Molding the Body: A Scientific Approach

by Kristie Le

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Body modification is the deliberate alternation of the body. It can reflect the state of culture within a society as well as provide an individual a way for self-expression. A good way to see lasting impressions from body modification is though observing bones. The skeleton is a living dynamic tissue and therefore must change and adapt. A perfect body modification device that can exemplify this idea is tightlacing. Tightlacing is a popular device used namely for cinching the waist. This process of cinching allows the waist to be molded a certain way that the torso must adjust to. This can easily be a way to achieve a certain physiology and the consequences can be seen in the thoracic skeleton. This paper aims to illustrate the significance of skeletal plasticity though the device of tightlacing. Case studies are provided to prove how regardless of the background of the individual and the means of use, similar skeletal deformities can be observed. This reflects the consistent and very specific stress that tightlacing does on thoracic skeleton.

Culture can impact and change the body physiologically or psychologically, and any interaction between an individual and an outside source is an influence, large or small. It has been said that “Social identities are written on the body” (Knudson and Stojanowski, 2008). How the body reflects the culture and geography of the males and females that once lived, hence the way social identities can be seen in bodies. Biologically, the body often changes based on the environment it is subjected to. One way to look at these changes most clearly is in body modification: arguably the most deliberate way for an individual to change their body’s skeletal structure. Some examples of this modification can be seen in foot binding from historic China or neck stretching from groups in Myanmar who use neck rings (Stone, 2012). Tightlacing is also a form of body modification that was used throughout European history to accentuate the waist area.

Tightlacing and back bracing is the act of constricting the torso and spinal region in a controlled manner to achieve a physiological goal. It is a method of body modification that administers enough stress on the body such that it can be molded over time. This can be considered structural violence. Structural violence is defined as body modification done to reflect political and social structures. Societal views of tightlacing are acknowledged by many viewpoints from the medical field to social class standards of beauty (Stone, 2012). These devices for body modification can have either a reversible or permanent impact on the body. Tightlacing and back bracing are used in various ways over time to reduce the size of the waist and correct the spinal cord’s position. A common device used for this end are corsets, for example, but anything that asserts pressure bodily and results in structural change on the body can be a device that achieves body modification. This paper investigates the results of the culture of tightlacing to explain how social impacts of health and beauty can be evident on the body examined in both male and females. To do so, this paper discusses the analysis of bones from deceased individuals who used corsets in the past. Examining multiple individuals provides evidence for reproducibility of how corsets are a device for body modification. This makes a stronger case for lasting physical trauma. Then, two case studies are presented and discussed to show the extent of body modification regarding gender, social hierarchy and means of application of the corset.


By understanding the structure of the bone, it will be easier to understand how bone is grown and reshaped through body life time. Bones support, protect and help move the body. The bone is composed of several layers that make up its structure. From its very outer to inner layer there is generally the cortical bone and trabecular bone. A bone’s function includes blood cell formation, bone formation and support to the body’s structure. Generally, the bone is made up of about 65 percent mineral and about 35 percent collagen, a protein known to provide elasticity. The cortical bone is mineralized and dense. The trabecular bone is porous and allows vessels to be integrated in its structure. Woven bone appears in the body when new bones need to be made. Woven bone is highly concentrated with collagen and is very weak compared to cortical and trabecular bone (Olszta et al., 2007). The bone is a dynamic tissue; therefore, it will adapt to the stresses in its environment. A body modification device puts pressure on the bone for an extended amount of time, causing potential significant changes to the bone’s structure.

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The spine and ribcage are a part of the vertebrate anatomy. The spine, or vertebral column, runs straight down from the cranium towards the pelvis. The vertebra are segments of irregular bone that contain a transverse and spinous process. A process is an outgrowth of bone that extends from the vertebra. The spinous process faces towards the front of the body and the transverse process is adjacent to the spinous. An intervertebral disc is also placed between each vertebra to give the spine flexibility for movement (Park et al., 2001). The rib cage consists of curved, long bones that comprise the chest area and the sternum. Humans importantly have twelve pairs of ribs that support the body’s structure and protect organs. (Dansereau and Stokes, 1988). The ribs are held together in the front by cartilage and the sternum and in the back by the vertebrae. The corset realigns and alters the arrangement of the spine, so it is crucial to understand the body’s natural architecture when studying body modification.


