Friday, April 15, 2011

Want: Revivification

When I was in my early twenties, I did a lot of fainting. This is surprising for two reasons: (1) from a central casting perspective, I look more your standard shrewish fishwife than a swooning rose, and (2) who knew people still fainted in this day and age?

It only happened when I was in a lot of pain—the afternoon I had my wisdom teeth removed, for example—and my doctor gave me a clean bill of health. It was caused by low blood pressure, she said, stemming from my reaction to the pain.

The fainting itself wasn’t so bad; all of a sudden, I simply wasn’t present. It was the lead-up and the recovery that sucked. All the clich├ęs came into play: I felt like throwing up, I got all clammy, and the room spun wildly around me. Losing consciousness actually came as a relief, blotting out the discomfort with blissful, cool blackness. (Ever since, I’ve suspected that dying would feel the same way.) Waking up wasn’t so great. It involved crashing back into life just as I’d left it—sweaty and hurting and unhappy.

Dr. Alexander Youman, ever thoughtful, seems to have sympathy for the fainters among us. “Dashing water over a person in a simple fainting fit is a barbarity,” he wrote in the Dictionary’s chapter on accidents and emergencies. “Yelling out like a savage” is also off the to-do list (although it sounds like fun).


Having lived through the nineteenth century, Dr. Alexander Youman probably knew a thing or two about fainting. WebMD’s entry on the subject mentions the same primary cause, lack of blood flow to the brain, and also says that lying down will usually solve the problem. From my experience, they’re both right on what to do—once I laid down (or fell, as the case may be), I always woke up within a few seconds.

The strange thing about this entry is its specific mention of a fainting man. During Youman’s day, this seems to be the least likely suspect for a good fainting fit: After all, this was the era of the tight-laced corset, which we moderns tend to believe left women swooning nonstop.

Corsets were a fact of life for hundreds of years, but thanks to marvels of engineering and science, the nineteenth-century models were particularly unforgiving. Typically measuring between 18 and 30 inches at the waist, they were worn by everyone from bonbon-eating bons vivants, to women of the working class, to slaves in the American south (and, in modified silhouettes, some men). As seems inevitable in Western society, the point was to wear the smallest size possible, and according to Valerie Steele’s The Corset: A Cultural History, these constricting foundation garments probably really did cause fainting and other physical ailments, if not quite on the grand scale many people imagine. 

It’s likely that the women around Youman wore corsets, so he must have seen a collapse or two. (According to Steele, 40 percent of Parisian women were estimated to wear corsets in the 1870s. Exact figures aren’t available for the U.S., but corsets were common enough to figure prominently in the discussion of social activists and doctors of the day.) Yet Youman chose to build this entry around a man fainting. Could it be because fainting women were so common, there was nothing more to be said on the topic?

It’s easy to scoff at corsets as antiquated and anti-woman, but our grandchildren may feel the same way about our plastic-surgery-mad culture. Whether you’re 7 or 70, the modern world seems convinced that there’s nothing a scalpel can’t fix.

Corsets themselves are by no means things of the past: they’re easily available online, both because they’ve taken on a naughty appeal, and because some people take their Victoriana obsessions a few steps too far.  And then there’s the whole subculture of genuine waist training, most famously represented by Dita von Teese, modern-day burlesque star and ex-wife of 90s rock star Marilyn Manson. 

Heck. If all corsets were this beautiful, even I’d be tempted.

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