In June, Nicole Rodriguez pulled a ligament in her arm while stuffing a stranger’s torso into a waist trainer. Her store, Nicci’s Diva Boutique, is located in the trading post of the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a military outpost in southern New Jersey, and it had only been open about a week when she injured herself trying to defy the soft biology of the women she counts as her customers. Decorated in zebra print and hot pink accents, the store is an upgrade from the part-time stall she once used as her retail space. Now, less than a year after she sold her first waist trainer online, her customers know where to find her: six days a week, she’s on hand to shill various iterations of shapewear alongside what she earnestly describes as “diva accessories.” The boutique’s walls are lined with costume jewelry, lip plumpers, and bedazzled jeans, but it’s the tummy-tucking shapers that are her main business.
On a busy day, Rodriguez sees upwards of 25 customers, a big number considering her clientele is restricted to the 7,000 or so people that have access to the base. (Rodriguez is a veteran herself, having served until last year.) When I visit her on a Friday in the early summer, two female soldiers walk in, each dressed in a uniform of digi-camo and boots, and she quickly launches into a convincing spiel: the latex waist trainers she sells can help them trim fat while improving their posture, she promises. A waist trainer will prepare them for the rigorous physical fitness test that military employees must pass in order to retain their jobs. The test, which includes a waist size measurement, was one of the reasons Rodriguez started waist training two years ago; as a mother of six, she’d felt she’d gone astray from her younger, fitter self.
“I have a closet full of all different kinds of shapewear, from all department stores, and none of them ever really did the job for me,” she says. “From just searching for stuff online, this waist training stuff looked amazing. People were losing weight and looked so good. These big, curvy women were having these small waists. I’m like, ‘How is that even possible without surgery?”
It’s an easy sell to the two women in her store: one of them already owns a waist trainer, and the other is so convinced by Rodriguez’s sales pitch, which includes phrases like “fat deposits” and “deep compression,” that she’s willing to ignore her severe latex allergy to try one on. They trust Rodriguez, whose information comes from a combination of Google-accrued industry language and a stint as a military pharmacist.
Waist trainers are essentially modern-day corsets made with flexible materials. They’re more constricting than Spanx but less stiff than old-school boned corsets. By tightly compressing a person’s midsection, they are purported to eliminate stomach fat and love handles and, if worn regularly, permanently slim a waist, all while improving posture. Some marketers also claim a “stronger core” as a benefit of wearing one for the recommended six to eight hours a day.
Typically made of latex or rubber, waist trainers increase heat and sweating around the stomach, ostensibly leading to water weight loss. By virtue of how tightly they hook around the waist, they mold a body to their shape—that is, they train your waist into a smaller hourglass version of its former self, something obliquely described by sellers as “fat cell mobilization.” The name waist trainer is derived from the practice of extreme waist trainers—people who use corsetry to gradually cinch their waists down to unimaginable sizes, like 15 inches. But the latex trainers people like Rodriguez sell aren’t actually engineered to modify bodies to the extreme. “These things just make you lose water weight,” a prominent extreme waist trainer who has been corseting for a decade told me. “They can’t actually permanently cinch your waist.” But the latex construction is a step beyond girdles, which are typically made of powernet, a breathable, mesh-like material that doesn’t cause women to sweat as much.
Mesh girdles are widely available in stores like Walmart, but latex waist trainers are most commonly sold by small, independent businesses often owned by women. The waist trainer hustle is like an expanded, modern-day version of Avon sales or lingerie parties. Sellers run community-oriented businesses that are largely dependent on their customers’ evangelism. Many have set up shop on Instagram, where they can bypass middlemen and control more of their profits. Jamie Porter, who owns Waist Snatchers, a leading waist trainer retailer based in Biloxi, Mississippi, was in her first semester of nursing school when she began selling enough waist trainers to quit, thanks to successful social media promotion. Two years later, she has five employees and sells around 300 units a week, retaining approximately 80 percent of the $75 to $100 retail price of her products as profit. By relying on word-of-mouth and organic online chatter to grow her business, she doesn’t contend with much overhead, either.
But like any product that claims remarkable results, waist trainers may promise more than they deliver. And as they’ve become increasingly popular, their safety has been questioned. Why would a woman bear the discomfort of wearing one if it didn’t work or, worse, if it could crush her organs and cause her to faint?
Dr. Rachael Ross, a practicing physician and cast member on the syndicated talk show The Doctors, was around nine years old when her mother, whom she describes as a Southern woman, put her in a girdle for the first time. For two years, off and on, a pre-pubescent Dr. Ross wore the compressing device; her mother hoped that it would coax her naturally thin frame into something more shapely.
Dr. Ross no longer wears a corset, but today says that there is some truth to the claims made by waist trainer entrepreneurs. “The human body is very adaptable, and, within reason and moderation, [waist training] is not that different from stretching your earlobes,” she says. “There’s water weight loss, yes, but the whole concept is that there’s enough elasticity in our skin and our bodies. If you restrict anything in a particular way, you can mold it in that way. It’s like footbinding, if you do it long enough. But it’s not like you’re going to take an obese person and turn them into a size 6.”
But waist trainers can cause medical issues, especially when worn for extensive periods of time, or by women with pre-existing health conditions. Dr. Ross says they’re particularly hazardous for women with asthma or a propensity for acid reflux: “You’re compromising your body’s ability to inhale and exhale to full capacity, so if you have an underlying lung issue, it’s going to be a problem.” Though she’s reticent to give a specific number, Dr. Ross says she “often” encounters women who’ve experienced constipation, gastroesophageal reflux, and other gastrointestinal problems after wearing waist trainers for too long or in sizes that are too small. “Women have to be much more careful when it comes to these things,” she says.
