Note: This piece is part of our Curvy Opinions series. It contains frank discussion of body image and the language surrounding it.
Five years ago, I began blogging. For the first few months of writing Idle Fancy, each new follower or comment was a tiny bit of wonder. I started the blog, out of a pure wish to share the hobby that had consumed all my spare time, not as a quest to become a capital-B blogger. That anyone would like my projects was mind-boggling. After watching my friends go dead-eyed at talk of darts and pleats, finding a community of like-minded people was a revelation. Five years later, I’m still amazed that anyone cares about my sewing. I would sew a thousand shirtdresses, even if no one read about them. Sewing is my haven away from the stressors of book deadlines and IV drips.
What I didn’t expect, however, was that blogging about sewing would open me up to a different kind of stress entirely. While sewing has improved my self-image a hundred fold, blogging has given me all sorts of new things to be self-conscious about. Over the past few years, I’ve received emails and comments informing me that my poses for pictures are childish, that I need to smile more and smirk less, and that the silhouettes I sew are doing me no favors. That last one, particularly, touches a nerve. Through the magic of StatCounter, I recently stumbled across a forum thread about dressing to flatter your figure, in which I was mentioned. While the original poster said some lovely things about my blog and self, the only thing I heard was this paraphrased bit: Remember that silhouette can make you appear much heavier than you are! Why, I was perusing Idle Fancy’s archives and found this picture of her in sheath dress. It’s like she dropped twenty pounds. So flattering!
Flattering. Flattering. Flattering. Is there any more backhanded word in the English language? It’s a word made all the worse by intent. When someone tells a woman that something looks flattering on her, they mean it as a compliment. What I hear, as a plus-size woman, is something entirely different. Flattering always seems to mean that a garment makes me look skinnier or covers up my supposed “flaws” well. It’s a compliment, because obviously I want to look skinnier. Obviously, there are things I need to camouflage.
That is, pardon the language, bullshit. Fashion should not be about hiding one’s body. That’s the number one trap that plus size pattern designers fall into, after all, assuming that what the larger woman wants most is to cover up her body in swaths of fabric. What a depressing worldview! If every morning I woke up and thought, “Gee, what will hide my body best today?” I would never get dressed at all. I would stay in my pajamas, eat nothing but macarons, and never leave the house again. Instead, thanks to sewing, I look at my closet and plot how gorgeous I’m going to look that day. That’s right, gorgeous. Not skinny, not how best to show off my waist or appear to have longer legs. Just me, looking super foxy. Getting dressed is a chance to show off my personal style and love of my body.
There’s the crux of my problem with flattering. It’s not that a sheath dress was flattering to me; I was flattering the sheath dress. My body was making that tube of fabric look good, not the other way around. We’re trained to talk about clothes, as if they’re magic bullets to fix all of our body problems. Well, what if we don’t think our bodies are a problem? What if they’re treated as gorgeous canvases for pretty garments? It’s not that a dress makes your waist look small. Your waist is that small. You are that sexy. Your body deserves praise. A dress on a hanger is a sad, limp thing. It’s the wearer’s body that brings out its charms.
Yes, there are pieces that will highlight different aspects of our bodies, but this isn’t trickery. It’s the nature of design variation. What’s more, if floofy-skirted dresses make me feel confident, that’s what I’m going to wear. Who gives a feck if sheath dresses are supposedly better for my figure? Better, according to what standard? I love the ease of movement and unabashed femininity of a full skirt. I love how my body wears them. That makes them better for me.
Of course, it would be the height of boorishness to lecture my loved ones or random commenters on this point. (Other than my husband, who never uses the word flattering anyway, bless him!) People mean well with “flattering,” which is what’s really important. I take the compliment with a smile and appreciate the person’s intended kindness. The sassy retort only happens in my mind. However, I actively seek to break the cycle. When a friend asks my opinion of a skirt, I don’t compliment the skirt, I compliment her. Compliments, after all, shouldn’t come with caveats. Clothes aren’t meant to fix the problems of a woman’s body; they are merely adornments to show it off. I don’t want to enhance my appearance, as most dictionaries insist flattering it should do. Instead, I want to revel in its authentic beauty, no matter the size on my tag.
I’m curious, friends. Is there any supposed compliment that really gets your hackles up? Am I being too sensitive about flattering garments? Admittedly, I’m a writer, so my tendency is to overanalyze language and the way it’s used.