Let’s recap from yesterday:
I was debating commenting on [a recent] outfit post because I didn’t think the outfit was working for me but I didn’t want to seem critical. And I wasn’t sure how to suggest the topic to you! So here goes.
My reluctance to post something critical made me think about how we as women are often reluctant to be critical of others. Oh sure, we’re critical of ourselves, and of others behind their backs in a catty way. But we’re often afraid to speak our minds lest we be seen of being critical of others. How often, in a business meeting, are we afraid to say what we feel when we don’t agree with others, or don’t want to be the only one in the room to say we don’t like something? So, how about a post on how women should hone our skills to be critical in a supportive, constructive way? I am often reluctant to post criticism of outfits on personal style blogs and I suspect others are, too. I don’t have a blog and I’m not putting pictures of myself on the Internet for all to see and comment, and have enormous respect for those who do, so I don’t want to be critical.
Laurel’s question is extremely important, and one that raises hackles for many, many people. Especially women, as she points out. Most of us have been on the receiving end of actual constructive criticism, but also criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. Telling someone that they could do better is never easy, and while it’s no fun to be on the receiving end it can be incredibly stressful to be on the dishing-it-out end, too. And as women, when we pipe up with suggestions and feedback, people tend to drag out the stereotypes: Whiner, nag, Negative Nelly (a female name for a supposedly genderless trait), serial complainer.
In my work with LOTT, I’ve had to hone my skills in confrontation and constructive criticism with other women, so I’m happy to share my opinions and insights. I would, of course, love yours, too! Since Laurel has asked about offering criticism on many levels, we covered the general yesterday and will move into the style- and blogging-focused topics today.
So if general constructive criticism seems dicey, style-related critiques may feel like a virtual minefield. And there’s good reason for that: Our society is RIFE with people and media outlets that make fun of others for their sartorial choices, so we are conditioned to be defensive. We expect the worst. We wonder if someone is saying, “I’d love to see you try skinnies instead of bootcuts” but secretly thinking, “Girl, you are a hot mess in those jeans.”
How can I offer constructive criticism about the style of someone I know?
Several years ago, I got a request from Nancy about offering constructive criticism in the fitting room, but I think that situation is actually less touchy. If you’re out shopping with a sister or friend and are actually asked for your opinion, what are you gonna do, take a pass? Saying, “Nope, that dress is not for you,” might not be fun, but at least it’s small, specific, situational.
Giving someone general feedback about her dressing choices is much harder, and should be approached with caution. Think about the criteria for when to offer constructive criticism:
- When someone you know and/or care about is involved
- When your own well-being is impacted
- When you feel like your input will help
You will likely be able to hit one and three on this list, but two? Very seldom. Now in the case of style, you might be able to swap in “when their well-being is impacted” because some folks may be dressing in ways that impede their career, chafe culturally, or otherwise create social and personal tension. But that’s all a matter of perception, and what you consider to be a key issue may not be as important to the dresser. Ultimately, all adults must be trusted to make their own choices about what to wear.
And so my advice would be this: Consider non-confrontational approaches. Instead of having a big, formal talk with the person in question about her fashion choices:
Ask questions about her choices: Most of the time, when we see people wearing things that seem off, ill-fitting, or otherwise “wrong,” we lack critical information about the choices that led to those garments ending up on that body. If your niece constantly wears oversized sweaters, ask her why. It could be because she likes them and they’re comfy, but it could also be because she’s working through some body image issues and is more comfortable in formless clothing. If your colleague wears super tight skirts all the time, ask her why. It could be because she loves her rear end, but it could also be because a former boss told her she should show off her figure. And, of course, my examples are deeply flawed because every person can have infinite reasons for every choice. So ask. Gather more information about why certain dressing choices are being made. Then …
Offer alternatives: Do this AFTER talking about choices. Preferably days or weeks later, so the person on the receiving end doesn’t feel overwhelmed by your sudden interest. Knowing background and reasoning will give you some footing when you offer alternatives. You can say to your niece, “I can totally understand wanting to feel secure and covered when you get dressed. I saw this ponte blazer and thought of you! It’s a little more structured, but still super comfortable and could be a fun alternative. What do you think?” It’ll be trickier in the coworker example, but something like, “I’m seeing full skirts all over the place these days, and think you could totally rock one! It would be amazing on your figure. Can I lend you one of mine?” Instead of just saying, “You’d look better in something else,” offer concrete examples of alternatives.
