I just read a fairly old, but still relevant style article, Killer Fashion: Looking Good Never Hurt So Bad. The author writes about the pain we suffer for the sake of “beauty”, specifically super-high heels, tight jeans, and suffocating shapewear.

For as long as recorded history, women have suffered pain for cultural standards of beauty. Chinese women bound their feet until the early 20th century, crippling themselves to have sought-after narrow, dainty feet. And for centuries women wore corsets that could deform their internal organs* (myth! see comments below) and restrict their breathing — but give them an hourglass shape.

You want me to do what with this?

We have moved beyond these rather overt restrictive garments to more subtle ones, still in the quest of “traditional” feminine beauty. For example, even though most women’s bodies are rectangular or pear-ish in shape, we’re told the hourglass is the ideal, so we still buy and wear “shaping” garments.

Some modern shapers are said to be cooler and more comfortable than the vintage versions, but I wouldn’t know: never owned a piece. Too squeeze-y, and way too noticeable for my comfort level. Here’s a fairly disturbing anecdote from the Killer Fashion article:

Renate Raymond, another 33-year-old woman . . . developed an abusive fashion relationship with her slimming BodyShaper. “The first time I wore it, I had bruises all over my body where it had cut off my circulation,” she says. “But even with the bruising, I put it right back on so I could look good in my clothes. I’m like a battered wife.” 

Just wow to that sentiment. People, we don’t have to be bruised to “look good in our clothes.” No payoff to “looking good” seems worth this agony. And I don’t want to have to “get used to it.”

While progress has been made, this modern girdle doesn’t appeal to me either.

Ultra high heels can be another sort of agonizer. I just finished gorging on several books about Parisian style. One advised, “Always wear heels; it makes you walk more beautifully.” (To be fair, many other books recommend chic flats and flat boots for the French wannabes among us.)

When I wear high heels, my feet hurt, my calves ache, I can’t walk quickly and I don’t feel powerful, beautiful, or confident. So, not for me.

So pretty, but they’re agonizers to me. Buy them here if you dare!  : >

Another young woman quoted in the article said this about high heels:

“After years of heels, I’ve become almost exclusively dedicated to flats,” she says. “Let’s face it, there’s nothing like walking around in really sexy, fabulous shoes, but if you can’t hide the grimace of pain or oozing blood or swelling toes…” 

Mmmm, oozing blood — never seen on the cover of Vogue!

I have not given up on looking stylish in favor of comfort! I don’t wear all-elastic-waist pants or athletic sneakers to the office. I still try every day to look attractive, authentic and modern. But the days of suffering for style are behind me.

What say you all? The case could be made that even coloring our hair is suffering for beauty (chemicals, odors, time . . . ) or wearing hose, or even bras. Is there a line of “agony” you won’t cross? Love to hear your thoughts!

* As Trystan and Megan have pointed out, well-made corsets did/do not cause bodily damage.

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  3. Hi Patti, I'm a new follower.  

    I have been guilty of relying on agonizers to improve my appearance.  I love heels and I still wear them, but they are far more sensible than those sky high platforms that some wear. I have watched people walk in them and I see how they alter free and easy movement and make walking look stilted while posture is thrust in into odd contortions.  

    I occasionally wear a body smoother, but not a shaper.  I always wear panty hose with a dress in cooler weather or for any professional occasion and they don't feel like agonizers to me..if they are the right size.  I always wear panty hose with a wider band…not that narrow, constricting band that cuts a body in half!

    It's taken many years to learn the painful lesson that 'beauty' is not beautiful if you are grimacing in pain!

  4. Great post- much to muse on. I have nothing against body manipulation but would, and do draw the line against suffering for it. I tried to do shapers but they are too hot and uncomfortable- at least the ones in my price range. But the design sort of gets me- I can't wear something that goes up into my ribs- how does one take them off to use the facilities? Ridiculous but people I admire swear by them. I love the "big girl shoes" and for me platform wedges are more comfortable to stand in than flats or "heels" means the stiletto heel which I can't wear at all much less walk in them. Although recently I've been having some baby toe problem that makes all kinds of shoes unwearable/unwalkable and that sucks- I don't want to only wear dowdy shoes!

    I would wish for better design- less agony in garments if thought goes into the design of them- there are heels that don't cripple, corsets that don't bruise, and other ways to alter the body (human nature after all) that don't harm. 

  5. I think heels are very attractive — sexy, even (gasp!) and I do wear them; but I draw the line at pain.  All of my heels are comfortable, especially the platform styles where the foot is more level, and I can run in any that I wear.  Not for a long distance, but you know what I mean.

    As far as corsets, I love them!  I think they are so beautiful and romantic!  But again, pain is where I draw the line.  One of my favorite corsets is worn on the outside of my clothes:

    I also consider myself a modest dresser-upper, so that is always a consideration for me too.  I think understated (even when overstating — ha!) is good.  🙂 


    PS — Love this post!

