One quick search through the unread promotional e-mails in my inbox found hundreds of results for this word. “The Most Flattering Swimsuit Ever,” subject lines teased in order to entice me to open them. The word “flattering” is so deeply ingrained in fashion, and particularly in plus-size fashion. But while some still see this word as a guideline, I see it more like a loaded gun.
I started researching the dictionary definitions of flattering. I expected to find essentially the same definition everywhere, but I didn’t. Typing in “define: flattering” to Google results in one definition that reads, “Enhancing someone’s appearance.” In contrast, vocabulary.com’s definition sheds more light on the word’s history: “The Old French flatter originally meant ‘to stroke or caress,’ which is what you do to people’s egos when you flatter them. When you flatter, you probably want something — it could be as simple as wanting someone to like you.”
So when we think about the fact that retailers are using this word to sell us clothing, we have to remember that the “something” they want is your money.
When applied to clothing, there’s a level of manipulation behind the word flattering that says: how you look is not okay, but this garment will make you look better. This manipulation relies on people’s insecurities, yet it’s a part of the retailer-consumer relationship that people will defend vehemently without thinking about it. And I know this from first-hand experience, because when I designed a dress specifically to challenge the concept of flattering, it sparked a heated debate in the plus-size fashion community.
The Controversy of the Convertible Cupcake Dress
On November 16, 2015, I released the Convertible Cupcake Dress through my size-inclusive line, Ready to Stare. When we were fit testing it, my team and I realized that it could sit around your waist without any adjustments, and that’s how the dress became convertible to a skirt as well. The garment was designed as a dress and modeled after the shape of Rihanna’s 2015 Grammy dress. I had never seen anything that shape made in a plus size, and because of the way a dress like this would go against the unspoken rule of it being “flattering”, I knew if I wanted a dress like that, I would have to design it.
I knew what I was doing. I tweeted, “This is my fuck you to flattering fat girl clothes” when I released it. But what came next shocked me.
The reactions and condemnation of this design begin to roll in. “This designer should be fired,” and “Our curves should be complimented, not covered,” were among the many responses I received. And I realized this presented an opportunity to explore the conversation about the word flattering and where it comes from.
I jumped on the opportunity, and I started to take note of all of the reactions, both good and bad. I had been designing for four years and personal style blogging for two, yet nothing I had ever worn or designed, including bikinis, lingerie, body chains, or bodycon skirts without shapewear, has created such a strong reaction as this dress. This discussion was important, and while I understood why challenging the word flattering was so important to me, I needed to understand why holding onto it was crucial for others.
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It was a Tumblr user, Flikky, who put it into a perspective I could understand. They wrote, “Because we went through decades of where we were told that the only clothing was ‘appropriate’ for us to wear were formless billowy sacks so that the people looking at us wouldn’t have to imagine that there might be a body underneath.”
And that’s when I got it. This dress hit an emotional cord with folks. Instead of breaking rules, it actually reminded them of a really painful one.
But I wasn’t telling anyone to hide. Quite the opposite. To me, this dress represented freedom. Although this dress didn’t sit tightly on my body, it showed my arms, which are one of my largest body parts. I still have a double chin in this dress. I wasn’t trying to hide my fat; I wasn’t trying not to “embrace my curves.” I was trying to wear whatever the fuck I wanted.
Fashion empowerment doesn’t look the same for everyone. I realized that while we have gotten to the point where we can look at a fat body in a bikini and call it empowering, we still can’t look at a fat person wearing something like the Cupcake dress, which happens to hide parts of their body, and see it as the same thing. There’s still a lot of body policing going on, and it isn’t just coming from retailers trying to sell us slimming jeans; it’s coming from people within the community.
When I created the dress, my intention was to challenge the idea that certain silhouettes couldn’t be worn by fat folks. When it came out, I realized I was also challenging the idea that the point of fashion should be to look as thin as possible. Because that’s the “enhancing” that flattering is used to signify.
The History of Policing Fat Women’s Fashion
Andrea McManis of Social Retail – Body Positive Boutique Consulting has been conducting some research on the history of the word flattering as it relates to fashion. McManis has six years of experience as both a size-inclusive celebrity stylist and boutique owner. And the Cupcake dress was one of the things that inspired her to start looking deeper into this.
“Ready To Stare’s Cupcake dress almost broke the internet,” McManis tells me, “with a debate over whether the dress was flattering, and therefore, worth existing.”
McManis found articles dating all the way back to the early 1900s telling fat women how to dress. One headline from the June 16, 1907 Chicago Tribune reads, “How Fat Women Can Make Themselves Look Slender.” The article promises that “looking slender is easy if one will study it.” As I read through this article, I realized the language was dated, but the message wasn’t: the thinner you look directly relates to your social currency and worth. That message still rings loudly true in our fatphobic society.
One thing McManis noticed in her research is that euphemisms for fat changed over time, but the word flattering didn’t. In the early 1900s, the word “stout” was popular, while “plump” was the preferred term in the 1960s. Another interesting article McManis directed me to was from the August 4, 1988 Chicago Tribune, which stated, “It’s hard to escape the feeling that designers, manufacturers, and retailers intend it to show their indifference to women who are not tall, slender, younger than 25, and who might want to sit down occasionally at the office.”
The above article was written less than a year after I was born, and yet it’s a concept that dominated my entire life and career in fashion as a short, fat woman. So after reading about “flattering” through the decades, I wanted to know what McManis thought retailers were really telling us when they say this is “the most flattering dress ever” and why that continues to be the way they go for the hard sell.
“[‘Flattering”s] intended meaning,” says McManis, “is to show something in the best light, but I feel like it’s become code for doesn’t make you look as fat as you are.”
“It takes the voice out of fashion and makes it a tool for hiding flaws which aren’t really flaws,” she explains. “I feel like it’s the same way the makeup industry skews beauty towards European/white features — ‘bigger eyes, longer lashes, remove dark spots’ — to make everyone just a little less secure so they’ll buy more.”
More Radical Reads: 5 Myths That Are Keeping You From Having a Fabulous Fattitude
The word “flattering” in plus-size fashion is aimed to hit an insecurity. It’s not actually about the clothes; it’s about how the clothes look on fat bodies. In plus-size fashion, the bodies we are told to aspire to are often hourglass, cis, able-bodied, white, and usually a size 12-16. When we are being told that something is flattering, that is the body we are supposed to be aiming to enhance our appearance towards. And any deviation from that is still a rebellious act.
It’s the reason why wearing something super tight that shows my visible belly outline and wearing the Cupcake dress are both still unacceptable. Fat bodies are still unacceptable.
“Flattering” is tied deeply to body policing. And until the word flattering translates to mean wearing whatever makes you feel great, then it’s a word we need to toss out for good.
[Feature Image: Photo of three feminine people with beige skin standing facing the camera with their hands on their hips. The photo is cropped so that none of their faces are visible. The person on the left is wearing black tights, a black tutu, and a black corset-inspired top with thin straps and red trim. The person in the middle is wearing a blue iridescent skirt and black tank top. The person on the right is wearing a sleeveless rainbow dress. Source: Jooleeah Stahkey]
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