Body shapers: boon or bane

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: In the quest for a beautiful body, do shapewear users risk their health?

PETALING JAYA: With their promise to smooth out lumps and bumps, the foundation garment industry has found its products on the lips - and hips - of shapewear users worldwide.

The shapewear market’s stunning profits has even propelled its movers and shapers to the top: Spanx founder, billionaire Sara Blakely, is one such success story.

But while many swear by the slimming effect of body shapers such as waist cinchers and thigh slenderisers, most forget that the flaw-fixing favourites are not without their faults.

Marketing executive Mae Wong uses shapewear under dresses and skirts to smooth out slight bulges and prevent unwanted peekaboos.

“When the elastic part presses into your skin, it’s a bit uncomfortable. If worn on a daily basis, there’s an itchy heat rash,” said the 25-year-old.

Wong believes in a gradual approach to slimming down, and only buys properly-sized shapewear she feels comfortable and confident in.

However, her friends go down several sizes as a motivation to lose weight, and some even experience breathing difficulties in their too-tight corsets.

“Sakit lah, but they assure me that ‘beauty is pain’. Health concerns include poor blood circulation, trapped perspiration (often caused by silk and polyester), and less flexibility to move around,” she added.

As for Adelaide-based nursing student Cindy Chow, thermal shapewear in winter is a necessary evil to fend off chilly temperatures in hospitals and nursing homes.

As a result, the 25-year-old experiences recurring vaginal thrush (yeast infection): “It does not damage the vaginal wall or the cervix, but a painful and severe infection can get in the way of daily activities such as exercise or simply walking about.”

In the summer heat, only big events can convince Chow to don said shapers, but continuous exercise, dieting and use of slimming applicators have lessened her need for such shapewear.

“Unless you use Victorian-style corsets, shapewear doesn't really hurt the stomach or result in intestinal shifting. But in humid conditions, it helps more bacteria grow in the crotch area,” she said.

Though a more “breathable” material like cotton would prevent such episodes, she considers it less effective at streamlining one’s silhouette when compared to her preferred full-body nylon-spandex girdles.

Dr Dhesi Baha Raja, who once served as assistant health director in the Maternal and Child Health division of Sabah’s state health department, also believes that the key lies in moderate use.

“Really tight shapewear, which applies high pressure to compress waist width and thigh girth, will pose health risks,” said the 29-year-old doctoral student in public health and community medicine at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

According to him, too-tight shapewear ending at the thigh and calf area can constrict blood vessels and decrease blood flow to lower limbs, which causes blood clots and swelling.

“Shapers that compress your stomach, squeeze the midsection and press on internal organs may cause gastric digestive acid to travel up the esophagus, especially after a large and heavy meal,” he added.

Warning signs include breathing problems when “shapewear makes it difficult to expand or exhale”, numbness and tingling sensations.

It should not be mistaken for a permanent solution for pudginess: “Many think that fat goes away when you compress the area. That’s not true. It’s a temporary fix and you still need to exercise.”

But as long as users “don’t get carried away in their quest for awesome curves”, Dr Dhesi deems shapewear a wonderful product that is generally safe.

Urologist Dr George Lee also expressed concern over the use of too-tight innerwear as shapewear.

For example, briefs can wedge into the sides of overweight wearers, and cause fungal infections when a skin breach occurs.

“Tight body contour underpants also brings testicles closer to the body. This raises their temperature and reduces sperm count. So if someone with less than optimal sperm count wants to try for children, I would recommend looser undies,” said the 44-year-old.

The ladies are not exempt from the dangers of ill-fitting shapewear either.

“Ladies with loose pelvic floors sometimes wear body contouring underwear to conceal their use of incontinence shields. But when the underwear is too tight, the pads can bunch up and cause urinary tract infections,“ he said.

However, tighter cotton underwear may benefit men who love hitting the gym or participating in contact sports.

“A jock strap would also help those suffering from conditions such as baricocele - a testicular varicose vein that drags the testicle downwards - or those recovering from surgeries such as vasectomy,” he said.

Advice aside, Dr Lee maintained that hygiene and comfort are of paramount importance: “There’s no point in forcing someone to wear either tight or loose innerwear if they are not used to it.”

However, any streamlining of the silhouette will involve some level of discomfort, said a representative from a local lingerie company with a full shapewear line in the works.

“It’s like stilettos. No pain, no gain. Can you walk around in high heels the whole day? You have to know your own comfort level and sensitivity level to certain materials,” said the source who wished to remain anonymous.

But bra fitting specialist and Neubodi general manager Estee Ong begs to differ: “The most important thing is to find what suits you best. It should feel as comfortable as second skin, yet still work to provide you with the supportive, ‘hugging’ feeling.”

According to her, a holistic fitting technique - such as the brand’s hand-measuring method to ensure a “just right” fit for the customer’s height, built and shape - can sculpt the body without any binding, pinching or discomfort.

“Shapewear is a safe and wonderful product. But women are always tempted to go straight for the ‘big guns’ for the most visible and instant slimming effect,” she said.

A lack of knowledge on correct sizes and control levels was also pinpointed as the most common problem in the undergarment department for Malaysian women.

With shapewear, “one size does not fit all” as the difference between sizes is not merely measured in the extra inches of fabric used.

“The way of sewing a size S shapewear might be totally different from a size XXXL. This is why one should never compromise fit for the size on the tag,” she said.

Asked about high quality materials that women should look out for, Ong recommended the white bamboo charcoal fabric used in their Suit Up Contour Collection.

“It was tested and certified by the Societe Generale de Surveillance as a functional textile with an antibacterial and deodorizing ability. The extra micro-holes allow your body to “breathe” and regulates humidity effectively,” she said.

So while properly-fitted foundation garments can provide adequate muscle support, improve posture and boost one’s confidence, users must exercise caution in their purchasing decisions as wrongly-sized shapewear of inferior quality can cause a whole host of health problems.

Ong’s tips for shapewear users:

  • Bulges not smoothed out? You need a larger size, not a smaller one. Always consult a fit expert.
  • Do not purchase shapewear just to squeeze into something that doesn’t fit. These garments are made to enhance and support curves in the right places, and shapes you up in the long run.
  • While daily use of shapewear is recommended, never wear it for more than eight hours at a time as your body needs to relax.
  • Wash after every wear to maintain its elasticity, cleanliness and personal hygiene.
  • Know the right time to say goodbye - shapewear has a limited lifespan.

shapewear users , Spanx