Body Positivity


In many articles, I’ve discussed the positive psychological impact of dressing comfortably but how can you dress comfortably if you can’t find clothes to suit your frame? While we’re lucky to be living in the Body-Positivity era where women are calling out brands for their one-size-fits-all offerings sadly, research has shown that 57% of women feel that there are no clothes to suit their body type. In an effort to help all women feel more confident in their clothing choices I’ve used psychological research to identify clothing styles that will suit women with the following 4 figures: Hourglass, Petite,  Pear Silhouette and Tall. 

A portion of this article was originally printed in Cosmopolitan Germany


fashion psychology
Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan Germany

Gestalt psychology is a school of psychology made up of a series of principles that provided the foundation for the modern study of perception. If we consider some of these principles when dressing, we can ensure that we’re emphasising the parts of the body we like and de-emphasise the parts of the body we don’t. For example, the Gestalt principle of figure/ground lets the eyes know what it should be focusing on (the figure) and what it should ignore (the background). 

In a garment that has two colours, our eyes will focus on the part of the body that has the least amount of either colour (the figure) and the areas that have the most amount of colour will be ignored (the background). People who have an hourglass silhouette typically determine their trim waist to be their best asset and want to emphasise this. To emphasize this feature, they can utilise the figure/ground principle by having a single block of colour in the middle of their waist that breaks up the rest of their dress/outfit. This can also take the shape of a dress that has a concentrated print along the waist, or, for example, a white dress that has a black coloured belted waist, anything that draws the eyes to the centre of the body. Accessories such as belts should be placed at the smallest point of the waist to create more of an impact. 

The styling rule that I’d like to abolish for people with an hourglass figure is that they should ‘avoid frills’ for fear that it will make them look “too big”. As long as frills or volume-adding features don’t over-shadow the waist, they can serve to complement an hourglass figure. For example, a blouse dress that cinches in at the waist or has a belted waist will be perfect. 

Having said that, peplum-style dresses that have added fabric around the waist should be avoided if you want to truly embrace your hourglass figure. High-neck, mid-length dresses in a figure-hugging material are extremely complimentary to people with an hourglass figure. Dresses in this style will hug the body at its three smallest points; the neck, the waist and the knees – fully honouring the hourglass shape. While short jackets will draw the eyes to the waist and highlight this area, women with a more adventurous style could embrace longer ‘ombre-coloured’ jackets to draw attention to the waist. 


Fashion Psychology

The best kind of dresses for dainty/tiny women are short dresses as these emphasise the length of the legs, elongating the body and allowing the wearers best assets to shine. Empire-waist dresses will also help to create this elongated effect. Two-pieces are also perfect for dainty/tiny especially when a crop top is paired with a high waisted skirt as again, this will make the legs appear longer. If pairing an outfit with heels, closed-toe pointed heels will be best as these also create the illusion of a longer leg. 

Gestalt’s principle of similarity states that when two things appear similar to each other, our eyes group them together. So, dainty/tiny women who choose to wear prints should wear dresses/two-pieces where the print along the chest varies slightly from the print directly under the chest area. The way the eyes will perceive these prints as two groups will make the bottom half of the body appear longer and make the wearer appear taller. Similarly, a short jacket will work best for this figure-type as it will allow the waist and areas below to shine. Based on this principle, dresses with a drop waist or short dress with a high concentration of colour or print at the very bottom should be avoided as it will make the legs appear even shorter.

If you find yourself coveting a garment that is too long for your body type either take a visit to the tailor or take a shortcut using hemming tape. Hemming tape is super easy to use and works on most fabrics, all you’ll need is an iron and a few pins. 

One styling rule that I’d like to abolish is that dainty/tiny women should avoid ruffles as these might make them look “too cute”. In fact, if ruffles are placed exclusively around the chest area or even around the shoulders this will draw the eyes up making the legs appear even longer. To avoid the “too cute” look, it’s all about placement. For example, a Molly-Goddard style dress with frills and volume all over the body can swamp the body making you look like a child playing dress-up. 


