On Flattering and Fat

Published July 25, 2011 by sleepydumpling

It seems I have a rather large influx of new people viewing Fat Heffalump again all of a sudden.  Welcome!  Anyone want to tell me where you’re all being referred from?

Firstly, a little bit of housekeeping, just for the new folks (long termers, bear with me for a minute loves!)

There are rules for commenting on this blog – they can be found here.  This blog is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship, and I am the (sometimes) benevolent dictator.  It’s my blog, so I make the rules and do whatever I like with it.  That’s the thing with blogging – your blog is your space and you get to do with it as you wish, and you set the boundaries.  If you want things to be different then they are here, I’m always open to suggestion, but when I put the foot down and say no, then the answer is no.

The other important thing to know about this blog is that it is about being fat.  Fat is not an insult in this space, it is a description.  It’s not self-denigrating of me to call myself fat.  I am a size 26 and somewhere around the 300lb mark (not sure where, I don’t weigh) and have a big belly, big boobs, multiple chins, thick thighs, big hips, wobbly arms… I am FAT.  I’m not chunky, fluffy, curvy, voluptuous, zaftig, big, large, plus-sized, chubby, hefty or any other euphemism that implies that fat is a dirty word.  I am FAT.  And I’m proud of who I am.

Here we refer to ourselves as fat without shame, without apology and without fear.  Fat is where it’s at baby!

Fat Positive Manatee (Click on the image for the Tumblr)

But now we’ve got that out of the way, mostly we’re here to talk about being fat and all the issues that go around it.

Which leads me on to the topic that I want to talk about again today, and that’s the topic of “flattering” and in particular, commenting on other people’s clothing/appearance.

There is a thing I notice a lot on blogs, and even more so on comment threads on plus-size clothing sites (this includes Facebook sites for brands), and that is body shaming by using the term “flattering”.  Whether the commenter is shaming their own body, by saying things like “I can’t wear that top, it doesn’t flatter my arms/belly/insert other feature here.” or worse, when they’re shaming other people’s bodies, either directly “Can’t you find something that is more flattering to your shape?” or indirectly “Don’t you know fat women shouldn’t wear bold prints, they don’t flatter!” – it’s all still body shaming.

I have a very strict rule here on Fat Heffalump that I won’t stand for body shaming – not even when someone says they “Don’t intend it that way.”  Intent is not quite enough to excuse the behaviour – when someone says not to do something in their space (as Fat Heffalump is my space), then don’t do it.  Don’t say that you didn’t intend it a certain way, or that you were only trying to make a suggestion.  Either apologise, or just walk away.  It’s not your territory, so you don’t get to make the rules.

That’s really bolshy of me, I know.  But I’m a bolshy woman, and this is my space.  It doesn’t mean you can’t call me out if I’ve said something problematic, but when it comes to the rules I’ve set about body shaming and appearance based judgment, I’m just not negotiable.  I want every one of you to be able to come here knowing that you will not be shamed for your bodies, no matter what shape, size, colour, physical ability or appearance you might have.

But back to the topic of flattering.  I vehemently reject the concept of dressing to “flatter” myself and I believe nobody has the right to suggest/demand that people change how they dress to “flatter” their bodies.  That doesn’t mean you can’t choose to highlight certain features yourself – because it’s your body and you know how you like to look.  It’s when other people come along and say “That’s not very flattering” – it’s the height of rudeness and a prime example of being judgmental about other people’s appearances.  Not even should they sell it as “suggesting you highlight your good points” – because by default, it’s also suggesting you should “lowlight” other parts of yourself because they are less/not acceptable.

I get very angry at those who crop up on plus-size clothing blogs and company pages etc and start talking about how “larger/big” women should dress.  We should all dress in a way that makes us happy ourselves.  It’s different for you than it is for me, than it is for the next person, but to cast our standards onto other people is simply rude.  However time and time again, I see people rudely leaving comments that say “Big women shouldn’t go sleeveless!”  or “Larger ladies need dark clothes, not bright colours!”  It’s just unbelievably rude to cast your own body hang-ups and judgement on other people.

