Test Drive: Do waist trainers actually work?

Celebs swear by them, but medical experts don’t buy it. I wore one for 11 days to see if it would shrink my middle.
Waist training

Illustration by Ellen Porteus

With all the allegedly pound-melting cleanses and fat-zapping surgeries available to celebrities, you’d think they’d turn up their perfect noses at a figure-slimming device popularized during Victorian times. But stars like Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian, and some Real Housewives of Atlanta have been praising the hourglass-bestowing power of corsets.

Fans of the corsets (now called “waist trainers” or “waist snatchers”—essentially tight cotton and latex girdles fastened with hook-and-eye closures) claim they will permanently shrink your midsection if you wear them every day for increasing lengths of time.

The Kardashians post wasp-waisted pictures in their girdles from Waist Gang Society, which retail for about $130. Ann Chery is another popular line, with a basic model online for about $55. Even Real Housewife Porsha Williams is planning to sell corsets. Locally, you can buy various models, by appointment, at Snatched & Layed on Walker Street in Atlanta.

Do waist-trainers work? Real Housewife Kim Zolciak-Biermann claims she’s lost four inches in her middle. Other fans say the girdles force better posture, and that they burn fat by heating up your torso and encouraging perspiration. But medical experts don’t buy it. Though they agree a corset can suck you in like a particularly aggressive pair of Spanx, the effect isn’t likely to last long after the girdle is removed. A super-tight waist-trainer can also restrict breathing, damage your ribs, and stop you from pulling in your abdominals, which can weaken those muscles over time.

“They don’t permanently alter your silhouette,” says Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist, an assistant professor at the Emory School of Medicine. “If a corset mechanically helps you feel full faster, that may help with weight loss. But in the end, there are no shortcuts.”

When I purchased the Ann Chery “Deportiva,” my waist measured about 31 inches. After struggling to strap myself in at its widest setting, I was down about an inch, with a little bit of flesh spilling over the top. The first day, I could stand the discomfort—which focused on my ribcage—for an hour. The second, I was able to keep the corset on for two. On the third day I had it on for three hours before I had to ask my kids to act as lookouts while I ducked behind a bookshelf at the library and ripped the thing off.

Within a few more days I was able to use the tighter setting on the corset, bringing my girdled waist to about 28 1/2 inches, and could sleep (sleep!) in it for about six hours. In the second week, I tried going for a short run, and though I can normally log as many as eight miles without quitting, with the corset I was winded after about 30 steps. The restricted breathing issue is no joke.

The final result, after fairly consistent wear over a period of about 11 days: my waist was down 1 1/2 inches, to 29 1/2. But I was ready to retire it to the back of my drawer—and when I did, just as Bergquist predicted, my measurements ended up right back they started.

A version of this story appeared in our April 2016 issue under the headline “Waisting Away.”