What Rewatching "What Not to Wear" Taught Me About Body Image

The show that sparked my love of clothes also informed how I saw my own body.

what not to wear

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For as long as I can remember, I have loved clothing. But if you asked me to pinpoint the origin of my love of style or my obsession with choosing just the right clothing and accessories for a certain event or milestone, I don’t think I could give you a succinct answer. My love of clothes feels part of me, just like my love of reading or writing does. It’s just how my brain is built.

I can, however, name one very specific thing that grew my love of fashion into something bigger: What Not to Wear. Hosted by Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, What Not to Wear was a reality makeover show on TLC that aired from 2003 to 20013. In other words, I watched this show religiously from the ages of 10 to 20, and I loved it.

Every Friday evening, I’d tune in to see the transformations of the show’s participants as they went from people with “bad” style to “good” style. I’d learn ways to “dress the body you have, not the body you want,” how a good tailor can change your life, and why no one who isn’t thin should ever, under any circumstances, wear horizontal stripes. All very important things for a 13 year old to know, of course. For me, a pre-teen who was always bigger than her peers, I listened to these rules as gospel while I watched the earliest episodes. Finally, I thought, a guidebook for how to shrink myself that feels doable. A way to fit in.

In the nearly 10 years since What Not to Wear has been off the air, I’ve thankfully discovered body neutrality, plus-size fashion, and the power of embracing an ever-evolving sense of personal style. I’ve also worked in fashion, and have spent years writing about the ins and outs of body image as it pertains to clothing. Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve thought about What Not to Wear. Hell, throughout normal, everyday experiences, I’ve thought about What Not to Wear. Still today, when I find myself buying clothing that doesn’t —gasp—emphasize the smallest point of my body, my mind briefly flashes to that 360-degree mirror and what is and is not "flattering,” as Clinton and Stacy would say.

When I realized recently that I hadn’t watched an episode of the show in the better part of a decade, I decided to pull up a few episodes. I knew that the content of the show would be dated, politically incorrect, and cringe-worthy. Turns out, I was very right about that, but the experience of rewatching episodes still surprised me.

To balance things out, I started out by watching a couple episodes from the first seasons of What Not to Wear and a couple from the last. What was perhaps most shocking was how little, over the course of those 10 years, the overall narrative of the show seemed to change. As I watched the first episode from the show’s last season in 2013, I heard one of the hosts explain how the show’s participants always fall into three categories when it comes to their “bad” style: “Too sexy, too frumpy, or too crazy.”

There were plenty of things that made me laugh; Stacy's obsession with pencil skirts, Clinton’s layered popped collars, and that clunky portable D.V.D. player they used to watch the behind-the-scenes footage. But that 2013 quote about "bad" style sent me over the edge. The idea that women must manage this harmonious balance of sex appeal, modesty, and palatability in order to be perceived as fashionable and attractive was ridiculous. If that’s the standard, then no one is capable of having "good" style. It’s no wonder why most of the participants ended up in the same formulaic looks by the end of each episode, emerging from changing rooms in fitted blazers with tiny belts and trench coats while Stacy and Clinton gasped in awe each time. My God, this show loved a trench coat.

As I watched the first episode from the show’s last season in 2013, I heard one of the hosts explain how the show’s participants always fall into three categories when it comes to their “bad” style: “Too sexy, too frumpy, or too crazy.”

I admit that there were also small reminders throughout each episode of why I loved the show so much growing up, particularly at the end of the episodes when it was obvious that people felt confident and happy with how they looked. Even some of the participants who were the least enthusiastic at the beginning often appeared to be genuinely grateful to have been pushed out of their comfort zone by the end. I was quickly reminded during my rewatch of how the show was really the first time I saw people encouraged to invest in dressing the body they’re in, rather than denying themselves good pieces and hoped that they would lose weight. Seeing people feel more confident and empowered to invest in dressing their body made me feel good, and I suspect that is a big reason why I, like millions of others, loved What Not to Wear.

But I’ll be the first to admit that the show, particularly in the older episodes, is peppered with raw, unfiltered, and sometimes cruel criticisms that are jarring to me now. The mere idea of sticking someone in a box of mirrors studded with cameras while strangers relentlessly analyze their clothes and body is so deeply offensive to me now, and seeing it on the show made my jaw drop. There are many episodes that are hard to watch.

Every time I found myself rewatching an episode and cringing at the word “flattering” or “slimming” or “camouflaging,” words that were used almost every episode, my first thought wasn’t, “Shame on Clinton and Stacy. How dare they?” It was, “Wow, this is how everyone talked about bodies and clothing 10 years ago.” I could even remember myself saying these things, or hearing them from my peers, teachers, mom, or aunts. I’m certain that What Not to Wear cemented all of this language into our collective psyche, but do I think that the show invented that language? No, I don’t.

Fatphobia did not start with What Not to Wear, and it didn't stop after the show ended. Fatphobia is still dismissed and denied to this day. There are moments in the show where the language people used to talk about clothing and bodies is the same we use today (for example, the prevalence of the word “flattering”). With all that considered, I still came away from rewatching the episodes with one thought: Things are a little different now, and even more than that, I am different now.

Fatphobia did not start with What Not to Wear, and it didn't stop after the show ended.

There were many years of my life, both during the years I watched the show and after, when I believed that making myself look smaller was a way to make myself more acceptable, attractive, and palatable to others. There were many years where I believed that my style existed only within the parameters of what I was “allowed” to wear as a size 14. These thoughts were enforced by What Not To Wear, yes, but no more than they were by the fact that I never saw a body like mine in magazines, on T.V., at all the stores that didn’t carry my size, or by someone saying an outfit I loved wasn’t “flattering.”

Society and media as a whole might be a little more sensitive, inclusive, and accepting today than it was in 2003, or even 2013, but fatphobia and everything that goes along with it is still very present. It wasn’t until I acknowledged and started to challenge that reality that I was able to unlearn all those fashion “rules” that I clung to so strongly growing up. My personal style is all kinds of things these days, and I have fun with clothing. The most important thing, though? I’m committed to never letting my body be a reason to deprive myself of any bit of life, or a horizontal stripe, ever again.

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