On Body Image And Self Worth

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When Caitlin Mociun, cult-hit fashion designer, left the world of dress forms and measuring tape to focus on an accessories line, she said something that made me pause: “I never really liked doing my clothing line, and when I switched to jewelry it was such a different response. It seemed to make people feel good about themselves as opposed to clothing, which often makes people feel bad.”

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And it’s true, isn’t it? How many times have we set out to find the perfect outfit for an interview or wedding or social event – only to be met by poorly-lit dressing rooms and three-way mirrors of doom? We squeeze and tug and pull, attempting to morph our body into a fictional casing that was never intended for us.

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Does a butterfly curse its cocoon for not properly accenting its thighs? Do snails label their shells, secretly hoping they’ll grow to fill out a 32C? And do carnations shrink their bloom to appear slimmer – more desirable – than their garden counterparts?

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I asked Jacqueline, a fashion historian, why clothing takes such a toll on our body image. Why our skin is expected to fit perfectly into standard sizes and shapes and limitations. And her response was eye-opening:

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“Historically, women did not expect clothing from a rack to fit them perfectly,” she writes, noting that the majority of clothing was taken directly to tailors for a custom fit. “As our society moves more and more toward convenience and emphasizes fast fashion, we’ve eliminated the expectation that our clothing would be altered at the tailors. After all, that’s time consuming and expensive. Instead, we want clothing faster and faster for cheaper and cheaper. The result is that our clothing is expected to fit straight off the rack, but rarely does.”

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And the byproduct? We take our body to the tailors instead. We diet and cleanse and juice and fast, choosing to consume fashion over nutrition and style over substance. And suddenly, the clothes do begin to fit “straight off the rack”. But there will always be a smaller size to wrap ourselves in. There will always be a rack to conquer.

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Perhaps the key is in the reminder that clothing is meant to fit us, not the other way around. It is meant to protect us from our elements – to romp and play or disguise and reveal. To blend in and stand out, to ebb and flow. Because much like the person beneath the garment, there is no universal standard. We are different beings in different skin, where desire fits most and one size fits none.

Image Credits: Studio Fludd / Caitlin Mociun Quote via Sight Unseen

p.s. Redefining beauty.

  • A long time ago, I read an article about super models…how they “have to” be skinny to be successful because designers want the consumer to see the CLOTHES and not the model. Models are basically walking hangers for the clothing. (Obviously, as people, they are more than that, but on the runway, that’s their job.) Meanwhile, we women and girls are trying so hard to compete with these unattainable (for most of us) bodies.

    This post hits home…as I’ve gotten chubbier, I’ve totally spent more on shoes and accessories than clothes. Instead, I should be shopping for a tailor!

    • Well put, Kimberly! And I agree – I found myself obsessed with flats shortly after giving birth. It’s such a funny mental game, isn’t it?

    • It’s also harder to design clothing for woman that are more shapely or larger than an industry runway model. So one also may question the skills of a designer — if they stubbornly cling to the extremely thin model, perhaps they aren’t that good of a designer.

  • Ah! This is seriously how the world should think – you’re a rockstar. (as is Caitlin). And to agree with Kimberly, above – we’re competeing with models whose job it is to have the clothes wear them?! The whole thing is ludicris. It makes me just want to sew my own clothes that fit me perfectly and that are made to fit me, not vie versa. :)

    • Thanks, Michelle! And I know a few women on Twitter just mentioned that they indeed sew their own clothes! I love the concept – just wish I had the skill set! Practice makes [nearly] perfect, I suppose! :)

  • Wow. I think about body image all the time, and yet I really hadn’t thought about things in this way. I think that, ideally, clothes would also make us feel good about ourselves, the way that jewelry (and also scarves, for me) does.

    How completely life-changing to remember that clothes are made to serve us, not the other way around.

  • I love Jacqueline’s academic insight. I never tailor my clothes, but think often that that might be the trick to making them fit right. This “nothing looks good” has definitely been on my mind lately and it’s hard to conquer! Today I just feel grateful for my working body. We are so blessed to have hands that feel and move, feet that can walk, eyes to see, etc.

    • I thought about this today, too, Koseli. Our bodies are made to function and move and give and love – and how wonderful that size doesn’t necessarily infringe on any of those capabilities. :)

  • I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t constantly wish to have a flatter, stronger tummy (two kids, aging) or slimmer thighs. However, about 5 years ago I did realize the benefit of having well-fitting clothes. Now I take almost everything – even the occasional purchase from H&M – and have it fitted. For me that usually means taking in the waist of pants and skirts or shortening a hemline. It makes a *huge* difference in how clothes look and feel while I’m wearing them.

  • I wonder too how this expectation that we adjust our bodies to the clothes fits into the consumerist culture. A slower way of life would include clothing tailored to our bodies.

    And well-fitting clothes would most likely mean fewer purchases, less shopping, less dissatisfaction, less obsession over our bodies.

    It’s the chase for that elusive outfit that will be the “one” to make us feel beautiful and well, “enough”.

    We are already enough – it’s the clothes that are lacking.

  • This is so true. I was looking for a dress for an event and went into one shop and picked up 5 different dresses in the same size. Only one fitted. The rest were either to tight in the bust, to tight on the waist, baggy all over!. Of the dress that fitted I didn’t like the colour in the shop so I ordered another colour from the website – The dress arrived and was too small to go on at all!

    I am moving towards buying good quality basics in the slightly bigger size and getting them tailored to fit so I can be comfortable.

  • This was so lovely. Lately I find myself struggling with changes in my appearance, both of the visual kind and of the perceived kind. My skin has changed, as has my shape, but the other piece is my mind, a new instinct bubbles forth about what it appropriate and what isn’t right. Yet the cruel twist is that in pursuing, “just right” there is no image of a just right that jives with a longer hemline or looser top.