Fashion Psychology
Source: Girlwithcurves.com

Women with pear silhouettes either want to embrace/draw attention to their lower half or they want to minimise it. The types of fabrics that you wear around this area can help you to either emphasize or de-emphasize it. For example, glossy fabrics reflect more light, attract the eyes and make the surfaces underneath it appear larger. Matte fabrics absorb light and make the surfaces underneath it appear smaller. Rough surfaces also absorb light more unevenly than dull surfaces. If you want to emphasize your lower half and make it appear even bigger, wear a shiner material on the bottom, one that reflects light. If you want to minimize your lower half wear dull, uneven materials on the bottom like linen or perhaps sequins on a night out as these will absorb more light. 

For women who want to balance their body and make their top half look more in proportion to their lower half, harness the power of stripes. Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that horizontal stripes make the body appear smaller while vertical stripes make the body appear larger. So, if you would like to emphasize the chest area, wear a dress that has vertical stripes on the top and horizontal stripes on the bottom. Adding another layer up top for example,  by adding a t-shirt under a slip dress will also create balance by drawing the eyes to the upper half of the body, making it appear slightly larger. Make sure that the t-shirt and the dress are contrasting colours to achieve the desired effect. A mid-length, volume inducing jacket, like a puffer jacket for example, will also achieve the same results. 

Many women with a pear silhouette find it hard to locate dresses that don’t have a large chest area. One dress style that avoids this issue is a wrap dress. Traditional wrap dresses will allow you to adjust the fit of the dress to make it tighter at the top to accommodate your smaller chest area while draping loosely around the lower half to provide comfort. 

One styling rule I would like to abolish for the pear silhouette is that those with this shape need to avoid slip dresses. While many slip dresses were designed with a straight figure in mind some are cut in a way that allows more room on the lower half of the body to suit pear shapes. If you’re on the look-out for a slip dress, pay close attention to its cut to see if it goes in at the waist and gets wider at the bottom. This will allow it to drape nicely around your curves. 


Fashion Psychology

Women who embrace their height should wear maxi dresses. Maxi dresses are the perfect dress for taller women as it makes them look statuesque. When wearing midi dresses, taller woman should opt for form-fitting dresses especially around the lower half of the body. Midi dresses are very popular at the moment but can look unflattering on tall women if they flare out too much just under the knee or around the calf, creating the appearance that the dress was meant for a shorter individual. However, if the dress is form-fitting and utilises a figure-hugging fabric, the length that the dress stops at won’t matter because it will look deliberate.

Tall women should pay close attention to their proportions if they want to create a balanced look while also embracing their height. If you have longer legs, then perhaps avoid empire waist dresses as this will serve to make your legs look even longer. If you have a longer torso, a dress with a drop waist will over-exaggerate this portion. Find a dress that cinches in at the natural waist or use a belt to achieve balance. 

For both tall and androgynous women who feel like they’re wearing ‘a costume’ when wearing a dress, focus on tailoring. Dresses that have more volume around the shoulder area can create a more masculine aesthetic as studies have shown that people deem those with broader shoulders to possess masculine traits. Picking dresses with tougher fabrics such as leather can also add to the effect. When in doubt, throw on a classic biker jacket or tailored blazer to create a more androgynous look.

The styling rule that I would abolish for tall women would be to ‘avoid heels’. Tall women should not shy away from their height and embrace wearing heels. If the thought of towering over people is too daunting, throw on a pair of three-inch heels; not quite kitten heel, not quite high-heels but a happy medium. 

Do you have any styling tips that you’d like to share, let us know in the comments!

Since the height of #effyourbeautystandards we’ve seen body-positivity transform into a buzzword of sorts, conjuring up more eye-rolls than celebratory fist pumps. “Although advertisements position corporations as catalysts for a revolution in the way we

At its core, body positivity is a radical movement aimed at promoting the healthy acceptance of one’s body no matter what shape or size. At least, that’s what it was when we were first introduced to it in 2012 with Tess Holiday’s #effyourbeautystandards campaign. Sick of fashion’s one-dimensional depictions of beauty the size 26 model called for us to “take back our right to be a total babe regardless of our size… big OR small we all deserve to feel beautiful.”

And it worked. One million Instagram followers, a major modelling contract and a People magazine cover later, Holiday’s success is not only a victory for the people, its an example of how we as consumers flock to change. So used to seeing a conveyor belt of waif-like models sprawled across fashion magazines, psychology teaches us that our brains are actually hardwired to appreciate the novelty of seeing a model above a size 6 being celebrated and revered.

