Throughout history, women have faced pressure to have certain body shapes—often leading them to use extreme methods to achieve them. So you’d think with a greater emphasis on body positivity in recent years that the days of wearing corsets and other restrictive undergarments would be behind us. In reality, the global shapewear industry is booming—with sales of these products projected to reach $3.7 billion by 2028.
While corsets can be traced back as far as the 16th century, it was in the 18th century that the hourglass shape became fashionable. Corsets had also come to represent elite status and physical fragility, which was symbolic of femininity.
Different body ideals have come in and out of fashion since, largely shaped by popular celebrities or even famous images and artworks. For example, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, was frequently depicted in paintings and sculptures with a curvaceous body.
While hourglass figures were popular throughout the 1950s due to sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, the mid- to late 1960s saw a shift toward a slimmer physique, thanks in part to the iconic British model Twiggy. The skinny, waif-like look remained fashionable well into the 1990s—again thanks to the continued popularity of models such as Kate Moss.
The 2010s saw a shift toward a “curvy” silhouette, where a small waist and fuller hips became the ideal again. Just as in previous decades, this shift was driven by celebrities, including Rihanna, Beyoncé, and—in particular—Kim Kardashian.
Social media trends
While social media has helped give space to celebrate a more diverse range of body shapes, there’s still continued pressure to conform to an ideal which may not be entirely natural. This is why shapewear remains popular—though the way these garments are perceived and worn has changed significantly since the 18th century.
Before the U.S.-based underwear brand Spanx launched shaping leggings and underpants in 2000, shapewear was usually something reserved for special occasions. But thanks to celebrity endorsements and Instagram influencers, shapewear (including Spanx) has become an everyday clothing item, used to help improve appearance and achieve the ideal figure. Kardashian and Victoria Beckham have both launched their own affordable shapewear lines.
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We have now reached the point where young women are wearing shapewear as outer clothing instead of hiding it as underwear. Searches for the best shapewear garments even outstrip searches for the best way to lose weight.
Waist trainers in particular are a great example of the power of social media and celebrity endorsement in driving sales and shifting perceptions. For example, a 2015 selfie posted by Kardashian in a waist trainer created a surge in sales. Other celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and Kylie Jenner have also posted about wearing waist trainers.
In the past, women would have learned about the latest fashion trends only through dressmakers or magazines, which would feature illustrations of the silhouettes that were fashionable. But with social media, users are constantly exposed to images—whether of everyday people or extremely photoshopped models and celebrities. This makes it hard to escape idealized body shapes—and what items can be purchased to achieve them.
Social media has a huge influence on the consumption of fashion products. With an estimated 3.2 billion users across the world, that creates tremendous potential for brands to expose consumers to fashion products on a daily basis. Trends that used to be driven by fashion magazines are now firmly in the hands of influencers. And with even ordinary people flaunting idealized figures and sharing their experiences with using shapewear products, products can appear more relatable than for previous generations.
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Despite some influencers talking up shapewear as a way of celebrating the female form, its relationship to age-old notions of perfection and its endorsement by tiny-waisted celebrities raises questions over whether body acceptance is what these products are really trying to sell. But it’s unlikely these garments are going anywhere anytime soon—with celebrities as diverse as Billie Eilish and Lizzo continuing to popularize them.
There are increasing questions over the benefits and potential risks of using shapewear. While waist trainers might temporarily reduce waist circumference, the waist quickly returns to its normal size after stopping use.
Plenty of research also shows that using corsets and waist trainers long term can cause problems—from digestive issues to even organ damage at the extremes. Some women who wear shapewear between 8 and 10 hours a day for many months have also reported tingling, acid reflux, organ compression, and breathing problems.
Technical manufacturing innovations, such as making these products more breathable and flexible, may eventually offer a more natural fit that is less harmful. But to ensure safety, only wear the right size shapewear for your body, and avoid wearing it every day.