  6.  Interesting, indeed! You go, Cindy – your reply was spot-on brilliant.

  7. I cannot believe the time, money, and humility I wasted in buying high heels that threw off my balance, caused me to not walk confidently (like you said above), and aggravated my already existing hammer toes.  So stupid!  Yes, they are pretty shoes.  But as my husband commented (when I told him he didn't understand): why would you spend $300 on shoes you can't walk in?

    I like bras, though.  As a heavy-chested woman, bras provide structure and are necessary.

  8. This is a great post Patti – it has sparked a lot of discussion. 

    For me, my one concession to "beauty" is NOT wearing nylons or panty-hose with a short skirt.  I normally don't like to go bare-legged, and especially not if the skirt is about knee high.  It's uncomfortable because shoes rub and I feel over-exposed; yet this year (maybe because of the blog) I've started to do it – not sure if I like it though … you've got me thinking: maybe I WILL wear panty-hose tomorrow.

  9. I don't mind a certain amount of discomfort if it reminds me to stand up strait and pull in my tummy. Certain looks are less comfy, but the make me feel chic so why not? I'm thinking here about pencil skirts and medium heels. I won't do out and out pain though – no tattoos for me!

  10. Another great post Patti, and thoughtful comments.  I continue to wear heels, but not for long periods of time and a good fit is important.  'Car to Bar' is a comment I read on someone's blog and that was good for a laugh.  I find putting on makeup to be meditative and I color my hair.  Maybe someday I will choose not to.  But for now, I'm for having fun with style and appreciating differences.  To each her/his own!

    I grew up wearing girdles in the 50's and all the young women I knew did the same. Norms change over time, and I am always changing too.  But I don't see a braless future for me – that was in the 70's.

  11. i think if it makes you feel good then do it but don't do it for other people.  like i like getting highlights and coloring my hair.  i like getting my eyebrows threaded. these things make me feel good.  and i can tell you i'd be happy to wear a pair of spanx under my clothes.  but i probably would NOT wear a corset!


  12. Wonderful post, Patti!  I think I do suffer a bit for fashion but I'm usually pretty adamant about not being uncomfortable in my clothes.  I'm probably the worst about high heels (which is funny because I'm six foot) but I like the way they make my legs look.


  13. I'm more comfortable when I'm wearing a bra than when I'm not, so I almost always wear one – no suffering there, since I found a gadget to keep the straps from falling down my sloping shoulders.  I have mostly given up on heels, and I have found that spending much more than I ever thought reasonable on walking shoes, including ballet flats, is absolutely necessary.  But the additional suffering I have recently taken on is the ironing required by the blouses that I really like – I resent the time I spend in service to my clothes, but I do like the way they make me look after I invest it.  I resent every cent I spend on dry cleaning, though.  And I am just barely able to continue coloring my hair – it's a mess, but it does give me 20 minutes where I can't do anything else but read while the color sets.  And no surgery, I suspect – I think I'd like to be rid of a sag and a bag here and there, but I just plain hate anesthesia of any kind, and I'd rather spend the money on something else.  

  14. i just can't help chuckling at the woman that got bruises from her shaper garment, but wore it again anyway

  15. Loud amen from this corner!!
    I've given up on my Tammy Faye Baker mascara addiction(i have long thick PALE lashes so I was a mascara queen) and most eyemake-up except for the occasional swipe of a natural mascara for color. Yeah I KNOW that I should accent my eyes cuz I wear glasses but I'm done with the itching and all.
    Shoes…sigh.. how I loved my heels. But reality is nothing over maybe a very sturdy 1" heel these days. Thank heavens for all the cute flats out there.
    I'm NEVER giving up my well-fitting supportive hydraulics (bras) I like my boobs off my lap!
    Great thought provoking post Patti!

  16. I have sometimes worn "shapewear" (they are just girdles  under another name) to get a smoother look with certain clothes. Special occasions sometimes require a little discomfort that we wouldn't want for everyday wear. But I will not wear dangerous, painful shoes. The ability to walk is important to me! A well-fitted bra should not be uncomfortable at all. I find being supported much more comfortable than the alternative. I've read that most women wear the wrong size or style of bra without realizing it, so maybe that is why many find them painful.

  17. I would consider a corset not only for shape but for posture.  I have always had bad posture and I think a corset would keep me straighter.  Notice I said "consider".  Maybe for a special event, like a Renaissance Faire etc.  The extreme high heels I see young women teetering around on today, absolutely NO.  Pain and unless one has great balanc and is quite short, Kelly Rippa) not attractive.

