Discipline & Punish: A Foucauldian Ethnography of Waist Training


Originally Published June 30, 2016 - Victims Of Style: Critical Cases of Violence in Fashion

Day 1

My waist trainer arrived today. Amazon, the omnipotent force of retail satisfaction, sends messages when your package is due to deliver, accurate to within the space of a few hours. I’ve been checking the door all day in anticipation. In a weird way, I’m excited. I am fully aware of how archaic this concept is; in 2015, women still find ways to control and discipline their bodies in ways that are harmful, almost brutal. I blame the media. Actually, Kim Kardashian. It’s thanks to her this contraption even appeared on my radar in the first place, and I’m even ashamed of the intrigue it bore. As someone who enjoys working out, I always wondered how particular body shapes are achieved; training can only get you so far, and I’m sure God had nothing to do with the proportions we’re being fed as reality. How did we get here?

Well, tight-lacing, also called corset or waist training, is the practice of wearing a tightly-laced corset, or most popularly in contemporary youth culture, a latex hook and eye waist trainer. It is done to achieve cosmetic modifications to the female figure and posture, or to experience the sensation of bodily restriction and control. Corsets were first worn by male and female Minoans of Crete, but did not become popular again until during the 16th century and remained a feature of fashionable dress until the French Revolution. (Varrin, 2003)

These corsets were mainly designed to turn the torso into the then fashionable cylindrical shape although they narrowed the waist dramatically as well. They had shoulder straps and ended at the waist, a shorter version of what later developed into a garment that cinched the entire mid section. They flattened the bust and in doing so, pushed the breasts up, elongating the frame and altering the visual proportions of the body. The emphasis of the corset was less on the smallness of the waist than on the contrast between the rigid flatness of the bodice front and the curving tops of the breasts peeking over the top.

The corset then went into eclipse. Fashion then embraced the Empire Silhouette, a Greco-Roman style, with the high-waisted dress that was unique to this style gathered under the bosom. The waist was de-emphasised, and dresses were sewn from thin muslins rather than the heavy brocades and satins of aristocratic high fashion. (Steele, 2001)

The reign of the Empire Waist style in fashion was short, 1795-1820. In the 1830s, shoulders widened with puffy gigot sleeves or flounces, skirts widened with layers of stiffened petticoats, and the waist narrowed and migrated towards its ‘natural’ position. By the 1850’s exaggerated shoulders were out of fashion and waistlines were cinched at the natural waist above a wide skirt. Fashion had achieved what is now known as the Victorian Silhouette. (Steele, 2001)

In the 1830s, the artificially inflated shoulders and skirts made the intervening waist look narrow, even with the corset laced only moderately. When the exaggerated shoulders disappeared, the waist itself had to be cinched tightly in order to achieve the same effect. It is in the 1840s and 1850s that tight-lacing is first recorded. It was ordinary fashion taken to an extreme. (Steele, 2001)

Extreme is my middle name. I’ve been warring with my weight since my teens, and have in the process become somewhat of an expert on all the pills potions and chemical remedies for achieving control over my physical form, it almost seems normal to me. Thinking about it now though, I guess there’s a problem there too.

Anyway. It arrived at my door coincidently at the same time I was arriving back from a 2 hour gym session. I was feeling pretty accomplished anyway, but when I saw the box through the glass of my front door, it felt like I had achieved something I wanted to smile about. Honestly, as if just having the thing in my possession somehow made me sexy. I definitely shook my butt climbing the six flights of stairs to my apartment. Take that Kim K.  

So, I took the box upstairs and stared at it while I undressed to take a shower. I was strangely gleeful, but a little anxious. Will it fit? Will I be skinny? Are my organs going to move? Will I be a mutant Barbie doll?

I underestimated the power of hot steam…I’m calm now.

Hop out the shower and dry myself off. I couldn’t tear the box apart fast enough, you’d think it were Christmas. I stood there naked in front of my mirror taking mental pictures of myself and wondering where this madness had come from. ‘You’re so smart’, I told myself, ‘this really isn’t necessary.’ But, that soothing voice of reason in my head lost dismally to the shrill jeers of my crazy. I unwrapped the package and acquainted myself tentatively with the latex. It’s soft, but firm. The boning is intimidating, I’m nervous now. Naked still, I wrap the piece around my waist and attempt to fasten the hooks. It. Won’t. Close. I bounced up and down, inhaled, and sucked in. I lay flat, I rolled over, I used all my strength, and it wouldn’t budge. I ordered a small, because in real life, I’m a small. Not a very small small, but still a small, at least according to every high street retailer on Broadway. So how in this version of reality does this thing not fit? I start to panic. Am I fat? I’m fat.