Quantitative Look at Corset Usage


Gibson’s paper (2015) explains how the chest cavity came to be shaped after corset use. She samples various corsets and skeletons of women who lived between 1700 and 1900. Methodologically, she measured the chest cavity and incident angles between the head and ribs. The twelve female individuals had origins from France, Italy, Poland, Africa, La Reunion, and England. The deaths of these women were recorded and Gibson estimated them to be 30-60+ years of age. Measurements of the torso indicated that these women have smaller than average waist-size measurements compared to modern day UK women who are much larger; in fact, on average modern day women are almost double the measurement. The ribs of each female individual, curve inward in some manner or form which Gibson interprets as evidence of the pressure enforced by tightlacing; Normal chest cavities without corseting have a more open lower rib cage.


The dramatic spine morphology of the subjects reveals the aftermath of long term pressure on the spinous process and the rib cage. This paper primarily represents reproducibility. This proves that similar results from long term corset usage can be seen from person to person. The age of deceased individuals is rather young compared to modern day life expectancy, which had averages in the thirties. However, this does not prove that life expectancy is shortened because of the use of corsets, as there are other individuals who estimated beyond this age range. Importantly, many pains women experienced while wearing corsets lead to a shorter life expectancy (O’Followell 1908). Amongst all subjects, Gibson observes the “pigeon chest” phenomenon as well as severe rickets and bowing in the rib cage. Pigeon chest or Pectus carinatum is a term used to define the aftermath of extreme tightlacing which causes the chest region to be more protrusive than normal. Often, breathing patterns are changed as a result of the lacing (Groves et al. 2003). The forward bending individuals who also had lateral depression of the chest could have also developed secondary pressures in the arms (Ortner and Putschar 1981). From these findings, further research should be done to examine the appendages of the body. It seems that corsets negatively affect the entire body and this includes life expectancy. The skeletal trauma of tightlacing has led to a decrease in harsh intentional body modification as people got more educated on adverse effects. For Gibson’s paper, the individuals could have used corsets as a means to keep up with the culture of beauty at the time. This would be considered an intentional way to modify the body in a certain area. For this case, it is the torso of the female. However, unintended body modification would be considered as corsets effect more than just the intended torso. This includes other organs beside those in the torso, demonstrating the overall effect of stress tightlacing has on the body. Other adverse effects of tightlacing are not always conventional in public knowledge of tightlacing and these effects should be looked into further.

For Purpose of Fashion and Status


The paper by Groves et al. (2003) describes and examines a grave found in England belonging to a 15th century woman who experienced trauma on her thoracic vertebrae as well as abnormal curvature of her ribs, later known as “pigeon chest”. In this incidence, the woman likely wore a tight fitting belt in the 12th-13th centuries English style (Schwarz Gerhart, 1973).  The 3rd to the 9th vertebrae of the subject was flattened and stood ventrally against the process. This body alteration, Groves argues, affected the woman’s posture. The 7th and 8th ribs were curved more inwardly than usual and were asymmetrically curved on the left side.  This indicates uneven methods of tightlacing, perhaps during synching, that caused the abnormal rib curvature. Inward rib curvature caused by the forceful pressure of tightlacing can result in dangerous internal reorganization of the organs in the mid and lower torso. Severe digestive problems can arise from this movement of the original position of the organs. (Ueyoshi and Shima, 1985).


On reflection, Groves et al. (2003) explains how corseting for fashion has biologically altered the body. In this specific case, tight corseting caused this high-class woman to have a pronounced chest. Either over time and/or during her formative years, the tight corset permanently changed the woman’s structural frame. This can be observed by the pressure exhibited on to the lower portion of the ribs due to the method of tightlacing. The corset pushed pressure upwards on the chest, which resulted in a pigeon chest, from the organs being displaced (Ueyoshi and Shima, 1985). It is clear that the woman did not have a medical reason for wearing the corset as her skeleton showed no signs of spinal infections or trauma caused by disease.

