The big squeeze

What do women want? This was, and remains, Freud’s most vexing question.

If he cast an eye over this month’s glossy magazines, he might deduce that we would like equal pay, careers that don’t get in the way of family life and, frankly, vice versa. We’d also like the perfect clutch bag and winter boots that go with everything.

 The big squeezeFreud might also notice that the female silhouettes featured in the glossies – all guitars and hourglasses – do not remotely match the oblong-, oval- and apple-shaped women shopping on the high street. He would observe that what these women really want is a waist: they are shopping for controlling, tummy-flattening underwear. According to recent reports, sales of these items have shot up to £135 million annually.

While it might be sensible to say that it’s a sad day for feminism that our physical appearance has become so important, I’m actually whispering: “Go girls.”

In the past decade alone, the Western woman’s waistline has expanded by two inches to an average of 33.5in, and the rest of our bodies can’t keep up. It’s one thing to burn our bras (though I would only ever dream of doing this symbolically), but does our emancipation, our freedom from the restrictive underwiring of patriarchy, mean we have to have man-shaped middles?

A decent waist is a symbol of femininity, less entangled with sexuality than, say, an ample cleavage or a nice bit of leg. The purpose of a trim waist is to make clothes look better, and we all know that women – especially Brits – are more likely to dress for themselves than for men or other women.

Having spent my teens and twenties on a Sisyphean quest to be half a stone lighter (whatever my weight), I realised post-childbirth that shape was more important than size. Once that cow we call Mother Nature decided to take my waist away, I didn’t much care how fat I was, I just wanted to be concave in the middle. A fashionista friend recommended Spanx – restrictive big pants with a name and the kind of kitschy packaging that took all the shame out of the procurement of such undergarments. But though they are fit for purpose, nothing can remove the shame of stripping off in a pair.

It’s a brave woman who can look at herself in flesh-coloured cycling shorts, let alone allow the eyes of others to fall upon her. Yet bravery is the order of the day: John Lewis has seen a 22 per cent rise in sales of such pants in a year, and it’s no wonder M&S is doing so well these days – it sells five pairs a minute.

Why not, then, abandon courage and embrace the waist-cinchers that our grannies wore instead? The boned corsets and satin “waspies”, thick, belt-like contraptions that can yank a waist in by a couple of inches, are making a deserved comeback, thanks to burlesque star Dita Von Teese.

Abandoned by our 1960s sisters for being the Western equivalent of foot-binding, they are being ushered back into fashion, often worn as outer garments. Agent Provocateur has a special post-partum version favoured by Gwyneth Paltrow; and Elle Macpherson’s real-women-friendly underwear collection includes a “waspie” suspender belt, as does that by trendy smalls company Myla.

These controlling frillies, which some say train abdominal muscles to pull your tummy in, have become my excuse for not doing sit-ups. And what could be more liberating than that? LT

Ouch

The news that girdles are in fashion again brought it all back. I was about to go on my first date and my mum suggested I borrow her roll-on. No, not a deodorant (if only) but a sausage-skin with dangly suspenders. It looked highly unlikely that I could get one arm into it, let alone both hips.

“Cross your legs and heave it up,” Mum advised, briskly. I crossed and pulled. Mum tugged from behind. Then I tried to stand up: I couldn’t uncross my legs.

Thus clamped, it worked better than all her warnings to “behave” and, anyway, it was unlikely to inflame my spotty date. Indeed, he threw me a bemused glance when I creaked as I sat down in the cinema. Halfway through Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, tears streamed down my cheeks – even though he was singing a happy song on the top of a bus. I had to get rid of it – especially as a nail-bitten, ink-stained hand was about to encounter a rigid wall of rubber.

Hobbling into the Ladies, I rolled off my roll-on. “Argghhhhh!!” I shrieked, which alerted an anxious usherette. Frozen in the light of her torch, I displayed a stomach like a filleted haddock but a face wreathed in smiles of relief. They say that sex didn’t start until the 1960s – and that was why.

I’d love a nipped-in waist and an hourglass figure. But I know that in order to achieve it, I’d have to be very uncomfortably dressed, lots of bits would get squashed, I wouldn’t be able to eat properly, and I’d probably faint. That’s why, as they say on Dragons’ Den, I’m out.

But there are women who think it’s perfectly acceptable to go out for the evening in all that corsetry, squeezed from neck to knee and teetering on daft shoes. You can’t possibly have fun if you can’t walk and you can’t breathe. How can you smile, let alone flirt? And in the unlikely event that you get to the bedroom, surely you have to get the girdle off before he sees it?

So we’ve gone back to the dark ages – getting undressed in the dark, I mean, because of so many ugly underpinnings – simply because this generation of young women hate their bodies so much. What a sad situation. How did it happen? Girls, we’ve moved on from there. We have careers, independence, ambition, confidence. We can be kinder to ourselves and our bodies.

Those of us who remember the liberty bodice – a term about as apt as “friendly fire” – recall a thick, ribbed cotton vest with endless buttons, apparently designed to keep us warm but creating such compression and rigidity that I have no idea how I played netball. It was called “liberty” because it was a softer, freer version of the debilitating Victorian corset. So why do we want to go back to a time when women were trussed up like turkeys to attract a husband?

Any corseted mother should consider the effect her pathological dissatisfaction with her own body is having on the next generation. And any celebrities endorsing “shapewear” should… oh, I give up on celebrities.

I’m all for good make-up, hair colouring and a pretty matching bra and knickers, but the sound of Cliff singing Summer Holiday is enough to bring back the pain of that night in the Kingston Granada when I became a rebel without a corset.

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