figure flattery

I talk a lot about traditional figure flattery. In no small part because that’s what you folks tell me interests you, and because the questions you have are typically very specific and include topics not covered by style books and magazines. I find it fascinating to learn about the challenges you face in dressing your personal best, and love to explore options with you.

I’m also fascinated by the F*ck Flattering movement which was more or less sparked by a tee shirt designed by Gisela Ramirez, and have read with interest the responses to this conscious rebellion against fashion rules and dressing norms. In common use, “flattering” means something that “makes your body appear tall, thin, balanced, and hourglass-shaped.” It also implies limiting jiggle, covering cellulite, wrinkles, and scars, keeping a large bust in check, and lots of control-related mandates. Traditional ideas of figure flattery are rooted in a very narrow beauty ideal, tied to the male gaze and heteronormativity, and extremely exclusionary. Looking past the obvious sizeism, consider that some petite women will never appear tall and some thin women will never appear hourglassy. “Flattering,” in common use, tries to force a marvelously diverse population of women into a very specific idealized shape.

As I’ve said before, there is no one right way to look great. You do NOT have to buy into the tall, thin, hourglass thing if you don’t want to. It’s your body, and it’s your decision what to put on it. Wear what makes you feel like a luminous creature of incomparable beauty, even if that happens to be a skirt that shortens your legs or a tunic that masks your waistline. If you don’t feel good in your clothes, you won’t look good in them. So focus on how you feel.

That said, I do think there is room in this world for ideas about how clothing interacts with bodies that aren’t contingent upon the socially sanctioned beauty ideal. When I think about clothing being flattering, I can honestly say that I don’t automatically default to the common use. In my world:

Flattering clothing lies flat against my body: If I’ve got a bubble of dress material perched atop my butt, a shoulder seam that creeps toward my neck throughout the day, or a side-entry pant pocket that wings out, I’m wearing something that neither fits nor flatters my specific shape. There isn’t a person alive who can wear every style of garment without fit issues, and this has more to do with proportions and build than size. Personally, I do my best to seek styles and sizes that sit flat and quiet against me, even when I am in motion. (And they are not always easy to find!)

Flattering clothing doesn’t pull, pinch, or subdivide: If there’s a deep, digging line along the edge of my butt-shelf, my pants are too tight. If bound short sleeves dig into my upper arms, I seek a different sleeve style. If my skirt’s waistband causes my midsection to spill out over its top, I go up a size. I want my clothing to caress my body, not squeeze it. Often key to achieving this goal? Ignoring size tags and focusing on how clothing feels against my body. (Finding clothing that doesn’t pull, pinch, or subdivide can be much tougher for some body shapes and sizes than others, though, and isn’t universally possible.)

Flattering clothing works with my eyes, hair, and skin tone: And honestly? I bend and break this one myself quite a bit as I know that color is one of the most emotional elements of dressing. But for the most part, I reach for colors that work with MY colors. I’ve never had my colors done, but instead use this shortcut: I look in a mirror in a well-lit room and ask myself these questions: Does this shade brighten or dull my eye color? How does it play off my hair color? Do I look healthy and robust, or wan and sickly?

Flattering clothing creates a silhouette that pleases my eye: Please note that I did NOT say “all flattering clothing makes me look tall and skinny.” If those are your priorities, then by all means go for ’em. But feel free to chose a different set of figure flattery priorities. I gravitate towards 50s-era silhouettes, but play around with loose tops, baggy pants, and alternate silhouettes as the spirit moves me. While I agree that following traditional flattery rules without fail is limiting, I also know that living your life in rebellion against something means that thing is still controlling you. So if you want to dress in ways that make you appear tall and skinny, do so. Just do so with the understanding that those desires may have multiple roots. You know your favorite silhouette, so seek garments that present that silhouette to the observing world.

I understand that even these guidelines could be construed as overly specific and exclusionary, but I feel like their focus on personal preference, comfort, and working with the natural body make them less so than the set we often default to. Do these requirements for flattering clothing ring true to you? If not, how do you define “flattering” for yourself? Or do you feel like ALL concepts of figure flattery are oppressive? What is important to you in how a piece of clothing looks, feels, and fits?

Image via Pocket Rocket Fashion, who has a fantastic post on the F*ck Flattering movement.

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