Bridget Jones' big knickers
Bridget Jones's Diary (Photo: Alamy)


Can we stop pretending that control pants aren’t organ-crushingly uncomfortable?

Another Christmas party season is upon us and Caroline O’Donoghue is sick of pretending that shapewear is even remotely humane

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

One of the biggest clichés in women’s media is the overactive period advert. You know what I’m talking about. A woman is trampolining or water-skiing or horse riding, while simultaneously wearing a cotton Mini Milk. We all know this ad. We all laugh about this ad. We all realise why it’s a massive con, but simultaneously we realise that there are very few menstrual accessories as convenient as a tampon, so we carry on buying them away. (Before you @ me, yes, I have used a Mooncup and, while they have many fine qualities, “convenience” is not one of them.)

I’m not here to talk about how we feel about tampon ads. We all know how we feel about tampon ads. I’m here to ask why we don’t feel the exact same way about “shapewear” advertising. I’m talking about girdles. I’m talking about Lycra vests. Underwear that claims to have a magic panel built in. A panel, it is rumoured, that will take you down two dress sizes for the duration of a single evening. I’m also talking about those tights that have “extra support”, but SUPPORT is always written in large block capital letters. “Support”, like “control” and “shape”, is part of a long, secret lexicon of female words that advertisers use to tell us that we can be prettier and smaller and softer and younger, with the help of a single purchase.

For years, I have been reading Christmas-party outfit guides that hinge on the wearing of shapewear. A few years ago, when black Spanx were introduced to the previously pinky flesh-toned line, I remember seeing an array of jubilant features about how this opened up the party-dress game in a new and very exciting way. For years, I have been sold control vests and tights and pants that feature women wearing cocktail dresses, drinking martinis and laughing their horsey heads off over what a fantastic evening they’re having. There’s an overall sense that shapewear is to the modern woman what Cinderella’s fairy godmother was to her – they are capable of making you look fabulous for the course of a single evening and for no more than about six hours. The reality is that shapewear is a little more like the original Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, where her sisters cut off their toes and pare down their heels to fit into her glass slipper.

We are not Cinderella in this metaphor. We are her sisters.

Clearly, the shapewear market is robust enough that, even if you had to carry your kidneys around in a little bag in order to wear them, they would sell

Shapewear crushes your organs. It compresses your stomach, intestines and colon, and it aggravates acid reflux and heartburn, a fact that’s even more alarming when you consider that they also make Spanx for pregnant women. It also, according to gastroenterologist Dr John Kuemmerle, compresses your bowels and can cause incontinence. Which probably explains why, the last time I wore a “compression vest”, I answered a fairly innocuous “How are you?” with “I am simultaneously constipated and about to shit myself.” The Independent describes shapewear as “a second skin”, leading me to shout (alone, in my kitchen): “I’m not a snake, you assholes! I don’t need a second skin!”

Clearly, the shapewear market is robust enough that, even if you had to carry your kidneys around in a little bag in order to wear them, they would sell. And you know what? Fine. I’m just increasingly perplexed at how many people seem to be involved in the “shapewear is perfectly comfortable and not at all traumatising to wear” conspiracy. There have been so many people who have lovingly stood up for Spanx on TV that you’d almost think Spanx were a Hollywood actor accused of sexual harassment. To Kim Kardashian, they are “the greatest invention”. To Kelly Osbourne, they are a “must” because “nobody wants to see your belly button through your dress". Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the queen of sarky one-liners, has nothing but gushing praise for them. “You gotta have Spanx,” she said in 2010. “Keep the Spanx on and it will all work out.” 

There are so many gushing endorsements of shapewear from celebrities that you’d be forgiven if you thought the whole industry was a red-robed cabal led by the vampires at the end of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. When you speak out against control pants, does Oprah have you violently pulled into her limo before coolly explaining that you have 48 hours to leave town?

Look, if we want to go back to corsetry, let’s go back to corsetry. Let’s go the whole hog, with ribbons and stays and intricate silk design. Let’s bin the depressing flesh tones and Lycra panelling of shapewear. If I’m going to crush my organs for the sake of fashion, I want to at least look fancy doing it.


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Bridget Jones's Diary (Photo: Alamy)
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