For Rodriguez, waist trainers have been a two-pronged blessing. They’ve made her feel more confident about her body, while also offering her the entry point into entrepreneurship that she had craved for years. After two decades of military service, she wanted a less stressful career that still offered financial security. So, in the fall of 2014, a year after discovering them for personal use, she began selling waist trainers on a website built by her husband, an IT professional. She tracked down a wholesale distributor in Miami and began promoting the waist trainers’ beauty and health benefits on an Instagram account that has since amassed more than 13,000 followers.
On social media, waist trainers are brandished by celebrities, video vixens, strippers, and the thousands of regular women who want to look like them—cute face, slim waist with a big behind. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how big the market for waist trainers is. The hashtag #waisttraining is attached to nearly 600,000 posts on Instagram, many of them featuring women showing off their transformations from lumpy, normal-looking bellies to tight, flat torsos. Some of the biggest sellers, like PreMadonna, an entrepreneur-cum-socialite who is among the most visible faces of the industry, have close to half a million followers. Waist Snatchers, a competitor of hers, has nearly 120,000.
PreMadonna is widely considered to be the woman responsible for transforming waist training from a private practice mostly among Latino and black women—latex trainers originated in Colombia, where they were marketed to postpartum moms—to a new marker of status or group participation. Born and raised in Miami, she was an aspiring model and actress before she stumbled upon waist trainers after having two children. She began selling the products to friends, then expanded her effort to Facebook and Instagram, where she picked up customers by commenting on photos posted by minor celebrities. She was on Instagram selling waist trainers even before Android users were able to download the app. Eventually, she didn’t have to market her product herself—endorsements from socialites and regular women who shared before-and-after pictures of their waist reductions did the work for her.
Today, PreMadonna’s at the helm of a veritable empire and is a rising public figure, with a role on the fourth season of Love & Hip Hop Atlanta. Multiple women I spoke with for this story cited her as an influence, and she herself takes credit for launching waist training in America. “I was absolutely the first,” she told me over the phone from Atlanta. “I 100 percent helped make this body type acceptable.”
“I don’t know if she was the absolute first, but [PreMadonna] has definitely been one of the most visible and one of the most popular,” says Stephanie Ogbugu, the editor of the Instagram-based gossip outfit Baller Alert, which charges advertisers, including several waist training companies, between $300 and $500 to reach its 700,000-plus following. “[She] definitely has branded herself very, very well. She’s made a lot of money selling waist trainers.”
PreMadonna’s rise coincided with social media’s, where regular women broadcast their lives and challenge what mainstream society considers desirable. While fashion magazines perpetuated outmoded beauty norms, Instagram became a place to celebrate what Ogbugu calls the ideal “urban” shape: “big hips, big butt, skinny small waist.”
“In Hollywood, thin is still in, but in the urban hip-hop community, it’s all about being thick,” Ogbugu says. Last fall, Kim Kardashian introduced waist training to a larger audience after posting an iPhone mirror selfie in which she wore a waist trainer made by PreMadonna and declared herself “obsessed.” Kim’s sister Khloe has posed on Instagram with a waist trainer. So have the model Amber Rose and droves of reality stars and bottle service girls, each of them publicly pledging an allegiance to different brands.
If size was the primary measure of bodily beauty for decades, shape matters now just as much if not more, and a crop of profit-seeking solutions has emerged to address those new beauty standards. Where you see a waist trainer, you’re also likely to see herbal teas, slimming wraps, and gels—all products targeted towards women hoping to reach a desired body shape, each with questionable effectiveness.
For centuries, women have been contorting themselves for the sake of beauty, and history will likely remember the latex waist trainer as a blip in the marketplace. They’ve brought more corporeal women into the spotlight, but ultimately they exist to enforce a beauty standard that is, by some measure, inherently exploitative and oppressive. Still, sellers believe the waist trainer business fundamentally empowers women. “The owner of [MyBodyRocker] is a woman, it’s run by women, and the employees are women as well. So it’s a female-based, girl-power type of company,” explains Porscha Sinclair, a representative for MyBodyRocker. Juju, the model and entrepreneur who is also known for being Cam’ron’s girlfriend, sells her own line of waist trainers through Waist Snatchers and agrees. “People are trying to make moves for themselves, so it’s only right that it’s by women for women,” she says.
PreMadonna says she’s happy so many competitors have followed her lead and started up shops. “It’s a big business now, but I could never be mad at it,” she says. “If I look around and I see women who are becoming entrepreneurs, I’m like, good for them. That’s what it’s about.” When I ask her if she ever feels her products offer more results than they can deliver, she stays in sales mode, giving an answer I imagine her customers would want to hear when they look in the mirror: “You’ll never be Kim Kardashian. You’ll never be me. But you’ll be closer to the version of yourself that you choose.”
For all of the women I spoke with, the waist trainer did more than advertised—it spurred them into making other changes in their lives. Shumaya Bang, a 35-year-old TV producer and aspiring host in New York City, said she’s owned a waist trainer for seven years but didn’t start using it until this spring. After seeing women post photos of their trim, waist trainer-shaped bodies on Instagram, she dug hers out. She wears it a few days a week for a couple of hours at a time while exercising. She has also adopted better eating habits, but she earnestly credits the waist trainer with the inches she’s lost from her waist. “I was planning to get plastic surgery, like body contouring or something,” Bang says, “but this turned out to be cheaper and better.”