Body Knowledge, Body Acceptance

5397015869_fcc8de34ca_z

My clients teach me so much, friends. They show me how little I really know about style and body image, and reinforce my belief that having conversations about where those two topics overlap can be a truly healing process. Before I work with a client, I ask her to do some thinking and writing, answering a handful of questions and prompts that I provide. Recently, a client sent me a 10-page response to my questions. Which I loved, because the more info and background I have, the better. And because it was abundantly clear to me that this client was smarter, more articulate, and considerably more knowledgable about garment construction than I was.

And although this document gave me loads of insight into my client’s goals and challenges, it also reminded me that ignorance can be bliss. My client was an accomplished sewist with a background in costume design. Not only could she spot a shoddy seam at 50 paces, but she had painstakingly cataloged everything about her body – literally from chin to toes – that caused her fit woes. She knew her body inch by inch AND she knew exactly how properly fitting clothing should look. Shake those two pools of knowledge together, and you’ve got a cocktail for dressing dissatisfaction.

I would never go so far as to say that this client hated her body. In fact, I think that her detailed knowledge of tailoring and construction paired with her decades-long examination of her own figure created a kind of scientific – if slightly weary – acceptance. She knew what the issues were and she had some good ideas about how to address them. What she wanted from me was help in feeling better about it all. Which I did my best to help with.

I was fascinated to discover that someone who leveled laser-like scrutiny at her own body and wardrobe was far more forgiving when it came to others. She told me she could look at another woman, see that her blazer wasn’t fitting in the shoulders, and think, “But it still works just fine on her.” That same fit issue on her own figure did not receive such clemency. So one of the ideas that I nudged at several times was to forgive herself in the same ways she was consistently forgiving others. It’s certainly true that impeccable fit makes for a stylish look, but it’s also true that impeccable fit isn’t always possible. And that many, many garments that fit imperfectly still look amazing on their owners and wearers.

As we worked through the consult, we also worked through her list of fit and figure concerns. Some of them were things I knew exactly how to address: Short-waistedness, a large bust, thin legs. Some of them were things that I, frankly, did not see or agree were issues that needed addressing. Which caused an interesting tension. There are things about my own body that I dress to downplay that others do not perceive to be prominent or noticeable. We all have our hang-ups, and I respect that. Just because something about your body doesn’t bother ME has no bearing whatsoever on how much it bothers YOU. That said, it can be eye-opening and liberating to have someone – doesn’t have to be a stylist, but it helps if the person is an objective semi-stranger – tell you that, no, you don’t actually have thick ankles and actually your arms look fantastic. It might not change your thinking on the spot, but it could start your wheels turning. Weeks later, my client let me know that she saw herself differently after getting my input, and that figure hang-ups that had stuck around for decades were gradually dissolving.

I learned a great deal about construction and fit from my client, but also registered the importance of flexibility. I am a big-picture person, and often skim over details. If an outfit hangs together overall, I’m unlikely to hone in on a slightly snug sleeve or loose pant-seat. So although I can recognize impeccable tailoring when I see it, I seldom stress it. Working with this client made me realize that I’ve got a lot to learn, but also made me grateful for my ability to see the best in every outfit.

Understanding your body is essential to dressing it well. But for some of us, knowing everything about how our bodies relate to off-the-rack clothing can become a bit of a stumbling block. Although I would never encourage anyone to purposely avoid learning about fit and figure, I would encourage everyone to practice a little fit forgiveness. If an outfit looks great overall and feels amazing to wear, you’ve already hit the two most important goals of stylish dressing.

Image courtesy Chris Cofer.

  • Michele R

    Thank you so much for this article! I’ve read so much about how important fit is that I am finding it more and more difficult to find ANYTHING that “fits” because almost nothing is perfect. You’ve made me realize that “not perfect” is okay.

  • http://line4line.blogspot.com K-Line

    Um, is it possible that you had this consultation with me??? :-) Let’s just say I can relate to every element of that woman’s concerns. But I’m as unforgiving of the fit woes of others as I am of my own, sad to admit.

  • Courtney

    Who is the woman in that photo and what does she have to do with this post?

  • Susan In Boston

    It is unusual for any RTW garment to fit perfectly. Some brands may fit better than others or fit better in some places than others, at least for a season or two. But as none of us are the designer’s fit models, we all play some form of retail roulette when we shop. So unless you make your clothes or have them made for you, you won’t hit the jackpot on fit very often. When you do, you often wear the garment long after it’s either out of fashion or begun to wear out because you know you’re unlikely to find anything as good to replace it. And you’re right.

    My figure is such that I can find things that fit well enough fairly easily. But I don’t like most of it and can’t afford the stuff I like, which, of course, often doesn’t fit much better. (I know this only from trying things on in stores.)

    As a sewist, I have begun a serious pursuit of the holy grail of fit. Among the things I’ve learned thus far is that a garment with more seams and pieces offers many places in which to add or subtract fabric unobtrusively, which can make it easier to adjust for a better fit–think shirts and skirts with yokes.

  • Ricki

    Courtney, I was wondering the same thing. I don’t see any apparent connection to the post.

