Body Image

Rejecting the notion of the flattering outfit

17 July, 2010

A photo of Beth Ditto wearing a metalic pink skin tight body suit with these words superimposed over the top: "Leggings are not pants. (Neither are skirts, for the record. Or lemmings. Or, depending on the local vernacular, trousers.) O! Ye of the cottage cheese thighs, of the saggy and misshapen arse. How dare you? Really, you should know better. - We are under the thumb of shame. We are doing everything in our power to ensure everyone else is, too. There is the defence for the LANP (my note: believe that stands for leggings are not pants) movement: You can’t pull it off. How dare you, love handles? Go to the gym or get thyself to a mumu.  Fuck that. Our reaction to leggings is a manifestation of fear: how could she? When we have to run past mirrors because we can’t convince ourselves that sack of fat hanging off our abs doesn’t make us worthless - when we starve ourselves for days because our friends look better in skinny jeans - when we do sit up after sit up because no matter how many times we say “It’s just airbrushing” looking in a magazine makes us feel like nothing  (or much too much) - how could she? Fuck that. Fuck living in fear. Put on the leggings. Wear a bellyshirt. Eat the chocolate. Shake your cellulite for all the world to see. I refuse to live in fear. Shame is not a part of my wardrobe. If it makes you happy, do it. Leggings are not pants.   Conformity is not beauty. "

I have wanted to talk about the notion of the flattering outfit for a while now, because my Skinny Jeans post seemed to bring up a lot of discussion on the topic. For a lot of people, rejecting the haters and wearing what you want is a great message up to a point, but wearing anything that draws attention to perceived flaws goes a bit too far for comfort. I’d like to elaborate on my reasons for not being very invested in wearing flattering outfits, and how I’m pretty sure rejecting that practice benefits self esteem and body positivity.

When we talk about wearing clothes that flatter our personal body shapes, it’s a conversation that’s usually had between women. Most of the time it takes the guise of kindly advice, whether it be the advice of a person close to you or from some nameless fashion writer working for any glossy magazine. The message is usually the same: maximise things that are too small (usually just boobs), minimise bits that are too large, choose fabrics that drape well over lumpy sections and don’t make too much of a spectacle of yourself, girl. I’ve read well-meaning guidance that instructs tall women not to wear heels; encourages all women to be mindful of not aging themselves; decrees those with big bums to avoid skinny jeans (yeah right!); and helpfully suggests that women with all over chunk should avoid large accessories. I really enjoy having parts of my body reduced to “chunk”. No really. The sick thing is most of us talk to each other and ourselves like this; if your enemy called you chunky, shit would be on, but when your best friend does it you know she’s just concerned about how you look.

Restricting and policing women (and men, but women are certainly the overwhelming focus of body and fashion criticism in the western world) and their fashion choices under the guise of helping them look more palatable to other people is harmful and hurtful. That we are indoctrinated into feeling indebted to people for pointing out our “flaws” feeds into the cycle of shame, and the endless pursuit of some kind of really boring and generic idea of beauty. If you’re flat chested, you’re encouraged to dress to give the illusion of curves, and if you’re short you ought to employ vertical stripes to trick people into thinking you’re taller. Just two examples of ways to flatter your body into some kind of societal acceptance. It’s patently ridiculous to me, because even if I practice flattering dressing techniques – I AM STILL FAT. Other people know I’m fat too, but it’s almost like any steps I make towards apologising for my unacceptable body are deemed as suitable penance.

The other key issue I have with the notion of flattering is that it erases human beings and our natural diversity. Women are told to hide shameful lumps, bumps, wrinkles, disabilities and even skin tone. We’re being herded towards an ideal of average height, dress and shoe size (which suits the fashion manufacturing process perfectly), where each woman blends in perfectly. When every day I feel like I’m under attack for not fitting in, I have to be realistic about my odds of ever obtaining this manufactured mystical beauty. And I’m ok with that, you know, because beauty is pain (how often did I tell myself that as a teenager?) and beauty must be applied several hours before leaving the house, in lotions and creams and razors and aerosol cans and odd looking eyelash curler implements that never seem to work for me. We apply all this stuff to our person in the hopes of getting closer to the median beauty but in the process remove a lot of our natural attributes, replacing them with lofty aspirations and huge wads of shame.

This erasure on a personal scale is even more so evident in the way we dress ourselves. If I dress to trick people into thinking I don’t have a large tummy, and that I’m not indeed 175cm tall, I am nullifying parts of my body. My self. These parts belong to me and even if I flatter them away as much as possible, they still exist and I still see them when I stand naked in front of a mirror. Deluding others into thinking I have an acceptable body is one thing, but deluding myself is a terrible fraud with an immediate penalty. If I ignore it, it doesn’t go away and thus becomes a source of unhappiness. I don’t want to participate in this cycle of body negativity and I don’t want to propagate messages that hurt my own sense of esteem. If I engage in flattering dressing, I’m not just accepting that my own body is bad and terrible – I’m passing on the message to others. It disturbs me that dissatisfaction and unhappiness within our bodies isn’t just accepted, it’s encouraged.

Breaking the cycle of body negativity is hard work but being aware of your participation within it is crucial. I’m not just saying you should be conscious for other people’s sake – foremost in your mind should be your concern about yourself! If you’ve ever wanted to wear a garment but thought against it because of fears of how people will perceive you, I heartily encourage you to go forth and just wear it. If an outfit makes you feel comfortable and fantastic, but it doesn’t hide your knees or your height or your big boobs, sod it. Just wear it.

Vector illustration of a speech bubble filled with a large white polka dot pattern on light blue. Inside the speech bubble are hand lettered words, "Does my fat arse look fat in this?"

This war is personal and this war is being waged on you, from within your consciousness, and it seeks to inhibit your self expression and nullify your body. This war also works to nullify whole groups of apparently odd-looking people too: fat, old, tall, short, brown, and disabled (and more!) If you’re not white, able bodied and young, the overriding message being spruiked by the beauty, health and fashion industries is that you’re not good enough and that in order to be as beautiful as you can be you have to buy clothes and make up and diet pills and encourage all your friends to consume what you’re consuming. It’s a nasty yet profitable business. I think such frightening homogenisation of human beings is unjust, and if by wearing skinny jeans and showing off my fat arse I can undermine such policing with my visibility, I will do it. I’ve got no delusions of my fat bum saving the world but it makes me feel better not to comply with such a hurtful system, and I feel pretty damn good about myself while doing it.

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