Why We Should Stop Using The Word "Flattering" Now

by Jodie Layne

Yeah, I just don’t think it’s all that flattering on me.” As a woman who spends a few nights a week in the fitting rooms of a plus-size store, I hear this phrase incredibly often. What usually follows is someone hesitantly peeking their head out of the dressing room, not wanting to emerge in front of strangers in a top that hugs their soft tummies or one that bares their shoulders. But it’s not just in changing rooms that people who are trying on floral dresses, crop tops, skinny jeans or sleeveless shirts utter the f-word. The word “flattering” is endemic. Headlines and cover stories urge us to discover "our body’s most flattering swimsuit." We tell each other that our outfits are “flattering” when we look good, and the silhouettes that are supposed to “flatter” our body types have been engrained in us since we were old enough to take a quiz in a glossy magazine. The term is rarely used to say what the real meaning of it actually is, but rather utilized as code to say: "What you’re wearing minimizes the parts of you that society says are 'flaws' and plays up what society says are 'assets.'"

Actually, the word flattering is even more often used as a less blunt way of saying that something’s slimming. Seriously — replace the word with “slimming” in about 95 percent of its uses and the sentiment remains unchanged. A quick scroll through Glamour Magazine’s website shows that a search for that loaded word brings up stories like “Figure Flattery Advice from a Real Housewife," “The Bigger the Purse, the Smaller the Butt,” and “Pippa Middleton in the Perfect Dress For Faking A Perfect Figure.” That's right: We can't possibly have a singularly defined "perfect figure," so a dress that helps us fake it is flattering. My hope is that we all understand how messed up that is. And personally, when I hear “flattering,” being uttered, my brain knows that what's actually being said is, “That makes me feel more comfortable with looking at you/myself.”

Author Lesley Kinzel says it perfectly in her book, Two Whole Cakes :

“When we say something is unflattering, we're often trying to deliver bad news in a polite way, by deflecting blame from the body to the garment, in spite of the fact that most of us are going to secretly blame the body anyway. Women in particular are prone to directing their anger at themselves rather than at the pair of jeans that fails to fit both their hips and waist at the same time, as though the jeans' expectations must necessarily prevail over the actual dimensions of the body you've had for your entire life. If the jeans don't fit, it must be your fault. You should change to fit them, because the jeans are in charge here. If you refuse — silly, stubborn person that you are — then you are relegating yourself to fashion struggles in perpetuity.”

I know it’s often meant to be a compliment — meant to be used to say that something we’re wearing is making us look closer to what’s supposed to be the “ideal” body shape. When someone says that something I’m wearing is “super flattering!” on me, I force a smile and say, “I really like this outfit, too!” Because what’s really being said is that my flouncy orange top with the cinched elastic waist gives me more of an hourglass figure than the cream loose-knit sweater that I wore yesterday — my body as it is isn’t good enough to be seen and requires visual trickery to appear attractive.

So I reiterate: I understand that saying that something is flattering is supposed to be a good thing — a compliment of sorts. I mean, isn’t that what we’re all striving for: To be seen as beautiful by the people whose opinions we care about — and even by ourselves? The fact of the matter is, however, that the word “flattering” is really just body policing wrapped in the illusion of a compliment. It’s like the ultimate passive aggressive roommate note from the world to your body. It’s condescending and patronizing. This is why we need to drop it altogether — yep, let's stop saying the term flattering forever.

While doing red carpet coverage for The Oscars last week, one of my editors called me out when — in a group chat — I said that I didn't think Reese Witherspoon's dress was flattering. I had to explain that to me, "flattering" means that the thing a person is wearing makes them seem comfortable, happy, confident and at home in their bodies. In the pictures I saw of Witherspoon, she looked tense and rigid — although, maybe that was just the discomfort of 100 strange men yelling at her to try and take a photo. Or, you know, nervousness about being nominated for one of the hugest awards of the evening, for one of the greatest performances of her career. Either way, it was a good reminder that no matter what way we're defining "flattering," it actually is none of our business to comment on someone else's body except in an affirmative, appropriate way.

My version of flattering means, "I think you look amazing and you totally know you are killing it in that outfit," but why can't we just say that? If someone doesn't look that way, why do we need to point it out? My suggestion is that regardless of the way someone's outfit sits on their body or how we feel about it, if they look good or look happy we can just say that they look amazing. "You have a great sense of style," or, "That's such a gorgeous color," or, "What a fun print," make the compliment about the outfit and about the person's sense of style rather than how their body looks.

At the end of the day, isn't the point of fashion ultimately creativity and confidence? I'd rather be seen and praised for both of those traits than be able to fake a svelte silhouette or narrower shoulders. Way better, right? My challenge to you this week is to drop the f-word and dish out five non-body related compliments to both other people and yourselves. Celebrating other people's confidence and sense of style instead of their body shape is the first step in liberating you from the inability to celebrate your own.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy