Posts Categorized: style

On Mixed Messages About Style and Body Image

magentapumps

Although this post focuses on correspondence between myself and reader Nichole, she raises questions that I’ve gotten many, many times over the years both in comments on this blog and in a handful of e-mails. I do my best to tackle them in real time, but felt it would be appropriate to highlight them today, too. Here’s what Nichole asked:

So, your blog focuses on body issues a lot. We all know that it’s nice to love our bodies, yadda, yadda. I’m writing this because I notice that on your site, a lot of the body image stuff is about fixing flaws. I was just wondering how you do that. For me, it seems like someone who promotes body image when confronted with someone who needed help on dressing a certain body type or a certain flaw, would just say, “Dress in what makes you happy and comfortable,” and end it at that.

How do you justify being an advocate for body image and simultaneously helping people cover their “imperfections”? Even if someone is asking, I feel like there has to be a point when you just say, “There’s nothing wrong with your body.” Couldn’t people possibly see that and find a “flaw” in themselves that they didn’t even see before?

I used to utilize so much energy hating my body that I exhausted myself into depression. For years I tried to change my body with diets and exercise, believing that its shape and size were the root of the problem, but I just kept on hating it. When I began exploring fashion and style – dressing in fun, flattering and form-fitting clothes – an unexplored universe opened up to me. For the first time, I respected my body. I realized that there was nothing wrong with my body. I saw my body as integral to my identity. I wanted to show it off, decorate it joyously and hone my personal style so that I could understand it on new levels. Shortly after those realizations clicked into place, I launched my blog. Discovering that connection between looking good and feeling good, as it relates to style, is what inspired me to create Already Pretty. Because when I started to dress in a way that made me look amazing and feel amazing, I finally stopped actively, continually, exhaustively hating my body. And I immediately wanted to show other women how to make that connection in case it might help them stop hating theirs.

I write about the intersection of style and body image, and I get a lot of questions about how I can call myself a body image advocate and still dish out advice on how to flatter the female form in traditional, socially sanctioned ways. I understand that many people perceive a disconnect, but there are several reasons I think it’s important to discuss style in this way.

The reader-submitted questions I receive most frequently are about traditional figure flattery topics, and I address them along with all the others. My guess is that just about every style writer, stylist, and style expert is plied with such questions almost constantly. Unlike many other style writers, however, I am very careful about how I address these questions. I emphasize choice and encourage people to think about why these specific figure flattery priorities are viewed as important. I never talk about figure “flaws” because I don’t believe that bodies are flawed and loathe that judgmental term. When I offer traditional figure flattery advice it is never couched in terms of fixing things or hiding imperfections, and relatively few of my readers frame their requests in those terms. The dialogue is about choosing what you love about your figure and want to highlight, and also about understanding the challenges you face and the aspects you’d rather downplay. I am yet to meet a woman who loves absolutely everything about her body, top to tail, and dresses without giving a single thought to what will be showcased most prominently. And while I completely agree with the sentiment behind “dress in what makes you feel happy and comfortable” – a message I promote myself, and often – I think that the morass of style rules, body negativity, and mixed messages that women receive about style and their figures leaves many of them feeling confused about which clothes COULD make them feel happy and comfortable. Hence their questions.

I’ve been writing about this stuff for more than seven years and working one-on-one with style consult clients for six, and I’ll tell you something: Even women who hire me specifically because they love my body-positive stance want my advice about regular old figure flattery. When I work with them, I lean hard on acceptance and ask lots of questions because I want them to understand where those urges to look tall and thin are coming from. But I also give them what they want because I know that feeling good about how you look often begins with conforming to traditional standards of style before branching off into individuality. You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them. And I know for a fact that what I say to them about questioning their choices, accepting themselves as fully as possible, and not worrying so much about what the fashion rags say has an impact. Because they follow up to tell me so.

