Ladies, we need to talk about our underwear. Seriously! Not the daily, run of the mill underwear. Not the sexy lingerie either. We have to talk about the industrial kind. You know…”shapewear.” That stuff we’re supposed to squeeze ourselves into to flatten our bellies, shape our butts or lift our boobs in an effort to look “better” in a form fitting outfit. Without realizing it, we may be spending money on something that, at best, doesn’t do what it’s purported to do, and at worst, may be causing harm!
Not long ago, I was invited to attend a formal event, for which I had literally nothing to wear. I’m not a fashion maven at the best of times, and with some extra weight on my bones, the idea of shopping for a dress was about as appealing as walking on broken glass. With the help of my fabulously supportive friends, and with the expertise of a personal stylist at Nordstrom’s (who knew this was a thing?), I was able to find a dress I could be happy in – except for a couple of little sticky-outy bits that I really would prefer not to share with the world. So I asked about trying some shapewear. Heck – if I could slide into a little something that would camouflage the parts I don’t love, why not?
My intrepid stylist, Farah, went out in search of shapewear that would suit me and my dress. She brought back a selection; from little shorts with a bit of a snug fit to full length slips that basically create a vacuum seal around the body. I tried on the “beginner” shorts first… they seemed to tuck things in a bit and they weren’t too uncomfortable. At this point, I’m thinking, “ok, not too bad. If a little tuck is good, then the “expert” style must work wonders!” I decided to try on the maximum hold full length slip. As I squeezed myself into it, I felt a little like I was putting on a tiny wetsuit! Seriously? Was this the right size? Apparently so. Oh well, we’re taught we have to endure some pain to be beautiful, right? Maybe once I’m in, I will look so fabulous that a little extra squish won’t be so bad.
Once I was all in, I realized that this would be bad. So, so bad. Where the little shorts had gently smoothed my belly, in the slip I was squeezed so tightly that I couldn’t breathe! My ribs were compressed and I began to feel ever so slightly nauseated. And then I realized to my horror that despite the massive compression on my torso – my belly was actually sticking out FURTHER than before!! What the hell? This was certainly NOT the plan!
It was at that moment that I allowed my vanity brain to access my science brain, and I realized that of course tight compression around my ribs would push my belly out further! I suddenly understood that this shapewear thing is great in theory, but really not great for a large segment of the population. Why did the extra compression around the thorax make my belly stick out more than before? Check it out:
Inside the region between your pelvis and rib cage is a very sensitive pressure zone in which several organs are contained: your stomach, liver, small and large intestines, bladder, uterus, rectum and more. All these organs are tightly packed inside a bag-like structure called the peritoneum. Think of this bag and its contents a little bit like a big water balloon sitting on top of your pelvic floor, underneath your respiratory diaphragm. When the “load” forces are balanced around this “water balloon,” it fits easily within the space between thorax and pelvis.
When the space between thorax and pelvis becomes somehow compressed, with too much load from the wrong places, then the water balloon gets squeezed out if its natural shape and pushes outward. The outward push is directed either forward toward the belly (causing a bloated look/feel and difficulty accessing deep abdominal muscles), down into the pelvic floor (creating potential issues with incontinence and prolapse), up into the diaphragm (making it hard to get a deep breath), or even into the back (where it may challenge access to deep spinal support, among other things). Other potential problems with this over-pressurization may include issues with breathing, digestion/elimination, difficulty accessing deep core support, and other related compensations and potential dysfunctions further up or down the body!
If you happen to be someone with a beautifully balanced structure, you may not encounter any of these issues. But if, like me, there are some imbalances in your structure, then adding MORE compression to this sensitive zone via the shapewear is a recipe for disaster! I’m currently managing some thoracic compression and rotations that are pressurizing the belly in a way that makes it tough at times to access my deep core consistently. I’m working to release tension and change some of my support & movement patterns to eliminate that compression. But when I tried the shapewear to hide a few extra pounds – I was inadvertently adding even MORE compression. That pressure just pushed my belly further forward. What I thought would help instantly flatten my belly (and save my fragile ego) actually made things WORSE! I made the decision in that moment to stick with my fabulous dress, minus the shapewear.
So ladies, (and you fashion forward guys), if you’re already fearful of peeing when you laugh, or if you have trouble accessing your core, if you have respiratory issues, or twists in your structure, or even if it just feels icky to wear… STEP AWAY FROM THE SHAPEWEAR!
For many of people, shapewear is not a benign fashion accessory. In fact, it may be detrimental to our health. Aside from the freedom of reclaiming real beauty with all its imperfections, we will be doing ourselves a huge favour.
And because movement is my jam… remember that it is important to consider these same pressure-relationships when it comes to core training for structural stability. If we have movement patterning that puts pressure in the wrong places – we might not actually be getting the results we want from our core work. Great core work should make your overall movement feel EASIER! If you’re struggling to breathe easily during your Pilates class, or experiencing even mild stress incontinence as you work out, get some help! If your ribs feel compressed and you have trouble extending your spine well, get some help!
If you’re not sure, consult a qualified movement professional! You’ll be amazed at the change in the feel of your movement when you can de-compress the pressure zone and access great structural support. (Pssst… at Moving Spirit, we can help! Check out our Getting Started Guide for more information on our programs, or book an Introductory Private Training Package today.)
Have you had any interesting experiences with your “pressure-zone?” Any bizarre experiences with shapewear? Love to hear your thoughts! Share your experiences in the comments below!!
About Susannah Steers
Susannah is a Pilates and Integrated Movement Specialist, and owner of Moving Spirit. Through movement teaching, speaking, and facilitating workshops, she supports people in creating movement practices that promote fitness from the inside out. Susannah co-hosts The Small Conversations for a Better World Podcast; an interview-style podcast engaging in conversations about health that can spark positive change in individuals, families, communities and around the world.