An Open Letter To The Word Flattering
I was 11 when you came into my life. A pre-pubescent tomboy more interested in comic books than Barbies, my older brother told me that my sweatpants and baggy Billabong T-shirt weren't nearly as "flattering" as a nice denim skirt and velour sweater might be. It was the early 2000s, so all the little girls were wearing nice denim skirts and velour sweaters. He said that if I swapped style aesthetics, I'd probably look skinnier, too.
I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be the first of many occasions in which you, Flattering, would be used as a synonym for "looking thinner." As a grownup, I know that your literal definition is "pleasing or gratifying." It can also be "enhancing someone's appearance." But as an 11-year-old, I was only starting to learn that "enhancing someone's appearance" in this context almost always translated to "making them look smaller," especially when relating to the bodies of little girls and women.
You have been trying to make me look smaller for a long time, Flattering. Granted, your methods have changed. Sometimes, you've manifested yourself as the "Marilyn," telling me that hourglass body shapes are the most desirable out there, and that by utilizing waist belts and fabrics that nip in at my boobies and mid-core while going out at my hips, I can trick the world into believing that I am a '50s bombshell and not a bucket of extra chunky lard.
At other times, Flattering, you've contradicted yourself. You've implied that my fat bod is so unsightly that no one should ever have to be subjected to it. You have handed me kaftans and poorly-bedazzled tunic tees and baggy bootcut jeans and told me to hide. Under your many cloaks, my body would cease to exist entirely and I'd just be a floating head with a couple of chins but nothing too shameful to speak of.
Your contradictions have been super confusing, Flattering. Just FYI.
Regardless of how you have manifested, though, I must say that your principal consequence was the total eradication of fun from fashion. Because of you I believed that clothes existed for one purpose and one purpose alone: To make me seem less fat, and therefore, more flattered. This, you insisted, should be my ultimate goal as a woman and a human existing in a body that so many other humans and advertisements and subliminal messages have long been telling me is wrong.
Until I was much older, it never occurred to me that clothes could be empowering, or that by eschewing your rules, I could feel like I was actively rebelling against all those narratives that do nothing but keep people in boxes; that a crop top showing off my belly pudge or a massive skirt taking up even more physical space could make me feel utterly alive and unapologetic.
It would take exposure to a lot of fellow fat women in radical outfits for that message to start to sink in. However, when I came across these women and started to consider the possibility of a sartorial life outside of tunics, I still felt scared that you would find a way of creeping back into my life. You and I had known each other for so long. Could I even survive without your methods for living life to the fullest, or would I disintegrate into a pile of forgotten pinup dresses and waist-training belts?
Oh, Flattering, you have truly caused some grief. You have perpetuated notions of aspirational beauty to the point where I truly believed only one body type could be worthy of tolerance. You have made me hysterical in dressing rooms. You have made me pass up evenings out with friends on account of not being able to find something to wear. You have made me feel unfit for the title of "woman" or "girlfriend" or "person-deserving-to-exist-in-the-first-place." In other words, you have been a pain in my cellulite-infested butter bottom.
I also know we go way back, Flattering. Hell, you're probably the longest relationship I've ever had outside of those with relatives who've known me since birth. Seriously, I can't think of anything or anyone who's been in my life since the early effing 2000s.
Nonetheless, the conclusion I have come to is that while there is nothing necessarily wrong with your foundation — waist belts, baggy dresses, and retro-infused looks are fine in a neutral capacity — but your message that such garments might be useful slimming props is truly disturbing.
Despite our history, someone once told me that a real friend never makes you feel inadequate; never makes you feel like you would be a whole lot better if you only just changed X, Y, and Z about yourself. By that logic, you were never a particularly good friend. In fact, Flattering: You kind of suck.
That's why I've been avoiding you these past couple of years. That's why I've been wearing whatever makes me feel happy, whether it ultimately makes me look thinner, or fatter, or totally like myself. Unbothered by your opinions, Flattering, I'm going to carry on taking up space. I'll wear the vintage garments that Marilyn would've approved of should the mood authentically strike. I'll wear the baggy dress should I want to feel airy and free. I'll wear the tight jeans that make my side fat drip out of above the buttons. And I'll rock the sh*t out of that co-ord set with the crop top that frames my back boobs as the center of attention. You can't stop me anymore — and the only thing I'm sorry for is that I ever let you convince me you could.
Images: Marie Southard Ospina