Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sewing and Body Image

As seamstresses, we have to be brutally honest about our bodies. Vanity sizing may be alive and well, but there's no such thing as "vanity measurements." We ladies who like to sew know our exact waist and hip measurements at any given moment. We talk more frankly about our body "flaws" than other women. (How else would we give tips on pattern alterations?)

On one hand, this is a great thing. We can make clothes that fit our bodies perfectly. We can sew up dresses that are one size on top, and another on the bottom - rather than trying to squeeze into a ready-to-wear size. Also, with a realistic awareness of our bodies, hopefully acceptance will follow.

On the other hand, sewing talk often turns into complaining about our figures, as so many conversations between women do. On any sewing message board, you can read a woman's demeaning remarks about her body, even as she is giving out priceless sewing advice. I suppose this kind of talk builds a sort of false sense of intimacy between women, but ultimately I think it just makes us loathe ourselves.

Even Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing includes this kind of supposedly harmless "girl talk" in the instructions on the slim skirt: "If you're practically hipless (lucky you!), you'll have to carry your hip darts down further." Really, VoNBBS? We should aspire to being "hipless"? Having hips is not a handicap. In fact, I'm not quite sure how I would walk without mine.

Vintage patterns, while being a great source of beauty and inspiration, also serve to remind us how far we might be from the 1952 ideal. Acutally, women of 1952 were probably just as far from the 1952 ideal. Who can live up to those wasp-waisted illustrations? Or even these VoNBBS models?

Another thing to consider on this topic: as women who sew and blog about it (or post pictures of ourselves wearing our creations on Pattern Review or Burdastyle), we are putting images of our bodies out there in a way that can feel very vulnerable. I suppose that's why we use some of this negative self-talk: to try to lessen this anxiety and as a preemptive defense against people who might judge us.

As much as I try not to, I get consumed by this anxiety at times. We're all our own worst critics, right? While looking over the many pictures my husband had taken of me in my new red sheath dress, I could really only find a couple in which I thought I looked acceptably slender. So of course those were the two I published! Even with all the glowing and thoughtful and lovely compliments you gave me, I still found myself thinking, what if I had posted one of the "fat" pictures? Would people have responded as positively to the dress?

Obviously, it's not easy to stop a lifetime of this ingrained behavior. But I think that it's especially important in our little online sewing community that we foster an environment of body acceptance, rather than body apologies.

Carolyn of Diary of a Sewing Fanatic perhaps said it best in this post about choosing a pattern size: "When taking [your] measurements, be truthful. Don't fudge the numbers, don't get upset about the numbers and don't be scared of the numbers. Because everyday your body wakes you up and gets you through a day...treasure it. It's yours and it's precious."


  1. Here here! This was well said. I'm tired of apologizing for my looks. Working out and dieting to extreme just to obtain something that isn't obtainable! If I were too skinny, I'd look funny. I have huge birthing hips (birthing... wouldn't want to be one of those 'hipless' women in that situation!) and those hips aren't going away with a little more exercise and diet, they're bone! Genetics are out of our control... and frankly I'm glad to share the same body type as my family. Its like a badge of belonging.


  2. Oh, I love your post Gertie!
    I think we are all gone crazy about wanting to have a perfect body and ideal measurements ratio.
    I remember I was really surprised when my ex boyfriend praised some parts of my body I really disliked. The moral - we're never gonna fit into everyone's vision of perfect body, but some people might find our body perfect as it is. We should think the same way of ourselves.
    And, I love my hips as well :-).

  3. Very nicely written post. We are our own worst enemy when it comes to body image. Sewing and blogging has made me both vulnerable and accepting of my body type and Carolyn is right--don't lie about the numbers.They are what they are. I tell my lil girls all the time, we come in all different shapes and sizes from the head to the toes. As long as you are healthy, it really just how it goes!Since i began sewing, I never step on the scale anymore. Just measure and I feel better informed about my body and what can and cannot change!

  4. "Really, VoNBBS? We should aspire to being "hipless"? Having hips is not a handicap. In fact, I'm not quite sure how I would walk without mine."

