The idea that women had two or more ribs surgically removed to make their midsections more compressible has been a corset myth for many years. I first came across it in 2006 at a DAR exhibit titled “Myth or Truth” that tried to debunk many often heard history myths. Their exhibit guide said, “Some early American myths prove to be so lasting that they even repeat themselves in the context of contemporary society. Marvel at the tiny waist of a 19th-century corset and your guide may tell you ‘some women had their lowest ribs removed surgically to achieve the fashionably thin waist.’ It may almost sound believable to you because you “heard Cher did it!”
Well, Cher didn’t do it, and neither did women in early America.
Chief Curator and Acting Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele is the author of many books on fashion, including The Corset: A Cultural History, published in 2001 by Yale University Press. In it, she firmly dismisses the removable ribs myth.
“There is no evidence at all that this practice ever existed in reality. After years of research, neither Lynn Kutsche nor I found any nineteenth-century medical article about this procedure. . . . historians sometimes claim that rib removal occurred , but without providing evidence . . . ” She goes on to point out that such an operation could not have been performed without putting the patient at serious risk of dying. Chest surgery was extremely high-risk, anesthesia was unavailable until the middle of the 19th century, and even after that, not well understood and therefore risky. “It would have been very difficult for a woman to find a physician willing to undertake such a hazardous procedure for cosmetic purposes. Histories of plastic surgery do not mention rib removal.” As Bill Bryson bluntly says in his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “19th -century surgical techniques simply were not up to it.”
Rumors of movie stars having their lower ribs removed still circulate. Although it is theoretically possible today to perform such an operation, “no one,” according to Dr. John Sherman of Cornell University’s medical school, “has owned up to performing such a procedure.” The persistent rumor that Cher had her ribs removed probably originated with the fact that she has had many other sorts of plastic surgery, and she has a small waist.