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.
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.
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.
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.
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.