Without thinking I immediately open my laptop and order a size up, with much heaviness. I’m anxious. ‘I’ll return this one tomorrow’. The anxiety of this experience is already starting to plague me. I text my roommate and she laughed in that universal emoji slang of our generation. ‘I’ll be home soon, we’ll squeeze you in’. I lay there waiting. When she got home we bounced up and down, we inhaled, we sucked in, we lay flat, we rolled over, used all our strength, and it still. Wouldn’t. Budge.

I give up.

Corset/ waist training expert, and author of Waist Training 101: A Guide to Using Corsets to Slim Your Waistline, Vanna B., tells me that the first two weeks in which you break in the corset (yes, it’s stiffer than Grandma’s wooden clogs) are called ‘seasoning’, just like you are a prime piece of meat ( I don’t even eat meat) stuffed inside a sausage casing and being primed for cooking. Charming.

It’s weird I find this oddly comforting, knowing it’s  not supposed to be easy.

Take some ‘Before’ photos (why am I volunteering myself up for pain? First corset training, now stomach selfies? Is this what my parents had in mind when they said to push myself, challenge the norm?), make sure to have myself a proper going away dinner for my midsection, a kind of a biblical Last Supper ( a vegan Chipotle bowl with both types of beans because this is serious) and go to bed two parts excited, one part pissed off I’m wearing my corset tomorrow.

Here goes.

Day 1 – Take 2

Fit is a generous term. I’m in it.

I make the mistake of eating right before putting it on and have the slight feeling that I’m either going to throw up or sh*t my pants. Should probably stop smoking as this reduces lung capacity for oxygen intake quite a bit (great, more suffering, thumbs down emoji)

It doesn’t hurt, but it is definitely uncomfortable. Less than comfortable. It actually sucks. I’ve never sat this straight before in my life. My posture is terrible so I’m definitely excited for this corset to help my spinal alignment, it might even make me taller, or at least allude to it. But apparently sitting in it is the hardest part. Make a mental note to keep upright and mobile.

After five minutes of feeling simultaneously bored and hyper observant of my body, I call my mother to whine. She’s less than impressed and tells me I won’t change the world in a corset. Thanks mom.

It’s the weekend and all I want to do is lie on my back and binge watch a Netflix original, but lying down is pretty much a sysephean task. Your back doesn’t bend in this thing, so I have to prop myself up on my elbows and fidget to keep from screaming. ‘Chilling’ is next to impossible as the contraption pulled tightly around my torso constantly reminds me that I am strapped into something other than my favourite sweater. Make a mental note to google how to sleep in it. Can I take it there?

Reminding myself this is in the name of research makes me mildly panicked. Cannot get panicked because I cannot take deep breaths. This is not going to be as fun as I thought.

My goal for today is four hours (Vanna tells me you are supposed to work up from six to eighteen, hahaha) and I’m highly aware that I’m still 45 minutes shy of halfway. Haha, remember when I thought I’d try for eight this morning? I crack myself up sometimes. Stretching my arms up feels nice; converting oxygen to carbon dioxide does not.

Two hours: My upper rib cage is slightly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. Unless it bruises? It’s working! Do a very stiff little jig up and down the corridor to some very loud Beyonce. I’m pretty much ‘flawless’ at this point.

Two hours, five minutes: The thought of eating in this is appealing. Maybe I won’t consume as much! No actually, I’m pretty sure I won’t consume as much. Score 1 for skinny, 0 for foodie.

Three hours: Now it hurts. I think I’ll call it a day now. I’m such a quitter.

I took it off while streaming ‘Fashion Police’ online as some sort of Pavlovian negative reinforcement punishment (Foucault is that you?).  I can breathe. I feel liberated. I can lounge in peace. I also feel my stomach expanding again… should I put it back on? Here’s the anxiety we talked about. Let me explain.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison, is a book published 1975 by french philosopher Michel Foucalt. In it, he analyses the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the massive changes that occurred in Western penal systems during the modern age, focusing on historical documents from France at the time. He argues against the notion that the prison became a regulation form of punishment due mainly to the humanitarian concerns, tracing the cultural shifts that led to the dominance of ‘the prison’ in the penal system, focusing on the body and questions of power. Prison, is a system used by what he calls ‘the disciplines’, a new technological power, which he argues can also be found in places like schools, hospitals and military barracks. I argue further, through demonstration of his ideas around surveillance, the body, control and power, that the fashion system is one such place, where this structure can be found.

