New York - Sliding into shape-wear for the first time feels a little like vacuum sealing oneself.
As someone who'd never worn the stuff before, it was, at best, noticeably uncomfortable. At worst, my internal organs felt so squished that I raced to the bathroom to shimmy out of it halfway through the work day.
My ill-fated experiment was an attempt to understand how a garment designed to remold the body could simultaneously be described as empowering and anti-feminist, depending on whom you asked.
Though the body-positivity movement and self-love preaching stars like Lizzo are more popular than ever, and many women are ditching their under-wire bras for more comfortable alternatives. Nearly 20 years after Oprah named Spanx a “Favorite Thing,” that grasp shows no sign of loosening.
Celebrities broadcast wearing it on the red carpet to signal their relatability. Shape-wear ads featuring women of various sizes wiggling into the garments flood social feeds. The language has evolved, too: In September, Kim Kardashian West debuted her line of “solutionwear,” perhaps unwittingly framing women's bodies as a problem.
Kim Kardashian-West debuted her line of “solutionwear,” perhaps unwittingly framing women's bodies as a problem.
New companies, some direct-to-consumer, check all the boxes of millennial marketing: pale pastel colours, sans serif fonts, ethnically diverse women with a range of body types and robust social-media campaigns. Their message is one of inclusion and empowerment, even (perhaps paradoxically) emancipation.
As Toby Darbyshire, the male CEO of Heist Studios, an online tights and shape-wear company head-quartered in London, put it, “We want to build the most liberating underwear brand in the world.”
It’s a Cinch
People who work in the shape-wear industry tend to have the same talking points, many derived from Spanx’s own oft-repeated origin story.
They will bring up the “Bridget Jones moment,” the one where Renée Zellweger’s character famously dons an enormous pair of figure-smoothening granny panties. They’ll likely tell you that shape-wear, like jewelry, or makeup, should be a choice. They’ll say that they aren’t forcing you to wear it, or stating you need it to look good - they’re simply offering it for the people who seek it. (In a written statement, Spanx said that the company’s mission “has always been - and always will be - to help women of all shapes and sizes look and feel their best,” and suggested that Spanx helps “empower” women with its products and philanthropy.)
To a generation that would cringe at traditional, sexist marketing like “nothing beats a great pair of L’eggs” and throw Spanx’s paper catalogs right into the recycling, new companies are taking a take-it-or-leave-it approach. Shaper-mint, a popular online shape-wear marketplace that sells lines by its parent company, Trafilea, alongside other brands, advises visitors to its website to be confident “with or without shape-wear.”
Stephanie Biscomb, Shapermint’s brand manager, said that shape-wear isn’t about hiding the body. “It's underwear, it's not miracles,” she said. “In my case, and a lot of women's cases, it’s about wearing something that makes you forget how your clothes are fitting.”
While the site has a large customer base over 45, Shapermint’s audience is also getting younger, according to Biscomb, and the company estimated that about half of the site’s customers are first-time shape-wear buyers. The styles that tend to resonate with younger customers are the products with less compression that are geared toward comfort. Or, as Biscomb put it: “Smoothening without squeezing the bejesus out of you.”
The companies may also be priming them for the future. “The thing with women’s bodies is that they are ever changing,” said Biscomb. “You accept it the way it is, then you have a baby, or menopause, and it's like boom! You need to learn to love it again, and sometimes you need to have extra help with that.”
Silicon Valley investors have been bullish on the category. In the summer of 2018, Honeylove, a shape-wear company, received funding from Y Combinator, a startup accelerator. Betsie Larkin founded the company three years ago in San Francisco, after becoming “obsessed” with finding good shape-wear during her career as an electronic dance musician, when she'd wear it nightly for shows.
“Shapewear isn’t something you can really feel proud wearing,” Larkin said. “I felt that shape-wear should be really beautiful too and make you confident from the inside out, versus being something like a sacrifice.”
Facebook and Instagram are the company’s biggest marketing channels, because these platforms allow for video demonstrations of the product. “What really works for people is to just cut to the chase,” Larkin said. “We show how the product works by showing body types people can identify with, versus using the skinny models the old-school brands are still using.” (In fairness, Spanx has a plus size division.)
That everyone is now used to frank body pictures online has also changed the way shape-wear is being sold. “We're going to show women the way they are,” said Biscomb of Shapermint. “Women are prepared to see themselves reflected on social media.”