    The biggest battle is forgiving myself for having to work on how I look and feel. This post so beautifully ties so many of us together, a kind of diary of the ages, acknowledging that body and fashion have always been petulant lovers.

    • Oh, this is such a beautiful comment, Amanda. “The biggest battle is forgiving myself for having to work on how I look and feel.” Amen, sister!

  • I’m grateful for this post, especially for the sentence- “But there will always be a smaller size to wrap ourselves in.” One of the most painful parts of body dissatisfaction, I think, is that it is rarely conquered by weight loss. I think it often comes from a deeper dissatisfaction within our beings. Sandra^ above noted the futile chase for the outfit that makes us feel whole- that we should accept that we ARE whole, and that doesn’t come from clothing. I wish I could grow up and accept the fact of my body, and return to fashion as EXPRESSION, instead of a daily battle to convince myself my body isn’t completely wrong.

    • I think we’re all in that boat, Kelsey – it’s a difficult fight to fight. And yet it seems so silly at the same time, you know? Gah.

  • erin,
    it’s interesting to look at body image from the perspective of clothes, and also interesting to peer at it much more nakedly. i came across “the body images project” just yesterday, and the themes discussed are the same but from a different angle. check it out at http://www.thebodyimages.com. and thanks, as always, for a sincere and probing post.


  • Thank you Erin! This is great! It seems that not only did the industrial revolution shape our public schools, but how we feel about our bodies…and this all needs to change. Can we all ditch the shapewear (something I’ve never been able to buy into) and be ourselves?

  • This is one of the most beautiful posts I’ve ever read, and I keep weekly track of all of the eating disorder and body image posts going around. I love the beautiful analogies as well as the modern convenience take on it. I’ll be including it in my round up next Friday! <3

  • This is an eye opening way to look at how clothes have come to dominate so much of our lives. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post!

  • Erin, I love this. And, I think it’s great that as a blogger with a wide audience, you are reminding people to think for themselves, to question standards and to be more aware, in general…and to look deeper.

    I wish more bloggers were like you. You’re always an inspiration …and you think for yourself, it’s clear. X s

    • Oh, Susy – I love you so much. Thank you for such a kind boost in the day. You’re a legit one, my dear. (And thank you again for making this space so beautiful for me!) :)

  • Love this post Erin. I constantly feel that tug to by more clothes so that I can find the ones that fit the way I like. How eye opening to think about how clothes are made for ease now, just like so much of our food too that isn’t good for us.

    • Oh man, me too. I keep thinking everyone else has this secret to perfect-fitting clothes, like perhaps I’m not buying an expensive enough pair of jeans and that’s why they’re always so ill-fitting? :)

  • Having a 8 yr old daughter has shifted the way I talk about my body. I over heard her comparing her 8yr old thighs to her friend’s saying they were too “big and fat” words she most definitely heard from me… more times than I am comfortable with admitting. I now talk about my body in a grateful way, grateful that it allowed me two amazing babies, grateful for too many reasons to list here. I say that I am going to workout to become strong, to watch what I eat to become strong and I compliment my thighs, baby fat and ba-dunk-a-dunk in the mirror. I did all of this for her, but it turns out I have never felt better about me as well. Yet, another incredible lesson my babies have gifted me. Thank you for this post, it is just lovely.

    • Ah, what a beautiful thought, Maria!:
      I did all of this for her, but it turns out I have never felt better about me as well.

      And I feel so lucky – my mother never once put herself down for her appearance in front of me, and I think that went a long way in making me always feel comfortable in my own skin. Kids watch more than listen, don’t they? ;)

  • What a great post, Erin! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself — in particular the whole “we want our clothes cheap and fast” concept. Seeing images from that Bangladesh factory … or feeling like I’ve been on an online shopping spree as of late (reign it in, Gail!) make me feel bad about myself. It’s crazy how warped consumerism can make us all.

    PS – And I agree about the perfect fitting clothes comment you made toward the end there — I have YET to find a tee that I love to fit me. Can we get those tailor made? haha

    • Ah, thanks, Gail! I often have seasons of binging and purging my closet stock, but have been surprised to be pretty content with my current wardrobe these days! Maybe having Bee shifted my focus a bit? Can’t remember the last time I went clothes shopping, which admittedly, is a nice change from my pre-Bee days! :) And man, yes to tailor made tees. (Although you might love Everlane!)

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  • Having done a lot of historical reenactment, and thus studied the construction of clothing in pre-1650s Europe, it’s true: even the poorest peasant woman would have clothing made to her measure. Granted, in a culture where the poor were literally working “from Sheep to Coat” (shearing, carding, and spinning the wool, or harvesting, retting, and spinning the linen, then weaving the fabric from the fibers, then hand-sewing the garments), you might only get one new garment in a year. Your clothing FIT, and it was built to last. None of this “disposable”, comsumer culture bullsh!t, where it’s a toss-up whether your clothing’s going to fall apart or go out of style first!

    I have historically-based clothing I made which I’ve been wearing regularly for 15+ years. Last month I made myself a new undergown from what Fabric-Store.com calls a “heavy” linen, and I fully expect to still be using it 15 years from now. I’ve stopped buying any clothing that doesn’t look like it will last at least 3-5 years. If you don’t plan to change your style every season, it’s worth paying more for GOOD materials and careful construction.

  • I’m so thankful to my mother for speaking about models not being suited for me, not numbers.

    A size 583092 of jeans A looks bad on me?
    I shouldn’t try a 583093 or 583091, I should try jeans B. Or brand C.

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