The emergence of prison as the form of punishment for every crime grew out of the development of discipline in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Foucault. He looks at the development of highly refined forms of discipline, of discipline concerned with the smallest and most precise aspects of a person's body. Discipline, he suggests, developed a new economy and politics for bodies. Modern institutions required that bodies must be individuated according to their tasks, as well as for training, observation, and control. Therefore, he argues, discipline created a whole new form of individuality for bodies, which enabled them to perform their duty within the new forms of economic, political, and military organizations emerging in the modern age and continuing to today.

The individuality that discipline constructs (for the bodies it controls) has four characteristics, namely it makes individuality which is:

·       Cellular - determining the spatial distribution of the bodies

·       Organic - ensuring that the activities required of the bodies are "natural" for them

·       Genetic - controlling the evolution over time of the activities of the bodies

·       Combinatory - allowing for the combination of the force of many bodies into a single massive force

Foucault suggests this individuality can be implemented in systems that are officially egalitarian, but use discipline to construct non-egalitarian power relations:

Historically, the process by which the bourgeoisie became in the course of the eighteenth century the politically dominant class was masked by the establishment of an explicit, coded and formally egalitarian juridical framework, made possible by the organisation of a parliamentary, representative regime. But the development and generalisation of disciplinary mechanisms constituted the other, dark side of these processes. The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was supported by these tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalitarian and asymmetrical that we call the disciplines. (Foucault; 1977: 222)

Foucault's argument is that discipline creates ‘docile bodies’, ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age, bodies that function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms. But, to construct docile bodies the disciplinary institutions must be able to (a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control and (b) ensure the internalisation of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. That is, discipline must come about without excessive force through careful observation, and molding of the bodies into the correct form through this observation; conditioning. This requires a particular form of institution, exemplified, Foucault argues, by Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. This architectural model, though it was never adopted by architects according to Bentham's exact blueprint, becomes an important conceptualisation of power relations for prison reformers of the 19th Century, and its general principle is a recurring theme in modern prison construction. The prison is built cylindrically as a series of inward facing 3 walled cells, looking out onto an open space watched over by guards in a central tower. (Foucault, 1975)

The Panopticon was the ultimate realisation of a modern disciplinary institution. It allowed for constant observation characterised by an ‘unequal gaze’; the constant possibility of observation. Perhaps the most important feature of the panopticon was that it was specifically designed so that the prisoner could never be sure whether they were being observed at any moment. The unequal gaze caused the internalisation of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. This means one is less likely to break rules or laws if they believe they are being watched, even if they are not. Thus, prisons, and specifically those that follow the model of the Panopticon, provide the ideal form of modern punishment. (Foucault, 1977)

If we compare this theory to the fashion system, constructing it as an imagined panopticon in which it’s prisoners, or ‘slaves to fashion’ have internalised the possibility of observation, or ‘the gaze’, what would be the equivalent of the ‘docile body’? The fashion media created the physical ideal of beauty, the waif model, and mediated that image as the model of docile conformity to the system. This is the image we are conditioned by daily, through advertising and popular culture, and as dedicated followers of fashion, are in constant movement towards attaining.

Most recently, a hyper feminine body, equipped with curves natural to women of colour, but popularised by Kim Kardashian and the like,and the cosmetic surgeons they employ on retainer. An impossible standard to achieve for those not naturally born with the shape, or bank balance to acquire it. What the system does, is supply mechanisms through which we are supposed to be able to attain this standard, dieting, working out, yoga, and most recently, or in actual fact, once again, the waist trainer/corset. Internalising the gaze means we internalise the need to self regulate, to self discipline. To participate in the system, is to anticipate being watched, fashion is a spectator sport. For me, this experiment has heightened my awareness of how severely these mechanisms affect us, how easily we are made docile in submission to the fashion system.