Be prepared to be ignored: Again, adults get to choose what they wear. Style is intensely personal. Just because you feel you’ve got ideas for improvements doesn’t mean your suggestions will take root, or even be heard.
And, just to reiterate, style is personal. So personal, people. And just because you think someone would look better in different jeans/shoes/colors doesn’t mean that they aren’t completely happy in what they’re wearing right now. Think about how you’d feel getting that same feedback from someone. Use a friendly, helpful tone. Be kind and caring. And above all, be certain that offering your input is important on some level. Because telling someone that you’d rather they looked a different way is never easy to do, but it’s a lot harder to hear.
How can I offer constructive criticism about the style of a blogger?
I suppose I’m in a fairly good position to answer this one, what with the being a style blogger myself. But I’m also just me, so I’ll say right up front that much of this comes down to my own experiences and personal preferences. I know that MANY other style bloggers read Already Pretty, and hope that they’ll feel free to offer their own input in the comments.
I have received criticism of all kinds through and because of this blog: Actual constructive criticism, criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. And, as is the case with input that is unrelated to style, the difference is always tone. Tone becomes even more important when criticism is offered in writing, and unfortunately tone can be incredibly difficult to convey in writing. But all efforts to be friendly, offer positive alongside negative, and illustrate that criticism is being offered from a place of care and goodwill are appreciated. And, for what it’s worth, most AP readers excel at maintaining a positive and respectful tone while offering conflicting opinions, questioning choices, or putting forth critiques.
This particular blog, though, includes topical posts like this one, stuff-focused posts like the sale picks, and outfits. When we debate ideas here, opportunities arise frequently to change the minds of others or have our own opinions swayed. Those debates are often fraught with criticism of my ideas and commenters will engage with each other, too. But in my opinion, outfit critiques are fundamentally different for a number of reasons.
How we react to outfits is down to taste: No outfit is fundamentally, categorically bad or good. Period. Even if you hate an outfit with every fiber of your being, that doesn’t mean that the blogger wearing it has made an indefensibly bad choice. From yesterday’s definition, constructive criticisms must be both “valid and well-reasoned,” and basing criticism on taste alone is shaky ground since taste is both personal and subjective. Even getting into the nitty-gritty of style rules about proportion, color, and figure-flattery is ultimately dicey as those “rules” are constantly changing.
Only one of the three criteria for constructive criticism is met: You likely don’t know the blogger personally. Their dressing choices have no impact on your life. You may feel like your input could help, and it very well may. I have taken to heart much of the constructive feedback I’ve gotten from readers over the years, and my style has shifted somewhat because of input I’ve received. But there’s no guarantee that your input will be taken to heart.
The deed is done: If I were to swing by someone’s blog to comment that I’d have worn different shoes? Since the blogger in question already wore the shoes she photographed, this type of comment feels moot to me. For what it’s worth, the constructive criticism comments that I find most useful are the ones that offer suggestions for “next time,” Next time maybe a lighter pair of pants, or next time more contrast between the jacket and skirt. Instead of just saying “I don’t like this” or “I’d have done something different,” this points the person on the receiving end toward alternatives for the future. Just saying that you don’t like something registers your taste, and may land badly depending on how you phrase it. Instead, what would you suggest be done differently in the future and why?
