"I hate Spanx because even though they look so good under your clothes, sometimes mid-wedding I'll be like, 'I feel so nauseous,'" actress Jennifer Coolidge once said. "They're so tight, who knows what you're cutting off?"
Turns out, that star was on to something. While we can all relate to the aforementioned pain and suffering, most of us have no idea about the health ramifications of shapewear. Are we hurting our bodies in the name of smooth garment lines? We spoke to gastroenterologist Dr. John Kuemmerle, dermatologist Dr. Maryann Mikhail and chiropractor Dr. Karen Erickson to find out.
When you wear shapewear, you're compressing your organs.
Shapewear couldn't do its job if it wasn't tight. Unfortunately, this leaves your stomach, intestine and colon compressed, which Dr. Kuemmerle says can worsen acid reflux and heartburn. Restrictive clothing can also provoke erosive esophagitis.
Your digestive tract is also affected, explains Dr. Erickson. The intestines are supposed to contract and move food along, but when they're compressed over a long period of time, the flow of digestion is stifled. "It's like when people eat a huge meal and then unbuckle their jeans," Dr. Kuemmerle says. This damage, though not permanent, can lead to unpleasant symptoms like abdominal discomfort, bloating and gas.
Another hallmark of shapewear? Shallow breath. When you inhale, your diaphragm expands and your abdomen flares out, Dr. Erickson says, but shapewear restricts this movement and decreases the excursion in respiration.
That includes compressing your bowels.
Those with functional bowel disorders and irritable bowel syndrome should wear shapewear with caution. "In someone who has weakness down below and a tendency towards incontinence," Dr. Kuemmerle explains, "increasing intra-abdominal pressure can certainly provoke episodes of incontinence."
Dr. Erickson also notes that there can be a tendency for those wearing shapewear to not to want to go to the bathroom. "You've got all of this pressure on your bladder from the shapewear pressing down," she says. "If you postpone urinating, it can cause stress incontinence, where you leak, or it can exaggerate stress incontinence with people who already have it."
You can develop tingling, numbness and pain in your legs.
Sitting in shapewear can lead to a reversible condition called meralgia paresthetica, which is when the peripheral nerve in your thigh is compressed. This leads to tingling, numbness and pain in your legs, all of which can come and go or become constant. "It's like putting these giant rubber bands around your upper thighs and tightening them when you sit," Dr. Erickson says. (She's also seen this condition in those who wear too-tight pantyhose and pants.)
This rubber band effect can also decrease your circulation and lead to blood clots. When you sit in shapewear, Dr. Erickson explains that those genetically prone to varicosities can develop varicose veins and lymph congestion, which manifests as swollen ankles.
Your muscles will suffer if you rely on shapewear for good posture.
"Shapewear is not a substitute for having strong muscles," Dr. Erickson says. It's important to develop muscle tone, because it's those muscles that hold your posture in perfect alignment. Many people use shapewear as a crutch to avoid using those muscles, Dr. Erickson says.
And don't be fooled into thinking that shapewear works like a medical back brace. "Shapewear's a little different in that it's not therapeutically designed -- it's cosmetically designed," she explains.
Plus, shapewear can create an environment prone to infections.
Shapewear is occlusive, meaning it traps moisture and anything else under it, which predisposes shapewear wearers to both yeast and bacterial infections. Dr. Mikhail says that the most common infection she sees is folliculitis, since bacteria often gets trapped among hair follicles and causes red puss-filled bumps. "Usually folliculitis can be easily treated with topical antibiotics," she says. "But recurrent infections may develop antibiotic resistance, meaning they get harder and harder to treat."
Dr. Mikhail notes that the risks are higher in overweight individuals, diabetics and those who sweat excessively.
Like everything in life, it's important to exercise moderation: Don't wear them too often.
"Everyone I know owns shapewear -- it's kind of a miracle," Dr. Erickson admits. "But I think we want to be mindful to not wear it on a day-in and day-out basis." It's not a problem if you wear it for an evening or a special occasion, she says, but it's not a good idea to wear it daily and sit in it for hours on end.
If you're exhibiting any of the aforementioned symptoms, all three doctors recommend avoiding shapewear until the issues are completely resolved.
Lastly, choosing the right fit is key.
There are so many different types of shapewear out there. You should pick the right style, but you also need to pick the right size, Dr. Erickson says. "You really want to pick shapewear that actually fits you," she explains. "You want it to do its job, but you don't want to get something so small that it's damaging you." For example, shapewear that goes up to your bra line isn't a good idea for those with acid reflux or heartburn, as that area is particularly sensitive for people predisposed to those conditions.
A good way to tell if your shapewear fits correctly? "It's not cutting in anywhere," says Dr. Erickson, who recommends trying out different brands and materials. "All it really does is smooth out the rough edges and you can easily get in and out of it without a struggle."
People really love their Spanx...
This story appears in Issue 86 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 31 in the iTunes App store.