Joe Pilates was born into a world of corseted women. Fact: Well-bred ladies wore some form of corset starting in the 14th century. By the 1800s, extreme lacing of these core-crushing contraptions took hold. Remember in Gone with the Wind when Scarlet and Mammy struggle to squeeze Scarlet’s postpartum waist down to 18 inches? Then there’s the GWTW scene with the southern belles napping, corsets unleashed, literally taking a much-needed breather. Imagine forcibly cinching your waist down to 18–22 inches daily, all your adult life. People in the 1800s suspected corsets caused health problems. When a lady grew faint, the cry went out to loosen her laces and she was led to the fainting couch and administered smelling salts. Health experts warned that extremely tight lacing displaced organs and compressed the spine, not to mention the fact that it prevented proper muscle development and prohibited vigorous exercise. 19th century corsets were so rigid that women were forced to sit upright and could barely bend over. But women endured corsets from adolescence on in order to have fashionable figures.
It was in this social climate that Pilates introduced his method. He advocated building a powerhouse, which he called a “deep-muscle corset.” The inner corset consisted (and still does) of the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, inner-thigh muscles and all muscles surrounding the pelvis. When we practice Pilates properly, we construct our deep inner muscle corset by hollowing our center (core) and activating the muscles of the pelvic floor and girdle. We gain control over our bodies, and this leads to health in mind and spirit. But the mindset of the general public had to change before this concept could be widely accepted. When you look at the last hundred years, you will see the journey from corset to core strength parallels the emancipation and liberation of women.
March 8th 1911, when women celebrated the first Women’s History Day, most women wore corsets. By 1914 the modified corselet hit the market and so did looser clothes. On May 16, 1916, the first annual swimsuit day took place at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Women, freed from corsets, began to enjoy recreational activities. In the ’20s, rebel-rousing flappers with boyish figures danced risqué Charlestons. But the majority of ladies clung to undergarments with stays and laces. My grandmother, who was born in 1893, wore her corselet into the 1970s. She felt indecent if she didn’t wear it.
For decades she suffered from chronic indigestion, later diagnosed as a hiatus hernia. Corselet caused? Seems likely. My mother, in her 20s during WWII, wiggled into a compressing girdle until the late 1960s. Then, suddenly, it was women’s lib time and everything changed in a flash—at least on the surface. Mom threw away her girdle, hung up her dresses and put on a pantsuit. When I came of age, bra burnings were in the news. My mom and grandmother were fine with me wearing mini-skirts to high school and tiny bikinis to the beach. They’d accepted the changing societal attitudes toward women’s bodies. Amazing when you realize this transition happened in just 50 years, after 500 years of required corset wearing!
By the late ‘70s, everyone slithered into Spandex and fitness became an industry. I was one of the countless women pumping iron, sweating in aerobic classes, getting strong (at least on the outside). Yoga and mediation were catching on, but Pilates work that developed those deep inner corset muscles wasn’t mainstream yet. Then, as those of us in the Pilates community know, Pilates went public in the early 1990s and it caught on like wild fire.
As of 2011, more than 40 years after Joe passed away, 12 million people worldwide practice Pilates, and approximately 30 thousand people teach Joe’s methods. The deep corset muscle building methods Joe introduced right around 1911 are now the foundation of mind-body movement and fitness practices throughout the entire world. They’ve been embraced by both sexes, but do seem to mirror the century-long empowerment of women. Joe’s life view wasn’t just about constructing the deep muscle corset. It was about taking control of the body and empowering it and, allowing the whole being—mind, body and spirit—to flourish.
As we come to the end of the centennial anniversary of Women’s History Month, let’s think about how the Pilates lifestyle has empowered women to this point in history, and how practicing and teaching the Pilates method to women of all ages and future generations of women can help them evolve toward even greater emancipation and accomplishment. I invite you to weigh in on this topic from your own experiences as one who practices Pilates and/or teaches it.