CORSETS, OF COURSE
It isn't the first time this frustrating condition has run rampant among young women. During the 19th century -- perhaps the only other period in history when the size and shape of the female form were as widely opined upon as it is today -- a woman was nothing without her waspish waistline. Yes, if ever there was a fashion trend that changed the course of medical history, the corset was it.
At the time, England's prim and proper attitude towards sex had a trickle-down effect that compromised the health of the nation. The common wisdom dictated that women who ate a lot, especially in public, were also wildcats in the bedroom. Those who could not control their appetite for food were similarly powerless against their appetite for sex. Nobody wanted to give the false impression that they were unable to restrain themselves, lest the nation descend into debauchery and immorality, so thin became the ideal. Painfully thin would be a better way to describe it, since the popular but cruel whale-boned corsets of the day reduced women's waists to grotesque proportions and distorted the growth of teenage girls everywhere.
This dreadful garment, particularly favoured by women in the upper levels of society, was an extreme in itself. It employed a structural support network of fabric reinforced by whale baleen and even steel, with laces tightened by one's dressing maid to the point of near-death. Even children were given training corsets from a very young age to prepare them for the rigors of the real thing. Of course, the less body fat there was to displace, the easier it was to wear the corset -- and the more desirable the silhouette -- so legions of young ladies added self-starvation into the mix. By the age of 14, respectable young women were expected to be in full corsets, the constricting garment restricting any last possible chance at child-like play or comfort. Life, from then on, was stiff.
The combination of fasting and fashion -- as well as organ damage in the form of liver, lung and stomach displacement caused by "tight-lacing," as it was called -- had Victorian women everywhere fainting and swooning their lives away. It actually got to the point where women were not able to support the weight of their upper bodies without their corset, so weakened and distorted did their ribcages and spines become over time. The ideal waistline was bearing down on 50 centimetres, but the smaller the better. Stories abounded of girls dying from their livers being punctured by their own ribs, or livers and stomachs being slowly cut in half by too-tight corsets, though no actual proof exists.
Many physicians decried the practice, and great public debates ensued about the safety of corseting and the habits of self-starvation it encouraged. Still, few doctors did anything about it, nor could they had they wanted to. The fact was, men of the day were charmed by tiny waists, as well as impressed by the degree of suffering women endured to achieve it on their account.