On Mixed Messages About Style and Body Image

How can body positive style advice exist? It's found in the middle ground between "dress skinny" and "f*ck flattering."

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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24 Responses to “On Mixed Messages About Style and Body Image”

  1. Monica H

    Sally, thank you so much for always working to inhabit that middle ground, as I think it is very important. I (like many women I suspect) was exposed to body positivity and traditional figure flattery, and never able to reconcile the two. If there’s nothing wrong with my body, why do I look “weird?” Why doesn’t any of this “figure flattery” advice seem to help? I’m already naturally part of the tall/thin body type, isn’t everything supposed to look good on me? If so, why do I feel so awkward about how I look? I had given up looking good or having any real style and just tried to blend in and look inoffensive.

    As simple as it may seem to some, your mantra of “it’s not you, it’s the clothes,” really helped me figure out that mess. If I look weird, it is for one reason only – something is “wrong” with my clothes. I am not hopelessly damned to awkwardness by my body, I just haven’t found the right clothes. And your emphasis on choice with figure flattery helped me figure out what that was. Among other things, I am small chested, but following traditional advice about dressing a small chest didn’t look good on me. Once I threw out that advice as optional (instead of some iron clad rule) I could highlight my small chest as complimentary to my slim legs and long, lean silhouette.

    You have helped me so much with your gentle, information-based approach, and your loving attitude. More effective than simply telling us to love our bodies, is you demonstrating that love for each of us in our journeys every day, and for that I am very grateful.

    • Sally McGraw

      Monica, I’m so happy and honored to hear this, and especially to know that you feel more informed and empowered when it comes to making choices about flattering your own figure. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and journey with us today.

    • Cloggie

      Me too. I haven’t had great luck with many of the “rules” for dressing for my figure. The message of “it’s not you, it’s the clothes” has been absolutely invaluable. I used to apparently have the same body as many fit models because I could just buy anything. When that stopped being true, it was rough on my self-esteem.

  2. Shaina D

    I started reading this blog mainly because I love the balance you strike between body positivity and style tips. Even if I were 100% convinced all the time that there’s nothing wrong with my body (I’m not there yet, but getting closer!), there would still be outfits that I could put on that would make me feel fabulous and outfits that I could put on that would look totally bizarre or unappealing to me. There’s just no avoiding that. Your advice helps me figure out what clothes might fall into each of those two categories, so I don’t have to try on a hundred different types of shirts to find a look I love. It also gives me permission to try new things, and helps me figure out when I might be able to move a piece from my mental “looks bizarre” category into my mental “looks fabulous” category by wearing it in a different outfit, cuffing it, getting it in a different fabric, getting it tailored, or whatever. One of my body acceptance goals is to celebrate my body by wearing things that look great on it, and to do that I need some actual practical advice on different things to try, not just platitudes about how every body is wonderful. This blog does a wonderful job of balancing support with substance, and I’m so glad you’re running it.

    • Sally McGraw

      I love hearing this, Shaina. Style is a puzzle, but it’s a different puzzle for each of us, and I’m very happy to know that you feel more equipped now to tackle your own, unique questions. And that you’re trying new things and playing around with adjusting items that aren’t quite perfect! Thanks for reading, and for your kind words.

  3. Jessica M.

    Another voice saying I’ve always found your approach helpful. I especially appreciate the way that when you do address specific “figure flattery” questions, you consistently focus on creating balance or highlighting favorite features rather than always “minimizing” whatever…this has given me the courage to try new things that I would once have dismissed as unflattering (you mean I can look great without trying to make my butt look smaller? Maybe I should go for the skinny jeans after all…) I also love the way you post outfits by beautiful, fashionable older women and women of size. I, like many women, am not ready to walk out the door without thinking about how I look, but your blog has helped show me how many different shapes and sizes beauty comes in, how many ways there are to be creative and gorgeous with texture and silhouette and color. And now I see so much more beauty, both in all the women around me, and in myself. So, thank you.

    • Sally McGraw

      Thank YOU, Jessica, for letting me know. Showing how diverse beauty truly is is a huge goal of mine. So glad to hear you see it when you visit, and that you’re enjoying exploring your personal style.

  4. fubbser

    Sally, I echo Monica’s comment and want to add that one of the things I really appreciate about your blog is that you treat clothes as a communication tool, a way for women to tell the world something about ourselves. And that we can be in control of what we want to say.