The flip side of all this, of course, is the argument that if you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a website, taking a photo of your outfit, and then posting it publicly, you must be implying that you consider this particular outfit to be exemplary. Blog-worthy. Something to admire and emulate. Allow me to state unequivocally that I never think this myself about my own outfits. I am totally serious. This is not logic I would’ve even considered if others hadn’t presented it to me. I post my outfits because I enjoy dressing and want to encourage others to enjoy dressing, because I am not built like a model but still love style and fashion, and because you’ve told me that you enjoy seeing them. Although I certainly hope that my outfits, in general, will encourage other women to express themselves through dress and celebrate their bodies through clothing choices, I never think, “This. This outfit is THE BEST. People need to see this.”
And the flip side of THAT is that most blogs have comments, and people can and should use them. I appreciate Laurel’s recognition of the fact that posting a full-body photograph on a website every day takes come chutzpah – and it does. That said, most bloggers are well aware that they cannot expect everyone to like everything they do, say, or wear. If they want nothing but accolades, blogging probably isn’t the best idea! I certainly don’t expect every last one of you to agree with all of my ideas, love all of my posts, or go ga-ga for all of my outfits. But, as I’ve said from day one on this blog, I fully expect you to express your criticisms respectfully and kindly. That’s just how I roll.
SO. That’s all fine and good, but how do you offer constructive criticism to a style blogger about an outfit? That’s the REAL question here, and I haven’t even touched it! So let’s get handsy. And, as it turns out, my advice will be fairly similar to what I offered for talking with someone you know about her style.
Ask questions about her choices: You may completely hate a combination or garment or the addition of a particular accessory, but do you know why it’s there? I once had a reader say something along the lines of, “I’m curious about your shoe choice here. Those platforms seem awfully heavy for that dress. Can you tell me why you picked them?” And I did! The dress was a maxi and quite long, so the platforms were helpful in keeping my hem off the ground. And since the dress was a wrap style and rather toga/Grecian in appearance, I felt those particular sandals complemented the look. Even if the commenter STILL disagreed with my choice, she now knew why I made it.
Offer alternatives: Mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. And many of you already do this. If you see something that seems off, make a suggestion for next time. “I’d be curious to see this with a jacket instead.” “What about adding opaque tights to this mix?”
Pair with praise: As was mentioned in yesterday’s post about general constructive criticism, consider showing your support and goodwill by giving some praise alongside your criticism. Look at the difference: “I wonder if this would’ve worked better with a different necklace” versus “The colors in this outfit are absolutely dynamite! I wonder if this would’ve worked better with a different necklace.”
Ask yourself how you’d react to your own critique: Read your comment aloud. If someone walked up to you and said that to your face, how would you feel? If a stranger whose face you cannot see said it to you through a computer, how would you feel? This is one of the best ways to monitor your tone.
Be prepared to be ignored: Your criticism may be offered in a constructive way and in a friendly tone, you may have great ideas and offer loads of alternatives, but you are still telling someone that you’d like to see them dress differently. I’ve been told that certain outfits aren’t flattering, that I’ve picked the wrong shoes/jacket/lipstick, that I should mix it up more. I’ve been told to wear more makeup, more pants, and longer hemlines. I’ve been told that I should dress more radically because my outfits don’t align with my rhetoric. I’ve been told that the things I love most in my wardrobe are awful. Most – though not all – of these things were told to me relatively constructively. And it is my prerogative to incorporate or discard them as I see fit. It is, after all, my personal style. If I am dressing to please you, it is your personal style.
I am curious to see where style blogs go in the future. With the advent of Pinterest and Instagram, the focus on visuals and the ease of “liking” over “commenting,” I can see how blogs like mine might go extinct in a few short years. But in the meantime, I appreciate your comments, your honesty, your interest. I appreciate that Laurel stepped forward to ask about this topic, which is so sensitive yet so important. And even if you don’t ever comment, I appreciate that you come back to this website day after day. Thank you.
Now. What are your thoughts on offering critiques about style? Does the in-person approach differ for you from the online approach? How do you leave feedback on outfits, or do you? Fellow bloggers, what other tips would you share for offering constructive comments? Blog readers, what do you do – or see your fellow readers doing – that you think really works?