Fuck Flattering

Conversations around the word “flattering” have been going on in multiple online sewing spaces I’m a part of right now. I’ve been in this conversation a dozen times before, at least; it generally always goes in the same circles. Many folks are attached to the word as a concept for signaling that something “works for” someone: that it fits them well (whatever that means), works well with their coloring (whatever that means), that it feels in some way to fit their personality — or perhaps a best version of their personality.

I say “whatever that means” because many people skirt around what exactly they mean by that. It seems to be like porn — you know it when you see it. But that insistence on instinct masks the ways our instincts are honed by cultural norms that privilege certain kinds of beauty, body types, gender expression, and comportment.

Shannon standing indoors in a blue dress. She has her hands in her pockets and smiles, looking off to one side.


When those of us in the fat activism community say we want to “fuck flattering,” we don’t just mean that we want to wear things that go against flattering norms. That part’s great — horizontal stripes and sack dresses and things that emphasize our volume forever and ever — but there’s more. It’s a recognition of the fact that “flattering” has not been used as a compliment for many of us; it’s been used as a weapon. It’s been used to diminish us, to reward us for shrinking ourselves, to deny us the full range of color and expression and joy, to assume our bodies are unruly and forcefully tame them.

So when people cling to the word, when they claim that they don’t mean it that way, what they’re doing is telling us either that they know it’s a term used to reward us for attempting to comply to narrow standards of acceptable expression, and don’t mind, or that they don’t believe our experiences and think that their own experiences and intent are more important.

Shannon standing indoors, looking at the camera. She wears a loose navy blue dress, blue socks, and brown boots.

I’m not saying don’t compliment anyone — I fucking love compliments! But there are plenty of ways to be more specific and, honestly, even nicer in your compliments. I personally love hearing that someone think something “suits me” — there’s a way in which that slight switch suggests an attention to the way a garment works with my personality, not just my body. It also doesn’t carry the connotation of excess, impersonal, or insincerity that “flattering” does.

Shannon in a half length portrait, smiling at the camera. More visible here is the line of embroidered stitching down the front of the dress bodice and a little cluster of pins.

I give you all of these thoughts along with a dress I’ve been wearing non-stop since it came off the machine. Like my floral fantasy and myofauxtis dresses, it’s made using the Cashmerette Montrose top as the bodice, with a basic gathered skirt. The fabric is a thick double-brushed cotton, thicker than beefy flannel — almost the weight of a melton. It was a score from the Textile Center Garage Sale and came with a bit of wear and an odd shape. This meant I didn’t quite avoid hitting a line of wear where it had been folded, and ended up with a light mark going up the bodice. I figured why not make it a feature, and stitched a line of chevron stitches over it using cotton twist.

A close shot of Shannon looking up and to the side.

It makes a beautiful backdrop for a cluster of enamel pins! I’ve been enjoying making meaningful little groupings from my small but growing collection. For this, I celebrated taking up space with a “feminist killjoy” banner, a sword, and the most delightful little manatee.

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13 thoughts on “Fuck Flattering

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  1. I really love how this dress turned out, and I especially love that additional detail of the stitching down the front. I’m desperately trying to make a hinterland but it keeps getting pushed down the queue in favor of pattern testing- I clearly over-committed. You dress here is just making me antsy to get some more oversized dresses in my closet!! And I have to say, it really does suit you 😉

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    1. Thank you! You have been testing a lot lately — maybe sneak in a break for a Hinterland! I’m all about the oversized dress look right now. I want some in linen, seersucker, and double gauze for the summer!

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  2. I love this. That chevron stitch detail is so awesome — it was the first thing I noticed from the very first photo. Such a great design element. And to know it came about because of a fabric “flaw” is so interesting. Gotta love the creativity that goes into a garment like that.

    Fabulous pin selection, as well!

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  3. Those chevron stitches are gorgeous and just make the whole dress! I appreciate you giving an alternative phrase to “flattering”. I often want to complement someone on how happy they seem in an outfit, and saying something suits them is a great way to express this.

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  4. Good to know!
    I did not know, that flattering is such a problematic word. Because for me it always meant the same as it suits you. So thanks for speaking up. Now I know it better. 🙂
    I often use the expression “it suits you” and now I know it is also the better way.

    And I think I kind of now what you mean, my mom always tells me if a dress makes me look thinner. Also a not necessary comment. Well it is my mom. So whatever. I know her 😉
    But of course what she kind of tells me: You are not thin…
    It is not a really I nice thing to say.

    Thanks for your blog post. I appreciate a lot!

    Tina

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  5. Wow, the chevron stitching is beautiful, it really enhances the dress – which, yes, is gorgeous and really suits you!

    I hate the word ‘flattering’ so much and keep having to try to explain to well-meaning people why it always lands as ‘that’s pretty good, given your shameful and hideous body’ instead of probably what they mean to say.

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  6. I like the word flattering. I would feel complimented. Suits you is a great alternative if you are actually familiar with the person. Works for you would do it for me as well. I think I just like compliments in all forms and will take it all!

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  7. How well the color of the dress works with the color of your hair, glasses and coloring. Is that ok to say? The cut and color of the dress, and the weight of the fabric look so right with your tights and boots, and also make you look rather kickass! The stitching takes it up a notch and makes me want to add more detail to my own work.

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  8. I agree about ‘flattering’. To me it always has a slight negative ring to it, as in “you normally look a bit meh but this actually makes you look beautiful” (in case such context is important, I am of slender build). It’s effort acknowledged, which to me brings up anxiety about all the effort I will have to put in in the future.

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  9. I get what you mean, but I think I can usually tell if it’s a barbed compliment or not, most women are just obsessed with the bloody word! ‘Figure flattering’ used to just mean it worked well on you, but obviously it can have a venomous edge. I usually get stopped by colleagues who just want to stroke something [back off bitch, especially the one who snagged the collar of my new hand stitched ivory silk blouse in her MAKEUP COVERED FINGERS!] The compliment I get most, which makes me strut, is ‘I love your clothes’ ‘cos it isn’t just about what I’m wearing today…and in any case, everyone is usually too blinded by colour and/or quirky prints to see my wobbliness inside it all!
    Great dress, and love the badge collection

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