Unpacking "Flattering": Clothing Chat 01

This post is a loose transcript of my first Clothing Chat topic, Unpacking “Flattering.” Clothing Chat is a weekly video series I host on Instagram where I dive into topics relating to fashion, from the practical to the theoretical.

Welcome to the first ever Clothing Chat!

If you’ve stumbled upon this IG Live and don’t know who I am, let me introduce myself. My name is Virginia Knight, and I’m a fashion historian turned personal stylist. I offer services for folks looking to develop a more authentic personal style, with a special emphasis on folks dealing with body image issues or in ED recovery.

What we’re doing here today is a new thing I’m trying out called (for lack of a better name) Clothing Chat. The idea is this: I’ll jump on IG live once a week to talk about a clothing-related topic, from “How to mend your clothes” and “How to find a good tailor” to more theoretical topics…like we’re getting into today!

Before we get started, some housekeeping:

  • I will save this to my IG story after finishing the live video, so this will be visible for another 24 hours

  • You can find the transcript of this video on my blog, accessible through the link in my Instagram bio

  • Content warning: I won’t be discussing specifics, but I will be talking about bodies, sizing, and the like, so feel free to leave this space if those topics might not be best for you

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OK, so: flattering. This term gets a lot of people stuck, so we’re going to get into why it’s somewhat of a “sticky” subject and what to do about it. Let’s dive in!

99% of the time, “flattering” is synonymous with “slimming.” Let me say that again: 99% of the time, the word “flattering” is interchangeable with the world “slimming.”

Now, to be sure, there are exceptions to this. Someone could say “That’s a flattering top” and mean the color looks nice, or something similar. But if we pay attention to the context in which the term “flattering” is used (and look at the types of bodies this term is applied to), we can see that it really is so closely intertwined with our cultural idealization of slim bodies.

This is especially visible in fashion magazines and other contemporary fashion media. Think about so much of the fashion advice we get: “All black is slimming,” “Horizontal stripes make you look wider,” “Wearing over-sized clothing makes you look bigger than you are”. These pieces of advice only “work” because they rest on a belief that looking bigger than you are is a bad thing. If someone says to me “Horizontal stripes make you look wider,” I would say “Why is looker wider a bad thing?” Because I don’t believe it is!

I’ll use me as an example to illustrate the point I’m trying to make. My waist is the “smallest” part of my body, so if I wear an over-sized top, I “lose” my waist. When I was younger, and the thought of looking bigger than I was terrified me, I would belt everything. I had a huge belt collection and would even belt fitted t-shirts because I was so scared of an over-sized silhouette. Now, I wear over-sized tops all the time (and I don’t think I own a belt). It doesn’t matter to me that the smallest part of my body isn’t visible, because I know that’s not important.

So, you’ll hear me talk about why I don’t like the term “flattering” here on my corner of the internet, and this is the reason why. Again, there are sometimes exceptions to this. I’ve had times when I’ve clarified how clients or friends are using the term, because we might be on the same page but using different terminology.

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I’d also like to point out that’s a totally normal thing to want to look good. What concerns me is when clients or friends say “Oh, I love that top, but it wouldn’t be flattering on me,” or something to that effect. We know how rare it is to find clothes we love, and it’s so heart breaking when people don’t allow themselves to wear clothes they love because they’re prioritizing flattering.

Flattering is not a helpful term. What do we do about its permanence in our minds? Some thoughts:

  1. If the term “flattering” gets you stuck in your own life, have compassion for yourself. We know fashion can be difficult because it forces us to deal with our bodies, and that’s not always an easy task. You may not be able to ditch this concept overnight if you’re really working through some body stuff, so please be gentle with yourself.

  2. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone is to make sure you are seeing lots of different sizes/types of bodies in your fashion media. This is a good idea regardless, but it’s so important to remember that “style” does not belong exclusively to thin, white, cis women.

  3. If you’re shopping for clothing or getting dressed for the day and find yourself getting stuck on flattering, ask yourself: “Why does this need to be ‘flattering’ in this context?” If you’re going to a coffee shop to do work, why does it matter that you look as slim as possible? It’s easy to let our thoughts operate on auto-pilot, but I find it very helpful to check myself and question why something needs to be flattering.

  4. I am not a mental health professional, and my services are only helpful up to a point. Because fashion involves dealing with bodies, there is a chance you may need professional help, and that’s 100% OK! I wouldn’t be where I am on my body image journey without years of therapy, and I can promise the work is worth it.

And that’s a wrap on my first Clothing Chat! Thank so you much to everyone who tuned in, and you’re always welcome to drop me a line and let me know what topics you’d like me to cover. Below I’ve linked some great articles for further reading on this topic—trust me, they’re all worth a read.

Additional Reading

“Why I gave up on flattering clothing”

“Here’s why you should stop worrying about wearing ‘flattering’ clothes”

“Five Different Stylists Dressed Me In ‘Flattering’ Outfits and Here’s What Happened”

“Why Bustle’s Editors Don’t Talk About ‘Flattering’ Outfits”

“21 Other Ways To Compliment Someone’s Outfit Instead of Saying It Looks ‘Flattering’”

“I Stopped Obsessing Over Wearing Flattering Clothes and Discovered Self-Confidence”

What the hell am I doing?

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