The waist trainer is having a moment.
Celebrity devotées of this modern-day update on the corset — which, so the faithful swear, comfortably compresses the wearer’s figure into an attractive hourglass shape — include Kim and Khloé Kardashian, models Amber Rose and Blac Chyna, and Lindsay Lohan. Real Housewives of Atlanta alumna Kim Zolciak says she’s lost four inches off her waist thanks to her trainer.
The key word here is “trainer.” These garments purport not only to resculpt your body while you wear them, but after enough use, to permanently slim your silhouette.
I am not a celebrity. I am a regular person, one who’s neither overweight nor thin. I am five foot nine and 148 pounds, and I wear a size eight or a medium, depending. I run 20 miles per week — which is also, coincidentally, the number of Chicken McNuggets I prefer to eat in one sitting.
Losing weight is not a priority for me, but would I be interested in effortlessly flattening my stomach? Obviously, of course, yes. How is that even a question? If waist trainers work for the rich and famous, surely they could work for a normal like me.
Plenty of retailers offer waist trainers, like Hourglass Angel and the Waist Gang Society. I found myself browsing the website for Classic Shapewear, which offers everything from butt-lifting jeans to full-length maternity pantyhose. I ultimately settled on a cotton and rubber Perfect Waist cincher from the Brazilian company Squeem. (Now, I can’t read that brand name as anything but an all-too-apt combination of “squirm” and “scream.”)
At $66, beauty sure don’t come cheap. But of 165 customer reviews, 82 — nearly half — are perfect five-star ratings. And that model — she sure seems happy! Convinced, I erred on the conservative side for fit, opting for a larger trainer when I saw that I’m between sizes on Squeem’s handy chart.
My first impression of my waist trainer: a strong hit of rubber as soon as I open the packaging. This thing smelled like the Sports Authority. It does even more so now that a gallon of my sweat has been boiled into its fibers.
In my notes for this story, the word “sweat” came up over and over again. Standing on humid subway platforms with a thick black exoskeleton around my middle, I wondered more than once if I might pass out. This isn’t an accident: weight loss through perspiration is one of the product’s stated benefits.
Sweating means you’re dropping water weight, an unhealthy and temporary pound-shedding tactic. Chug some Poland Spring and you’ll gain it right back. If dehydration worked for anyone besides wrestlers desperately trying to cut weight before a match (a dangerous practice that has cost some athletes their lives), every man, woman, and child in America would own a well-soaked pair of Wonder Sauna Hot Pants.
I wore my waist trainer for the first time on a Tuesday. By Friday, I was confident that I’d never, ever try one again. It feels, at worst, like an antiquated torture device, and at best, like a medical truss.
That first morning, my natural waist measures just over 29 inches. With the garment strapped on to its outer, looser row of snaps, my waist shrinks to 28, and loses about another half-inch if I close the trainer on the second row. I decide to stick with the first row.
It does require some effort to get the waist trainer on, but looking in the mirror, I have to admit that I like what I see — it instantly reshapes my waist into an enviable hourglass (albeit a rubbery one). And standing still, I feel fine. Okay!
But then I make a rookie mistake: I take a deep breath. Suddenly, I don’t feel so fine, and as the trainer gives my heart and lungs an extended, overfriendly hug, I won’t for the rest of the day.
Getting ready for work, I quickly discover that every item in my closet fits into one of two categories: the clothes either make the waist trainer glaringly, laughably obvious (cropped T-shirts are a hard pass) or render its effects totally invisible. I end up sticking to the latter group, because — I can’t overstate this enough — there’s nothing sexy about a waist trainer. The effect isn’t of silky lingerie peeking out from under a blouse, but of an enormous bandage that has swallowed your torso.
Throughout the week, dressing myself around my waist trainer proves to be a challenge. Tops ride up in the back, and bottoms bulge where my fugitive gut tries to escape. That pudge has to go somewhere, after all; it isn’t being quietly trucked to a landfill in an outer borough. To make this work on a permanent basis, I would have to invest in a new wardrobe.
Halfway through my commute to my office in Manhattan, I change from the 7 to the 6 train at Grand Central. This transfer requires you to ascend two flights of escalators, which I scale without a second thought on a daily basis. But not with the waist trainer. I find myself almost immediately lightheaded and short of breath, like a Southern belle about to collapse on her fainting couch with the vapors.
My job is the opposite of manual labor. I type things on the Internet and occasionally eat snacks from the comfort of a rolling office chair. But in a waist trainer, sitting is surprisingly unpleasant. Gravity distributes your stomach fat around your hips like a melting ice cream sundae, which the trainer grips anew every time I shift in my seat.
