Corsets have been around for centuries. In modern times, they're the ultimate in sexy lingerie for some women; for others, they're instruments of torture. And now, in what is becoming an increasingly popular trend, women are turning to corsets to help regain their pre-baby figures.
The purpose of post-birth waist training or postpartum corsets is to lend extra support to the abdominal muscles that have been weakened and separated during pregnancy. In theory, holding the muscles together encourages them to knit back together.
Celebrities like Jessica Alba have sworn by post-birth waist training as a way to snap back into shape after giving birth. In fact, mum of two Alba was so committed that she wore two corsets at a time, describing the experience to Net-a-Porta as "brutal," "sweaty", and "not for everyone".
It's not just Jessica Alba – lately we've also seen Kim and Kourtney Kardashian taking part in the trend after welcoming their children.
So is this just a Hollywood fad? Well, no – and there's a bit more to it than wearing a corset and magically restoring your stomach and waist to their former glory.
Sue Croft, Australian Physiotherapy Association continence and women's health physiotherapist, says that corsets can play an important role in postnatal recovery.
"If women postnatally have a significant rectus diastasis – that's a separation of their superficial abdominal muscles – this lack of support can lead to increased back pain, poor pelvic floor function and a slower recovery of the abdominal muscle form and strength," she explains.
Croft notes that there are many corsets and post-pregnancy compression garments that can reduce postnatal swelling and give support to weakened muscles while regaining tension and strength in the muscles.
However, Croft also cautions that women who are concerned about muscle separation should be assessed by a physiotherapist before purchasing a corset or support belt.
"Without properly tailoring a program to the individual needs of the woman, the muscles won't regain optimal strength," she says.
"Mobility may be restricted and the separation can remain significant and pronounced, leaving the woman with back pain and often a relaxed abdominal wall, which can be depressing for the new mum."
Carolyn Tate, a mother of three, was keen to try a post-pregnancy corset when her yoga teacher explained the benefits. But Tate, who purchased the $100 corset then and there, learnt that wearing a badly fitting corset is a miserable experience.
"It was an enormously wide and rigid corset with a whole lot of Velcro that secured it in place. I think I must have been slightly too large for it, because the Velcro didn't quite meet up fully, so I had Velcro scratching at my middle all day long," she says. "I felt restricted and uncomfortable, and breastfeeding wasn't the pleasant sensory experience it should have been."
Fashion blogger Deauvanné Athanasakis chose 'recovery shorts' rather than a corset following the birth of her daughter via C-section. "I started wearing them three weeks after giving birth. They reduced the wound pain and provided great support," she explains.
But in addition to the support, Athanasakis also found that the recovery shorts helped her regain her pre-baby shape faster than she'd expected. "I couldn't believe how much flatter my tummy looked a few weeks after wearing them," she says.
However, she also says that they were difficult to get on and off, and quite uncomfortable at first. "You soon get used to it though," she notes.
Jen Dugard is a personal trainer and author of the book How to Love Your Body as Much as Your Baby. She says that in her opinion there's a place for post-birth waist training, but also notes that women shouldn't rely on corsets alone.
"These items are great when used in conjunction with a great rebuild from the inside out exercise plan, but alone they can just mask a problem or become a crutch," she explains.
Dugard recommends that new mums work on stretching and strengthening other postural muscles too, not simply focussing on the stomach and core. In particular she recommends strengthening rhomboids (between the shoulder blades) and stretching the chest muscles. "This will help with carrying and feeding a new baby," she explains.
While many women are keen to get back into shape after having a baby, Dugard notes that it is important to take it slowly. "Mums need to be gentle on themselves and take time out to be a little bit selfish," she says.
"We need mums to focus on themselves – a happy mum equals a happy baby."