As many of my readers will know, I have scoliosis – curvature of the spine. It was discovered when I was a teen, and by the time I was in my twenties a respected Australian doctor had strongly suggested I have a rod inserted in my back. I said no – a view that has since been supported by a number of other specialists (in my case). I’ve managed my pain and back health in many ways over the decades, from osteopaths and Alexander Technique, to pain killers and yoga, even writing my books while reclining and surrounded by pillows (Hey, it works for me). Since October 2015, corset wearing has become an effective and rather miraculous part of my personal health arsenal. In this contribution to the anthology Solaced: 101 Uplifting Narratives About Corsets, Well-being and Hope, edited by Lucy Williams, I explain why, and how prejudices and misinformation about corsets and their function made it all but impossible for me to discover this inexpensive, drug-free method of pain relief until recently.
Wisdom and Autonomy
by Tara Moss
There is a reason the eye is drawn to the silhouette of a corseted form. First there
are the proportions, the curved lines. Then the shining busk pins, the pattern of
laces, the often sensuous, shining fabric, the contrast of soft curve and rigid boning.
There is more to a corset than aesthetics, however, and this is where my real
corset story begins.
I first came to view corsets as more than attractive additions to my wardrobe
last year. You see, headaches and back pain have been regular companions to
my career as a novelist and writer for the past twenty years, in part because of
scoliosis (curvature of the spine). After two full decades of wearing corsets for
pleasure and fashion, and collecting no less than 12 of them, I experienced yet
another of my “writing aches” and laced myself into an old underbust one afternoon.
Perhaps I had medical corsets in mind that day (they are often structurally
similar) and I unconsciously craved the stiff posture support.
Whatever the reason, by the end of that day, I discovered something curious—
my neck and upper back felt “lighter.” Despite long hours at the keyboard,
I was without a discernible headache or neck tension. The next day I tried it
again, to the same result. And so finally the penny dropped: the corsets I had
loved the look of for as long as I can remember could do far more for me than
I’d given them credit for.
Why had it taken me so long to make this obvious connection? I soon began
reading everything I could on the topic, from blogs and news articles to W.B.
literature on corsetry, it was easy to see that the terms “corset” and “medical
benefit” were rarely found in the same sentence—not since some questionable
Edwardian advertisements for the S-curve, anyway.
Search for “corset” and “pain” and the dominant story becomes quite clear,
with the mainstream narrative being one of corsets causing, never relieving pain.
Though I had not taken as fact the more outrageous claims about corsets causing
frequent broken ribs and more (I would guess they have caused somewhat fewer broken
bones than the far more accepted fashionable women’s heels) it was good to read
many of these hyperbolic claims forensically debunked step by step in the work of
Steele, Grogan, and on the website of the author of this book, among others.
Yes, it is possible to wear an ill-fitting corset and hurt yourself by making it
bruisingly tight, just as you could with another piece of rigid clothing—again,
shoes spring to mind—but the question is, why would you?
Legitimate issues of social pressure and body dysmorphia aside, the root of
the hysteria about women and corsetry seems to be the idea that women, as an
entire sex, cannot be trusted to know their own minds and bodies. There could
apparently be no comfortable or moderate corset wear for women, only masochism
and dangerous vanity. For this reason, perhaps, it was puzzling to many
dedicated dress reformers that all women didn’t simply toss out their corsets as
soon as it became acceptable to do so. Didn’t they all hate the things? Well apparently
As Steele writes in The Corset: A Cultural History, “Behind the dress reformers’
belief that menswear was intrinsically superior to women’s clothing was the assumption
that men themselves were more rational than women.” (Citation:
Steele, Valerie, The Corset: A Cultural History, Page 61.)
Wasn’t it possible, at least for some percentage of women, that a life with corsets
was superior to a life without, and that they were reliable witnesses to their
own feelings and experiences on the matter? Could this be one of the reasons
foundation garments, from corsets to girdles to shapewear, have never quite disappeared,
even if they have gone underground, as it were, becoming hidden
elements of dress?
Tellingly, men’s corsetry is almost entirely left out of the “corset debate,” despite
their historically documented use for the military, in fine men’s dressing,
on the stage (more than a few male performers wouldn’t be caught dead under
stage lights without one) and of course, for personal expression and pleasure.
This speaks, no doubt, to anxieties about male identity, perhaps once the focus
on the corset as a feminine article became so entrenched in the collective consciousness.
No, the focus of the “debate” remains fixed on familiar anxieties about
women, namely notions of female frailty and women’s dangerous sexuality. Both
ideas have passed down from century to century, from the preposterous “wandering
womb” theory originating in the work of Plato and taught right up to the
modern era of medicine, to the antiquated but oft-taught idea that women need
masters, do not have the capacity for rational thought, and should not speak up
in public spaces or exert public authority, lest we all be led astray: Eve and the
apple; Pandora and her box.
What we find again and again is the idea of the corset itself—or the woman
who wears one—as a corruptor. A woman with a corset is a threat or a victim.
The femme fatale, the dominatrix, the masochistic maiden, but never, it seems,
the sensible writer. With this history in mind, it’s little wonder
it took so long for me to see the obvious benefits a corset could provide, beyond
what was aesthetically clear.
I have now, like many women before me, discovered the benefits of moderate
and regular corset use. It is something I do for myself—for my pleasure, yes, but
also to avoid chronic pain. My doctor is aware of this, and I am aware of both
the benefits and limitations of these lovely additions to my wardrobe. I exercise
to pick up what back strength I can, with the scoliosis I have, and I wear my
corsets as an aid to those parts of me bent by nature, not as a substitute to my
real back muscles.
In this way I can hike for hours without a corset, and write for hours with one,
both comfortably. Whether “stealthing” or proudly showing off a corset, I feel
good, and if I don’t, I know something is wrong. I know my own body.
And when my leggy 5-year-old daughter runs into my arms, and I pick her up
without hesitation, and I keep holding her thanks in part to my stays, I am grateful
for the special moments these steel-boned creations afford me. A contemporary
mainstream acceptance and understanding of it is of little matter. The sensation
of holding my child without fear of hurting my back is just one pleasure
among the many that I will not soon care to give up.
- Tara Moss is the author of 11 books of fiction and non-fiction, a
journalist, TV presenter, human rights activist, model, and corset
Above: Lacing myself in to a custom fitted corset, before getting dressed. Contrary to representations in the movies, today’s corsets are easily self-laced by the vast majority of wearers, and don’t hurt. If a corset hurts, it is too tight, poorly made, or the wrong fit for your body. Loosen it up (those laces go both ways, giving you a lot of control) or take it off. Be kind to yourself.
Solaced: 101 Uplifting Narratives About Corsets, Well-being and Hope edited by Lucy Williams of Lucy’s Corsetry, is available on e-book, and includes 101 personal stories of corset benefits including detailed accounts of how corsets help to manage a variety of conditions.
- Photographs copyright of Berndt Sellheim.
- Words copyright of Tara Moss, AKA Victory Lamour.
- More on corsetry here.
- A study: Effects of long-term corset wearing on chronic low back pain.