When cinching one's midsection, some people follow the big trend of 2006 and clip on a cheap, colorful waist belt. Others constrict their abdomen with steel boned silk, whittling themselves down to jar-sized circumference; these cinchers, known as tightlacers, wear corsets so dutifully and for so long that their body contorts into the mold, inches wasting away as organs are compelled downward and up.
The Daily Dot recently investigated this phenomenon in the community issue of their digital mag, The Kernel. Their research shows that the art of corset training, a form of body modification that was once thought of as antiquated, is seeing a resurgence around the globe. How do the practices of tightlacers, and other extreme body modifiers, relate to cultural norms that dictate physical standards, and why is altering the human body so important to some people?
Dr. Elroi Windsor is a professor of sociology at Salem College, specializing in gender, embodiment, and healthcare. According to Dr. Windsor, bodymod practices are common in varying degrees, and have been throughout history. The professor's past research into the body modification of both cisgender and transgender people provides insight into these uniquely human practices. "I found two main reasons people modify their bodies," Dr. Windsor explains. "People want to look better, and people want to feel better, and usually the two are related. The body is one thing about ourselves that we have a great deal of control over, and being able to change the body can be an empowering and liberating act."
Of course, the degree to which one can control their body is limited in proportion to the accessibility of body modification technology. This means that there are factors, such as the monetary cost of surgical procedures, that can act as prohibitive barriers to one's control over their body. "Class is a huge factor," Dr. Windsor says. "Not all body mods are affordable. So more expensive modifications are often used by people with higher socioeconomic statuses."
Not all body mods are affordable. So more expensive modifications are often used by people with higher socioeconomic statuses.
There are other socio-cultural factors that affect body modification. "Norms related to gender and race can also affect what kinds of body mods people pursue," Dr. Windsor says, drawing an example from the community of committed corset users. "For example, tightlacers are creating bodies that our society codes as feminine." Rather than writing the practice of tightlacing off as the pathological result of patriarchy, Dr. Windsor focuses on the fact that norms, like those of gender, determine the social consequences of defying them. "Consequently, women with feminine gender expressions can pursue this modification more easily than men, who will be more stigmatized by the behavior."
The Daily Dot interviewed a tightlacer named Kelly Lee Dekay, who describes herself as "self-made supervillain." She told the the publication more about the quest for community in the internet age. For instance, anxiety about organ damage is a cliche concern from gawking outsiders, and many tightlacers have the desire to share their fanaticism for waist-based bodymods without criticism.
"It's hard to exist within a subculture without having some sense of community," Windsor explains, adding that this community is crucial for marginalized groups. "It's a place where people can share their experiences, learn new techniques, and keep safe in practicing more risky body modifications." Community organizing is changing for tightlacers: According to The Daily Dot, their communities are moving online. "Having that ability to connect with other like-minded folks can be the difference between life and death," Windsor says. "People realize they're not alone."
Having that ability to connect with other like-minded folks can be the difference between life and death.
While "extreme" forms of body modification like tightlacing or sex changing surgical procedures may still set people apart from the masses, it would be difficult to find someone who does not, in one way or another, alter their body. "We all modify our bodies to varying degrees," Dr. Windsor explains. "Brushing our teeth, wearing deodorant, working out, cutting our hair—all of these practices change the body."
These practices are codified by cultural norms and ranked in relation to a nebulous and narrow notion of "normal." According to Dr. Windsor, "We tend to rank some body mods as more acceptable than others, which creates a hierarchy of morality among body modifications." Cultural relativism, the interpretation of one's beliefs or behaviors via the norms of their society, sheds light on the way that we perceive the altered human body. "Some people argue that certain body modifications go 'too far' because they pose health risks, such as the risk of infection and death in plastic surgery," Dr. Windsor says, leveling that judgement with the fact that some risks are acknowledged, while others ignored. "Many normative body mods also carry health risks—like dieting, wearing high heels, and tanning. Ultimately, for some people, the risk of the body mod is worth it because it gives them greater happiness." In this way, body modification is a trademark of humanity's pursuit of happiness and the time honored quest for self-discovery.
Dr. Windsor challenges critics, stating, "Anyone who thinks their body is natural is kidding themselves."