Dressing for whose shape, exactly?

A few days ago, I heard a young woman, about my age, express the sentiment, “Women should really dress for the body type they have, not the one they want.” She isn’t alone in her thinking. It seems finding flattering clothing is a universal concern for women.

In department store dressing rooms, we search for jeans to camouflage a large backside, or enhance a smaller one. We try on twenty blouses looking for the perfect fit — the top that will make our waists seem slimmer, our breasts perkier, our arms more toned. Every woman who grew up in a culture that targets (or creates) body insecurities is a kind of magician. We transform the way we are perceived through the right blazer or pair of heels. But what do we gain?

We are promised “body confidence.” Women’s magazines (especially those addressing young women and teens) offer regular articles on dressing for your shape. The magazines usually run these articles based on the idea that women fit into four basic categories:

  • Pear: larger hips and smaller bust; a.k.a. “spoon”
  • Banana: a straight up and down body type; a.k.a. “ruler” or “rectangle”
  • Apple: most weight is carried in midsection, sometimes shoulders are wider than hips; a.k.a. “cone”
  • Hourglass: larger breasts/hips with a clearly defined waist

Women may fit roughly into these categories, but it’s insulting that our bodies are being compared to inanimate objects.

Not to mention the celebrity comparisons! Beyoncé is given as an example of how to dress a pear body. I’m a pear, but I think it’s time for me to face the unfortunate fact: I do not and will not ever look like Beyoncé. Being told I should dress like an ultra-fit performance artist when my exercise regime involves carrying books home from the library doesn’t exactly do wonders for my body confidence.

It may seem nice to see more than one body type represented in a magazine. My initial reaction to Dress For Your Body Type articles is, “Oh, that’s cool. There are clothes for me.” I lose my optimism after reading the articles.

The latest issue of Seventeen (November 2011) features the article “Make Your Body Look Amazing!” As if our bodies aren’t already amazing as they are. The article offers advice to three body types: petite, curvy, and tall. The article advertises clothing that will, “add some curves” or “[skim] over your tummy”. In essence, clothing that will hide your “flaws” and create the illusion of a different figure.

But why must we hide our stomachs? Why is it so essential to add curves? Does it really matter if our favorite sweater is flattering? Can’t it just be warm? Maybe it’s a radical concept, but the key to body confidence may be wearing what we want to wear with no thought of hiding or enhancing. I propose we start dressing for our own pleasure, and stop trying to fit into the acceptable guidelines for a narrowly defined shape. Who’s with me?

Cassandra Sheets is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago, where she studies Fiction Writing and Women and Gender Studies. In her free time, she enjoys exploring the Harold Washington and yelling at bad reality television shows.

15 thoughts on “Dressing for whose shape, exactly?

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  1. Yeah I think people should be able to dress the way they want. Of course some people want to dress a certain way that is said to flatter their own body type, and I think that is fine if they want to do that for themselves, but they shouldn’t put that expectation on everyone else who might not care to do that.

  2. Ashely, I agree. Clothing can help us feel confident or comfortable, or can even help us express an attitude or a state of being nonverbally. I think it’s a shame that our choices often feel so limited. I also think a lot of people tend to gravitate toward things they feel flatter them, but again, who’s to say what’s “flattering.” Hopefully we will get to that point, someday, where women feel they can dress the way they want.

  3. So glad someone sees how annoying this is! I get sick of being told by (usually well meaning) people that as I’m only 1.52m tall and have slim legs I “should” always wear heels and “should” wear short skirts. Why the hell should I give myself feet and back problems wearing hellishly unconfortable heels and freeze wearing skirts (I live in a country that’s cold and wet about 90% of the time) just because OTHER PEOPLE have a problem with my height and shape?

    I also hate those so called body confidence tv shows like How to Look Good Naked where they tell people what their “problem” areas are and how to hide them by stuffing themselves into corsets/control underwear/ridiculously impractical shoes. Then to add insult to injury they “build confidence” in the women by encouraging them to slate other body types e.g. “be proud of your big breasts – that’s what makes you a women!” (so the less well endowed are holograms?), “show off your skinny legs in skirts the big girls could NEVER wear”.

    Whatever happened to wearing what YOU feel comfortable in and having fun choosing your clothes?? Sorry for the essay btw…

  4. I completely agree with this. I have pretty consistently observed that the more time you spend worrying about how other people you, the more self conscious you feel. The best days of my life haven’t been the ones I spent doing my hair, they’ve been the days I was too busy to check the mirror.

