About That Other “F-Word”…

Photo: Courtesy of Liz Black.
Today, I want to talk about the “F” word. No, not “fuck,” and not “fat,” either. I’m talking about “flattering.” Everyone has their trigger word, and that F bomb is mine. Let’s be honest, when we declare something “flattering,” it means that my cellulite is covered, my stretch marks are hidden, and rolls neatly tucked away. Any part of my body considered unseemly by societal standards should be smoothed out, and I should look slimmer than I actually am. But, here’s the rub: I don’t dress for "society," I dress for myself. I wasn’t always flatter-phobic. I desperately clung to the idea of slimming clothes when I despised my body. I feared appearing even an ounce larger than I actually was, and I spent too many hours trying to turn myself into an optical illusion. I’d swaddle myself in shapewear and wrap myself in head-to-toe black. I clearly had been cursed with curves and cellulite, and needed to atone for my body’s multitude of sins. I felt that if I found just the right black dress, I could make my flaws disappear, maybe even make myself disappear. Burdened with a bigger body, I was encouraged by my naturally slim maternal grandmother to find any way to seem smaller. Instead of resembling her fit form, I was my mother’s double: busty, big-bellied, and with a smile framed by at least two chins. Conscious of my lack of self-confidence, she fed my fears while attempting to starve my body: offering a health cookie with one hand and a body-shaming insult with the other. If only I could be thin, then my life would be perfect. The boys would flock to me; I’d find myself a good Jewish doctor for a husband and never have to work another day in my life. But if I insisted on staying fat, then I needed to at least pick “flattering” outfits that masked my body. The effects of my grandmother’s judgements clearly weighed heavily on my mother, as she aged and gained weight. She eschewed anything fashion-forward, choosing to cloak herself in baggy pants and oversized shirts that hung to her knees. Both her size and shape worked against her, forcing her to purchase anything that covered as much of her as possible. Due to the dearth of plus-size clothing in our area, I’d go with her to the three stores that carried her size: Lane Bryant, Avenue, and Catherine’s. Although all three brands have greatly improved their offerings, it was a sea of sadness at that time. Clothes fell to either end of the spectrum; you could pick either clashing, ostentatious prints designed to distract the viewer from settling on any one area of the wearer’s fat form, or basic black fit-and-flare wrap dresses made to fake an hourglass figure.

A photo posted by Liz Black (@psitsfashion) on

As I physically matured, every outfit had to pass a gauntlet of questions. Did it make me look as thin as possible? Is a single dimple or roll showing? A hint of VBO? Was my hip-to-waist ratio as exaggerated as I could make it? Were my breasts the center focus — the sole supposedly positive physical quality I had? I loved fashion and lusted after the looks that my thinner peers effortlessly wore. The ease in which they not only found garments they loved in any store, but were able to “pull off” these trends that I knew, without a shred of doubt, I could not, hurt me to my core. I wanted nothing more than to be able to wear these styles, but they weren’t available in my size, and even if they were, they would look “unflattering” on my body, anyway. A combination of my grandmother’s advice and society's aesthetic standards drained every drop of my self-confidence, sending me into a metabolism-crushing cycle of yo-yo diets and crippling self hate that lasted more than half my life. I saw my love of fashion diminish as I punished myself for not being physically good enough to be a part of that world. Every style magazine I opened echoed my grandmother’s critical sentiments; covers dictated the latest fad diet, slimming trick, and, of course, new way to “flatter” your figure. Advertisements were dominated by thin, white women with slight silhouettes. TV shows and books literally told me What Not to Wear (a lot of things, evidently). Gossip rags dragged beautiful female celebrities for a single thigh dimple. My teenage thunder thighs were already riddled with lumps. If these desirable ingenues could not escape scrutiny, what chance did I have?
I’d like to say I woke up one morning and — poof — my issues were gone, but the truth is it took many years of pushing myself out of my comfort zone to be where I am now. I began small, by forcing myself to try versions of trends I liked, dumbed down for plus-size women, of course. I noticed that the world didn’t end when I wore something more fitted or showed my legs (which were once declared my worst feature by my grandmother). As plus-size fashion improved, I tried more trends and designs that I had been brainwashed to avoid, and experienced some of my first outfit compliments. When I wore those “flattering” garments, I never received any praise for my style, but my “unflattering” outfits garnered genuine smiles and admiration. It was shocking. Could it be possible that horizontal stripes, all white, oversized fits, mixed prints and other things I eschewed could lead to...flattery? Although my initial attempts on breaking fashion “rules” might have been fueled by the accolades, I can now confidently wear anything without needing approval. And even though I have thankfully come to accept and even love my fuller figure, so many people are still hindered by this same mindset I used to have. I hear women of all shapes and sizes claim that they cannot “pull off” certain trends — not because they find them tacky, but because it will be “unflattering.” Before you object, I’m not suggesting that you should wear designs you hate because it’s just not appealing to your personal style. You can still wear ensembles deemed “flattering” by you or whatever style bible you adhere to. But stop avoiding things because you fear they might make you appear bigger, because life is too short to settle for clothes that don’t excite you. So I encourage you, the next time you take stock of your wardrobe and choose an outfit, wear whatever makes you happiest, even if it’s the most “unflattering” thing you own.

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series