"Extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image."
According to the Wikipedia entry on female body shape—because of course “female body shape” has its own Wikipedia entry—I am an apple, as my shoulders are broader than my hips. Of course, according to their definition, I’m also a “rectangle” (my waist is less than 9 inches smaller than my hips), a pear (my hip measurement is bigger than my bust), and perhaps even an hourglass (when terms like “almost” are used, as in “hips and bust are almost the same measurement,” it’s unclear whether we’re talking ½ inch difference or three inches). A list of various other shapes I might be—a spoon, a brick, an A-frame—reads more like a lake house in Wisconsin than a body.
I used to chalk this up to having a sort of weird body shape. Now I realize it’s not because my figure is weird, but because it is utterly unremarkable.
I don’t have the trim waist and ample bosom of an hourglass. I don’t have enough of an imbalance between my upper and lower halves to land me in a pear orchard. My tummy is generous, but “apple” advice is usually for women whose bellies protrude, not someone who’s just thick in the middle. In other words: My figure is far from perfect, but I don’t have any outstanding physical feature that I “need” to dress around on a daily basis. And chances are, if you don’t know your body shape, neither do you.
So I’ll settle this for you, friends: If you can’t tell whether you’re an apple, pear, or an hourglass, you’re none of them.
Not satisfied? You might have more luck with something like Trinny & Susannah’s body shape guide, which has 12 possible forms—but, if you’re like me, you’ll still be left untyped. This isn’t because of your crazy, freakish body type that is unfit to be clothed. It’s because your body is probably a combination of run-of-the-mill (I mean that with love!) without a particular feature that calls for attention, and certain features that you may want to highlight or conceal but that don’t land you in one of the classic types.
None of this is to say that A) any of us need to “fix” anything with our dressing, or that B) women who are easily fruit-typed are contractually obliged to dress for their shape. For more on point A, I’ll again refer you to Mrs. Bossa’s awesome quote roundup on dressing for your figure. For more on point B, I’ll refer you to a gloriously pear-shaped former roommate who looked smashing when she emphasized her delicate upper body and voluptuous lower half in tight jeans and a tiny tank—and who sometimes just wanted to not be the lady with the amazing hips but merely a lady with a lovely and comparatively unremarkable figure, and who would then trot out her tasteful A-line skirts and colorful ruffled tops. Either way is fine, but isn’t it nice to have a choice in the matter?
For all my no-particular-body-shape sisters, I offer the following advice:
1) Quit trying to figure out what shape you have. Despite how intimately we know our bodies, there’s so much value attached to certain features that it can be difficult to know what your body actually looks like. I was always paranoid about my thighs—indeed, I found my whole body to be too generously sized for my tastes. The result was that until my early 30s, I faithfully followed standard fashion advice for pear shapes and plus-size women, despite being neither particularly pear-ish nor plus-size. I wound up with a closet full of circle and A-line skirts and lots of black. This would be fine if it were my natural taste, but A) I followed this advice for so long that it muted whatever authentic style I might have had, and B) it wasn’t my natural taste. I let my fears about my body, not my actual body’s gifts and flaws, dictate how I dressed. I have since recovered, and do not own a single circle skirt.
As for bucking the black, I offer you...mojitos!
2) Forgive me for stating the obvious, but: Try it on. Not just clothes you think will flatter you, but clothes you think won’t. Hell, try on pieces that are totally outside of your style—I tried on jeggings and a striped batwing top once as a joke to myself (never say I don’t know how to amuse myself) and though I wouldn’t wear that ensemble, I was surprised to find that instead of the blousy top exaggerating the thickness of my waist, it worked with the fitted bottom to make my legs look longer and leaner than they are. The look worked. If I’d stuck strictly to the fashion advice for thick-waisted gals, I’d never have learned that for whatever reason of proportion, the look worked for me even though it went against standard wisdom. (Currently trying to figure out how to rock this without going über-Williamsburg, where I would be immediately spotted as a fraud who has never read David Foster Wallace. Help?)
3) Ask a friend. Not long ago, I shyly asked my glamorously stylish friend Lisa Ferber for some style help. We spent the evening with me trying on dress after dress after dress of hers, and we’d look in the mirror and figure out why each piece either worked or didn’t. As a result, each and every dress I’ve purchased since then has been a total win: I know to look for fitted sleeveless dresses in bright colors or large patterns that stretch over the torso to elongate it, and to not have too much fabric below the waist. It was such a gift for her to give me, and when I thanked her profusely she reminded me that it was a joy for her to be able to guide a friend. (She happens to have an amazing wardrobe, but this could have taken place at Macy’s or wherever, albeit without cocktails. OR MAYBE WITH.) I suggest you choose a trusted friend with whom you don’t have to choose your words gingerly or have any element of rivalry. I think the whole “women secretly hate each other!” thing is bogus and for the movies, but if I hadn’t trusted Lisa as completely as I do, there might have been a little voice that wondered what she really meant when she’d say something didn’t work on my frame. (I know she just meant...it didn’t work on my frame.)
This lady clearly also got some fabulous style advice. Oil painting, Lisa Ferber, 2011.
4) Look to style experts who don’t hang their hat on “dress your shape.” This is one of many reasons why I love the approach of Sally McGraw of Already Pretty. I purchased her excellent self-guided mini-makeover PDF, and what leaped out to me was that there was next to no “dress to flatter” advice in there. (Body shape only makes an appearance when she suggests getting a professional bra fitting, since “Bodies change, you know”—a flaw in many “dress your body” approaches. Never once, in a dozen years of scrutinizing these pages, have I seen an acknowledgment that you may need to reassess your figure on occasion. I weigh the same as I did in 2003 but my waistline has grown, changing my shape.) She seems to assume that the reader can look in the mirror and figure out if something exaggerates a feature she’d rather not play up—an assumption I think is correct, for even if I’m not style-savvy enough to know why an empire waist looks so bad on me when by all means it “should,” I sure as hell know it does look bad, and I’m not going to fill my closet with them. Image consultant Arash Mazinani is outright anti-body-shape, and his explanation makes sense to me: “I mean, think about the human body and think about all the different shapes and sizes it comes in. Can we really just slot someone into 1 of 12 shapes?” Help is out there! Just listen to the right people.
The Citizen Rosebud said it perfectly on Mrs. Bossa’s roundup: “I like the idea of guidelines...but the mirror and an honest eye works better than any Fashion Bible.” Now, I don’t fear that those of us who don’t neatly fit into any category are walking around in a state of fashion paralysis. Chances are that intuitively, you’ve absorbed the important part of Citizen Rosebud’s words here.
But if you came here by asking the Internet “am I an apple or a pear?”, here’s where I’m going to point to your ruby slippers and tell you that you had the answer with you all along. Look at yourself honestly in your favorite clothes; look at yourself in the clothes you want to like but never feel quite right in. Try not to approach this with a critical eye; try to approach it with the eye you’d cast toward a person who loves you, and whom you love back. That person won’t give a damn if some pieces make your tummy pooch out a bit—but she’ll sure notice when you show up wearing an outfit that shows you at your best. Put on her glasses, map out what works for you, and trust that. It will help you more than any figure-flattery advice out there.
For part one of the "am I an apple or a pear?" question—and why I think figure flattery can have more in common with personality tests than actual style advice—click here.