  5. The “body confidence” TV shows kill me too. Every time I see What Not To Wear I think, “Oh, well my whole closet would be in a garbage bin right about now.” And the body bashing, ugh. I keep hearing the “real women have curves” thing everywhere. Yeah, sometimes real women have curves. Sometimes, not so much.

    Thanks for reading the article.

    p.s. Never apologize for a good essay/rant. Those are my favorite.

  6. I love this article! The inanimate object comparison, while it may be a loosely helpful guide ends up being demeaning. And you are completely right about the celebrity comparisons. People should stop worrying about comparisons and strive for what is healthy for them.

  7. nice reading your blog.. can you please help me to figure out what comfortable wear I will choose for my medium built body. I like to be on fashion but its really hard for me to look for a dress that really fits me. need your advise . thanks

  8. I’m not really an expert (in any way) on giving fashion advice, but from personal experience, I’d say just have fun choosing clothing. Don’t worry actively about your body type or what’s on trend while you’re shopping, and the experience will be a lot more enjoyable. Try things on and make fun of ridiculous and impractical thing with your friends. Eventually you’ll stumble upon something you feel comfortable in. But I think feeling comfortable and fashionable in clothing comes from feeling confident and good about yourself, rather than following arbitrary standards.

  9. Thank you so much for this – very well done and exact!
    I’d like to point out that it’s always only women who are expected to think that way: planning ways of carefully cultivating flawless looks, with the loss of time, money, and personal fulfillment. If women are told they should “dress for their shape” why don’t men?
    Instead, guys just dress for their own comfort, allowed to wear swim trunks that go down to their knees, because those are easiest to run around and lounge in, and even have pockets for carrying spare change and sunglasses. If a woman wears those with a bikini top, she’s apt to feel like inadequate, based on nothing more than our idiotic women-objectifying culture.
    Interestingly, some women DO dress with aspects of mens clothes, and guys undoubtedly find that hotter because she’s comfortable and confident enough to do so.

  10. I have a big problem with the “real women have X” type of thinking (I wrote a whole research paper on it as my final project in college). Real women have many, many things, and a lot of those things are indefinable. It’s insulting that I’m not considered “real” just because I don’t fit into ever-changing, arbitrary, and narrow definitions. I exist, therefore I’m “real.” Don’t tell me I’m not just because I don’t have big boobs.

  11. What? Are you suggesting women should dress practically and comfortably without killing their bank accounts? That’s just crazy talk!

  12. As my husband says…”I am in shape. Round is a shape.” Damn straight it is. Wear whatever you feel like.

  13. the unspoken assumption of these articles is that you actually give a shit what you look like, if you don’t, don’t read them, and just go out and enjoy your life rather than complaining about drivel.

  14. I think it’s easy to say “Oh, just ignore it. Don’t read it.”

    I think Jean Kilbourne sums it up nicely: “Just as it is difficult to raise kids safely in a physically toxic environment, where they’re breathing polluted air or drinking toxic water, it’s also difficult or even impossible to raise children in a culturally toxic environment, where they’re surrounded by unhealthy images about sex and relationships, and where their health is constantly sacrificed for the sake of profit.”

    It’s not just difficult to raise children in our environment; it’s difficult to navigate as an adult.

    The reason I continue to read these articles, the reason I continue to “complain” (although I would argue I’m critiquing) , is because I want to contribute something non-toxic to our cultural environment. I want to reach other women and men who are fighting their way through the incredible pressure our culture places on “normalcy” and “perfection.”

    “Complaining about drivel” helps me enjoy my life. And hopefully it helps a few other people enjoy their lives too.

  15. Cassandra, you’re right on! I love to read About-Face articles (as well as other similarly critical blogs/articles) because they definitely help me to enjoy my life. Yes, I feel angry and indignant in the moment, but I feel angry and indignant about these issues whenever I see them on my own, anyway…so when I see that there are others out there that feel the same way, it makes the world feel like a much less crazy and much less scary place. It makes me feel less alone in my anger and indignation. There are times when it seems like I must just be nuts, but your words and the words of your peers make me realize once again that it’s not us that are crazy, it’s the “toxic” cultural attitudes towards and representations of women that are truly crazy!

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