That doesn’t mean you have to wear sleeveless tops and hot pink yourself.  Or even LIKE those things.  What it means is that instead of announcing what other people “should” do, you say “I’m not comfortable wearing sleeveless tops.” or perhaps “Bright colours aren’t really my thing.”  Then the statement is about you, not other people’s bodies/appearance.

Even saying that something is “flattering” on someone else is body shaming.  It implies that the outfit they are wearing that shows their shape a certain way, or changes their shape is better than something that shows them as they are.

Just don’t use the word flattering.  Instead, compliment someone straight up.  A simple “I like your outfit.” is far less loaded with body judgement than “That outfit really flatters you.”  If you don’t like a garment because you wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing it then say so.  Don’t ascribe shame to it by implying that other people shouldn’t wear it because you don’t.

There is enough body shame in the world today.  We get bombarded with it in magazines, newspapers, television, movies, fashion, advertising and a whole lot of other blogs.  Don’t contribute to it yourself, make a small change to your thinking and your language, and you contribute to making a big change to the world.

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55 comments on “On Flattering and Fat

  • *applause*
    I get so much out of your blog-it’s because of people like you that I now find shopping for myself a delight. All I need to do is adore the clothes (if I can find ones that fit of course) not worry about breaking some unwritten fat rules.

    I’m fat & deserve to dress how I like & rock the clothes I wear.

    • Shae it is incredibly liberating to let go of the concept of having to find “flattering” clothes or fit some kind of societal rules as to what one should wear, isn’t it? To just go out there and shop and look for things that you like and if they fit and feel good… go for it!

      And you absolutely do rock the clothes you wear!

  • Well said! What you are asking is so reasonable and simple and yet so many people just don’t get it. Rock on!

  • My mum tried on a new outfit a few weeks ago and looked A-FUCKING-MAZING and I said “Wow mum, you look hot; that style really flatters you” and now I feel horrible and guilty. I didn’t feel bad about it at the time, and she was gushing at the (backhanded?) compliment.

    I still like it when people tell me my clothes are flattering. Nothing makes me look smaller than I am – I’m huge, and it’s just not possible – but I interpret ‘flattering’ as being enhancing to my natural self.

    I’m going to have to sit back and have a think about this now.

    • Don’t feel bad! We’ve been sold this stuff from every direction our whole lives. We’ve been told that there’s a way that we should dress “for our shape”. We’ve been told that certain things “suit” us better than others. Every media outlet, fashion source and popular cultural reference has drummed this business into our heads (and our parents heads) since we were mere babes.

      That kind of thinking is so ingrained, so entrenched in our culture, there’s no wonder we all fall to it as a compliment.

      However, when we break it apart and analyse what is actually being sold to us, it isn’t a good thing. It’s something designed to make us try to change who we are (and spend money doing so!) and always feel that we have to control or present our appearance to suit others. We don’t. A favourite saying of mine is “I’m not here to decorate the world, I’m here to CHANGE it!”

      You know what makes someone look their best? Confidence, self esteem and joy. That can’t be bought or sold – it’s inside us all along.

  • Gah, there are only a few things I hate as much or more than the whole “flattering” thing. And since society has basically decided that there isn’t anything flattering to a woman my size and shape anyway, I stopped caring about the issue a long time ago. If you (general you!) don’t like what I’m wearing then tough cookies. I’ll wear what I think looks good, what I think fits me well, and what I think is comfortable and to heck with flattering.

  • I constantly groan when I see things about what fats should and shouldn’t wear. If YOU are comfortable, it doesn’t matter what it is.

    It can ‘flatter’ you in other ways though, for example the colour might flatter you.

  • Preach. I read a statement somewhere (maybe it was even here) that said: “It’s not my responsibility to be aesthetically pleasing to anyone else.” That simple statement changed my life. I repeat it like a mantra every time I hear my mothers voice from growing up listing the “rules” of dressing for fat girls. This is the first summer that I’ve actually felt comfortable in tank tops & light colors.

    I’m fairly new here. I actually found you on Tumblr first & reblog you constantly. :)

    • Pange I think most of us fatty bloggers have used a variant of that one at some point or another. One of my favourite posts on the subject came from Lesley Kinzel, on how none of us have the obligation to be “beautiful”, to spend our lives pleasing the eyes of others.

