Cathie Jung has the smallest waist of any living person, 15 inches around—or, as her website puts it, “about the same size as a regular jar of mayonnaise.” In her Guinness World Records photo, her upper half blossoms from somewhere around her belly button, like the genie unfurling from his tiny lamp.
The lamp is a steel boned corset, the kind fashionable during the Victorian era and recently revived by erotic art enthusiasts and members of the fetish and body modification communities. It’s not simply a fashion choice, though; those who take corset-wearing to the extreme—seeking permanent physical alteration—are called tightlacers.
Jung is currently the most successful tightlacer in the world. Her corsets are so much a part of her that she sleeps in them, and when asked over the phone what her uncorseted waist measures, she’s silent. “I don’t really know,” she says eventually. “I’m never without it, so it’s hard to say. I just take it off in the shower.”
In 1980, after more than 20 years of part-time use, Jung became a full-time tightlacer. In those days she could really only meet other tightlacers at events or through word of mouth. Today, though, tightlacers have formed an online community—one spread across platforms yet tightly connected; despite lacking a central, core site, everyone seems to know everyone. It’s a wide-ranging online safe space, where tightlacers—many of them cross-dressing men—can interact and commune without fear. (Jung lives mostly offline, posting pictures on her website and responding to fan emails.)
“I remember the days when we had to put messages in a bottle,” says Autumn Adamme of the San Francisco corsetiere Dark Garden. “There used to be more events, annual galas—that was how you met people.” Those events —like the Grand Corset Ball—remain popular, but Adamme suggests they’re not as necessary as they were when she started wearing corsets in 1986 “to see how far I could push things.” Today she only wears them occasionally, while designing both bespoke and ready-to-wear garments. She blogs about corsetry and often conducts fittings over Skype. She estimates 10 percent of her customers are serious tightlacers.
The definition of “tightlacing” can vary: For Ann Grogan, the author of Corset Magic: A Fun Guide to Trim Your Waist & Figure, it describes both part-time corset wearing and long-term, permanent body modification like that of Cathie Jung. Grogan herself only wears a corset part-time.“I tightlace for physical challenge to myself,” she says. “To see how small I can make my waist and how long I can wear it for.” Her personal best, she says, is 19.5 inches, measured over the corset, for three hours.
“It’s like, you know, my lungs aren’t in my waist—and they’re my business anyway.”
She first tried on a custom corset in the 1980s; soon after, in her late 40s, she left a career as a practicing trial attorney to pursue corsetry and erotic art. Her website, Romantasy, is among the oldest devoted to corsetry; she believes it was the first when she launched it in 1995. Like Adamme, today she’s a corset designer and blogger, and estimates about a quarter of her customers are tightlacers.
Both women find that a significant portion of their customers are men. Twenty percent, Adamme says; Grogan figures 65 percent. Male tightlacers can face more isolation than their female counterparts, and in some cases desire more anonymity from the rest of the world. Of the online tightlacing community, Adamme says, “It’s certainly helped men find community.”
“Before the Internet, for all you knew you were the only one in the world, and it felt funny,” says Toni Williams. Williams, a retired computer engineer who was born genetically male and most days adopts a female persona, got her first corset in 1988 but didn’t become a full-time tightlacer until she received a proper fitting from Grogan in 1999. (She wears her corset everywhere except when showering or boarding a plane, since the metal hooks and eyes are a hassle to take through TSA; her waist has gone from 36 inches to 29 or 30.) “In ’99 there wasn’t much at all. And since about ’04 or ’05 it has just blossomed. Especially for men, for cross-dressers, [that has meant] so much acceptance,” she says.
Williams came to corsets as a way to improve her cross-dressing. A friend remarked that, as fabulous as she looked, a “real woman” would have a narrower and more hourglass-shaped waist. “I don’t want to just pass as a woman,” Williams says. “I want to pass as a hot, good-looking woman. I can’t think of anything that’s given me more enjoyment [than tightlacing and corsetry] over the last 30 or 40 years.”
Williams says that over the last decade, she’s seen more and more corsets at transgender and cross-dressing conferences; they’re the fashionable way to a slimmer waist and bigger bust. But tightlacing appeals to others as well. Kelly Lee Dekay describes herself as a self-made supervillain, a designer and fetish model with the figure of Jessica Rabbit made flesh. She won’t share her full measurements or how many hours a day she tightlaces—“trade secret,” she says—though she claims a 16-inch corseted waist.
Dekay has been tightlacing for nearly a decade, taking guidance from YouTube videos and websites. As a model, she’d begun getting attention in the fetish community when, in 2014, a video about her went viral. People magazine and the Huffington Post aggregated the story; the original video now has almost 6 million views.
“My oldest client is 86 years old, and she tightlaces, she gets her waist down four inches.”
For Dekay, who considers herself introverted and sometimes struggles with social anxiety, the newfound attention wasn’t always welcome. Another tightlacer directed her to a fan group on Facebook, where she was welcomed without judgment. “[It] was a space where we could discuss our goals without someone being like, ‘oh my Nicolas Cage, your organs!” she says, laughing. “Because people are always like my organs, my organs, my organs. It’s like, you know, my lungs aren’t in my waist—and they’re my business anyway.”
She met other tightlacers and attended the 2015 Grand Corset Ball, where she met Jung. “It was like a Cinderella moment… I was shaking like a total fangirl and I introduced myself and she’s just like, ‘Oh, I know who you are, I’ve been reading about you,’” she says. “If it weren’t for that Facebook group, I wouldn’t have gotten in touch with any of them.” Online she found a haven, though today she’s taking a break from the Internet—the combination of attention and, unfortunately often, abuse can be overwhelming.
While private groups offer a haven for tightlacers, corsets themselves seem to be having a mainstream moment. Kim Kardashian famously Instagrammed a photo wearing a “waist training” garment, a phrase that can indicate either tightlacing or something slightly less severe. The photo currently has almost 800,000 likes.
Three tightlacers I spoke to brought up Kardashian unprompted, with various degrees of reservation and resentment. Dekay says, “She probably put that girdle on, took the picture, and took it right off ’cuz she got shit to do.” She suggests that Kardashian is promoting “glorified Spanx,” and says that, ‘“Fitness Instagram’ [especially] tries to vilify us so they can push those girdles.” She also believes that waist training does not help manage body weight; she points to diet and exercise as the best way to truly remain healthy. (Some tightlacers, though, do emphasize potential health benefits to corseting.)
Even as Kim Kardashian promotes waist training to her millions of followers, the tightlacing community remains dispersed online, with no central congregation. Older haunts such as LiveJournal have given way to private Facebook groups such as “Learn How to Make Corsets Like a Pro!” and “The Tightlacing Society.” Grogan posts to the Tightlacing Society group and blogs on her website. Adamme uses Facebook and Tumblr, and Instagram a little. Williams uses Pinterest occasionally, but focuses most on her Flickr account, where she chats with fans and other tightlacers as far-flung as Paris and Thailand.
Grogan believes many of her clients have become more self-accepting thanks to the Internet, “because more people see [men and] full-figured women in corsets on social media and on blogs, so they can envision themselves wearing one.” Many of her clients are older, or baby boomers who might not have otherwise thought about donning a corset. “My oldest client is 86 years old, and she tightlaces; she gets her waist down four inches,” she says. “So the Internet has done that.”
Illustration by Max Fleishman