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For Medical Purpose


The paper by Moore and Buckberry (2016) concerning a male individual with Pott’s disease, a tuberculosis infection in the spinal area, shows a comprehensible example of the medical (specifically orthopedic) use of back bracing. The male individual had severe changes in his vertebral bones of which lead to a fusion of certain vertebrae (Moore and Buckberry 2016). The trabecular bone, also described as the spongy portion of the bone, was exposed because his lower vertebra had lesions from tuberculosis. The lower portion of the vertebral column developed a wedge like shape. Moore and Buckberry argue that the body’s high concentration of collagen indicates corset use. The corseting applied pressure which caused the bones to become more elastic (Lovell, 2007). Thus, due to the already weakened lumbar bone and corseting, the lower vertebra formed into an angular shape. The spinal cord also had a more laterally displaced spinous process. Scholars debate if the corset was primarily used for medical or cosmetic reasons. In either case, body alterations indicate that the device was used on the already weakened spinal cord (Moore and Buckberry, 2016). The researchers also radiographed the subject, which revealed that his ribs had no signs of healed trauma, but that he did have pigeon chest. The subject had pronounced rib curvature on the left side, and this can be a result of uneven pressure while corseting (Ueyoshi and Shima, 1985).


The fact that men also wore corsets as a fashion purpose, especially those of higher class in 18th -19th century populations, cannot be over looked (Moore and Buckberry, 2016; Steele, 2001). Based on how contorted the male’s spine was, he most likely used the corset to treat the spinal back pain he was experiencing from onset tuberculosis. The spine, coping with the pressures of the corset, healed itself by growing extra, abnormally shaped bone in his lower lumbar. This is especially evident in the deformation of his lower spine caused by high collagen production. A peculiar case, the subject’s body responded to the combined stress of tightlacing and Pott’s disease. Perhaps the vertebral column was trying to heal, and thus woven bone was present, which could explain the heightened elasticity. Further, the ribs were more curved towards the left, and the lower spine curved to the right. The subject likely improperly cinched his corset, causing the unbalanced body alteration. The vertebral column adjusted to the many stresses on it which resulted in a latterly angled spine.


Societal factors including culture, fashion choices and medical ailments effect the biological composition of the body. A common ground can be found in all these case studies in terms of morphology of the torso and post-tightlacing, in terms of evident change. Skeletal plasticity allows the skeleton to adjust to the many bodily pressures like corseting (Pette, 2001). Prolonged modification can result in permanent deformity of the skeletal structure, and indeed this is a form of trauma to the bone. Skeletal plasticity proves to be one of the body’s coping mechanism for intentional and unintentional bodily changes. The skeletal plasticity among those who use tightlacing devices, no matter the purpose end with similar violent body modifications. Depending on the health of the person, tightlacing can have severe consequences in the long run. This is especially true for those with an illness relating to the bone. The case studies presented in this paper demonstrate how individuals of the time did not entirely understand the negative effects of the practice on the bones. Although corsets and back braces can be used in a positive manner, the extreme misusage for a prolonged period of time causes the adverse effects.

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An understanding of the skeletal structure allows bioarcheologists to analyze how body modification occurs within society as cultural expressions. Whether such modifications are used as a structural means of suppression or as a celebrated form of beauty, humans are aware of their power over the skeletal structure of the body to modify and produce new forms. While body modifications are commonly regarded as a choice and display of individual expression, the aforementioned examples in this discussion were often widespread practices in select cultures, and said modifications were expected for members of the culture to partake in. This cultural shift from widespread modification to the largely unaltered growing of the human skeletal system in present time is a topic that can be addressed in future studies, as it carries important implications on how cultural norms shift over time.


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Acknowledgments: A thanks to UGA’s writing center, and my colleagues. The editing process was made much easier with their help.

Citation style: AJPA

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