Day 2

I’ve kind of got the hang of the hook and eye fastening. It wasn’t as tough to do up today, but the rubber kinda irritates my finger while I’m doing it. I imagine this is something reminiscent of a BDSM burn. I mention this to my long distance partner and he’s annoyingly more interested in that than in the visible loss of inches I’m more than ecstatic about, even if it is only temporary. Because I’m feeling just sooo meta, I tried eating a pasta and wine dinner in it and can’t tell if this was a genius move or a terrible one.

I couldn’t finish my bowl (never happens) and I couldn’t finish my second glass of wine (never happens) because there was simply no room in my squashed tummy for the rest to go. This has me mildly gleeful. ‘I’m basically Kate Moss model status’ I say to myself out loud in the presence of my roommate. She laughs. I laugh, but secretly I’m chuffed. I vaguely remember Vanna B. noting eating meals in it will make you eat less. No lies here, and I am a happy camper, I’ll eat the rest for breakfast. My rib cage doesn’t hurt nearly as much, and I look suuuuuper womanly in my clothes; it’s still uncomfortable though, on both counts. I am acutely aware of the fact that I have curves, shape, and am very obviously a woman, which is a drastic change from my very square athletic frame. On the one hand, I am loving how anything high waisted makes me feel like a femme fatale, but on the other hand, I can’t breathe because my breasts are hiked up so high up my nose, and I cant see my toes over the mountains. I am actively working on trying to forget I have a torso-sized-band-aid sucking in my body, which is probably not helping my conditioning strategy. I hope that if I can forget I’m wearing it, I’ll be able to wear it for longer periods of time. Alas, the only thing that makes the time pass faster is walking in it, and right now, I just don’t feel like it.

Day 3

I’m a professional. I am Dita Von Teese. I am legend.

The mission should I choose to accept it. The gym.

I get ambitious and cut a hole in a garbage bag and wear it under my latex waist trainer for extra sweat potential. Needless to say, I dripped an entire Indian Ocean of sweat by the end of my session. I definitely feel a difference, maybe tomorrow I’ll see it.

The psychological effect of this thing is starting to worry me. I can’t stop thinking about it. It consumes my thoughts. I can’t relax because I’m so acutely aware of it. I wonder if I’ll ever get to the smaller hook, or even down to the smaller size I never got around to returning. I worry that I have to lose more weight because my legs don’t look as small as they did when my hips were the same width as my waist. Now I have new goals. Make a mental note to lose more weight. I’m pretty sure I can feel my organs moving, so now is a good time to take a break and wash it.

In the late years of the Victorian era, medical reports and rumours claimed that tight-lacing was fatally detrimental to health. (Steele, 2001) Women who suffered through the practice to achieve small waists were also condemned for their vanity and excoriated from the pulpit as slaves to fashion. Despite the efforts of dress reformers to eliminate the corset, and despite medical and clerical warnings, women persisted in tight-lacing. In the early 1900s, the small corseted waist began to fall out of fashion. The feminist and dress reform movements had made practical clothing acceptable for work or exercise. The rise of the Artistic Dress movement made loose clothing and the natural waist fashionable even for evening wear. (Kunzle, 1982)

Couturiers like Fortuny and Poiret designed exotic, alluring costumes in pleated or draped silks, calculated to reveal slim, youthful bodies. If one didn't have such a body, new undergarments, the brassiere and the girdle, promised to give the illusion of one. Corsets were no longer fashionable, but they entered the underworld of the fetish, along with items such as bondage gear and vinyl catsuits. From the 1960s to the 1990s, fetish wear became a fashion trend and corsets made something of a recovery. They are often worn as top garments rather than underwear. However, most corset wearers own a few bustiers or fashionable ‘authentic’ corsets for evening wear; they do not tight-lace. (Steele, 2001)

Day 14

I’m down to the smaller hook. I’ve been training in it every day, and washing and quick drying it to be able to wear it under my clothes after sweating in it. I feel almost naked without it, like it’s become part of my skeleton. Is that normal? I read somewhere in a tabloid that women have felt empowered by their corsets and waist trainers, that there is something empirically sexy about the bondage like under garment, and the feminist in me let out a little whimper. I’m one of THEM now. I am actually starting to enjoy this oppression. I am enjoying being able to control my body, discipline it, train it, and the daily photo taking means I am able to survey myself under scrutiny through the reflected eye.