    LOL - you crack me up! And speaking from the perspective of someone who is hipless (by VoNBBS def), I'd much rather have them than not. Curves are pretty and feminine! Love your blog, btw. :)

  5. I think that sometimes it is difficult to get past the "OMG, I'm sewing a size 20!" and realize that what you are doing is sewing something perfectly fitted to you, that will look better than anything you could buy in the store, and you will look better (and thinner!) than if you were wearing a size 8 rtw dress.

    We become SO aware of our "fitting issues," and can rattle them off...full bust adjustment...sway back adjustment....flat seat, high hip fluff, rounded back, forward shoulder, lowered bust point.....As sewists, we are incredibly aware of every lump and bump, and can divide said lumps into the ones we want to hide, and the ones we want to accentuate. Because of this awareness, it is hard to not be critical.

    But I do also find myself pretty closely examining other people that I see and being rather critical of the fit of their (I am assuming) RTW clothing. And no matter how large a size I have to sew, I will always look better and more put-together in my size 20 (or size 46, thanks, Burda!) pants than the girl with the jeans gaping in the back showing her underwear, or the one with the buttons gaping on the front of her shirt, or the one packed into too-small clothing because being a size 4 means EVERYTHING to her.

  6. I caught myself justifying how I looked in the pictures that form my banner by saying I'd just had lunch... but when my mum looked at them she said I looked very thin and asked if I was eating right.

    We see the imagined flaws.

  7. One of the reasons I love to sew vintage patterns is because I know the pattern sizes bear absolutely no resemblance to anything currently in the stores. I like that. I can just go ahead and grade up and down as needed, make the pattern fit me perfectly, and go on with my life, completely in the dark about what "size" I sewed up.

    I like my happy place.

  8. My beautiful 23 year old daughter says it very well. We are the normal ones and those skinny models are abnormal. It is not normal, for most of us, to be that skinny and they aren't thin these models today, but skinny. Knipmode actually uses plus sized models who appears to be more than a size 12 for their larger sized patterns. Burda used to. They get thinner every year. It's taken me many years to accept my body, extra weight and all. It is just what it is, and I agree with Carolyn, it hasn't let me down yet. I think that accepting your body and actually seeing yourself as you are goes a long way to sewing a wardrobe that not only fits but makes us look our best no matter our size.
    You have managed to look your best in these clothes no matter that your body is not that skinny model or hipless. Aren't the majority of women in this country pear shaped?

  9. I totally agree! Especially with Michelle - being able to sew something that really fits, you will look more slender.

  10. I've worked in theatre costuming for years, and that's where I've done most of my sewing. Actors can be incredibly sensitive and insecure, and you end up getting very up close and personal with other people's bodies as well. I ALWAYS make a point of emphasizing that if there's a fitting problem, it's that the garment doesn't fit the person, not the other way around. I think in clothing shopping and home sewing we can think about it the other way around too often.

  11. Good post! I have been struggling with this too. After three kids I am trying to learn to not only sew according to my real measurements but also to find more age/body appropriate styles. Though I love the 50s fashions I've yet to see one that appears to be designed for women with natural curves. I may have to pick a different clothing era to be in love with:o)

  12. Well Gertie its obvious how I feel about this situation...I truly believe you should love your body...because everyone thinks there is something wrong with theirs! This was a great post and the responses have been just as interesting to read!

  13. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Gertie!

    Like many women, I sometimes struggle with my body image. Sewing my own clothes helps me feel well-dressed and sexy, no matter what, but it definitely doesn't erase those nagging bouts of insecurity. Sometimes I catch myself thinking "I can't believe I'm a size 12! I'm a lard-ass!" or something equally demented when I cut a pattern. That can happen especially with vintage patterns, because apparently everyone in the 50s had a 20-inch waist.

    But, in the end, I think this goes back to the discussion we had in an earlier post about how modern-day fashion doesn't really respect the female body. When I sew, I can erase the "you-have-to-be-a-model-to-look-good-in-this-outfit" mentality that dominates so many of the clothing choices out there. I can choose clothes that fit and flatter my curves. THAT makes me feel good.

  14. I agree with Michelle, sometimes that number can be daunting at times. But my mother-in-law told me a story about clothes sizing. She grew up in the 50s and 60s and she was very slight as a young teen. She says she knows sizes have changed because in RTW, she is the same size now as she was when she was a young teen (and is obviously not as slender, being a fully-grown woman with children).

