Although it was a phrase originally meant to be complimentary and positive, I recently started to see that the word flattering can be a pretty dangerous thing. It’s all about hiding. Flattering dresses will conceal all the "wrong" curves and dips. Flattering pants will nip and lengthen. They'll alter and correct you. However, with the clever concealing comes something else: Guilt. If you need to hide something with lines and fabric, it means that there’s something you don’t want others — or worse, yourself — to see.
After many years of obsessing over thigh gaps and how many calories were in my salad dressing, I have come to the conclusion that I need to stop using the term altogether. The realization hit the other day, as I was trying to figure out what to wear to a blues picnic with a girlfriend. We were talking on the phone the night before like junior high girls, sprawled out on top of the bed and giggling as we made plans. This time around, the topic wasn’t boys and crushes, though. It was food.
On a giggle that was usually reserved for recounting what a secret note said, we talked about brie and fig butter, lemon tarts and powdered sugar, champagne that fizzed, and big-faced muffins that would make you want to do the sign of the cross. The plan was to lay underneath a muggy summer sky, listen to Buddy Guy and his scratchy lyrics, and eat until we were hovering on the edges of a food coma. It was going to be glorious.
This is why I found myself here, in front of my mirror twisting this way and that, trying to find something flattering to wear for the occasion. If I was going to eat like Marie Antoinette, I needed something that wouldn’t, ah, accent the bits that were going to pay for it. Right? That’s just Being A Female 101 right there: Your thighs could betray you, so swaddle them in a landslide of fabric and forget you have legs altogether. No limbs, no problem!
It seems that as women or feminine people, we’re encouraged to be in a constant state of improvement. There’s always an extra pound to lose, an extra pizza slice to beat ourselves up over, or an extra curve to wish wasn’t there. The word “flattering” arguably only fuels the fire. But why does it have to center around shrinking and apologizing for what we have, instead of celebrating the way our curvy or pointy bodies look? Or even more radical still: Actually liking the end result?
This type of acceptance doesn’t usually come randomly to one overnight. Most of us have been conditioned from a very young age that anything related to the word "fat" is negative. We learn it from our mothers, who frown at themselves in mirrors and sigh at their reflections, possibly not realizing their young daughters will play pretend with that same sigh. We learned it from our friends, who vowed to always tell if certain pants made us look fat. We learned it from magazines that were supposed to be fun but somehow cultivated anxiety among their pages, with questions like, “It’s summer and you look like a tub of butter. Now what?!”
So how do we change this? How do we make ourselves shift away from this crazy-town type of thinking and start realizing that our bodies, in whatever shape they're currently in, are something beautiful.
Well, we take back the word flattering.
We change it from being a term that is about veiling ourselves and, instead, focus on becoming proud of the people we are — and that means of every part of ourselves. In my effort to accept that my thighs and hips aren't embarrassing and don't need work, I make myself buy clothes that accent them. Of course, the first time I did it, I wished viciously that I had a brown paper bag in my purse.
There I was, standing in the changing room, wearing skinny jeans that might or might not have made my legs look like Tweedlee’s. And I was going to buy them. As a part of me begged for mercy, another part was steadfast with the decision. Why? Because I knew the negative feeling was warped. I didn’t actually look bad, I just didn’t look like a supermodel on day 72 of a juice fast. The faster I realized that should never be my goal, though, the faster I could learn to let go of the guilt and allow myself to be happy.
So now I go for tight overalls, thigh skimming dresses, and high waist pants — all of which accent those curves I'm trying to get comfortable with. I’ll be honest, it’s not always comfortable. Sometimes I do Lamaze breaths inside my head and tell myself not to freak out — that it’s perfectly alright for my thighs to do that pancake thing when I sit down. Other times I want to jump head-first into a mu-mu. However, nothing worthwhile is easy, and learning how to get rid of a broken way of thinking about my body is about as high up the Worthwhile Scale as it gets.
These days, I put on crop tops even though I’m about as ripped as Bambi. I put on pants that don’t nip and flow, but make it clear I’m not near any thigh-gap territories. By wearing these around, I own my shape and begin to naturally become comfortable in it. I become comfortable because it's not hidden: It’s not being strategized over as though stepping outside of my apartment is like going to battle, and it’s not being apologized for. I’m just wearing pieces I love, that don’t follow the same rules that my wardrobe used to. I’m freeing myself from self-judgement and I'm letting my body be.
The world oftentimes won’t be kind to you, but you owe it to yourself to not join in. Treat yourself well, and rethink what it means when you buy a “flattering” dress. You’re already every shade of flattering. All you have to do is let yourself see it.
Images: messagesonanapkin/Marlen Komar