    So many of your posts have given me a vocabulary so I can make deliberate choices about how I am going to negotiate my message. My working world expects women to conform to ‘traditional’ images, whatever that may mean. This kind of pisses me off. Only a few years ago I felt some despair about the discrepancy between how I wanted to dress and how I was expected to dress. I knew that my colleagues would respect me more if I dressed in a way to make them comfortable, but I didn’t feel comfortable dressed to make THEM feel comfortable.

    NOW I know a lot more about clothes, colors, shapes, fabrics, contrast, etc etc and it gives me many more options for negotiating my own middle ground between what makes me comfortable and happy, and what makes my conservative work place comfortable and happy. And I am pretty sure, Already Pretty sure, that the subtle things I communicate with my clothes are helping to broaden my work place’s range of acceptability.

    • Sally McGraw

      SO glad to hear this, fubbser. I know it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with dressing expectations, and so empowering to know how to work within them while still bending them to suit your wants and needs. Thanks for your supportive words.

  5. Claudia Gray

    I noticed a figure “flaw” after I began reading this website — specifically, that my torso is very long for my height, while my legs are very short. I’d never conceptualized that before, so when I finally saw it, I was like, Ohhhhhh. HOWEVER. I *had* noticed this before, not in concrete terms, but just in the general sense of not understanding why certain clothes didn’t look good on me. When I understood the terms of the disconnect between my body structure and the way most clothes were manufactured, I wasn’t depressed; i was ARMED. Finally I could shop with more understanding and more confidence. Now I don’t waste money or emotional energy on things that won’t make me happy. It’s a good thing, IMO.

  6. what not

    I really appreciate not just what you say but how you say it. The way you use language, like the ever-present “figure flattery priorities”, calls attention to the fact that women are dealing with unfair societal expectations yet also allows them to decide how they want to live in that environment. It’s the epitome of “feminism is about giving women choices”, in that it acknowledges that those choices aren’t made in a vacuum while also respecting that each woman is doing her best in this society.

    For me personally, my chronic illness has mostly affected my abdomen, giving me a slight “pregnant belly” where there shouldn’t be and making me wary of squeezing there. When I was first really sick, I was reluctant to buy new clothes for that body, so I was just wearing big hoodies over uncomfortably tight jeans. I didn’t know I could look better and be more comfortable.

    And for more mundane reasons, I was still trying to make white button-downs and blazers work on my petite body with narrow shoulders. In the face of women’s mags’ “basics everyone should own” lists, I felt like I was failing in some way!

    Putting words to and accepting these various figure challenges (most of which I don’t see as “flaws”, they’re just not the measurements clothes are usually made for) ironically allowed me to let go of some of those socially determined standards and focus on creating my own personal style. Now I look pretty fab, if I do say so myself.

  7. janejetson

    My husband is a photographer and underarms are actually difficult to photograph nicely. The often look off. The Dove link is extremely photo-shopped. She has a barbie underarm.

  8. Lindsey

    I love your blog, and I’m sorry you have to be so tactful and explicit about the middle ground that you occupy. I’ve read many of your posts explaining this position, and you are always so graceful about responding to the same accusation of hypocrisy. I support the balance you strike between body positivity and traditional style; its helped me a lot, especially the idea of first just trying to move towards body neutrality and accepting that I can’t and shouldn’t expect myself to love my body 100% all the time. Thanks!

  9. Si Titran

    I have broad shoulders. I love them because they are strong and awesome. But in some styles they can look or make me feel even more wide or like a football player. I dont consider them a flaw at all, but just the same I rather wear things that dont make them feel bigger.

    I accept my body. I love my body. I still want to dress my body in a way i find pleasing, and that means traditionally considered flattering in this case. I dont see the disconnect in doing so.

    Keep up the realistic style blogging!!

  10. Heidi/FranticButFab

    Yes yes yes! Dressing to flatter our figure does *not* have to mean dressing to look thinner; it’s about balance and proportion of our unique shapes. Wearing clothes that fit and flatter can also make us love our bodies more, not less. Great piece.

  11. meibaola

    I don’t see any dilemma here. For me, going for the clothes that best flatter my body is just another way of loving it. I don’t hide my flaws, I flaunt my assets. Every body is unique and some clothes are just not made for me. Being aware of conventional figure flattery rules simply gives me the opportunity to make an informed choice. I don’t see how wearing clothes that don’t make me look my best would reinforce my body image. That doesn’t make any sense at all B-

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