  18.  I just get heels that fit me and are comfortable and shapewear that actually FITS and is not a size (or more) too small…because I'm not an idiot. Who the hell are these people who wear things that injure them?

  19. I have a test for heels. I stand in them and if all my weight is on my heel, I buy them. If it is on the ball of my foot, I put them back. Also, I must be able to stand in heels and raise the heel of my foot up about an inch. I wear hose, but I don't find it to be painful.

  20. Interesting post, Patti, and I like the discussion and different perspectives here. The older I get, the more dedicated I become to the idea of comfort AND style, whereas of course when I was 20, I could bounce back from fashion agony quickly! Now heels are for special occasions (but the ones I have are oh so comfy, now that I think of it!), while stylish yet comfy flats take me everywhere else (luckily I'm in France now, where the ballet flat reigns supreme, and where French women don't appear to be slaves to trends).

    I think one related "agonizer" in our culture is what we do to, or put into, our bodies, to satisfy disturbing notions of beauty: collagen in puffed up, cartoon lips; neurotoxins in our foreheads; butt fat in our cheeks; surgical reconstructions of our face and even genital areas – if the procedures themselves (or even the dreaming of them) coupled with possible adverse after-effects don't register a certain level of agony for beauty (or our perverted notion of?), I'm not sure what does. I'm not making a value judgement against those who are willing to suffer the pain that may come from these procedures, for whatever reasons they're doing them for – just making an observation about our culture. Then again, lip plates have been around for thousands of years and lip stretching is considered a standard of beauty in some cultures – as you point out, it's not as though body modification is new and only Western phenom. There, I'll take off my dissertation hat now!P.S. I tried a $60 shaper once for a fitted dress, and it practically tore me apart (a thong shaper panty – you can imagine the agony there) – never again, though I did quite happily wear the dress with a regular thong. 🙂

  21. I know when I wear heels that I like the way it makes my legs look…but I simply cannot walk gracefully in a heel over 2 inches!  Never even sampled shapewear, but I have distinct memories of my mother struggling into her girdle.  I was just thinking about this today…what will the next generation find "constrictive" about current fashion mores one fine day 20 years from now?

  22. What an awesome article and great comments! 

    I still wear heels, but most of my 3+ inchers are gone now – or only worn for very short periods of time. I just don't want to end up with fractured feet! 

    I dislike shapewear – I have only one slightly spandex-y tube for under stretchy dresses, and I don't like wearing it. That body you see is mine! Ha!

  23. Usually I am prepared for potential agony with shoes and I carry a liberal supply of bandaids in my handbag and flats if my heels are extra high and the pain factor will be iffy. I'm quite familiar with the grin, step, grin, step of a fabulous-to-look-at but hard-to-walk-in shoe. I'm getting less and less willing to grin and bear it now though. I like the feeling of a corset once in a long while. It makes me feel contained, straight, upright. But I suppose I don't mind it because I get to choose when and where I wear it. Great post.

  24. I feel most comfortable when I can *choose* what I'm going to wear, or what beauty habits I'm going to practice, without being judged as either unfashionable or a slave to fashion.

    For example, I always liked wearing nylons but then they suddenly became "unfashionable" and so I had to bear the discomfort of baring my imperfect legs and feeling less polished in skirts and dresses. And I do color my hair, wear full makeup, and sometimes heels, etc. and I get tired of people suggesting that I might be doing it to hide my insecurities about my looks.

    As for shapewear … I like undergarments that provide support, such as sturdy bras, or a camisole that gently supports my flabby parts along the waist area. I also tend to like long-line bras because they improve my posture and support my back. But I draw the line at anything that hurts or restricts breathing. Right now I have a Spanx that is in the package ready to be sent back to the store. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it didn't actually make me look thinner! Why bother with that nonsense?!

  25. All bets are off when it's hot, but I love the historical perspective here and in the comments.  I think it's also interesting to look at other cultures, in addition to other centuries, and ponder the whole notion of beauty/class/power etc.  

    Since I'm not writing my dissertation at the moment, I'll just say that I love heels and wear them when I don't have to walk a lot and I'm out with my 6'3" husband. Otherwise, they're pretty absurd for running to the grocery store.  I'm already 5'9".  It's not like I need them for the height.

    As for shapers, I own a few and wear them when my weight is elevated so I can fit into my clothes, hopefully.  I'm facing that dilemma now, since I'm in my upper weight range, but I'm not willing to stuff myself into the shapers…too hot!!  So dressing is uninspiring at best.  

    But fall will come, my weight will inevitably drift back down a little, and presumably I'll regain my zest for dressing.   But I've stopped dyeing my hair, still trying to figure out a way to style it without all the heat, will never give up my bras (you wouldn't either-way too much of a good thing), detest hosiery unless it's thigh-hi's in the bedroom, have found that boy-short underwear is more comfortable than thongs, unless the thong is a firm microfiber that covers the belly, and on and on.  TMI?!!!  Sorry. 🙂  You opened Pandora's box.     

