To me, the word flattering should mean “what I personally feel looks best on me, based on my own personal standards for my appearance.” Unfortunately, in our thin-obsessed fashion world, it has become code for “smaller.”
I hate — like, really, really, REALLY hate — the word flattering. We throw it around constantly. But no one really analyzes what they mean when they say it. So I’ll take the liberty of doing that for you. As is my wont.
Generally, when someone says something is flattering, they mean that it tricks their eye into thinking the body in question now adheres more closely to the preferred societal standards of beauty. Basically, you look thinner, with longer legs and boobs that are big but not, you know, too big. Your waist now looks smaller than your hips, but not in an exaggerated way. Your legs are long and skinny, but they don’t leave too much of a gap, lest someone tell you to eat a sandwich. This outfit takes you, o disgusting sack of garbage, and makes you appear a smidge closer to the thin, white, Eurocentric standard of beauty. You are now palatable and allowed to appear in public. Congrats.
Makeover shows, in my opinion, are the worst purveyors of the “flattering” rhetoric. Most like to talk a big game about working with your body. But in the end, they put everyone in clothing they think brings them closer to the prescribed ideal. Maybe not everyone wants to look that way. Thankfully it’s gone now, but What Not to Wear was the worst of the worst. They, of course, did their thing after two weeks of violating your privacy and then publicly shaming you (“She looks like a Mack truck from the back!” is an actual quote from Stacy London). I know. I was a fan of these shows for years before I got more into things like size acceptance and not humiliating people on television, even in exchange for a new wardrobe.
Even the new Queer Eye series, while better than most makeover shows, falls into this trap. They still talk about dressing in “flattering” looks, used as a synonym for slimming, and praise someone endlessly for looking (or temporarily being) smaller.
“Flattering” is just another microaggression policing people’s (especially women’s/femme’s, but masculine-presenting people are not immune, as QE shows) bodies. Those who don’t conform to the idea are supposed to hide themselves by choosing the right lines and colors (read: black) to “flatter” (read: slim down) their unfit and horrifying figures. When we’re not fighting our bodies, we’re supposed to be covering them up.
Why bother keeping up with what you’re supposed to look like when, in all likelihood, nothing you do will ever be good enough? We read about people dying in botched weight loss surgeries. People tell size 4 models that they’re too fat. There is no victory here. The only way to win this game is to stop playing.
In a perfect world, it could be a useful word. A way to say that I generally like the way this garment looks on me. It could mean you like the way the color brings out your eyes, or that the cut shows off your favorite tattoo. But right now, in our incredibly imperfect world, it carries too much weight (ha). That’s not what I hear. You’re saying that I changed my body’s appearance to make it acceptable in a way that it wasn’t before. I was a lumpy cave troll. But then I put on this wrap dress (universally flattering!) and now I’m fit to be seen by the masses. It’s insulting. Besides, maybe I like being a lumpy cave troll.
So I’ve stopped using the term. And I’ve stopped caring if what I wear is flattering. There isn’t a garment on this planet that’s going to make me look like Heidi Klum. So I might as well actually enjoy my clothes instead of worrying about how many pounds they mask. If I like something I’m wearing, I’m happy to talk about the reason I like it. But I won’t be using the f-word (or at least, that particular f-word).
Note: I wrote this in 2011 for Persephone Magazine, and am adapting the original post here, because unfortunately it’s still relevant af