to decline any time soon, but Kleinsman is hopeful that more women will soon have epiphanies about the shapewear revival. “Fatphobia and body image trauma is still the norm,” she sighs. “There has never been more [appropriate] a time for us to embrace our natural bodies.”

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