The Politics of Shapewear
Could shapewear be reinvented to be truly contemporary, or is it time we radically reframed our perspective on the body?
We all have complex relationships with our bodies. It could seem like a very private matter, just between you and the mirror. Truth is, our self-love or self-loathing are part of the collective consciousness, contemporary culture, and the capitalist system. Shapewear is one of the products directly connected to the (frequently unattainable) ideal of the female beauty — and it’s currently going through a resurgence. But could shapewear be reinvented to be truly contemporary — or is it time we radically reframed our perspective on the body?
This September, Kim Kardashian launched her newest commercial venture: shapewear (also dubbed “solutionwear”) company SKIMS. SKIMS offers seamless underwear, support shorts, and bodysuits in 9 colors: black, white and a range of nudes for different skin tones. Its promo campaigns are centered around the notions of diversity and inclusivity portraying women of different shapes, colors, and ages. Kardashian herself is at the centre of the story: shapewear has been part of her life for years, and she has struggled to find a product that would be comfortable and invisible enough. Similar to Kardashian’s new range of the body makeup, shapewear is part of the celebrity lifestyle of constantly being photographed, allowing you to step out in public as if you’ve already been photoshopped.
From a commercial point of view, SKIMS has huge business potential. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the United States shapewear market was valued at $526 million for the year ending in August (according to the NPD Group, the market research firm). SKIMS is not the only brand refreshing the aesthetics of the shapewear and injecting it with the language of comfort, self-love and empowerment — Shapermint, Honey Love, and Heist have joined in, among many others. UK-based Heist certainly stands out because of its investment in technological innovation. The label’s bodysuit and support shorts were designed by Fiona Fairhurst, who has invented FASTSKIN, a full-body swimsuit used by Olympic athletes. The technology of Heist shapewear mimics the fascia, body’s natural support system — with a promise of functional, comfy and breathable garments.
The recent resurgence of shapewear has caused a heated debate. Opponents label it an anti-feminist product of the patriarchy and a direct descendant of a corset (take a moment to have a look at SKIMS waist-trainer) — while advocates insist it’s a personal choice, like makeup. There is no doubt that shapewear is problematic, and its marketing frequently preys on women’s insecurities wrapped up in the language of female empowerment. At the same time, perhaps shapewear itself is not the problem — and what we truly need is the entirely new perspective on female body in fashion and culture.
As a woman of US size 10 (an average medium size), I have struggled with body image for most of my life. I have never worn shapewear because of its sheer discomfort, but have spent years trying to hide fat on my thighs and belly and various folds and rolls which appear in the process of trying to fit into clothes. One of the problems is the lack of representation of beautiful bigger female bodies in the media — which is changing now thanks to body positivity movement (special thanks to Barbie Ferreira and Lizzo). But looking at fashion and advertising, we somehow still expect the body of size 14 to be the same as the body of size 6 — we’re simply failing to accept the bigger female body in its actual shape continuously trying to remold it. Thankfully, there are also designers who are trying to challenge that.
London-based designer Karoline Vitto describes her work as “accentuating the curves and celebrating the folds” — she makes elastic figure-hugging dresses with inserted elastic bands and metal panels which emphasise folds and rolls which are usually hidden or perceived as something to be ashamed of. Vitto models a lot of designs herself — a testament to the continuous process of accepting her body after growing up in Brazil which has very restrictive beauty standards. Paradoxically, Vitto’s work was partly inspired by the restrictive nature of shapewear. “The project started with a waist clincher I bought in Brazil a couple of years ago”, she wrote on Instagram. “By trying to squeeze myself into it and noticing how the flesh would move up and out of that piece I realised it was about time I stopped worrying about shaping my body into something it was not”.
London based innovator Sinéad O’Dwyer creates sculptural silicone pieces which are molded to replicate the shape of real female torsos. Marble-hued silicone garments are mesmerising: somewhere between the second skin, soft shells and luminous sculptures. O’Dwyer’s work emerged from seeing women around her struggling with body image, the disparity between the ideal and the reality, and rejecting fashion industry’s rigid standard proportions. “My collection started as an exploration of how you perceive your body versus the reality of what it actually looks like, and ended with me creating pieces that fit the body, as opposed to forcing the body to squeeze into the garment,” she explained after her debut graduate show.
O’Dwyer’s latest collection is captured beautifully in a film, Wear Me Like Water, which the designer created together with image-maker Steph Wilson. It’s set by the swimming pool, historically a place of many insecurities, and portrays all kinds of bodies in all the glorious and mesmerising messy beauty — looking like real bodies, not the history of their cultural representation.
For every woman, feeling comfortable in your own skin is an ongoing process, and it doesn’t start or end with shapewear. Whether you like the idea of a sculpting bodysuit is beside the point — our aim ought to be to remember to always strive to reconsider society’s prescribed rules of being a woman.
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