We were born naked for a reason. While social expectations and weather usually demand that we adorn ourselves with some sort of raiment, the clothes we wear are often not designed with our body’s wellbeing in mind. I’m going to discuss three ways that our clothes directly impact our health.
One: Squishing Our Tubes
Have you ever removed your clothing only to find grooves in your skin where your clothing was the tightest? I get to see this all the time when doing massage—especially from bra straps, underwear, and socks—even if it’s almost been an hour since my client undressed. In our culture, our choices of clothing are based mostly on how they make us look while we are wearing them, with little concern for what is going on underneath. The saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” applies well. However fashionably they are covered up, the indentations on your body from tight clothing are more than skin deep.
What lies under your skin? A bunch of tubes! We have arteries, veins, lymph vessels, nerves, the digestive tract, urinary tract, reproductive organs, and more. Just like putting your finger on the end of a hose or putting a kink in the hose will change the flow of water, pressure on the tubes in our body will affect the flow of fluids traveling through them. This can mean less circulation, higher blood pressure, more swelling, loss of sensation, and less efficiency.
How tight is too tight? Anything pressing or squeezing your body will have some impact. It’s difficult to determine how much one thing contributes to a particular health condition. For example, a person’s atherosclerosis could be a result of their diet, their movement habits, their genetics, or their restrictive clothing, but most likely it was a combination of these and other factors that lead to the disease. The thing to keep in mind is that much of what puts you at risk for many kinds of disease is in your control. So, take a look at your wardrobe from the perspective of your innards and decide if you like what you see.
In addition to disturbing the flow of fluids, clothing can also put restrictions on the flow of air. Most notably, expansion of the lungs can be limited by anything that squeezes the ribcage or abdomen. Tight waistlines that induce people to suck in their bellies result in less space for organs to be displaced as the diaphragm works to make way for inhalation. Bra straps and some close-fitting tops make it more difficult for the ribs to move naturally up and out as you breathe in. These days, we are appalled by the corsets women once wore that were so damaging even untrained eyes can discern the distortion done to their skeletons. Even though today’s corsets tend to be much less damaging, no clothing article seems more important than the capability of breathing fully.
If you want to help improve the flow of blood, lymph, oxygen, and nutrients in your body, try to reduce the amount that your clothing marks your skin, especially paying attention to the waistline, groin, and ribcage. Underwear, bras, pants, belts, and socks all should be judged critically for their tube-compressing tendencies. Most of all, if your body is telling you that something is uncomfortable, it doesn’t want you to wear it.
Two: Propping Us Up
When we were born, we didn’t come with clothes. The instruction manual didn’t even say we needed them. Yet our culture has perceived a need to clothe ourselves not only to cover our nakedness but to provide external support, particularly to those floppy, dangly parts. While it may be beneficial during extreme sports, hoisting our breasts, bellies, and testicles is actually not necessary during most daily activities and has the result of weakening the intrinsic support systems they came with.
Our body is not just a bag with a bunch of organs jumbling around inside. Everything is held relatively in place by connective tissue. Bands of fascia enfold all our body parts like plastic wrap. Some parts of this web-like tissue are thicker and more rigid, others are more elastic. This built-in support system should be enough to hold our parts together as we go through our lives. For example, breasts are supported by the suspensory ligaments. The load that breasts exert due to gravity and any bouncing or swinging that happens as we move acts as a mechanical stimulus for the suspensory ligaments to maintain their tension. When this load is reduced by wearing a bra, the ligaments have no work to do, so they weaken over time. Just like wearing supportive shoes, this creates a dependency on the external support systems we wear because now our bodies’ tissues are too weak to do the jobs they were intended for.
If we want to help our connective tissues keep their integrity, we need to limit our use of supportive garments for special situations, such as sports, and find times to allow our body parts to hang free, such as not wearing a bra or belt when at home.
Three: Pinning Us Down
Our bodies require variety in movement in order to keep functioning well. Some reasons for moving less than we could are easy to identify: laziness, convenience, lack of motivation, wanting to look mature and dignified and not childlike. But an often overlooked factor is how much our movement is restricted by our clothing.
Have you ever chosen not to bend over, not to squat or sit on the ground, or not to reach up overhead because your clothing kept you from being able to? Do you have to put on separate clothing to be able to move around (a.k.a. exercise or workout clothes)? This means you are voluntarily putting a limit on the range of motion available to your body parts. Your muscles are like factory-raised chickens limited to cramped quarters. If you expect your body to function well, it needs to be free-range.
This may not seem like a big deal because we are so used to it by now, and it’s not just fashion that leads us to choose restrictive clothing. Our lifestyle and habitat shape what we wear. If people wear pencil skirts and tight belts, it’s difficult to squat or sit on the floor, and therefore you have to provide chairs for them. And if people can always expect a chair to sit on, they can continue to wear clothing that doesn’t require movement beyond that.
So in reevaluating our clothing decisions, we also need to take a look at what we expect our bodies to do in that clothing. If you plan on being stationary all day, at least opt for clothing that will allow motion within your body—the flow of fluids and air. If you would like to exist in other positions beyond sitting in chairs and standing, note what factors might be getting in the way. True well-being includes the ability to move with variety throughout our days and our lives. Our clothing and environment choices shouldn’t cost us our health.