Sarah Chrisman has been wearing a corset every day and night for over four years. Chrisman, author of the book "Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself" talked to Metro about the journey that has whittled down her waist from 32 inches to 22 inches.
Metro: When did you start wearing corsets?
Chrisman: It started on my 29th birthday [March 12, 2009] when my husband gave me one as a birthday gift. I’d always been interested in the Victorian era. My husband and I had been collecting antique clothing and it was always a source of frustration that we could get a few items of men’s clothing that would fit him but none of the women's clothing would fit me because they're made for a corseted form. I’d always heard the 20th century stereotypes and ideas and wives' tales about corsets and of course I’d believed them, so I had specifically told him not to buy me one. He did anyway and he was worried I’d be angry, but it was my birthday and it was a sweet thought. We both love history and immediately when I tried it on, it was not the torture device that I’d always been led to believe it was. It was actually quite comfortable and it did remarkable things to my figure. There’s a very popular notion these days that human bodies were different in the past, but it’s not true when we’re talking about the 19th century. It’s not true that people evolved in 100 years - that’s not enough time for humans to evolve. It’s just that women were wearing corsets and that’s why their figures looked different. I was shocked to see my figure could look that way in less than a minute, which was a very revelatory moment for me.
Where did he buy the corset? What is it made out of?
He got it from an online source called Timeless Trends. The corset itself is made out of a cotton coutil and then it’s supported by very, very thin strips of sprung steel. That portion of a corset is called boning or ribs, so that led to a lot of misconception because of the idea of broken bones or broken ribs. The particular one he gave me also had a bit of silk overlay as decoration, which is common.
I can't believe it's not uncomfortable at all. Sometimes I get uncomfortable wearing jeans if I eat too much.
It does let me know when I’m full, which has been very refreshing. I no longer have to worry about, "Oh well if I eat this will my clothes not fit anymore" because the corset is giving me the form I want and I know when I’m full - I just eat until I’m full. The metaphor I like to use is that a good supportive corset is like a good supportive pair of shoes. A small child who doesn't wear shoes in the summer or wears flip flops, their first pair of shoes back in school may be a little uncomfortable, but once we get used to our supportive shoes they're something we don't want to do without.
How did you decide to wear the corset every day?
It was a fairly quick decision because I realized how much I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the support for my back. I enjoyed the sudden knowledge that this is a really good indicator of when I’m full and I also of course enjoyed the lovely shape it gave my figure - a shape I always envied in models in pictures but thought I could never have myself. I enjoying all of the aspects of it and I thought I didn't want to go without them. I wore it every day within a couple of weeks of receiving it and it was a quick step to sleeping in it as well, because I realized the part of the body where the corset gives shape is that part that holds hollow organs. It's basically like pouring water into a vase as opposed to into a balloon. As soon as I started sleeping in it all the time, things just stayed in that shape. The amorphous, semi-digested food in there was always changing shape, which got a little uncomfortable until it just held a shape it could regularly move through.
Was it a lot to adjust to?
It was a little bit of an adjustment but not as much as I expected. I do loosen it when I go to bed at night. There are three or four that I wear every day and I have one that I wear on special occasions. I have two antique ones that I just display for presentation and I kept my first couple of Timeless Trends corsets that no longer fit me as my waist has gotten smaller, but I keep them for sentimental reasons.
Do you tie it up?
There’s a busk in the front which has little clasps – grommets - and there are tiny little tabs that slide into little plasts and in the back there is a system of laces. It’s kind of like a shoelace. It’s a type of corset that was developed in the Victorian Era and it’s called a split-busk corset. They started making it that way because before the split-busk was developed a corset had to be entirely relaced but a split-busk corset just has to be loosened a bit. It’s like having to completely remove the laces to take your shoes off versus just loosening the laces.
Why did you decide to write a book on your experience?
I’d been receiving the same questions so many times over and over again and I decided it might just be easier to tell people to read my book so I wasn’t always answering the same 50 or so questions every time I wanted to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk. Pretty much every time I step out someone will inevitably stop and ask me questions.
So people notice immediately that you are wearing a corset?
It was after my waist started going down a bit that I really started getting questions about it. With my first corset, it didn’t happen so much because it was only four inches smaller than the waist size I started with. As it started getting dramatic, I found myself stopped more and more.
Have you lost weight?
I've never been big on weighing myself, but I don't think I have lost weight. It just realigns things.
What are your measurements now if you don't mind my asking?
A 34-inch bust, 41-inch hips and 22-inch waist, and I'm 5-foot-9.
You're not worried about what it could do to your health? What about the rumors that corsets rearrange your organs?
As I said before, the only thing that’s in the area are hollow organs. It’s really interesting because a lot of people will very emphatically quote one paticular source, which is J.H. Kellogg, who was a very fringe element doctor. The interesting thing is that in the 19th century, women were writing about the corset saying they were a women’s thing and that men should stay out of women’s business. There were very few but very vocal men who didn’t like corsets because they said they incited lust. J.H. Kellogg who wrote the "Ladies' Guide in Health and Disease" decried the corset and he spent 11 pages complaining about corsets. People will quote him on that but no one ever quotes the part where he goes off for 22 pages on the evils of masturbation where he says that anything from say reading bad books to eating mustard causes masturbation and that masturbation can lead to blindness and/or insanity and death. Nobody believes him about that and yet they’ll still be happy to believe him about the corset.
Did you consult a doctor before you started wearing a corset every day?
No. I tend to avoid mainstream doctors. The last time was when I broke one foot and the doctors I went to wanted to do surgery on both my legs. It gave me a healthy skepticism about mainstream medicine. Even the best doctor in the world only sees patients for a few minutes but we all live in our bodies 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If it were hurting me in some way, I would notice.
What have been the biggest challenges of your journey?
The biggest challenges are negative reactions from other people. I get the whole spectrum, from positive to incredibly vitriolic comments. The way I see it, it’s my life and no one else’s right or prerogative to tell me how to live my life.
Do you think you'll wear a corset into your old age?
Yes, I think so. I don’t see it ending any time soon. The current record holder for world’s smallest waist, Cathie Jung, is in her 70s. She’s in North Carolina.
She's in a corset?
Oh yes, she does. When my book came out she actually contacted me and I had the privilege of having a short conversation with her and that was very sweet. Her husband is a doctor.
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark