In a world where physical appearance carries immense weight, people are constantly seeking ways to attain the perfect body shape. From the enticing allure of shapewear to the dangerous obsession with Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) surgeries, the pursuit of physical perfection has taken on new dimensions. And with the influential role of celebrities like Kim Kardashian and her incredibly popular brand SKIMS, there’s never been a more important moment in history to address the seriously captivating world of body transformation.
In recent years, shapewear has captured the imagination of many, thanks in part to the marketing prowess of celebrities like Kardashian. With SKIMS, the socialite has managed to bring shapewear into the mainstream and popularise it for young millennials and gen Zers. Promising to enhance curves, smooth out imperfections, and boost confidence, SKIMS and other shapewear brands have found a captive audience.
Does anyone remember that one scene from the 2001 classic Bridget Jones’s Diary when Renée Zellweger is seen struggling to squeeze herself into a pair of lyrcra spandex shapewear knickers? How on earth we were made to be believe that Jones was an overweight spinster with nothing going for her, I’ll never know. Shapewear has been a constant reminder in our lives that in order to be desirable, we need to smooth out any lumps and bumps and seek out any possible option we can find to appear slimmer—and it’s worked brilliantly.
When the film was first released, control shapewear primarily targeted individuals like Jones, 30-something singletons whose wallets were influenced by societal pressures which made them believe that having a flat stomach was essential for being deemed attractive or desirable—something that’s still very much a construct today.
However, these days, shapewear has undergone a rebranding and is now marketed toward younger women as a fashionable and sexy must-have accessory. Shapewear products are no longer solely advertised as stomach-smoothing solutions. Still, they are aimed at anyone seeking a narrow waist or a figure resembling the contoured hourglass silhouette popularised by the Kardashians.
Fast fashion retailers such as PrettyLittleThing offer replicas of Kardashian’s popular bodysuits for a mere £20, a big drop from the SKIMS starting price of £70.
Additionally, PLT sells waist trainers, corset-like garments worn beneath clothing to forcefully train the waist to appear narrower, for a measly £12. Descriptions of these products often promote the idea of instantly cinching the waist and using a method of stiff boning to provide a restrictive effect. On platforms like TikTok, it only takes a quick search to find viral dresses with built-in Spanx-style shapewear.
Despite the fact that shapewear is incredibly mainstream nowadays, experts have raised concerns about the potential pitfalls of prolonged usage. These kinds of restrictive garments can lead to discomfort, restricted blood flow, and digestive issues.
Orly Avitzur, a New York City-based neurologist and medical advisor, told the Los Angeles Times that experts in the field have long known about a condition called meralgia paresthetica, which causes painful burning and tingling in the thighs when there is too much pressure on nerves that run through the groin. The condition is most common in pregnant women and people who’ve gained weight quickly. But every month or two, Avitzur noted that she’ll see a patient suffering from nerve pain because of shapewear.
Some patients are the exception, of course. Avitzur recalled seeing one 15-year-old girl who came to her office after seeing a gastroenterologist for stomach pain. It turned out that the girl’s entire football team had been wearing colourful compression shorts under their uniforms at school, a fashion trend that was common among high school teams in the area.
“I wouldn’t have normally asked her if she wore tight compression clothing because she was a young athlete,” Avitzur told the LA Times. “It wasn’t until I was almost leaving the room, and I said, ‘In my mother’s generation, we saw this in women who wore girdles’.”
Instead of stuffing ourselves into suffocating clothes, some experts advise that it may be better to stick with more proven forms of body-shaping behaviour. But it’s been undeniably hard for them to be heard when research firms estimate that shapewear is a $680-million annual market.
While shapewear offers a non-extreme and invasive solution to body transformation, some individuals crave more dramatic changes. This has contributed to the surge in the popularity of BBL surgeries. Influenced by celebrities like Cardi B, who openly discussed her own BBL experience (for which she paid $800 and underwent it in a basement in 2014), and how dangerous it was, explained in a 2018 interview with GQ that many people are enticed by the prospect of achieving fuller, curvier buttocks through surgical means.
A number of investigative reports have uncovered alarming statistics surrounding BBL procedures, particularly in countries such as Brazil where the trend originated. The allure of a quick fix has led to a proliferation of unregulated clinics and inexperienced practitioners. Tragically, many lives have been lost due to complications arising from these surgeries. Fat embolism, infection, and tissue damage are just some of the risks associated with these kinds of surgeries.
In an attempt to dissuade individuals, the NHS released a statement in regard to this matter: The risk of death for BBL surgery is at least 10 times higher than many other cosmetic procedures, and it has the highest death rate of all cosmetic procedures. The main concern is that the injected fat can cause a blockage in a blood vessel in the lungs (pulmonary embolism), which can be fatal.”
In a recent installment of Fault Lines, an Al Jazeera-produced investigative programme that delves into Florida’s cosmetic surgery industry, it was revealed that the industry has recently gained national attention due to a distressing number of patient fatalities and disfigurements, particularly in relation to the widely popular BBL.
Despite the persistent efforts of the Florida Board of Medicine to establish safeguards within the industry, the documentary uncovered a disturbing trend of surgeons engaging in unsafe practices and exerting pressure on lawmakers to maintain the status quo.
One specific case involves Danea Plasencia, a 28-year-old woman who tragically lost her life after undergoing a BBL at Mia Aesthetics—a Florida-based clinic that promotes itself as “the most affordable plastic surgery clinic.” Plasencia desired to have the procedure done after noticing that a number of her colleagues who had undergone the surgery had subsequently earned more waitressing tips compared to her.
Plasencia lost her life due to a pulmonary fat embolism, a condition that occurs when fat is mistakenly injected into the veins, obstructing blood flow. As it’s shockingly stated in Fault Lines, since 2016, 21 other women have met a similar fate after undergoing BBL procedures in the same US state.
To understand the reasons behind these alarming fatalities, various plastic surgery associations have joined forces, striving to unravel the underlying causes of this life-threatening outcome. Doctors who have examined Plasencia’s autopsy findings have expressed their belief that her death could have been prevented, shedding light on the reckless nature of the procedure.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, plastic surgeon Dr. Pat Pazmino highlighted the importance of avoiding the injection of fat into the muscle during the BBL procedure. He went on to point out the alarming negligence associated with this practice, making it the most perilous cosmetic procedure worldwide. The exploitation of vulnerable individuals seeking aesthetic enhancements and the evident lack of concern for patient safety in Florida’s cosmetic surgery industry—along with countless other places around the world—is truly disheartening.
Experts and medical professionals emphasise the urgent need for proper regulation, standardised safety protocols, and comprehensive patient screening in the cosmetic surgery industry. It’s essential for individuals considering BBL surgeries to be fully aware of the potential dangers and therefore be able to make informed decisions about their own bodies.
Despite the continued allure of SKIMS and the surge in knockoff alternatives, we must recognise the role societal fatphobia and body image-related trauma plays in this harmful cycle, and indeed consider how we can help those who are set on pursuing shapewear or surgeries how to do so safely.