To me, the word “flattering” should mean “what I personally feel looks best on me, based on my own personal standards for my appearance.” Unfortunately, in our thin-obsessed fashion world, it has become universal code for “smaller.”
I’m not a fan of the word. It gets thrown around like a beach ball at a Phish concert, but it feels like no one really analyzes what they mean when they say it. So I’ll take the liberty of doing that for you.
Generally, when someone says something is flattering, they mean that it tricks their eye into thinking the body in question now adheres more closely to the preferred societal standards of beauty. Basically, it means you look thinner, with longer legs and boobs that are big but not, you know, too big. Your waist now looks smaller than your hips, but not in an exaggerated way. Your legs are long and thin, but they don’t leave too much of a space in between, lest someone tell you to eat a sandwich.
What Not to Wear is, in my opinion, one of the worst purveyors of the “flattering” rhetoric. They talk a big game about working with your body when, in the end, they put everyone in clothing they think brings them closer to the prescribed ideal, ignoring the idea that maybe not everyone wants to look that way. They, of course, do this after two weeks of violating your privacy and then publicly shaming you by using vicious names (“She looks like a Mack truck from the back!” is an actual quote from Stacy London) to describe your wardrobe. I know. I was a fan of the show for years before I got more into things like size acceptance and not humiliating people on television, even in exchange for a new wardrobe.
To me, “flattering” is another form of size policing and body fascism. It’s just couched in softened rhetoric to sound like it’s malleable to different bodies. Women (yes, the word is used on men as well, but come on, we know who gets it the worst) who don’t conform to the idea are supposed to hide themselves by choosing the right lines and colors (read: black) to “flatter” (read: slim down) their unfit and horrifying figures. When we’re not fighting our bodies, we’re supposed to be covering them up.
The hell with that.
Why bother keeping up with what you’re supposed to look like when, in all likelihood, nothing you do will ever be good enough? We read about people dying in botched weight loss surgeries, but we also have size 4 models being told they’re too fat. There is no victory here. The only way to win this game is to stop playing.
I’ve been cutting the word “flattering” out of my vocabulary. In a perfect world, it could be a useful word. A way to say “I generally like the way this garment looks on me.” But right now, in our incredibly imperfect world, it carries too much weight (ha). When I hear it I think you’re saying that something I have on changes my body to make it acceptable in a way that it wasn’t before. I was disgusting, but then I put on this wrap dress (universally flattering!) and now I’m fit to be seen in public.
So I keep wearing my short skirts, my brightly colored tights, and my strapless dresses. You can call them whatever you want — awesome, stunning, hot, BAMFtastic — but don’t call them flattering. Because they aren’t. Not in any conventional way, at least. They don’t make me look smaller, which would be futile anyway. There isn’t a garment on this planet that’s going to make me look like Heidi Klum, so I might as well stop trying, and actually enjoy my clothes instead of worrying about how many pounds they mask.
The pictured shirt is from Gisela Ramirez. You bet your sweet bippy I have one.