I would imagine that some of my figure flattery posts cause people to view certain figure aspects as “flaws” that weren’t previously worrisome. But those messages come at us from all sides at all times. I never thought my knees were droopy until a friend mentioned hers in passing, never worried about my unsightly underarms until Dove told me to. I don’t think that ceasing to answer honest questions from my readers about their style and body image concerns will protect women from adding to their personal lists of flaws. Neither will responding to, “How do I dress around my broad shoulders?” with, “Wear whatever you want. It doesn’t matter.” I certainly don’t want to generate new insecurities, but I don’t believe that I am doing that for the majority of my readers. More often, I hear from women who say, “I’ve been struggling with this same issue myself, and am so glad to know I’m not alone.”

I think each individual woman is capable of gathering information, evaluating it, and deciding for herself how she wants to present her figure and body and self to the world. I understand that many people view my writings about figure flattery as hypocritical, and I’m just fine with that. I don’t think that “There’s nothing wrong with your body” is sufficient or helpful to the vast majority of women who are both interested in style and struggling with body image. Although some may hear that rallying cry and feel empowered to shirk the rules and truly wear absolutely anything that makes them feel fabulous, others may feel like it’s the equivalent of being told, “Just get over yourself and stop whining.” The former group probably doesn’t want my help or input on style or body image in the first place. The latter group, however, is looking for a space to explore style that includes some structure and advice, but remains free of judgment.

These women are learning about themselves through clothing – just as I did – and their questions are valid. They crave something more concrete and actionable than, “Wear whatever you want whenever you want.” I’d rather give them ways to make their waists look smaller presented kindly and with some reminders about socially reinforced beauty standards than have them running to Stacy London or Tim Gunn. (Who, try as they might, always seem to give people the impression that there is one right way to look good). No blogger is going to cure women of their body image issues and hang-ups or have perfect answers to every possible style question. But my hope is to encourage the women who read my writing to begin thinking and talking, give them some new tools to use, offer some supportive language about self-acceptance, and provide a place to discuss it all.

Some people who read my writing will never see this, or agree to it. I understand and respect that because I know there are many ways to view the world and parse information. Just as some people will always maintain that if you shave your legs or wear lipstick you absolutely cannot be a feminist, some people will say that if you wear high heels to elongate your legs you absolutely cannot be a body image advocate. Those are opinions, so there is no true right or wrong to be had. I’m a pretty black and white thinker myself, but this is one realm in which I’m happy to live in the gray. Because there seem to be an awful lot of women who are looking for a middle ground between “dress skinny” and “fuck flattering,” and I want to create a safe haven for those women to explore their questions.

Other relevant posts:

This is a revised and refreshed post from the archive.

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Reader Request: Style Maturation and Individuality

mature style

K emailed me this question:

At least for me (I guess all of us dealing with the time continuum), we are all getting older so many of the style shifts coincide with wondering if what I need now is a more mature style, but not wanting to lose the youth we still still feel, no matter our age, but wanting to dress appropriately for our bodies, career positions, and body size and shape in a kind, gentle way. Sometimes I feel this fear that I can’t identify about my shifting style-wanting to hold on to the old me yet let it go, and worry that I won’t get it back when the unknown new style is an unknown thing. Then I just throw on some jeans and a cardigan (my default) and I’m OK. However, after a stint in a more formal work environment I find myself wanting a blazer instead of a cardigan…I somehow feel older (jaded?) in a way I wasn’t expecting that makes me both sad and happy.

I remember the day I yanked open my bottom drawer and realized I was never gonna wear those bright pink tights again. I was just too old. It wasn’t my birthday, no one had made fun of me for having blazing pink legs, it was just an internal shift that took place overnight. And, like K, I felt a bit sad and worried that episodes like this would become more and more frequent until I’d lost everything fun and unique about my style. But I didn’t let that happen, and K doesn’t need to either. Here are some actions to consider and paths to ponder.

