Is Flattering Just Another Word for Skinny?

Published on 6/4/2022

Like countless others, my time in lockdown was marked by weight gain. But my body began changing even before that, as I finally began to see food as friend rather than foe, and start severing the tie between skinny and self-worth.

Adjusting to a body that’s larger than society’s preference is a struggle. And one of those struggles is the clothing I need to choose for myself. I’m trying not to hold on to my smaller clothes in the ‘hopes’ of weightloss, and instead purchase clothing that actually fits me now. But through re-examining my choice of clothing, I’m confronted with the realisation that trendy is thin.

This shouldn’t be news to me, as we exist with a fashion industry that focuses on how clothing hangs on smaller bodies. When I enter stores and see clothing on a mannequin, I have truly no idea how it will look on me. Entering the oddly lit changing room with an armload of hangers feels like a game of russian roulette with my emotions. A trip to find a new pair of jeans has a 99% chance of ending in tears. Because when I’m looking for clothing and claiming that something doesn’t suit me or isn’t flattering, what I really mean is that it doesn’t create the illusion that I’m smaller than I am.

When something is ‘flattering’...

It makes us look smaller than we are. It covers the lumps of our stomach, falsifies a narrow waist, or is the correct colour to hide our bulges. When we declare something flattering, almost always we mean that it’s slimming. We use those two words interchangeably with no regards for the damage it causes.

While we sometimes choose clothing for comfort, or perhaps a colour that suits our complexion well, the majority of the time we’re looking for a slimming effect. No matter if we’re a size 4 or 14, we choose clothing that presents us to be as small as our body can fake.

We choose high-waisted trousers because they encourage a narrow waist effect. We choose black clothing because it makes the wearer look smaller. We spend our money and time looking for clothing that is flattering, but by flattering, we only mean slimming.

By doing this, we continue to perpetuate the idea that attractiveness is equal to size. We continue to believe that the smaller you are, the more beautiful you are, the more worthy you are. In a time when we are unlearning the harmful lessons of the media and patriarchy, and aiming for body positivity, or at the very least acceptance, why are we continuing to misuse the term ‘flattering’?

Flattering could mean something else

We can use this word and not mean ‘skinny’. We could use this word and mean that the clothing suits the wearer. That the colour brings out the shades of their eyes. That it makes them look comfortable and happy. That it’s a fun skirt that catches people’s attention. Flattering doesn’t have to be synonymous with slimming, we can choose what it means. We do this by using it not in context of size, and with reasoning separate to size.

Because your attractiveness is not deemed by your weight, your body fat percentage, or any other bullshit. Your attractiveness comes from who you are and what you bring to this world. If you ask someone what they find attractive, I very much doubt they’ll mention a weight, or much about body types at all. When asked, most people tell me they find humour attractive, or charisma. So you could say that those traits are very flattering.

If you feel like you can’t extricate the word flattering from its size context, then find another way to compliment people, one that doesn’t imply a size. Tell someone that the shirt they’re wearing really ‘suits’ them, as this feels less linked to looking slim, and more about their uniqueness.

Or while you learn how to navigate in this world without commenting on size, as it is a struggle and something we all have to work on, focus on different compliments. Tell someone that they look joyful, radiant even. Tell someone that you love how they styled their hair. Tell someone that you love how they make you feel.

There is the space to feel good about ourselves without fixating on bodies. There is the space to make other people feel good about themselves without fixating on bodies. We just have to work towards that, together. We have to make conscious efforts, and catch ourselves when we make mistakes.

I explained my struggles with the word ‘flattering’ to my sister, and then she was the one to stop me when I slipped up and used that word a few days later. We can help each other to grow by providing a safe space to do so, and learning together. We can admit when something doesn’t sit right, and collectively look for solutions.

Also when choosing clothing, forget what is expected of your size and instead wear what you love. This article on the best tall curvy jeans captured that sentiment perfectly for me, by focusing on every style of jeans and not just what you're 'expected' to wear.

For some, it will be questioning why they find something to be ‘flattering’, and admitting when it’s a matter of looking smaller. For some, it’s forsaking the word entirely. For me, it’s a matter of questioning why I like an outfit, and whether something is simply ‘trendy’ because it’s on a smaller body with a flat stomach. It’s looking at clothes not in how they mask my new, bigger body, but rather how they make me feel, how they suit my identity as it evolves in these weird times. I think this is something we all need to do, as we stop seeing bigger bodies as something to mask as smaller, as we learn to appreciate taking up space in this world.



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