Modern shapewear — Spanx specifically, which will mark its 20th anniversary on February 15 — was born into a very specific era with a very specific vision of the ideal woman. It was the era of low-rise jeans, peek-a-boo thongs, bodycon dresses. Everything had to be tighter, smoother, more taut and toned, and often more overtly sexual. If you didn’t meet this ideal, shapewear presented itself as a solution to your “problem.”
Today, more than a decade later, the world has changed, but many of those problems are still around. Although the body positivity movement has made significant progress in the effort to love ourselves and our bodies better, even the most confident people struggle with what they see in the mirror. Since its inception, shapewear has been marketed as a quick fix for those moments of frazzled frustration, i.e. “This just doesn’t fit right!” or “How can I look…smoother?” And that strategy has paid off — big time.
Industry estimates suggest the compression and shapewear market size is expected to climb to approximately £4.9 billion by 2024. When I purchased my first pair of Spanx in the early 2000s, Spanx was the major — if not the only — player in the game. Things have changed quite a bit since then. Brands like Heist and Shapermint have entered the space, aiming to revamp shapewear’s image. The goal? Make it less about “fixing” a problem and more about doing whatever makes you feel good and comfortable.
“We wanted to give women freedom by giving them something better,” Fiona Fairhurst, vice president of innovation at Heist, said last fall after the brand released a new bodysuit that purportedly removes “the struggle, sweat, and squeezing” typically associated with shapewear. “While intimate apparel is the fastest growing market within apparel, there is very little catering to the comfort of women.”
Physical comfort, though, means nothing without being comfortable mentally and emotionally. And for many people, that’s not always easy when shapewear is involved. When you’ve got Kim Kardashian calling her SKIMS shapewear brand “solutionwear,” is it even possible to be both body positive and a shapewear user?
Well, before we can answer that question, it’s worth considering what constitutes shapewear to begin with.
“What is shapewear? Anything that alters your shape makes sense to be considered shapewear,” model Precious Lee, who was featured in Kardashian’s campaign launch for SKIMS, told Refinery29. “I personally feel bras and shoulder pads are shapewear. Broader shoulders, lifted boobs — what’s the difference between shoulder pads and bras and spandex bodysuits under thin fabrics? Beauty standards are such bullshit, I’m exhausted from hearing the term to be honest.”
But, to be fair, she’s also tired of bras — at least some of the time.
“Not worrying about your slinky dress clinging to your tummy may feel more free, but have you ever spent a whole day in public bra-free?” Lee said. “It’s amazing. It all depends on the moment, the garment, and the woman that’s wearing it. Do I feel less beautiful without it? No. Do I feel more comfortable wearing a strapless dress on the red carpet with a strapless bra? Yes. It’s not a make or break. It’s a preference.”
That’s a sentiment Denise Bidot supports. The model recently starred in a Shapermint campaign titled, “Feel Like the Masterpiece You Are.” According to a company press release, it wanted to show that although women do work to achieve “ultimate body confidence” through shapewear, they’ll have days when they opt to “magnify their inherent beauty.”
“I want to encourage women to embrace shapewear and know there is nothing to be embarrassed about in trying it,” Bidot said. “I always talk about shapewear. I’m an open book. I’m not using it for any ill reasons. When I was posting about Shapermint, someone in the comments came at me, and I had to immediately respond to that because [smoothing out] my lines has nothing to do with my confidence or my body positivity.”
For the campaign, Shapermint pulled from the real-life “key moments” of its consumers, identifying those instances when they need an extra boost of confidence: following childbirth, in response to medically induced weight gain, before a wedding or big event, at work, and as they reach common milestones in their body’s evolution.
“We wanted to break with this notion that women aren’t allowed to have ‘off’ days where they feel less confident,” said Shapermint’s head of brand, Stephanie Biscomb. “We all have insecure or self-conscious days, weeks or months, and some of us wear shapewear to feel confident again during those trying times. There shouldn’t be shame in that.”
It’s an ambitious thought: let women do and wear what they want, when they want, without any shame or backlash. But what does that look like in practice? Can consumers buy and wear shapewear without perpetuating unrealistic beauty expectations and standards in the first place?
“To be honest, I’m not sure that we can,” said Brianna Huntsman, a consultant and blogger. “My struggle with shapewear of any kind has been that it is designed to make the wearer’s body more acceptable. As a feminist, I struggle with my decision to wear shapewear to change my body to fit patriarchal beauty standards.”
Huntsman also has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that can dramatically affect weight. Between 2012 and 2019, she gained about 100 pounds. Shapewear entered the picture.
“This radically changed my relationship with my body,” Huntsman recalled. “I started wearing Spanx because I desperately wanted my body to be smaller, sometimes wearing two pairs. I was very self-conscious about having a lot of this weight gain in my stomach.”
Although Huntsman said she believes “there is no wrong way to have a body,” it can sometimes be tough staying connected to that belief, especially in a world constantly reminding you of what you need to fix or change.
“I know that I don’t need a solution for my cellulite, but feel almost cornered into wearing shapewear by society,” Huntsman explained. “When it comes to perpetuating beauty standards, I’ve made a commitment on my platform to share when I am and am not wearing Spanx. I’d like to see more creators do this, in the same way some brands are transparent about Photoshop use.”
In other words, the solution to this particular problem area might just be revealing what we’ve been working so hard to hide all along.