      And do give me a nudge on Tumblr so I can follow you back!

  • It took me a while to cop on to the fact that “That’s not very flattering” is code for “I can still see your fat body and that isn’t acceptable to me”.

    I was encouraged by a couple of shows recently where the ‘stylists’ helped a fat woman shop for new clothes and it didn’t seem like they were trying to hide or camouflage her or ‘draw the eye’ away from any parts of her– the dresses were her style, bold, bright, and short, and she paired them with killer heels that I WISH I could wear. She was stunning. If anything they coaxed her OUT of the tendency to camouflage.

    I should mention also that I own and wear a few skirts and dresses that I wear comfortably and proudly because of you. Though I covet your wardrobe. Especially those BOOTS you showed us a while back….

  • I post links to your blog on reddit quite often so some of your traffic may be from that. :) reddit has a large user base. r/bodyacceptance (where I post to) has 800 readers.

    Anyway, great blog. I had a big problem with this before I got into FA. When I read Lessons From the Fat O Sphere it was the first time I realize how much I, as a fat person, judged other fat people the same way I’m sure people judge me. It’s a difficult habit to break, but it can be done.

    • Thanks Heather! I have seen some come in via Reddit – but yesterday I got a HUGE influx from somewhere on Facebook. I thought perhaps Autograph might have shared the link, but not that I can find. Not that it REALLY matters where people come from, but it’s just nice to know and acknowledge whoever is sharing me!

      I used to struggle with that one too. I’ve blogged about it before, (my mantra is “stop that shit!”) It’s amazing how much your self-worth shoots up when you let go of judging ANYONE for their appearance.

  • I can’t tell you how long I bought oversize clothes in some strange attempt to appear waif-like, when I’m nowhere near that. I’m loving that I no longer feel the need to do that.

    • It’s so silly when you break it down, isn’t it k.sol? I used to live in big, dark, boxy garments, trying to make myself look thinner than I was. Except all I did was make myself look like a big, dark box!

      Now I wear the things that make me feel good. Things that make me laugh, that are fun and colourful and loud and obnoxious… just like me!

  • For my part, whenever I have told someone that something they wear flatters them, what I have meant is that the color makes their eyes sparkle or their skin glow, or that it makes them look like the person I know they are on the inside in that magical spot that’s the most them.

    Like you, though, I try to avoid the word now, not because I feel the true meaning has changed, but because the general usage for it has become ‘garment/outfit that makes you disappear as an individual.’

    I think of cherry red, electric blue, and bright orange as flattering colors on me. Why? Because when I wear them, I look and feel my best. People stop me on the street to tell me how great I look when I wear those colors. Alas! I’ve been told by about forty-seven thousand too many people that what really flatters me is black… because then they can pretend my waistline isn’t so big. But while I don’t look terrible in black… I don’t glow. I don’t sparkle. I’m not my essential self which is a being of color and swirly, flowy Bohemian gloriousness. Medium grey and chocolate brown are colors I have always thought of as flattering on me, because – like the brights I mentioned earlier – they really do make me look spectacular. Those are my neutrals.

    There are women who look amazing and glowy and spectacularly sparkly in black. Audrey Hepburn, anyone? Me… I start to disappear.

    I refuse to disappear. I refuse to bow to the concept of any universally flattering color, style, or wardrobe basic. And I regretfully say goodbye to a word that served me well for more than forty years, because others willfully use it to tell me that I’m not good enough as I am.

    I’ll still look fabulous in bright orange… but I’ll have to start being more specific about its effects on my skin tone and eye sparkleage.

    • Oh every time I wear black or dark colours, or shapes that fall loose over parts of my body that are bumpy and round, people clamour to tell me how “flattering” that my outfit is! On the days when I don’t feel real fabulous, I tend to opt for outfits that are darker, less shapely, more subtle… and certain types of people clamour to tell me that my outfit is “so flattering” – when the truth is, they minimise me, they hide me, they make me disappear. And it’s interesting that I turn to them when I’m not feeling so great.

      But when I’m feeling happy and bright… I opt for bright colours, bold prints, shapely garments… and people still compliment me. But it’s different people. And they compliment me in a much more genuine way.

