One quick search through the unread promotional e-mails in my inbox found hundreds of results for the word. “The Most Flattering Swimsuit Ever” subject lines teased in order to entice me to open. While subject lines posed the question: “Is This The Most Flattering Top Ever?” 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 brings one definition that reads “enhancing someone’s appearance.” While vocabulary.com definition shed 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, you have to remember that the something they want is your money.
There’s a level of manipulation behind the word flattering when applied to clothing 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 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.
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 plus size and because of the way a dress like this would go against the unspoken rule of 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 this conversation of the word flattering and where it comes from. I jumped on the opportunity and I started to take note of all of the reactions: good and bad. I had been designing for four years and personal style blogging for two and 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 got 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 into a perspective that 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 was 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 that 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 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 and 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. Andrea McManis of Social Retail -Body Positive Boutique Consulting has been conducting some research of the history of the word flattering as it relates to fashion. McManis has six years’ 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 with a debate over whether the dress was flattering, and therefore, worth existing,” McManis tells me.
She 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 “looking slender is easy if one will study it.” As I read through it, 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 said, “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.” I mean this 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.
“It’s intended meaning 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,” says McManis. “It takes the voice out of fashion and makes it a tool for hiding flaws which aren’t really flaws. I feel like it’s the same way the make-up 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.”
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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 that we are supposed to 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.
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[ Feature Image by Jooleeah Stahkey: Photo of three people standing facing the camera with a strong stance and their hands on their hips. 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.]