I feel like ‘flattering/flatter’ in relation to clothes, carries two definitions
(don’t quote me on the below as they aren’t from the dictionary pls pls pls):
- Flattering: A garment that fits someone perfectly: not too big in places, not too small in places. Created in line with your clothing size, to match your body shape as close as possible.
- Flattering: Another lovely word for a garment created to make you look smaller, or a garment bought either a couple of sizes too big to streamline or hide ‘unsavoury’ body parts.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel as if 90% of marketing campaigns or descriptions of clothes tend to use the second description when describing the relevant garment. I understand that there are some people who like this word, and prefer to wear pieces that hide their ‘imperfections’, so this post isn’t to shit all over those beliefs, but personally, I absolutely hate it. For years, I had let myself be controlled by this word; this supreme 10 letter elixr that if found, would rid me of my VBL, my awkward waist-to-hip-non-hourglass figure and my large arms.
The word ‘flattering’ is very nuanced, and the interpretation of the word is very much down to the person receiving it, as much as the person saying it. The definition of ‘flattering’ and how much significance we ascribe to it, is very different. For myself, and probably for many women, the word comes implicitly attached to a scroll of dos and don’ts passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter in dressing rooms, from teen magazines and friends and personal stylists and season after season of What Not to Wear-style programming on television. I subscribed it to for years, I was ADAMANT that every garment I wore be ‘flattering’.
With this Very Important Word, it finally meant that I would no longer be seen as ‘fat’, and simply just ‘chubby’. It meant hiding all my rolls, my flaws and my scares. For me, to ‘flatter’ means to ‘hide’ and I’m at a stage of my life and have reached a point in my own personal body confidence journey where I no longer feel that I need to fit in with society’s norms – this includes telling me what clothes to wear to hide my body. Even though we are in the midst of a huge ‘body positive’ movement, there are still brands (and LOADS of plus size brands!!) who still, instead of using the opportunity to make women feel strong, confident and empowered about their bodies, are describing some of their most popular pieces and garments as ‘flattering’.
Various socio-cultural institutions — mass media, the fashion industry, families, etc — send clear messages about how to make bodies that diverge from narrow norms of attractiveness conform to these ideas. Media, of course, saturates us with these messages. It seems like the fashion industry has a Midas-like gift for turning our insecurities into piles of gold with various methods of minimising and camouflaging (see: the multimillion pound business of Spanx). Family members can also play a major role in shaping how we dress ourselves — especially our Mums, who are almost like the ‘appearance gatekeepers’ of the family.
All of these entities can convey cultural conventions about how to dress various body shapes so as to ‘hide’ culturally-constructed ‘body flaws’ and to create the illusion of a ‘perfect’ body, as defined by society. These messages train us to see the act of dressing as troubleshooting; a skilled game of strategy in neutralising body parts arbitrarily deemed undesirable by society.
To me now, I don’t really understand it. Now brace yourself for some harsh realities: regardless of whether an item of clothing is flattering or not, you’re still fat. A flattering dress is not going to automatically render your body as acceptable. An item of flattering clothing isn’t going to solve the fatphobia that fat people have to live through every day. Ultimately, no matter how informative and nice a description is, to me it’s code-speak for ‘that does a good job at what’s what’s wrong with you’.
Ultimately….there’s nothing wrong with you. Or me. Or us, any of us, and shunning the word and its meaning is rejecting the notion of dressing as flaw-masking, which goes hand-in-hand with rejecting the idea of your body parts as flaws. Whether it’s a crop top or a curve-hugging dress or, a super effective set of Spanx, it’s totally okay to like clothes that make you feel good, or that you think look good on your body. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dress for your shape in a way that feels right to you. But where does that definition of “what’s right” comes from? Is something a perfect fit just because it tucks and nips in the “right” places, or is something perfect because, no matter what the cut or shape or style, when you put it on you feel like a fucking queen?
You don’t owe your beauty to anyone. You owe it to yourself to care for your mental and physical health. And I’ll even go so far as to say you owe it to yourself to feel beautiful (whatever that means to you.) But you do not owe that feeling to your family, your partner, and certainly not to strangers.
You’ve got one body. And it does wonderful things for you. Embrace that. Put clothes on it that fit – but don’t worry about “Is it flattering?”, concentrate on feeling amazing and living your best life!