Working on patterns for spring 2014 last week, my thoughts kept wandering into how I perceive my own body and the implications of using one's less-than-ideal measurements as a standard for fit. I use myself as the size 6/8/10 fit model, depending on whether it’s a bottom, top, or a dress, for all Birds of North America clothing. I think this is a fairly common practice for independent designers, but unheard of for larger lines which hire fit models with proportions closer to the “ideal”.
I don’t remember being conscious of the shape of my body when I was a child. Into adolescence and puberty I became more aware of where I differed from the images of models and other representations of “ideal” women I was exposed to. My body tends towards the “pear shaped” - smaller waist and upper body with bigger hips and thighs. I envied women with narrow hips who could wear any shape of clothing and look good. For me, high waisted anything was permanently out, full skirts were out, clingy dresses were out, any pants that were cropped or pleated were out, out, OUT. They all just seemed to accentuate the part of my body that felt out of proportion.
I, like most women, have the odd day or two or three (usually monthly!) when I feel like a hideous beast. My hips are usually the part of my body that attract the brunt of my scrutiny. On days like these it feels ludicrous that I make clothes to fit my shape - as if I’m fitting clothes on a deformed mannequin. The product would logically be deformed as well.
Positive but realistic body image becomes essential to developing good patterns when using oneself as a fit model. As a designer, I’m essentially trying to transform and elevate the look of the body through clothing. If I’m not feeling good about my own body and it’s the one I’m using to fit clothes on, it becomes very difficult not only to objectively assess designs for fit and appeal, but to find inspiration in clothing at all.
As BoNA has evolved, I’ve also had to evolve in terms of my self-perception. I finally figured out that to look your best you just have to find things that actually fit, no matter what shape you are. Now, when I fit a pant, dress or skirt to my own body, it feels like an action of honouring and elevating the kind of shape I have. Instead of trying to hide the fuller hip, I try to use it as a tool to accent the rest of the figure.
I often hear from women who buy Birds clothing that it feels like it was “made just for them”. From what I can tell, these women often have the same kind of body proportions as I and, like me, have had trouble finding clothing that flatters them. What I’m noticing more and more, as I learn to look, is that this particular kind of body seems to be one of the most common types, it’s just not represented very well within the culture of our beauty standards in North America. It’s therapeutic for me, and very gratifying, to be able to offer clothing that women feel incredible wearing, and to know that I fit it on myself.
Beauty standards differ enormously between cultures and evolve over time as well. For someone growing up in North America in my day and age (I am 34) I have been pummelled my whole life with images of either super fit women with a more androgynous body type, or extremely thin women with no hips and a very large bust. Like it or not, these are the images that dominate our beauty culture at the moment. It is this standard of beauty that I am reacting to, and it is particular to my age, geographic location, and time.
Historically, women have had a challenging social journey and it continues to play out in our relationships with our bodies today. I sometimes feel like I can sense the weight of centuries of women not just wanting, but needing to present as physically attractive in order to secure a mate and be provided for.
Feeling as if our bodies don’t meet the “ideal”, whatever it may be, turns very quickly into feeling like we are of less value in general. My job as a designer is to try to take the focus off of our own perceived physical shortcomings by honouring our natural shapes, in all their diversity, bringing us one step closer to the body “ideal” becoming a non-issue.