Body Shape Dressing Is a Myth—Here’s What You Should Do Instead

Forget the fashion rules you've been told.

Tattooed woman getting dressed

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If you’ve ever picked up a fashion magazine, taken a style quiz, or listened to any piece of fashion advice, you’re probably familiar with the “rules” of how to dress based on the shape of your body. They have come in different descriptions over the years, from fruits, to shapes, to even silverware; with the idea that every person should fit into one of these specific categories. These shapes have their own sets of rules that are to be followed: Pears should wear high-waisted jeans, hourglasses should show off their curves, and apple shapes shouldn’t wear things that draw too much attention to the stomach. But what if you don’t like the clothes that you’re “supposed” to wear based on your body shape, or if your shape doesn’t match any of the ones provided?

That's simple: Break the rules.

Because dressing for your body shape is a myth that limits us in these restricting boxes and keeps us from finding styles we can embrace and enjoy.

The Body Shape Myth

Dressing for body shape is the idea that one can style themselves by focusing on the proportions of their bust, waist, and hips and then using clothes to help highlight or minimize different parts of the body. While body shape styling doesn’t give exact measurements, it does give generalized rules to determine your shape. For example, if your hips are wider than your bust, you’re a pear or triangle. If your bust and hips are the same, but your waist is less, you’re an hourglass. Once you know your shape, you’re able to find the rules to live and dress by. However, having a generalized set of rules that are sometimes contradictory don’t take into account that all bodies are different. At face value, body shape dressing can be twisted into sounding body positive, since it aims to recognize bodies at almost any size. However, some people may not fit into any of those shapes or fit into multiple. It also doesn’t take into account that bodies change over time. Does our sense of style have to change simply because our body has?

Lakyn Carlton, a personal and sustainable stylist, says no. Carlton, who has been hearing about dressing for bodies since an early age, from magazines to TV shows, doesn’t agree with the shape rules—or any rules when it comes to fashion, as it’s a distraction from finding how we really want to dress. “It keeps us from shopping for our mind and our hearts. We’re more than our bodies,” says Carlton. She believes that if we’re only shopping based on these rules, we are leaving our own desires and feelings out of it.

Meet the Expert

Lakyn Carlton is a personal and sustainable stylist based in Los Angeles.

Carlton is not alone on this. Fashion psychologist,  Dawnn Karen, the author of the book, Dress Your Best Life, is also against styling for your body shape. “I am an advocate for people dressing for their psyche, not for their body,” she says. Karen, who coined the term “dopamine dressing”, believes that if we are dressing solely based on what would look good on your body (or worse, trying to cover up your body), you aren’t taking your feelings and mood into consideration—which can lead to self-negativity and damage your self-esteem, especially if you’re being told to wear something you hate simply because it's supposed to look good on you.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Dawnn Karen is a fashion psychologist and a psychologist professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is author of the book Dress Your Best Life.

Body dressing also doesn’t take into account that trends change, and one shape may “go out of style,” in favor of another shape. One season you may have plenty of options, while the next season you may be stuck with nothing, which can create more self-negativity when your body shape feels excluded.

All of this factors into why body dressing just doesn’t work, because we are not taking our own feelings, moods, and personal sense of style into account. Why are we wasting our time, money, and happiness on clothing we don’t like solely because it's supposed to make us look a certain way? Why shouldn’t we just find our own style?

“Life is so fleeting; our style should be eternal,” says Carlton.

Why Does the Body Dressing Myth Persist? 

Body dressing keeps us in our fashion ruts and prevents us from forming our own style, so why do these rules still persist today? Well, there actually may be a psychological reason behind it. Karen says that part of the reason people choose to dress based solely on body type is because of cognitive fatigue, also known as decision fatigue.

“The reason why we stay stuck is that people do like to categorize things. It helps them create organization,” says Karen. “If we have to make a slew of decisions throughout our day, it helps to categorize, to have an easier decision-making process. You can get to the solution faster.” If we shop by certain rules, we can easily grab what is “supposed” to look good on us, instead of doing the endless cycle of trying things on and figuring out how to style them, both of which can be stressful.

Carlton also believes that this idea of limiting choices is a reason the myth has lasted so long. “We think, 'If I limit my choices, it'll actually make it easier to find things.' But it actually makes it harder because what if you don't like any or those choices? Then you're forever unsatisfied.” Carlton adds that situations and bodies, so she recommends focusing on the garment itself rather than just our bodies, which can lead to more fulfillment.

How to Dress Instead 

Now that we know that dressing solely based on our body isn’t the path to fashion euphoria, how should we dress? Fortunately, our experts gave us a few tricks on how to get started.

Find Your Fashion Inspiration 

Carlton recommends the first step to finding your style is to find out what you like. She suggests creating Pinterest boards of what you like. You may discover that you like a certain color palette, particular necklace styles, or a specific outfit combination. The next step is to experiment with those looks and see how you can bring them into your wardrobe. Don’t worry about the body types of the models wearing your preferred style, play around with it to see how you want to wear them.

Dress For Your Mood 

In her book, Dress Your Best Life, Karen writes about a morning exercise to do before you get out of bed. Think about how you would like to express yourself that day. What mood do you want to be in? What would increase your dopamine levels and allow you to face the world?

Carlton also believes in dressing to express yourself. “I always say fashion is our first line of communication,” she says.

Pick Out What You Love

Despite the talk of moods and feelings, we aren't taking the body completely out of style. But instead of styling yourself to hide or disguise your body, figure our how you want to show it off. Carlton often tells her clients, “For everything you want to hide or shrink, you need to give me something that you want to highlight.” So, take a look in the mirror and see what you love about your body. What are you proud of and want to show off?

And, when in doubt, the only fashion rule that you should follow is this: Wear what makes you feel good—inside and out.

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