I’ve got loads of dresses that I bought because someone in the changing room told me they were flattering,” says Billie Bhatia, the fashion features editor at Stylist magazine. “In that moment, I feel lifted. My insecurities about my body are erased.” But Bhatia, 30, has been having second thoughts about the word. “Occasionally, it means a great colour that makes your skin glow, but most of the time ‘flattering’ is just a byword for ‘slimming’,” she says. “If someone delivered the same compliment, but substituted the word ‘slimming’ for ‘flattering’, would you think that was an OK way to talk to a woman? No, right? Everyone likes to hear a compliment. But ‘flattering’ is a dangerous word.”
In 2017, the perfect pair of jeans was “on-trend”. In 2018, it was “fierce”; last year it was “extra”. Right now, it is “dripping”. In fashion, every season comes with a new shorthand. But one compliment – “flattering” – has outlived them all, selling more jeans, more party dresses and more swimsuits than any other word. “Flattering” is fashion clickbait, an add-to-basket dog whistle.
But for generation Z – roughly speaking, those born between 1995 and 2010 – “flattering” is becoming a new F-word. To compliment a woman on her “flattering” dress is passive-aggressive body-policing, sneaked into our consciousness in a Trojan horse of sisterly helpfulness. It is a euphemism for fat-shaming, a sniper attack slyly targeting our hidden vulnerabilities. “Flattering”, in other words, is cancelled.
The British model Charli Howard, 29, has been a force for change in the fashion industry since 2015, when an angry Facebook post she wrote about her then agency saying she was too big – she was a UK size 10/12 – went viral. “The issue with the word ‘flattering’,” says Howard, now an activist for model diversity and healthy body-image, “is that we instantly associate it with looking thin and therefore looking ‘better’. It suggests your tummy looks flatter or that your waist looks smaller. I find it’s a phrase older generations use. Girls I speak to from generation Z tend not to use it. Those girls see a diversity on social media that older generations didn’t. Celebrating your flaws is considered cool these days.”
“The teen magazines that I grew up with never went an issue without a ‘how to fix your body issues’ article,” says Emma Davidson, 33, the fashion features editor at Dazed Digital. “It was either about how to look slimmer or about ‘adding curves to a boyish body’. The message was that whatever you looked like, it wasn’t good enough.” Until recently, Davidson says, “there were lots of things I didn’t wear because I thought I was ‘too big’. In the last few years, I’ve begun to accept and celebrate myself. The word ‘flattering’ is part of how fashion tells women that they are taking up too much space in the world. That’s just wrong on so many levels.”
It would be cheering to report that the word “flattering” is therefore being retired from active duty, phased out as society casts aside the cult of skinniness and learns to celebrate beauty in diverse shapes and sizes. The truth, sadly, is rather more complicated. With a few honourable exceptions – Eckhaus Latta’s all-sizes casting at New York fashion week, Vogue covers for plus-size models Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser – fashion’s bodily ideal remains stubbornly narrow. The pantheon of supermodels has yet to admit any woman over a size 8. Kendall Jenner, Kaia Gerber and Bella Hadid, the most high-profile models of the moment, are as thin as or thinner than any era of cover girls before them. Every designer, every fashion retailer and every changing-room assistant will tell you that women always start with shape when shopping for clothes. “Flattering” is very much alive, and selling clothes.
What’s more, some women are protective of “flattering” as a practical shopping aid, a friendly word rather than a toxic one. “Flattering” can describe clothes that feel like they have been made with the real female body in mind, rather than clothes that have been conceived to promote an abstract concept of design, or a trend. Clothes that have been designed in sympathy and solidarity with a woman in search of her best self. Those floaty, tiered midi-length dresses that have become a modern summer classic, in the tradition of Zara’s polka-dot number last year, are loved for being easy to wear, comfortable and confidence-boosting. They are not necessarily slimming, but they are often described as flattering.
At the British label Me+Em, Clare Hornby, 51, and her female-led design team are proud to give their customers flattering clothes. “We listen to our customers first and then create a functional yet chic offering that speaks to their needs, rather than us telling them what they should be wearing simply because it’s ‘on-trend’,” says Hornby. “A perfect example is our zip-front necklines: a lot of customers with larger bust sizes commented that they avoided button-up designs, so we came up with an alternative that means you can choose your own neckline – catering to lots of different shapes – but that also adds a contemporary, sports-luxe feel that speaks to our aesthetic. Turn-up cuffs on trousers and jackets, adjustable draw-cord waists, removable belts – all these intelligent design details are important, because there is no one cookie-cutter body shape.”
With inclusive sizing, “nude” shades across a broad spectrum of skin tones and diverse model casting, the modern underwear brand Heist represents fashion pivoting to the language of a new generation of consumer. Heist avoids using “flattering” as a selling point, “because we strive to be empathic,” says its chief operating officer Natasja Giezen-Smith. Instead, the website is peppered with words such as “confidence”, “comfort”, “happiness” and “support”.
The disquiet around the word “flattering” isn’t about pretending our body hang-ups have gone away, but about a rising consciousness of where those hang-ups come from. “Insecurities don’t just go away overnight,” says Davidson. “I have had a lot of unlearning to do.”
The activist Kellie Brown, creator of the #FatatFashionWeek hashtag, has talked about body positivity as a “self-love journey”. “Feelings of insecurity are not singular. Everyone experiences those, no matter where you come from, what your size is or what your race is,” she says. “I want people to understand that, really, the journey of life is to push past those feelings.” One of her most recent Instagram posts, a poolside selfie in a neon yellow bikini, is captioned “just here to remind you that you don’t need to be an hourglass to wear a high-cut bathing suit … would recommend not subscribing to bullsh*t that robs you of self-love”.
The real trouble with “flattering” is that it presses mute on what fashion can be, and what your wardrobe can say about you. Great clothes can spread joy, not just minimise your waist. They should amplify your personality, not shrink your silhouette. Deplatforming “flattering” from the lexicon is about the narrative arc of a woman’s life not being plotted according to the numbers on the scales.
“It is probably impossible for anyone to go through life without struggling with body image issues at times,” says Bhatia. “People expect me to be super-body-positive because I’m a plus-size woman in the fashion industry. That’s not where I’m at with my body. Talking about clothes being ‘flattering’ is unhelpful because it brings fashion back around to my insecurities. It’s exhausting to think about my body that much. And I’ve got so many more interesting things to think about.”