However, since the height of #effyourbeautystandards we’ve seen body-positivity transform into a buzzword of sorts, conjuring up more eye-rolls than celebratory fist pumps.  

Another #flashbackfriday shooting with @danabrushette 💦 I miss my pinup days sometimes 😇 #effyourbeautystandards

A post shared by Plus Model💕Wife💕Mom💕Feminist🐝 (@tessholliday) on

Just look at the Lee Jeans campaign which on one hand encouraged us to ‘celebrate our curves’ and on the other hand featured this slogan next to an image of a typically thin model. It would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging. Social comparison theory states that we subconsciously compare ourselves unrealistic media ideals and when we realise that we do not measure up we feel worse about ourselves and our bodies (Festinger, 1954).

So now, not only do we have to deal with the psychological warfare of these airbrushed images of perfection making us feel like a sack of rotten potatoes, we also have them screaming at us to ‘love ourselves’. And that is what happens when consumerism meets social change. In the paper Commodity Feminism and Its Body: The Appropriation and Capitalization of Body positivity through Advertising’,  Emma Luck discusses the hijacking of the body positivity movement:

However, although advertisements position corporations as catalysts for a revolution in the way we see women’s bodies, they ultimately serve the same beauty standard that they attempt to resist, and the very nature of advertising—as a tool of capitalism—makes it incompatible with the goals of activism.

It must be said that not all brands are wolves wearing body positivity slogans. The real difficulty is seeking out the brands that are genuinely interested in promoting such diversity because sometimes, inclusion isn’t really inclusion. Unfortunately, a pattern still exists where body positivity campaigns often exclude Black and Minority Ethnic women. Whilst it must be noted that studies have suggested that Black women show less desire for thinness (Nelson, 2009) and are often celebrated rather than ridiculed for their curves that is still no excuse for them to be left out of the conversation. Research also indicates that witnessing the continued under-representation of one’s ethnic group causes group members to feel devalued within society and in turn, negatively impacts upon one’s self-concept (Knobloch-Westerwick & Coates, 2006). If the goal of body positivity is to promote positive attitudes towards body image in its entirety then it shouldn’t and cannot continue to be presented solely as a White woman’s movement.

In 2015, we again saw Instagram being used as a tool for social change as  stylist and fashion blogger Susan Moses started the #AllBeautyisRelevant hashtag admonishing mainstream media for leaving Black and Brown models out of the plus size revolution. With the host of Black and Minority Ethnic models such as Liris CrosseCerise Cross and Nao producing some draw dropping work of late I’m hopeful that we’ll soon see Body positivity become more reflective of our diverse culture. ​

Model Cerise Cross, Photographer: Mekx photography
Model, NAO Photographer: Ehsaan

The ‘plus-size’ industry is slated to be worth $20.4 billion and fashion giant ASOS is one brand that has seen great success since entering the market, even recently announcing plans to launch a plus size range for men in spring 17. But when the brand tweeted an image of size 16 model Naomi Shimada in one of their wares, labelling her ‘plus size’ caused upheaval in the twitter-verse and led to the question: ‘how body-positive is the label ‘plus size’ anyway?’ In its retraction, Asos denounced ‘plus-size’ as a ‘whack’ ‘industry term’ and I’m inclined to agree. When the average UK woman is a size 16, putting them in a separate category to highlight their otherness simply doesn’t make sense and e-retailer ModCloth understands this. Instead of creating a separate range of plus size garments ModCloth introduced pieces in “extended sizes” that range for example from a size 2 to a size 22. That is what Body positivity should truly be. Not a movement that revels in the use of a token ‘plus -size model’ not one that cheers when we see an ad that haphazardly admonishes us ‘love our curves’ but one that celebrates inclusion,  championing brands who make such simple gestures which say ‘we have something for you and you and oh, you too!’

Fashion brands are becoming to body positivity what social justice warriors are to twitter, making grandiose and shallow attempts to align themselves to the latest movement in the hopes of being seen. Still, one cannot ignore the fact that fashion can and has been a catalyst for social change so its now our job to reclaim the movement, re-shape it and repackage it to ensure that body positivity works in the way that it’s supposed to.