  26. Was definitely coming here to echo Trystan – a good corset shouldn't hurt. Especially one created by an artisan making something to suit an individual body. High heels don't have to hurt. Bras don't have to hurt. What's hurting us? Mass production is. 

    $20 payless heels aren't designed to hold a body right or fit a unique foot. They're made to look pretty so an impulse buyer will grab them for a night out and end up with those blisters. I worry that "better" designers are going this route, forgoing construction in favor of sparkly designs made to sell visually.

    Alternatively, I've been in social circles where body modification – even painful mods – is celebrated. Piercings, tattoos, surgical alterations. Many of these aren't done for the expectations of the public, but for very personal reasons. Beauty doesn't have to be pain, but that doesn't mean everyone wants to avoid pain to become what they feel is beautiful.

    For me, I've given up a lot of things that I loved. I have let go of the platform heels, any rise difference greater than two inches has been sold off. I do have one single pair of high heeled boots left with extra squishy insoles, but I'm still considering putting them up for sale. They were the most comfortable – and the coolest looking – but I don't know if that one compromise is my limit.

    I look for wide waist band full skirts, even though pencils look better on me. I look for higher waisted jeans. I buy sleeveless shirts and cover them with jackets and cardigans because it's often more comfortable than sleeved garments. I've been slowly replacing my padded "lined" bras with unlined lacy things that make me feel glamorous, and look more natural in my clothing. I refuse to buy anything new made of polyester. 

    My preferences of comfort are not cheap, especially when looking for things that are still funky and interesting enough to suit my style. It has become a balancing act, but I feel much more comfortable in my own clothes these days and don't always feel like I need to throw on my sleep pants the minute I get home.

  27.   With great sadness, I have had to say goodbye to most heels.  Even after bunion surgery…my feet cannot take it. I was so happy when cute flats hit the scene a couple of years ago and have stuck around!  I wear my Spanx almost every day and just don't go out without it…if I ever can get my weight under control, then maybe I can kiss them goodbye!  Believe me, I would still be in heels if I could get away with them.  Great post, Patti!!

  28. I still love high heels but I will only wear them for a short period and I wear flats to get from A to B and change.  That's my compromise!

  29.  Thanks for this well-informed reply, Trystan! Very interesting, and I appreciate knowing that corset-deformations are a myth. Comfort is, as you say, relative and subjective. And even in my own lifetime, I've seen the "expectation" of wearing a girdle fall away. Hooray for that!

    Did the guys ever don 4" stilettos?  : >

  30. As a historical reenactor & longtime student of history, I have to disabuse (heh) you of the myth of corsets deforming internal organs & suchlike. Ordinary corset wearing does no more damage to a person than wearing any other closely fitted garment, like, say, a bra. Ever have bra straps or underwires dig into your skin? There ya go. It's about that "painful." For that matter, corsets provide back support, & this actually helps when you're wearing a heavy garment, it distributes the weight evenly & makes everything else more comfortable to wear.

    Studying historical fashion also teaches us that men popularized high heels for themselves to wear in the 17th century, & ultra-fashionable folks of both genders wore what was then considered high heels (about 2") until the 19th century.

    Men's suits were quite tightly tailored up until the 1910s, with high, tight collars & armscyes that restricted movement. Plus, everyone wore many more layers of clothing than common today — undershirts, shirts, jackets, hats, gloves for men; chemises, corsets, corset covers, bodice/skirt or dress, hats, gloves for women. To wear less was simply not done, not even at home among family.

    Since the 1960s, western society has become incredibly casual, & we expect less restriction in our clothing. People call this "comfort" but really, comfort is just what you're used to. For hundreds of years, other types of clothing were considered comfortable & perfectly normal across many countries. If you read letters & diaries, you don't find a whole lot of suffering from clothes — from other things, sure, but corsets weren't a cause of great agony in the past.

  31. Powerful things?  Well, a good push up bra that holds my girls high, wearing high heels (which I can no longer do very often), wearing a jacket with a great cut that give me a waistline again, getting a new haircut, are all things that make me feel powerful.  Oh, and so does drinking a great cup of latte.  It's the simple things.  🙂

  32. Hi Patti, this is a great post. I definitely will not compromise with shoes. I have fallen and caused damage about 4 times in the last few years due to Danskos and/or other shoes that were wrong for me. I won't do pants without spandex in them for comfort but they can't look like stretch pants of course. Cheap sunglasses are heavy and give me a headache so I try and resist the trending shape and stick with the bit more expensive ones I already have.

    One thing that is uncomfortable that I won't give up is my padded bras. 😉 I need the extra inches there for sure!

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