      The real difference is that I don’t need people to compliment my appearance to feel worthy anymore. My value isn’t in how I look, it’s in who I am.

  • Guy here. I’ve been referring to myself as fat for years. Not big, large, or anything like that. Just fat. Seems like the skinny people I know are the one’s who seem the most uncomfortable with my self description. Odd.

    • Welcome Guy – always nice to have a fat bloke with us! And yes, those who don’t really have to worry about fat are often those who are the most uncomfortable with the word.

  • In my own experience from a life-time in a fat-hating culture, “flattering” clothing on a fat woman means one thing:

    1. Fat rolls and cellulite bumps are by definition ugly and should be hidden.

    This leads to suggestions that people with big hips wear empire-style dresses (a tent that flows over the hips instead of hugging, producing rolls), that women with big arms wear cardigans because sometimes big arms have rolls or cellulite or look otherwise ‘uneven,’ that women with big stomachs wear contrasting jackets or open-cards so that the layer-depth look makes your stomach look smaller; that fat women basically shouldn’t wear pants, and if they do, they should be high-waisted and boot cut as to minimize the curvature of the body (yanno, the rolls), and that all fat women should wear Spanx and hidden thinning panels or bras that could support Mt. Everest so that our natural bodies, prone to gravity since we live on Earth, don’t expose bumps, rolls, or sagginess.

    I don’t know why rolls and cellulite are considered so abhorrent, that if you expose them it’s as shocking as not covering up a giant zit, or walking around with a huge, open, oozing sore. Rolls and cellulite are a feature of MOST female bodies, and MANY male bodies. When did they become ‘unnatural’?*

    It’s this creation of a problem where there is no problem that’s a feature of the power-elite containing a ‘deviant’ class who they don’t want to have access to the same cultural opportunities and power.

    *that’s not of course to say that women and men without rolls and cellulite are unnatural

    • You’re bang on there bigliberty. It’s all about driving people to a) spend more money trying to achieve the impossible and b) feel less superior than those who enforce the “rules”.

  • In this hot summer weather in the US Northeast, tank tops, shorts, and sleeveless dresses above the knee are practically required. I’m not going to make myself uncomfortable because some people think my arms are too fat or my legs are too chunky. I’ve been rocking sleeveless dresses this summer and feeling pretty fabulous.

    (Came from Ragen Chastain’s blog, btw.)

  • I totally get what you mean by the word flattering. It definitely does have a subtext that indicates that whatever you’re wearing hides the “unacceptable” (fat rolls, etc.). It’s the PC version of a word we hear less often nowadays (though still too often for my taste): slimming.

    As I have become more and more sensitive to fat prejudice, I refuse to make any kind of comment on the weight of the person I’m talking to. People often tell me I’ve lost weight–usually when I haven’t. It makes me really uncomfortable thinking that my weight is the first thing people who know me see. People who meet me for the first time, almost inevitably, make a comment on my height (I’m well under 5′ tall) and believe me, I just want to strangle them.

    I’m just curious though. How do you and your readers feel about someone saying, “You look fabulous!” Of course, this sentence should neither preface nor follow, “You’ve lost weight!”.

    • Well, “you look fabulous” is better than most appearance based compliments. But I would say use it with sensitivity – because any comments on people’s appearance can be loaded, you know?

      I usually stick to “I love your outfit!” or even “I love your shoes/dress/earrings/whatever.”

      Personally, while it is nice to be complimented on something I am wearing, I much, much prefer to be complimented on my behaviour or who I actually am.

  • This reminds me of the various times Kate had to lay down the law over at Shapely Prose (R.I.P.). Good for you for setting and enforcing your boundaries and keeping your blog such an awesome space!

  • Some of them are being referred by me. I have you on my blogroll.:)

    Anyway, I absolutely hate people giving me advice on how to slim-wear black skinny jeans, don’t wear yellow, don’t wear horizontal stripes, etc. So much noise. I dress for ME, not for others.

  • Haha, I especially love “don’t wear yellow”. This year I seem to have amassed an insane amount of yellow garments in which to “flatter” my copious roundnesses.

