A middle school in Mississippi drew criticism recently for offering teenage girls shapewear in order to help them “maintain a positive body image.”
School counselors sent a memo home to parents offering the option for female students to receive constricting undergarments along with “healthy literature” on body image.
Never mind the pressure girls face to live up to an idealized body image (one that shapewear is supposed to help achieve), which is, in fact, a leading contributor to negative body image in girls and women.
Parents were livid. But it wasn’t that long ago that squeezing oneself into constricting undergarments was a typical step in a plus-size adolescent’s fashion routine.
“The first time I wore shapewear was when I was 10,” said Megan Ixim, a fat activist and plus-size fashion influencer. “I was already wearing different types of pantyhose and stockings. However, my mom informed me that now that I was developing as a fat woman ― note I was 10 ― it was my duty to tuck everything in. I remember it taking about 15 minutes to pull the beige girdle over my stomach and to get it to stay.”
Though not as early as 10, I also wore shapewear throughout my teens and young adulthood. Whenever I tried on an article of clothing that was a little tight or showed any of the bumps and curves that accompanied my plus-size frame, my mom and I would say, “Well, maybe with a pair of Spanx.”
Body-altering undergarments have obviously existed in various cultures and times, but the slimming shapewear of my fat-kid youth was dominated by the introduction of Spanx, founded by entrepreneur Sara Blakely in 2000. Spanx were as ubiquitous in my adolescence as those SlimFast shakes every fat kid has choked down at least once.
The company was immediately successful, and the idea made Blakely a billionaire multiple times over, most recently in 2021 when she sold the company to Blackstone for $1.2 billion.
And what was this billion-dollar idea? Undergarments that “smooth,” “sculpt” and “shape,” aka make you look thinner. I most clearly remember the oxygen-inhibiting pair of shorts that came halfway up to your armpits, but the company now makes underwear, bodysuits, even a full-body catsuit, all with names like “Skinny Britches” and “Thinstincts.”
The Spanx aesthetic so penetrated the culture that as a young girl in a larger body, it felt more like a requirement than a choice that I squeeze myself into a pair anytime a garment clung to my body.
Ixim agrees, saying, “During my teenage years, I thought it wasn’t a choice but actually an expectation as a larger-bodied female to wear shapewear under any and every dress or skirt.”
Alexis Krase, owner of Plus BKLYN, a New York City boutique selling secondhand and vintage plus-size clothing, wore Spanx for years. Now calls them a “modern-day torture device.”
“At the time I loved that it made my traditionally apple-shaped body into a more hour-glass facade,” Krase said. “Simply put, I felt that I looked better smoothed over and less bumpy. But Spanx totally squeezed the heck out of me, and I always hated the way it made me feel, physically.”
Not only is shapewear physically uncomfortable with extended wear (I can’t tell you how many weddings I went to where I ended up desperately pulling mine off and stuffing them in my purse mid-evening), it may actually be bad for you.
A Consumer Reports article from 2011, “The Dangers of Teens in Spanx,” was written by a doctor who reported seeing a case of nerve damage in a 15-year-old soccer player who had been wearing the restrictive undergarments.
In addition: “Fitted, constrictive garments might be responsible for other health problems, including the recurrent abdominal pain my patient also complained of, possibly related to restriction of the bowels, especially after a meal,” the doctor wrote.
“My mom informed me that now that I was developing as a fat woman ― note I was 10 ― it was my duty to tuck everything in.”
– Megan Ixim, a fat activist and plus-size fashion influencer
I’d venture these dangers aren’t just limited to teens. But concern for my health isn’t the reason I finally retired my shapewear for good. And it wasn’t that I magically began to love my body, either. But at some point in my mid-20s, I started to think, “If I need to wear Spanx in order to feel comfortable in this garment, is it really the best garment for my body?” And then I simply wouldn’t buy the dress that wasn’t making me feel as confident, beautiful and magical as I should.
Both Ixim and Krase, in the process of learning to accept their bodies, have also sworn off shapewear and say they are better for it.
“You couldn’t catch me dead in shapewear these days. Not just because … who wants to subject themselves to unnecessary body compression, but because I have come to love myself and my body enough to know that I shouldn’t have to change the way it looks to be attractive to others,” Krase said.
I believe in extreme body autonomy, meaning what you want to do with your body, including squeezing it into a pair of skintight beige shorts, is up to you. But in a society that ostensibly is changing and evolving in its view of fat bodies, isn’t shapewear something of an outdated concept?
Sure, the Spanx brand may seem a little irrelevant these days, but Skims, the Kim Kardashian venture that sells loungewear and intimates, also has a robust shapewear offering, including maternity shapewear that claims to smooth your core without compressing your baby bump. This brand is both modern and extremely popular, and it’s repackaging the same old messages that bodies need “sculpting” in order to be presentable.
“Shapewear is 100% in direct contrast to the fat acceptance movement, health at any size, anti-diet progress … all of it!” Krase said. “These social movements are all centered around ending fatphobia. Shapewear inherently perpetuates fatphobia in that the whole purpose of shapewear is to shrink/shape one’s body. And in today’s landscape, perpetuating these ideas is both irresponsible and dangerous.”
Not only is the idea of shapewear body-negative, but it’s inherently sexist. When was the last time you heard of a guy stuffing himself into a taupe sausage casing in order to “create a better line” under his clothing? Even if you have, why isn’t there the same societal expectation for men to alter their body shapes in order to wear certain clothing or look “presentable” in public?
Far be it for me to begrudge anything that helps anyone feel more comfortable in their skin. But we all deserve to wear clothing that makes us feel comfortable and attractive in the bodies we have, not clothing that we feel we have to alter our bodies to wear comfortably.
And we all deserve to make the choice for ourselves, without feeling pressured or obligated to alter the shape of our bodies in order to look “better.”
“The biggest takeaway is learning what to do just for yourself and what serves you best,” Ixim said, “that you actually have a choice of what you do and what you do not put on your own body, and that you don’t have to hide or put yourself away to make others more comfortable.”