I’ve been Snapchatting the experience for my social media followers. A couple have expressed great interest in this little experiment, a few of them even considering getting one themselves. I think ‘oh no, what have I done?’. The response from the men in my audience is obviously more than positive, a little creepy actually, but I guess that comes with the territory of total transparency on social media…or does it? Have I internalised the male gaze as a normative part of my embodied experience? Make a mental note to think more about this over my third cup of coffee.

Getting dressed is both painful and new at the same time. I am starting to enjoy exploring my new shape. A whole new world of women’s fashion has opened up to me, and I’m not sure if I am comfortable with my new image. I’m wearing much tighter clothing to show off my tiny waist, also out of a deep fear that people will think I am as wide as my cup size extends from my chest all the way down, and that would be devastating. This thing, this parasite, has given my control issues a pet to play with, and my crazy is having a field day. I’m self regulating. I walk different, stand different, eat different, dress different, but have not as yet decided if I like it or not.

Day 17

So smoking has become a very difficult thing to do. I get extremely light headed and my breathing is already short because of my compressed lung capacity. I guess it’s score 1 for health, what’s the tally at this point? I lost track.

I’m definitely smaller. The combination of ab workouts, the trusty plastic sweat bag, and Gertrude (my friend’s have named it), I can totally see a difference, but now I’m so hooked on it, I can’t fathom taking it off for longer than it takes to sleep, which lately has only been a few hours at a time. Make a mental note to Youtube once again how to sleep in it. Tomorrow I attempt the impossible.

Day 18

I tossed and turned all night. It was miserable. I am miserable. My back hurts, my ribs hurt, I’m light headed and I woke up with marks and grooves in my skin. Not cute.

I can’t concentrate in class. I shift in my seat trying to find a comfortable way to sit, and there isn’t one. It’s gotten easier to wear, but sitting still means bolt rigid posture and shoulders up by my ears so as not to rest too much weight on the boning that digs a sharp reminder into my side every time I slouch. Today is not a good day.

Day 30

I have officially moved onto the smaller size. I use the ‘seasoned’ one that I broke in purely for working out in or sleeping in, and the tighter one for daily wear. It’s much harder to sit, so I avoid it. I walk to school to avoid the glares on the subway as I sit like I have a stick up my butt. I guess the excuse for more exercise makes me feel like a very accomplished human being. I love this thing; the monster. I am pretty much acclimatised to wearing it all day and all night, except when I eat, I feel like the food never makes it down to the right place when I try eat with it on, so I eat (very little lately since the whole arrangement of my insides has shifted), and then put it back on. I think it helps with digestion, but this could be a lie I tell myself to assuage the guilt of the fact that I’m starting to love this portable torture chamber. Beyonce would be proud, but would Gloria Steinham?

Sip champagne later on in the day for a work celebration and it actually hurts, there are way too many bubbles causing me pain. Yes, bubbles can cause pain. On the bright side, this designer dress fits like it was made for me and I feel f***ing fabulous in it. My posture is unbelievable, but the whole DD illusion is frustrating. I made an appointment this afternoon for a consultation to see a cosmetic surgeon, and instantly realised how crazy I had become. One of my professors thinks I’m developing an eating disorder, but I keep trying to reassure her that I’m fine (I’m totally fine, right?). In Gertrude’s defence, I think the craziness is all me. I think I used the experiment as a way to feed my OCD, and desperate need for control. It gave me a way to self regulate every aspect of my life, but in other ways, made me feel very empowered. I think it’s a great tool to improve your posture and smooth out any unwanted unevenness in your midsection as a temporary fix, but coupled with a strict work out regime and my already vegan lifestyle, it has had some very positive lasting effects on my shape and posture. I think what it does is help the muscles develop in a new shape, strengthening your core while it does it. I’m not mad at this experience at all, in fact, I think I might continue wearing it. (Don’t tell my professor…or my mom for that matter.) Foucault was definitely onto something.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage, 1977.

Summers, Leigh. Bound to please: A history of the Victorian corset. Berg Publishers, 2001.

Kunzle, David. Fashion and fetishism: A social history of the corset, tight-lacing and other forms of body sculpture in the west. Rowman & Littlefield Pub Incorporated, 1982.

Steele, Valerie. The corset: A cultural history. Vol. 5. Yale University Press, 2001.

Varrin, Claudia. Erotic Surrender: The Sensual Joys of Female Submission. Citadel, 2003.