  • http://chiralcraft.wordpress.com Laura

    I sew a little and when you get into fitting yourself and pattern alterations, it can be really consuming and you get super-intimate with all the ways that your body varies from a fit model. Not to mention how unless you have a huge budget most RTW will have some flaws, either in construction or in fit. For me, it’s been a process to learn how to care about those things, but not too much – if I did, I’d never be satisfied with anything I bought or anything I ever made.

  • sue

    I’m curious, could you explain the use of the term “sewist”? I mean, I always thought it was seamstress, but more and more I see “sewist” being used. I find it annoying because it sounds like this false, made up word. But, maybe there is a history to it that I’m unaware of? Thanks!

    • Shawna

      I have the very same question. I find it a very peculiar word and would love to know where it comes from. Perhaps it has been decided (who decides these things?) that seamstress sexist. We no longer say actor/actress but call them all actors. Other gender neutral terms we use are police officer, firefighter and fisher (with no man or woman attached)

    • Amy M

      It seems like a logical gender neutral term to me:

      Etymologies
      sew +‎ -ist, to avoid visual ambiguity with sewer (“waste pipe”). (Wiktionary)

      Seamstress, to me, seems old fashioned and would not really apply to a man who sews. And preferred words can change– Just think how strange it would be to be in a hotel, there’s a knock on the door, “Chamber Maid,, knock knock, “Chamber Maid,” instead of “Housekeeping.”

      Not a perfect comparison, but kinda funny.

      • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sally

        Yes! Well put, Amy M. I will also ask some sewing blogger friends to weigh in, as sewing blogs are the first places I saw “sewist” show up.

    • Susan In Boston

      To be honest, I find “sewist” odd, too, but I like it better than “home sewer” or “seamstress,” which it is replacing in many contexts. I’d prefer to describe myself as Master of Fit and Fabric, but I’m not there yet ;-).

    • sue

      Well, according to the interwebs a male seamstress is a “seamster” or a “tailor”. I Kinda thought it was used to mean an amateur person who sews. But then, why not just say “I like to sew”??

    • http://www.janelmessenger.com Janel M

      As someone who sews and designs fashions for myself and others in an intermittently professional capacity… As I see it, a sewist is basically someone who sews as a serious hobby. They have a better knowledge of and experience with sewing than the person occasionally sews clothing for a grandchild.

      There really isn’t a good term in today’s culture to describe someone who takes interest in the finer points of sewing as a hobby and impeccably creates clothing for themselves while not being involved in sewing or fashion design as a career. If you say you’re a fashion designer, people think your professional. A seamstress has the historic connotation of being paid as well. A tailor is considered professional too. So there are a good many who have adopted sewist to cover what they do.

      That’s my take. I hope it helps.

  • Phyllis

    Good information. Knowing what works with body type, shape is important.
    Fit if an item fits well I feel great. Wondering about the photo. Was your client
    a woman of color?.
    Phyllis

  • Lynn

    I think “sewist” is meant to be a non-gendered term for a person who sews. Kinda like seamstress but without all those messy/offensive assumptions about who sews and who doesn’t.

    I’d also like to know how the person photographed fits in with the story. And, as a short-waisted big-busted skinny-legged woman, I’d like to know more about the whole consult!

  • Shawna

    I do not sew but my mother once did, so I am more aware than the average woman my age of quality construction and proper fit. I am very aware of my own body shape and which areas are going to be difficult to fit due both to my individual shape and my height. While I am looking for a good fit when shopping, as I assume most people are, I am most definitely also looking for quality construction. I don’t mind resewing on buttons after I buy a garment but I want the seams and hems done well and patterns lined up.

  • E

    The photograph shows a beautiful woman whose t-shirt doesn’t fit perfectly and it is just fine the way it is! We tend to over-think how we look; the stuff we wear might look perfect when first put on, but as the day progresses, loosens up, gets a stain, changes in unforseen ways- we can carry on with our lives! We are not super-models, we are human beings
    (super-models are human too, but they have a team working on hair, make-up and fit, lighting, editing and who knows what else!)

  • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sally

    Hi all, a little surprised that there are so many questions about this image. My clients are generally very private people, so I don’t use images of them in any of my posts. (You can read testimonials here, but no images: http://www.sallymcgraw.com/p/testimonials.html) For many of my body image-related posts, I pick stock photos of women from Flickr, as I’ve done here. I didn’t feel an image of “ill-fitting” clothing would be appropriate or helpful since, to me, the post is more about thoughts and feelings than clothing. So I selected an image of a woman who looked pensive to reflect that.

    • Chris

      Ha! That’s exactly what I thought you did. I have noticed that you sometimes pick photos to set a mood – and you do it well. No offense intended to the posters, but perhaps they were being to literal rather than going for the overall feeling of your message.

      • orly

        Makeover pics are all over the Internet, as well as being a magazine staple.like many women, I love seeing them. That’s why I’m perplexed that virtually every client you have is unwilling to be photographed.

  • Ricki

    Sal, I appreciate your explanation. I apologize too, if my comment seemed insensitive. I’m a new commenter, and also recently discovered your site. Your style is different than mine, however, I’m learning a lot from your posts. Thanks!

  • Phyllis

    Thanks for your explanation. I am a regular reader as a matter of fact your blog
    was one of the very first that I found was and is about “more” than fashion.
    Phyllis