Tight-Lacing the Mind

14 Aug

The rise of the corset during the nineteenth century coincided with female demands for access to employment and education. The more women campaigned to enter the public and intellectual realm of their husbands, however, the more they were restricted. The corset thus came to symbolise this constraint, physically caging women’s bodies in order to maintain their passivity as ‘[i]n it a woman could barely sit or stoop, was unable to move her feet more than six inches at a time’.[1] Such physical costs of tight-lacing were compounded by the mental health concerns which were perceived as accompanying bodily constraint. In The Beth Book, Grand describes the results of tight-lacing upon a woman’s mind and body if the practice is not discarded as ‘[i]f the mind be tight-laced long enough, it is ruined as a model, just as the body is’.[2] Here, Grand campaigns against the constraining of female intellect as a method of masculine control, in which women were regarded as mentally inferior. Yet, the novel also emphasises the impossibility of removing the mental corset altogether from women whose intellect has been restricted for a long period of time as this ‘merely exposes the mind’s deformities without remedying them; so that there is nothing for the old generation but to remain in stays.’[3] This old generation inhabit a time of tightly-laced minds and bodies, in a period wherein:

well-formed women must compress their bodies till they looked like cylinders or hour-glasses, and lace till their noses swelled and their hair fell out…Those were the days when women had “no nonsense about them…,” none of those new-fangled ideas about education and that.[4]

Tight-lacing is associated with women’s inability to access the ‘masculine’ rational sphere of work and education. Women who desire the same opportunities as men must firstly rid themselves of their restrictive corsets.

Since it symbolically compressed the mind, tight-lacing was frequently associated with lack of intelligence. Punch (1857) states that ‘[a] narrowness of waist betrays a narrowness of mind. When the ribs are contracted, it is a sure sign that the intellect is also’,[5] while Funny Folks (1882) asserts that ‘[t]he smaller a compressed waist, the closer to its dimensions correspond with those of its wearer’s brains’.[6] In 1890, Judy campaigned against one medical authority that ‘inferentially associates the possession of a small waist (in women) with high intellectuality.’[7] The magazine responded to this in the form of a short play, warning the reader that far from increasing mental capacity, tight-lacing actually causes a reduction of intellect:

I overheard yon medico declare

That tightest corsets should enclose the fair;

And that the smaller is your wifey’s waist,

More mental power will be by her embraced…

To me ’tis very plain

That all who do in stays their shape retain,

Do but increase the volume of their brain![8]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] S. Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (London: University of California Press, 1995), p.162

[2] Grand, The Beth Book, p.125

[3] Grand, The Beth Book, p.125

[4] Grand, The Beth Book, p.225

[5] Anon., ‘Aphorisms upon Tight-Lacing’, Punch (London, England), 4th July, 1857

[6] Anon., ‘Waist not, want not’, Funny Folks, issue 386 (London, England), 22nd April, 1882

[7] Anon., ‘Waist – and Want Not’, Judy: The Conservative Comic (London, England), 18th June, 1890

[8] ‘Waist – and Want Not’, Judy (1890)

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