The prospect of exercising in this thing — and people do! — is unfathomable to me. Bending over to pick something up, causing the boning to poke you between the ribs, is already a nightmare.
The only activity that doesn’t feel terrible is removing the waist trainer, but even that experience proves unsettling. I discover that my midriff is crosshatched with angry red welts, in the pattern of the corset’s boning, that sting like a sunburn. I look like roadkill.
By the next morning, the marks still haven’t fully disappeared. Has my waist trainer branded me?
Over the next few days, I am, as a general rule, both dizzy and cranky. Wearing a waist trainer does not do wonders for your mood, and unfamiliar pressure on your bladder means you constantly have to pee. Fastening the waist trainer did get a bit easier as the week went on, but the overall experience was never anything but dreadful. I will say this: Classic Shapewear’s website suggested that the cincher could help relieve lower back pain, and on that count, it delivered. But did the back support my waist trainer offered make all the attendant discomfort worthwhile? Not so much, no.
In fairness to Classic Shapewear and Squeem, the product description repeatedly advises that potential customers consult their doctors. I did not do that, nor did I follow Classic Shapewear’s recommendation that the trainer be worn between eight and 10 hours a day. For my experiment, I wore mine between six and eight hours a day, for just four days in total. If used as directed, the Perfect Waist cincher promises to shrink your waist between one to four inches in 30 days, a fairly typical claim for waist trainers.
Again, in theory, a trainer is designed to transform your body into a more appealing shape, like a constricted latex cocoon from which your waist will emerge a beautiful hourglass butterfly. But what does the science say?
“For those who are waist training for aesthetic reasons, it may make their waist smaller,” Dr. Sara Gottfried, the New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Reset Diet and The Hormone Core, told me in an email. “It does this by displacing your organs and compressing the waist area. Is it proven to permanently reshape your figure with good quality evidence? No. Support is based on anecdotal evidence from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian.”
Any observed slimming effects from the compression seem to be purely temporary, as Shape found when an editor spoke to a nutritionist. No corset can magically reduce your level of body fat. Likewise, claims that waist trainers will strengthen your abs may be false. They can even weaken your core after extended use, reports USA Today.
If I were dead set on losing weight without resorting to diet or exercise (which, to be clear, is not a good idea), I’d rather swallow a tapeworm than submit to 30 days in a waist trainer.
“I’m worried about your spleen,” my boss tells me more than once during my week of waist training. So was I, honestly. I couldn’t point to my spleen on an anatomical model, but that no longer mattered — because wherever it was supposed to be, it wasn’t.
“Waist training may make your waist smaller, but your organs have to go elsewhere, displacing your lungs, liver and intestines, and compromising your ability to move and breath,” says Gottfried, who has more than 20 years of experience as a physician. She warns that waist trainers and corsets may reduce the size of your lungs by 30 to 60 percent while you’re wearing them, and that they may also lead to constipation and metabolism problems.
Given that your insides are in constant state of crisis, eating in a waist trainer is not easy. I squeeze into my trainer after breakfast and release myself before dinner, but I still have to contend with consuming one meal a day while my ribcage is under siege.
That week, my lunches include supermarket sushi, a Cuban sandwich, and a cheeseburger — all, in retrospect, poor choices for someone whose stomach has been tightly bound by an industrial-strength rubber cylinder. Inevitably, I feel awful after eating, and the fate of Violet Beauregard in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory comes to mind more than once. To cope, I chew every bite until my jaws reduce it to unobjectionable, unidentifiable mush.
This could be the key to waist trainer-induced weight loss: you eat less, because eating is so uncomfortable. The device isn’t much more than a dietary chastity belt — you’re simply squishing your digestive system into reluctant submission.
“You may experience weight loss when wearing the waist trainer, but this can be due to the fact that wearing the corset makes you feel full faster, and encourages reduced consumption of foods that make you feel full quickly, such as carbonated drinks and inflammatory food such as tortilla chips or French fries,” Dr. Gottfried tells me.
By week’s end, I hadn’t lost or gained any weight. My waist remained the same size. I did not feel sexy in my trainer; I felt ill.
It’s worth noting that the celebs who tout their favorite waist trainer brands on Instagram are almost definitely getting the garments for free — and more than likely getting paid to shill for those companies. Nevertheless, there are those who genuinely love their waist trainers, and I’m happy for them.
But personally, I would not ever, under any circumstances, recommend this thing to anyone. If you want to throw on something slimming for one night (and I do mean one night, not 30 days), why not opt for the lacy Victorian allure of a beautifully made corset, or the space-age smoothness of Spanx?
Given that waist trainers are not only wildly uncomfortable but fail to deliver on the fitness benefits they promise, the proverbial juice isn’t worth the squeeze.