When Kim Kardashian posted a selfie last summer standing in white leggings with a blue corset wrapped around her waist, the Internet went wild.
Kim was touting the benefits of her waist trainer—a corset-like contraption that’s meant to give your middle the hour-glass treatment by squeezing it tightly on a regular basis.
Since she posted that first photo, there’s been a steady stream from her and her sister, Khloe, showing off their “training” regimen on Instagram, as well as other reality TV stars like Kim Zolciak-Biermann from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Even real women are now wearing the corset-esque accessories throughout workouts and sleep, and crediting their waist lines to the trainers. (Um, whatever happened to a good old fashioned plank?)
“Although the practice has existed for centuries, waist training, also known as tightlacing, has garnered increased popularity recently, in part due to the appearance of certain curvaceous celebrities,” says Shirley Madhere, MD, a holistic plastic surgeon.
So can waist trainers actually alter the mid-section’s shape—and are they in any way safe? Our panel of experts dole out some intel on the physical, aesthetic and psychological implications.
The Doctor. When her clients are considering elective plastic surgery, Madhere guides them in the basics of body-shaping, giving them nutritional advice, as well as toning exercises. Still, she’s no stranger to women walking in and wishing for a Scarlett O’Hara-style waists.
“For decades, an hourglass shape has been one of the top reasons why patients seek body contouring procedures,” Dr. Madhere says.
So can a waist trainer do the trick? “Over time, with appropriate diet and exercise, they may slowly (and temporarily) help to reshape the contour of some body types,” Dr. Madhere says. But for hours of cinching, any redistribution of weight isn’t guaranteed. “The effect, though, depends on body shape, bone structure of ribs, diet, exercise, and amount of fat around the torso,” she says.
Then there’s the matter of safety. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Madhere says there can be complications from squeezing your frame over an extended period of time. “While there’s no significant risk in wearing a trainer under a dress for a few hours for the contouring effect, prolonged and frequent use may lead to issues like difficulty breathing, rib deformity, organ compression, and gastrointestinal complications like acid reflux.”
The Trainer and Nutritionist. Albert Matheny, RD, and co-founder and trainer at New York City’s SoHo Strength Lab, says that your body type, genetics, diet, and how often you exercise are the main determinants of your shape.
“In general, it’s easier for someone who is a little curvier to add muscle. For someone who is taller and naturally less curvy, it’s harder to gain muscle,” says Matheny. So if even gym training is restricted by your anatomy, to an extent, a waist trainer wouldn’t be able to do much more than what your body can naturally do.
More importantly, he points out that wearing a waist trainer while you work out is actually watering down your workout, not amping up its effects.
It’s like putting a brace or a splint on something, he says. “You’re not really using that body part as much. Your core would actually get weaker, and you’d be using fewer of your back muscles,” he says. “It would also impact your breathing.”
The Fashion Expert. Colleen Hill, associate curator of accessories at The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology explains that waist training—and the idea of a specific body ideal becoming a pop culture craze—is nothing new.
“Women wore corsets regularly for about 400 years—from the late renaissance through the early 20th century. By the mid 19th century you start to see that classic hourglass shape come into fashion,” says Hill.
Although it didn’t stay: The mid 20th century saw the lithe Twiggy appearance come into vogue, followed by the athletic supermodel heyday, then the waif-look of Kate Moss. But now, the curvy and hourglass figure has made its way back. And whether or not it’s possible, some people see waist trainers as a way of attaining that physique.
“It’s always been somewhat on trend to modify our bodies in one way or another—we do it with hair, cosmetics, and bras. This is a more extreme version of that,” Hill says.
“If a waist trainer makes you confident and you want to pronounce your hourglass shape—go for it,” Hill says. Just know a sweaty workout and lots of healthy meals are the most effective ways to change or feel great in your body. And either way, don’t expect Kardashian-esque results. —Molly Gallagher
(Photos, from top: Instagram/KimKardashian; Instagram/KhloeKardashian; Instagram/AmberRose)