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The shapewear debate: conformity or control?

‘Shapewear’ is a branch of the underwear market which focuses on altering the shape of the female body by compressing certain areas and ‘enhancing’ others. The concept of shapewear throws up a lot of questions around feminism, personal choice, and the idea of the female body needing to be ‘fixed’. Here, we take a deeper look at the arguments on both sides.

The Origins of Shapewear

The corset as we think of it today originated in western Europe. In the 1500s, women of the French court embraced the idea of a tight bodice worn beneath clothing, seeing it as “indispensable to the beauty of the female figure,” writes corsetière Carol Stella. By the middle of the 16th century, corsets were commonly worn by European and British women.

From this centuries-old body shaping device evolved the modern shapewear we’re familiar with. Its origin as a method of contorting the female abdomen is problematic, of course. But, with modern society’s complex ideas around feminism and personal choice, how can we best define the purpose of shapewear?

How Does the Current Market Shape Up?

Whilst we can’t ignore shapewear’s problematic origins, many modern day brands cite its applications as those of body positivity, confidence and personal choice.

In 2018, the global shapewear market was valued at £1.7 billion, and projected to expand at an annual rate of 7.7% between 2019-25. Research firms have credited the upsurge in the athleisure trend as a key factor in shapewear’s rise, as well as ‘underwear as outerwear’ seen across both catwalks and street style – as with 2019’s cycling short trend. What’s more, WGSN reports size inclusivity and comfort contribute to shapewear products becoming pieces of fashion in their own right.

Shapewear Brands and Ethics

Whilst leading brands include the iconic Spanx, as well as Triumph and Shapers, a number of young direct-to-consumer brands have recently entered the market. Kim Kardashian West’s ‘Skims Solutionwear’ launched in 2019. At the time of writing over half Skims’ shaping products were sold out or available on a waiting list basis. However, does deeming the collection ‘solutionwear’ almost suggest that women’s bodies sans-shapewear are a ‘problem’ to be solved?

In September, West added controversial ‘waist trainers’ to her line. Conceptually similar to the corset, doctors have repeatedly noted the adverse health implications associated with waist trainers, which can include blood clots, breathing problems and indigestion. The trainers’ questionable product copy describes an aim to “instantly erase inches” from the wearer’s waist.

Launched in 2014, Heist Studios is a refreshing alternative, that doesn’t treat women’s natural bodies as a problem. Whilst still a shapewear brand, Heist’s mission isn’t so much about moulding bodies to match a single ideal, but about “liberating women from disappointing underwear.” Heist believes underwear can be an instrument for progress by offering women an alternative to the uncomfortable underwear we’re used to. Furthermore, the brand’s sustainability initiative, Planet Heist, aims to reduce its environmental impacts, and support workers in its supply chain.

It could be argued that Heist embodies a more feminist approach to shapewear, whilst brands like Skims are counterproductive. But then, who can say what different women are empowered by? Or that Heist isn’t essentially the same brand as Skims with different marketing strategies? On the whole, what messages are brands sending by suggesting women need these products before they can feel confident?

Old-Fashioned Attitudes

“While shapewear used to be used to compress one’s body, it is now used to enhance shape and maximise comfort,” argues fashion consultant Ayako Homma, “women are dressing for themselves.” Homma’s point suggests that shapewear, like other traditionally gendered beauty standards, have been reclaimed by women, harnessed for their own empowerment. Really, is choosing to wear a slimming bodysuit or lifting bra any different from choosing to wear a bright lipstick simply because it makes you feel good?

With this in mind, we can question why such controversy still exists around shapewear. Perhaps it largely lies with the sexualised marketing techniques used in the past – an image which the industry is struggling to shake. Wonderbra’s 1994 ‘Hello Boys’ campaign sparked an outcry, as feminists pointed out it catered the male gaze. Long before Wonderbra’s iconic billboards, vintage manufacturers advertised “belly-flatteners” and bras to “glorify your figure.” Whilst none of these ads openly discuss the implication of the male gaze, there are certainly undertones of conformity and beauty standards.

Likely set out by male industry executives, these notions are still central to what shapewear is in many people’s minds. Despite our modern attitudes to body acceptance, old ideas are still difficult to move past for many consumers.


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