How can body positive style advice exist? It's found in the middle ground between "dress skinny" and "f*ck flattering."

Although this post focuses on correspondence between myself and reader Nichole, she raises questions that I’ve gotten many, many times over the years both in comments on this blog and in a handful of e-mails. I do my best to tackle them in real time, but felt it would be appropriate to highlight them today, too. Here’s what Nichole asked:

So, your blog focuses on body issues a lot. We all know that it’s nice to love our bodies, yadda, yadda. I’m writing this because I notice that on your site, a lot of the body image stuff is about fixing flaws. I was just wondering how you do that. For me, it seems like someone who promotes body image when confronted with someone who needed help on dressing a certain body type or a certain flaw, would just say, “Dress in what makes you happy and comfortable,” and end it at that.

How do you justify being an advocate for body image and simultaneously helping people cover their “imperfections”? Even if someone is asking, I feel like there has to be a point when you just say, “There’s nothing wrong with your body.” Couldn’t people possibly see that and find a “flaw” in themselves that they didn’t even see before?

I used to utilize so much energy hating my body that I exhausted myself into depression. For years I tried to change my body with diets and exercise, believing that its shape and size were the root of the problem, but I just kept on hating it. When I began exploring fashion and style – dressing in fun, flattering and form-fitting clothes – an unexplored universe opened up to me. For the first time, I respected my body. I realized that there was nothing wrong with my body. I saw my body as integral to my identity. I wanted to show it off, decorate it joyously and hone my personal style so that I could understand it on new levels. Shortly after those realizations clicked into place, I launched my blog. Discovering that connection between looking good and feeling good, as it relates to style, is what inspired me to create Already Pretty. Because when I started to dress in a way that made me look amazing and feel amazing, I finally stopped actively, continually, exhaustively hating my body. And I immediately wanted to show other women how to make that connection in case it might help them stop hating theirs.

I write about the intersection of style and body image, and I get a lot of questions about how I can call myself a body image advocate and still dish out advice on how to flatter the female form in traditional, socially sanctioned ways. I understand that many people perceive a disconnect, but there are several reasons I think it’s important to discuss style in this way.

The reader-submitted questions I receive most frequently are about traditional figure flattery topics, and I address them along with all the others. My guess is that just about every style writer, stylist, and style expert is plied with such questions almost constantly. Unlike many other style writers, however, I am very careful about how I address these questions. I emphasize choice and encourage people to think about why these specific figure flattery priorities are viewed as important. I never talk about figure “flaws” because I don’t believe that bodies are flawed and loathe that judgmental term. When I offer traditional figure flattery advice it is never couched in terms of fixing things or hiding imperfections, and relatively few of my readers frame their requests in those terms. The dialogue is about choosing what you love about your figure and want to highlight, and also about understanding the challenges you face and the aspects you’d rather downplay. I am yet to meet a woman who loves absolutely everything about her body, top to tail, and dresses without giving a single thought to what will be showcased most prominently. And while I completely agree with the sentiment behind “dress in what makes you feel happy and comfortable” – a message I promote myself, and often – I think that the morass of style rules, body negativity, and mixed messages that women receive about style and their figures leaves many of them feeling confused about which clothes COULD make them feel happy and comfortable. Hence their questions.

I’ve been writing about this stuff for more than seven years and working one-on-one with style consult clients for six, and I’ll tell you something: Even women who hire me specifically because they love my body-positive stance want my advice about regular old figure flattery. When I work with them, I lean hard on acceptance and ask lots of questions because I want them to understand where those urges to look tall and thin are coming from. But I also give them what they want because I know that feeling good about how you look often begins with conforming to traditional standards of style before branching off into individuality. You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them. And I know for a fact that what I say to them about questioning their choices, accepting themselves as fully as possible, and not worrying so much about what the fashion rags say has an impact. Because they follow up to tell me so.

I would imagine that some of my figure flattery posts cause people to view certain figure aspects as “flaws” that weren’t previously worrisome. But those messages come at us from all sides at all times. I never thought my knees were droopy until a friend mentioned hers in passing, never worried about my unsightly underarms until Dove told me to. I don’t think that ceasing to answer honest questions from my readers about their style and body image concerns will protect women from adding to their personal lists of flaws. Neither will responding to, “How do I dress around my broad shoulders?” with, “Wear whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.” I certainly don’t want to generate new insecurities, but I don’t believe that I am doing that for the majority of my readers. More often, I hear from women who say, “I’ve been struggling with this same issue myself, and am so glad to know I’m not alone.”

I think each individual woman is capable of gathering information, evaluating it, and deciding for herself how she wants to present her figure and body and self to the world. I understand that many people view my writings about figure flattery as hypocritical, and I’m just fine with that. I don’t think that “There’s nothing wrong with your body” is sufficient or helpful to the vast majority of women who are both interested in style and struggling with body image. Although some may hear that rallying cry and feel empowered to shirk the rules and truly wear absolutely anything that makes them feel fabulous, others may feel like it’s the equivalent of being told, “Just get over yourself and stop whining.” The former group probably doesn’t want my help or input on style or body image in the first place. The latter group, however, is looking for a space to explore style that includes some structure and advice, but remains free of judgment.

These women are learning about themselves through clothing – just as I did – and their questions are valid. They crave something more concrete and actionable than, “Wear whatever you want whenever you want.” I’d rather give them ways to make their waists look smaller presented kindly and with some reminders about socially reinforced beauty standards than have them running to Stacy London or Tim Gunn. (Who, try as they might, always seem to give people the impression that there is one right way to look good). No blogger is going to cure women of their body image issues and hang-ups or have perfect answers to every possible style question. But my hope is to encourage the women who read my writing to begin thinking and talking, give them some new tools to use, offer some supportive language about self-acceptance, and provide a place to discuss it all.

Some people who read my writing will never see this, or agree to it. I understand and respect that because I know there are many ways to view the world and parse information. Just as some people will always maintain that if you shave your legs or wear lipstick you absolutely cannot be a feminist, some people will say that if you wear high heels to elongate your legs you absolutely cannot be a body image advocate. Those are opinions, so there is no true right or wrong to be had. I’m a pretty black and white thinker myself, but this is one realm in which I’m happy to live in the gray. Because there seem to be an awful lot of women who are looking for a middle ground between “dress skinny” and “fuck flattering,” and I want to create a safe haven for those women to explore their questions.

Other relevant posts:

This is a revised and refreshed post from the archive.

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