Bad Barbie — Corseting, the Patriarchy, and You

I’ve never considered myself a woman who pursues the normative ideal of beauty in my culture — which happens to be American. As an adolescent and young teen, I found the punk scene in Chicago, and felt as if I fit in someplace for the first time in my life. The music, the people, the clothes…it all just seemed right. There was no place in this world for the darling pair of pumps, designer bag, and the perfect flattering pink lipstick I saw in all the fashion magazines (with the exception of Vogue, who had Helmut Newton and his amazing, fierce, fetishised Amazonian women). In this world, girls were valued for being tough, streetwise, and not afraid to sport leather jackets, combat boots , and shaved heads (mine was half shaved, half long, until I eventually made the full buzz cut at 17).

I never considered myself beautiful when I was young (typical, we don’t see it until we’re much older, and wish we’d appreciated it); I was rather gawky, skinny, with a big nose and weird hair. Not much has changed. Only now, I feel I’ve grown into myself — my beauty, in all its unconventional glory. But, like most girls I knew (and know, present tense), I struggled with my body image. I had a mother who made a habit of telling me I was ugly, awkward, and “fat” (secondary sex characteristics apparently qualifying as fat, in her book), and I believed her. For a long time. When I was a freshman in high school, minoring in Dance at the School of the Arts downtown, I developed a nice eating disorder that was to follow me around like a persistent shadow for decades to come.

It was never about some ideal of feminine beauty, my poorly developed body image. My dysmorphia had nothing to do with wanting men to find me attractive (and, being bisexual, was much of the time a non-issue). It was a direct response to being told I wasn’t good enough by the WOMAN in my life who was supposed to instill in me a healthy self image. I did everything I possibly could to prove her wrong, including a brief stint as a model in my late teens. As much as I hated modeling, it was incredible for my self-esteem, being told how beautiful I was regularly. It took a long time to actually take it in and believe it, but eventually, my mother’s voice faded into the background. As it does (if you’re strong enough) for all women, and our exquisitely complicated relationships with our mothers.

When I was injured in 2003, I was in finally in a really good place in terms of my self image. I had been practicing marital arts — Hapkido — for several years, still danced when I was able to find a class that fit with my schedule, and felt really good about my body. It was strong, young, and healthy. I had a life that was a mess, but was heading in a good direction. And then the accident happened. Right on the heels of an illness that had thrown me into a tailspin for months (and as it turned out, was Lupus and Hashimoto’s — both chronic, both incurable). Within the space of a couple months, all my hard-earned physical strength and confidence was gone. I watched as my body betrayed me, over and over again. I went from being strong, muscular, and healthy to a person who could barely leave her apartment. When the orthopedic doc had me fitted for a back brace, which I was to have to wear most hours of the day for the rest of my life, I thought my life was over. It was bad enough I was having to walk with a cane for an indefinite period, but now this steel boned THING was a part of my life forever? No thanks.

But the thing is, it had the opposite effect. When I put it on, it eased the pain, helped support me so I could walk for blocks, and on top of that, it looked like a strange version of a Victorian corset. It accentuated the lines of my admittedly too-thin body in a way that made it look feminine again. It made me feel beautiful; even as it drove me crazy because all I wanted to do was take the damn thing off for five minutes. But it had become a part of my life. Eventually, even part of my identity, as I used it for my newfound love of self-portrait photography art. It was like modeling, only MY way. Nobody slathering on tons of makeup on my skin to make it less pale, or lining my eyes with a pound of shadow to make my eyes look “rounder” (don’t ask). Nobody telling me I had to wear five inch heels and dresses, which — unless they’re obviously costumey and fun, I have no real interest in. I was exploring my beauty on MY terms, and — disabled or not — I started to feel more beautiful than ever before. I was discovering that my body had to find its strength all over again, and my brace was what made that possible.

So, when I discovered corsets worked just as well to help with my pain and mobility, I naturally made the transition, happily. Yes, a corset also accentuates the feminine form to what some may call an extreme degree. Caricature-esque, even, in some cases. That may be. I personally find it beautiful — find power in bringing out my natural feminine curves. To me, it’s a way to totally embrace my femininity, a way to feel beautiful in a body that constantly betrays me. I don’t care an iota for the attention of men in the fetish subculture, and don’t encourage it. I understand it, and don’t denigrate them for it unless it crosses the line. But I’m not doing it for them. Great that they’re not calling me a freak, as some people certainly have; but I don’t care about them, either. I’m not doing this for anyone other than myself — for that rush I get looking in the mirror when I’m laced up. Or the way my body has transformed from almost constant corseting once I take it off. It makes me more aware of my body, more in tune with it. Makes me feel more accepting of it.

People wear corsets for a number of reasons. For some it’s the aesthetic feminization of the form, whether in the fashion or the artistic sense. For others is the feeling of being constricted and/or held for physical or mental relief from pain; for others it’s the voyeuristic fetish element; for some it’s personal fetish. For some of us, it’s all of the above.
There is a tendency in our culture to see any sexualisation of the female form as oppressive, misogynistic. But that is an oversimplification, a lazy conclusion arrived at by people who by default are navigating our sexuality as something completely from the perspective of the male gaze. And that’s simply not true.
MY gaze is the only gaze that matters; I learned long ago not to see myself through the warped lens of the outside.

Aside from the obvious physical benefits of pain relief and mobility, the corseted form is attractive to me. I enjoy the aesthetics. It’s as simple as that. I can’t speak for others who tight lace, and wouldn’t try to. It’s an individual thing — whether it be born of some fetish, or from the complete opposite of the spectrum, purely as a supportive garment, or anywhere in between.

If it works for you, for whatever reason, it’s nobody’s damn business but your own.

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