Can Shapewear Ever Be Empowering?

An arguable issue within our era of feminism is something being declared a feminist act purely because a feminist has done said act. We might want all our actions to be feminist but that doesn't mean they necessarily are. For example, can wearing shapewear be empowering? Can we shave our legs and be feminist? What does my penchant for red lipstick actually mean?

Answering questions like these both on a personal and social level can help us understand not only how feminism works, but how the patriarchy affects our every action and decision. When I wore shapewear religiously at age 16, I hardly knew anything about feminism, fat activism, or body positivity. As an adult who understands and writes about all three, it's difficult for me to justify going back to shapewear. More than that, it's difficult for me to not feel guilty about wearing shapewear.

When we consider shapewear from a logistical standpoint, these are undergarments literally made to contort our bodies into different shapes. From flattening tummies to lifting tits and asses, shapewear exists, by and large, to make women's bodies conform to traditional standards of beauty: Often thin, perky, and hourglass standards of beauty.

However, when I wear shapewear, I always feel stronger, happier, and more confident in myself and my body. Regardless of a conscious understanding of the fact that these feelings may be rooted in body shaming-based reasons, shapewear helps me love my figure on almost every level.

When it comes to body positivity, I believe it's just as much a personal journey as it is a social justice movement. Fat activism isn't solely about self-love, but similarly, our self-love doesn't have to be body positive in every aspect. In fact, there are even shapewear companies actively trying to promote positive body image, such as bright and beautiful body shapers brand Jewel Toned.

I spoke to Jewel Toned founder Rachel McCrary in Jan. 2016 for Bustle about whether body shapers can be body positive and found her answers to focus not on the shapewear itself, but on the people who wear it. In essence, shapewear won't be leaving our wardrobes any time soon, but McCrary wants people to feel the "same retail high as makeup or getting their hair colored" when purchasing it, instead of the shame commonly associated with the garments.

My shapewear collection isn't limited to beige-colored granny panties. There are glittery, high-waisted knickers, black lacy ones, and even a Jewel Toned mini dress that I wear as outerwear more often than underwear. Having pretty shapewear definitely helps alleviate the embarrassment of wearing it and feeling I have to wear it. But regardless of how beautiful, intricate, or expensive my shapewear might be, the feeling that shapewear is still all about altering my body still wears at my brain.

Wanting to get some outside opinions on the matter, I spoke to Bad Fat Broads' Ariel Woodson about the possibility of shapewear being empowering. Her "no" wasn't quite as simple as a one word answer. In fact, Woodson made sure to clarify the difference between personal empowerment and fat empowerment: A distinction that needs to be made more regularly.

"The whole existence of modern shapewear is, in my opinion, inherently fatphobic. But I'm not going to slight someone for making a personal choice," Woodson tells me via Twitter. "I respect that people choose shapewear for a variety of reasons, myself included."

"I know that for some people, it's about making their day-to-day life in a society that hates lumps and bumps when they aren't 'in the right places' a little bit easier. I know that there are people who know that sexist, racist, and fatphobic workwear expectations require that certain parts of the body be minimized at work and they 'choose' shapewear in order to meet that need."

Woodson ended on a personal note, clarifying that shapewear isn't and doesn't have to only be for trying to minimize fat bodies. "And for some people, it's a matter of practicality and comfort," she says. "I don't expect to look thinner when I wear a light shaping short, but it does help with thigh chafing and I like that my (still visible) belly feels stable."

What seems obvious to me now, more than ever, is that we may feel empowered by our personal choices, but that doesn't mean they're empowering for everyone. Just like Woodson, my stomach still protrudes when wearing shapewear, but it's more stable. My shapewear holds my body in place, but my shapewear doesn't disguise how fat I am.

On a critical level, shapewear is undoubtedly far from empowering, feminist, or body positive as a whole. Outside the realm of fat activism, however, where shapewear is used by many transgender people to bind, boost, or create new body shapes, the empowering title could easily be applied. And on a personal level? Well, as long as shapewear helps my self confidence, then I guess I'm going to wear it.

Images: Georgina Jones