Have you ever sewn something and put it on, stood back and looked at yourself, only to realize that the fit was fine, but the look was off? Please tell me I’m not alone in this experience! What happened? The problem wasn’t about my size; I picked the wrong dress for my SHAPE.
In general, I find that the typical shape system, with only 4 shapes (5 or 6 if we get lucky and the stylist has a better clue about the variety of bodies), doesn’t really work for my shape. My shoulders are too broad to be a Pear. I don’t feel like my waist is distinct enough to be an Hourglass (or X), but I have enough of one that I’m not a Brick (or Rectangle or Square). I could go on, but if you’re a regular CSC reader, you know about these shape variables from the Sewing for My Curves series. Chances are this may be your experience as well. The typical four-shape system, or its various cousins, is just too limited too work well for most bodies.
Enter The Body Shape Bible! Famous UK stylists Trinny and Susannah use a 12 shape system (Yes, 12!!) to help women better fit their unique shapes. So what are those shapes and how do the authors talk about them? That’s what I’m here to write about. This review will look at the shapes, their suggestions of what works or doesn’t and why, and the way they talk about bodies and shapes. For better or worse, bodies aren’t just bodies, and how we talk about them matters. Having some info on design features is helpful, but thinking about how writers talk about bodies and frame them is more important to better think about the messages communicated to everyone about gender, femininity, bodies, size, shape, and identity.
Why I Write
Shortly after I suggested this review to the CSC, I asked myself WHY (all Nancy Kerrigan 1994 style)*. As much as I think there is helpful content, the concept of a book based on the principle that women find self-confidence in “knowing you look great” (p.7) and “hiding what you loathe about your body” (p.6) is enormously problematic. It perpetuates the idea that how women look is more important than their skills, personalities, personal ethics, or intelligence. So for me, the premise of the fashion/style advise industry is one that reinforces the beauty myth—that looking good or meeting beauty ideals is an achievement and how a woman finds happiness, confidence, and fulfillment—and is inherently anti-woman.
That said, I think there is some useful insight in this book, especially for those of us who sew. It is irritating to put the time, effort, and money into making a dress or whatever, only to put on the muslin or garment and find you hate the way it looks. Of course, some people will say, “just go to a store and try on a similar style!” That’s all well and good… if you fit RTW sizing. Some of us have a harder time finding RTW items that fit, or at least a varied selection of garment types and styles to get a taste of how certain styles and design features will look. So having some general guidelines about what types of garments and designs will create proportions and move the eye strategically can be helpful.
At the end of the book, Trinny and Susannah include some suggestions for repurposing garments, and some of these ideas need sewing skills. If you can sew (and if you’re here, you probably do), you have some ideas for recycling garments on your own. If not, you have ideas to take to a skilled seamstress.
I also want to enter the discussion about how we talk about bodies here. While they give useful information in the Body Shape Bible (hereinafter the BSB), the way they talk about bodies is more than problematic. At times, the body snark they employ is more than over the top, pithy wit. It veers into shaming, demoralizing, objectifying, sexualizing language—and I say this as someone who loves good snark. Hey, I play Cards Against Humanity. I read GOMI. (*See that comment.) We watch satire in my house. I make many self-deprecating comments about my own body that are meant to be funny. I mean them to show I can poke a little fun at myself. But when I do so, I feed that machine that how we look is more important than who we are. There were moments when I read the advice and thought it made sense, so why did I feel like grabbing my tentiest dress instead of shuffling through patterns for a dress with those features? Oh. Right. Because I’m a big, conspicuous slab with thighs that could power bellows for Aphrodite’s orchestra, to paraphrase some of their insight about the Cello. Stand tall and be proud that my buttocks and thighs are “in a class of their own,” (p.94) whatever that means. We need to discuss how we talk about bodies and why it matters.
I want to be up front. I am a feminist, and that influences how I interact with the language and images in the book. I am also a scholar that works extensively with the history and representation of women’s bodies. I’ll be using techniques of deconstruction here to unpack the rhetoric and images in the BSB. Many people think deconstruction and the general critical analysis of pop culture are “too much.” When I use these techniques in class, students often say that I’m taking things too seriously or making too much out of something that isn’t important. But the BSB wasn’t written and published in a vacuum. And it isn’t read and used by women in a vacuum. Rather, it is part of a larger world that is filled with messages about women’s bodies. A few months ago, Jenny published an article here at the CSC about negative body shaming comments on her social media. If we take the past few years alone, and only look at social media, we can easily find numerous examples of how women’s or girls’ bodies are policed, commented upon, and objectified: any number of women who’ve posted pictures of themselves on social media have found degrading comments or learned that others have taken them and loaded the images to fat shaming sites without permission or found that people took pictures of them anonymously to post at various misogynistic websites; the discussion that ensued around the “Fit Mom” “what’s your excuse?” photo; the number of more developed (bigger breasted, larger hipped, fuller bodied) teen-age girls getting dress code violation write-ups, sent home from school, or removed from school dances for violating dress code often when wearing the same garments as their thinner, smaller breasted, slimmer hipped peers, or comments on intellectual or career oriented blogs/vlogs that tell the female writers/presenters that the women should try to dress more stylishly, be sexier, or just make general comments about appearance (and say nothing about content). And that’s just social media. It doesn’t address the messages in TV, movies, ads, fashion magazines, sports broadcasting—well, everything else—that perpetuate the overwhelming focus on women’s bodies, the invented ideals our bodies should meet, and the ever-present pressure to be sexy.
If you’re ready, come with me on an in-depth tour and analysis of the BSB. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a regular series of guest posts where we’ll explore the following topics:
- Book Review: Trinny and Susannah’s Body Shape Bible
- Shapes, Suggestions, and Patterns: Skittle, Pear, and Bell
- Shapes, Suggestions, and Patterns: Brick
- Shapes, Suggestions, and Patterns: Apple
- Shapes, Suggestions, and Patterns: Hourglass and Vase
- Shapes, Suggestions, and Patterns: Cello and Goblet
- General Patterns:
- Pants and Skirts
- Wardrobes and Other
- Final Criticism
(All images from the book are used in accordance with US Fair Use Laws allowing the incorporation of images for the purposes of academic, intellectual, or cultural analysis or criticism.)
A note about language: I’ll try to use non-coded descriptors to be as neutral as possible. For example, even though “deviates” is a fine verb to note something that differs from an ideal, the average, or a model, deviate and its forms (especially deviant) can also be negatively coded and used as insults, so I’m avoiding using it here. To an extent, when talking about bodies it is extremely hard, maybe even impossible, to avoid all words that can have negative connotations and still find descriptors that most people find meaningful and communicate a (reasonably) clear concept or image. For a lot of women, bulky and chunky are two words that they feel negatively about, but these words also communicate a feature, shape, or body that most people can visualize. When I use words like those or larger, full/ fuller, protuberant, etc., I use them as unmarked descriptors with no judgment intended.