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I’m Not a Fan of the Word “Flattering” and Here’s Why

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.

Indeed.

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.

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[E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

11 thoughts on “I’m Not a Fan of the Word “Flattering” and Here’s Why”

  1. I sorta agree with you, but on the other hand I think ‘flattering’ can also be a starting point for ‘it works for you/the cut is great/you created a good outfit’

    But maybe I just had positive-only flattering experiences. And please, don’t watch the American What not to Wear, watch the British one. Although they can fly off the handle sometimes, somehow (for me) it feels less as clothing-shaming instead of people-shaming.

    1. It’s supposed to say those things, but what do they actually mean? When you say a cut is great, what makes it great? In many cases it’s because it conforms to our society’s beauty standards — which are arbitrary — in some way. When we start talking about cut, it tiptoes against body image/commentary stuff. If what makes a garment nice is something else, like the color, you might as well just compliment that specifically.

      I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched the British WNTW, but I’ve cut makeover shows out of my viewing completely at this point because all the ones I see are guilty of the same things to varying extents.

  2. “What Not To Wear” makes me so angry about this! I’ve complained about this episode in various forums for months now, but there was one with a woman who did body building and they insisted on trying to camouflage her muscular shoulders. She was like, “I like it when they look big, because that’s what I spend hours working out for,” and Stacey and Clinton just could not adapt their method to accommodate someone who is proud to have broad, muscular shoulders, so they still did the same shit: black blazer (with stretch! because your shoulders are so big!), black pants (to hide your enormous thighs! which are enormous because you worked hard and can squat 300 pounds! but yucky!), and a colorful top with ruffles, to make you look more feminine. Insert me rolling my eyes out of my skull here.

    My favorite dress of all time is a super poufy and colorful empire waist dress that I stopped wearing after it prompted a couple of people to ask me when my baby was due. Which I am still sad about and also still mad about. Because they’re the jerks and I shouldn’t worry about looking pregnant because the dress is THE MOST AMAZING ITEM OF CLOTHING THERE IS. But when someone says you look pregnant, it’s hard to tell yourself “fuck flattering” and go on going on. Now insert a sad face.

  3. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever used the word “flattering” that way before, but I’ve had it directed at me that way before. When I use it, I mean that whatever someone has done to their appearance, it’s lit them up, made them come alive, made their features stand out in a way that their “them-ness” is fully apparent, and fully on display. In other words, I have basically used the word synonymously with “radiant.”

    But I think you’re right, in that given the prevalence of the less-kind implications the word has taken on, it’s just better to do away with it in its entirety.

    I super wish Gisela Ramirez had a non-censored version of that shirt.

  4. I think the problem with the word flattering is that it is more about how you or I are dressed in relation to societal standards/ideas of beauty than how the clothes make one feel to wear them. Flattering is neither too buttoned up, nor too sleazy; it means that boobs look slightly bigger but by no means giant (as a small woman with a large bust this is a huge problem for me); it means that waists look slim and hips seem nicely rounded out in a perfect waist-to-hip- ratio. It is a word with no meaning other than “hey, this article of clothing makes you appear to adhere to the patriarchal standards of feminine beauty.”

  5. This is a really interesting take on the word flattering. I’m with Susan, I like to think of it as meaning “accentuates your best features,” but you’re right, it really means “makes you look thinner.”  Even when I use it on myself, I’m more likely to say something is flattering if it makes me stomach look flat or my hips look smaller. I should try to cut it out, too.

  6. I hadn’t thought about the word “flattering” in that respect before, but you’re absolutely right. It’s dehumanizing to divide a person up into little weighed-out sections and then decide which parts are acceptable enough to be played up and displayed, and which parts are shameful and must be hidden and disguised at all costs.

  7. Oh hell yes. Even worse than “flattering” is its evil step-mother: “Slimming.” At least with “flattering” people can pretend they aren’t calling you fat.

    I got married a couple months ago, all 300 lb of me, and every SINGLE person I tried my dress on in front of, including all 6 of my bridesmaids, my mother, my husband’s mother, and every single person who worked at that particular dress shop, they all said the same thing: “It’s so slimming!”

    Granted, for a dress that was absolutely enormous, with tons of layers of tulle and a very wide ballgown-style skirt, it was actually fairly slimming. It nipped me in a the waist and gave me the appearance of, you know, having a waist at all.

    But I really wish someone had something, anything else to say about it. Like, “hey it’s so sparkly!” or “wow, what beautiful bead work!” instead of “oh my gosh, it’s beautiful–so SLIMMING!”

    It sucked.
    Edited to add: I also really wish I could get to the point where I owned clothing that wasn’t necessarily flattering. I have a couple of sheath dresses that really show my gut since they are a bit form-fitting, but even they are still kind of flattering if I am wearing spanx. I just bought a dress on Eloquii that is the most gorgeous blue, and the slinkiest fabric, and so soooo comfy. But I can’t bring myself to keep it because really, it’s just not flattering. It looks like a mumu. But I want so badly to keep it, and wear it with some knee high boots and not give a shit.

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