  • I think age is a factor in how we dress. When I was younger, I saw myself as fat even if I wasn’t. I wouldn’t wear a bikini or exercise clothes in public. Now, I’ll show my rolls and cellulite. After I turned 30, I realized that this is the only life I have. I’m going to dance, swim, jog, bike, etc. I’m going to do it when other people can see. If they don’t want to look, that’s their problem not mine. I think as we get older we care less about what others think. I wish there was blogs like this when I was young. Alas, there wasn’t Internet when I was young. You’re beautiful being yourself.

    • Sometimes it is age, yes. But I known lots and lots and lots of people older than my 38 who have some REALLY screwed up attitudes to what women should wear or how they should present themselves.

  • I was thinking of it the way Another Fat Princess and Twistie were, as a word whose meaning had been/could be more neutral, but that was being misused – but then I thought about its usage history in contexts that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with physical appearance. Toadies and sycophants flatter the people they’re sucking up to – it’s the lavishness of the praise that’s supposed to gain them favor, not the sincerity.

    So, no – I won’t be using that word to talk about how someone’s outfit works any more; it has connotations of, “the only reason you look good is because that outfit creates a false image.” Heck no – the outfit isn’t rocking them, they’re rocking the outfit!

    (I’ve been reading for ages, but I don’t think I’ve commented before… though I could be mistaken.)

    Sunflower

  • ok, I’m not sure what to do with this, because while I earnestly believe that “what’s inside is more important that what’s outside”, I still believe that people should feel good about how they look. I also believe that outside affirmations are useful if delivered in a state of non-judgement, i.e. I personally like the way that looks, regardless of how you feel and if you still don’t like it that’s ok too because how you feel about it is more important. I really want the freedom to encourage people that I think look fabulous in their current outfit/hairstyle/motorbike/tricked-out bariatric rollator. (I have a rollator, goes with the arthritis, and yes, I plan to trick it out.) So, is there a difference between “I wish you’d dress that way all the time because I think it’s more appropriate in some way.” and “You look fabulous! You look like you are totally at home in that outfit and having fun today and I hope I get to have as much fun as you.”?

    I’m still thinking about this, and would love input. Thanks!

    • I tend to stay away from “You look…” anything. It’s just too fraught. I remember people telling me “You look fabulous!” when I was in the thick of an eating disorder, and all I wanted was someone to say “Are you ok?”

      You can still compliment someone’s outfit and how they wear it without putting any judgement on their own appearance/body. “You’re totally rocking that dress!” “I like the way you’ve styled that outfit.” “Your outfit is gorgeous!” or a simple “I love your shoes/dress/earrings/handbag/etc.”

      It’s the commentary on people’s bodies that is problematic, and that’s where “You look…” becomes an issue.

      • Thank you, MaryJane for raising a great question and thanks, sleepydun for pegging how to approach it. I love getting complimented on an outfit (I’m a sucker for cute skirts) and love letting people know when I think they’ve got an awesome outfit. Helps to know where the line is, and I’ll keep that in mind.

  • This has given me something to think about (by the way, I’ve had your blog saved to my favorites and check it daily, but I’ve never commented before). I always say that something isn’t flattering me to make it the clothing’s fault and not my body’s. Like, “this shirt isn’t flattering” and not “I look bad in this shirt because I have a bad body,” but I see where it’s problematic to use “flattering” and that, even if I don’t realize it, I’m still using a word that comes from body shaming. The more you know!

    My mother is of the sort that believes fat women should never show their arms because it isn’t flattering, and I’ve picked that up from her. This summer, I found this wonderful tunic-length sleeveless top that I LOVED, and thought “I’m just gonna do it! I’m gonna show my arms!” It was a little uncomfortable at first, but I loved the shirt so much I got over it pretty quickly.

    • Awesome Erin! You rock that sleeveless tunic, and feel the liberation of wearing what makes you happy, rather than what society tells you bodies like yours should be clothed in!

  • Continuing on the age comment, I have noticed that in the changing rooms at the gym, the younger women are very modest and body conscious, and the very old women bare it all with no shame. I wonder if this is a sign that body acceptance tends to increase with age, or if it is a cultural difference between generations. Bit of a derail, but I wanted to throw that out there.

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