Don’t donate, store

I have experienced donator’s remorse fairly recently, so I’ll admit that I don’t always stick to this one. But when I went through my massive wardrobe purge, I did remove a number of items from my closet and stash them in the basement instead of actually getting rid of them. This allowed me to live without them for a while and see if they were actively missed. They weren’t. Not a one. But it still felt less overwhelming to know that they weren’t permanently gone, and that I had the option to work them into my revised style if I wanted. And this technique will be helpful regardless of the motivation. In this case, if you want to move toward a more mature, sophisticated style, you can stash your quirkiest garments out-of-closet, dress without them for a few weeks, and see how you feel. If you miss them desperately, it’s worth finding ways to keep them in rotation. And speaking of …

Wear one personality piece at a time

Eye-catching, funky garments and accessories can be made more subdued when they’re worn one to an outfit. So if you used to do a large-print cardigan AND leopard booties, try just doing one of those and making the rest of the outfit solid or neutral or otherwise quiet. A single unusual, conversation-starting element will make you look interesting while the rest of your ensemble helps you appear professional.

There may be some pieces that just won’t pass this test: For instance, tulle skirts and novelty prints will be hard to work into outfits that feel buttoned-up and über-professional. That doesn’t mean they should be nixed or that women over a certain age can’t wear and own them. Just that they aren’t stellar candidates for featuring in more formal groupings.

Lean on your fun accessories

If garments from your former style feel too disconnected from the style you’re moving toward, keeping a few accessories in the mix can be a great way to preserve your visual personality. Necklaces and belts, scarves and earrings in unusual shapes and bright colors can be worn in otherwise conservative mixes without disturbing the overall aesthetic too much. And even if no one else actively notices them, they’ll remind you that you haven’t completely jettisoned your old style.

In terms of the emotional part of this question, I think it is natural to conclude that your style needs to grow and mature, and it is natural to mourn that transition. Our society has taught us to fear aging, and feeling too old for bright pink tights is a very concrete reminder that YOU are aging. But continuing to dress in a more youthful way that no longer aligns with your desired aesthetic won’t stop you from aging, just as creating outfits with fewer funky items won’t make you a dullard.

I do believe it’s true that once you let go of a previous style, it’s incredibly difficult to revert back to it. But that’s a good thing. Style should evolve. And if you find that you miss aspects of a previous incarnation, think about how you can revamp and revisit them in the context of your current style. Some people say you should never wear a trend the second time it comes around, but others say just wear it differently. Tweak it, shape it, make it as new as it is old. That will feel more like progress anyway.

Anyone else mid-transition and feeling apprehensive? How are you hanging on to aspects of your old style while still moving toward a new one? Have you ever opened a drawer and thought, “I am officially too old to wear [some item] ever again”?

Images courtesy Boden

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The Fashion Confessional is Open

velvet hanger

I have skirts in my closet that have never been washed. Ever. Or dry cleaned. Ever.

I consistently forget to make sure the BACK of my outfit looks acceptable. Out of sight, out of mind …

Although I replaced my loungewear last year and swapped in some pants that have elastic/gathers at the ankles, I’m yet to do so with my actual pajamas. So most nights, I tuck my PJ pants into my socks so my ankles don’t get cold. It’s very sexy.

Nearly all of my clients have those cool, velvet-covered hangers. I use the wire ones from the dry cleaners.

Despite my massive, pragmatic closet purge, I held onto my pair of cream-colored leather knee-high boots that I won on eBay for $1. I’ve had them at least six years and never worn them. BUT SOMEDAY!

Whenever anyone asks me which designers I like best, I instantly forget everything I know about fashion. I usually respond with something snappy like, “Uhhhhh,” until I can jolt my brain back to attention.

I have lint rollers planted everywhere – in various rooms around the house, my car, HM’s car – and still walk around covered in cat hair every day of my life.

I generally wear black or tan socks during the day, but must change into white socks for the gym. Even though no one can see my socks because they’re covered by my pants. I cannot explain this.

I love untangling necklaces. I find it to be very relaxing.

And you? Care to share a confession or two?

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

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