  15. Do you ever notice the number of sewing blogs where the clothing being displayed is on..a dressmaker's dummy? Not on the person at all? (Hey, I do it too)There's a reason for that and it is very sad but it happens a lot. Perhaps that should be my one goal this year - to put a picture of myself in one of my new creations on my blog.

  16. What's funny to me is that I use my husband's advice for fit - he can see more objectively than I can sometimes and is an engineer so he can help with the construction of how to fix it - but he hates when I suggest that something's wrong with my body that causes the garment to need fixing. Even though "Fit for Real People" says that they've never met a person who needed no pattern alterations, so there is no such thing as a perfect fit model body (unless they made the mannequins after your shape).

  17. Great post! I find myself being very harsh on myself, and do the same thing when I look for pictures to post. I look too fat in this one, my hair looks horrible in this one, oh my look at the size of my legs in this one...

  18. Great topic, and very interesting comments. I'm going to try to say something about it, but please have patience with my English...
    I find it a given fact that a fashion world who idealizes a body type that actually destroyes the person, it's world where the ideals are sick. Of course we judge ourselves, and of course we should all be happy with the bodies we have.

    I have to voice a concern though: Quite often I've found that turning away from the too-skinny ideal also means disregarding aspects that are necessary for the health. That someone who claims to love her body just as it is, perhaps also turns a blind eye to the danger of an unhealthy lifestyle. Why does it so often seem like it has to be one or the other? Why does exercise and eating healthy have to be lumped together either with "healtfreaks" or anorexia? Why does being proud of your body these days mean not taking care of it? Why can a girl not like her body as it is, but work a bit to maintain it?

    Of course it's not dangerous to have a few pounds extra, and of course it's dangerous to have so many pounds too few as the models have. Being as skinny as a model, is not something I aspire to, but having my knees replaced, getting diabetes, having heart porblems (all before I'm 50) isn't something I'm interested in either.
    I've met gorgeous people of twice my weight, beauty has nothing to do with your pounds but with how you wear them. So this comment, it's not about the outside, it's about the inside, and about a body I want to have until I'm 90. Regardless of how it looks. So I work out, I watch my diet a bit and I keep my weight even despite the cookies and all the stuff I bake.

    So please ladies, is this something you have in mind? Do you only see your bodies in terms of beauty, ideals and measurments? Or do you also see it as an indicator of a lifestyle, and see your weight as an indicator of your health?
    Am I worrying in vain?

  19. I love this post.
    I've been thinking since reading your blog (I found you about a week ago) that I would love to have your hips!!! I am virtually 'hip-less' and no not lucky me! ;)
    Oh this world makes me laugh.
    Great blog.

  20. Bravo! We are, what we are. We should celebrate it.

  21. Your blog is great! I look forward to it every day. This was a wonderful post.

    I sew a size 24 and don't care who knows it. I have very broad shoulders and am almost 6-feet tall; I've always had to sew to have nice clothes that fit. As far as vintage eras go, I love the 40's (gotta love those shoulders!) and the Gibson-girl era and Edwardian looks 'cause they fit my shape. If you research different fashion silhouettes, you can always find decades that fit your shape & personality. If you're very curvy try the 30's or 50's; more straight up and down, try the 20's or 60's; pear-shaped, try a Regency look that skims the hips and derriere. The important thing is to feel good about the clothes you wear.

  22. My thoughts are in line with Erika's. I also have the feeling that American women haven't found a connection between loving themselves and taking care of their bodies. A friend of mine delicately tried to ask me about this, and I didn't know what to answer. I think that in this regard, we can learn something from women in other parts of the world who do not despise their bodies or flaws, but care for themselves as one would care for a fine automobile. You take care of a fine car not because you secretly loathe it, but because it's your pride and joy.

  23. Erika and Kate, great points. While there is no denying that women in America (and other countries too!) could stand to take better care of themselves, I think the problem comes when we start to equate body size and health. As much as one might try, you actually can't look at a woman's size and determine her health from that size. Sure, there are proven health risks associated with being both obese and underweight. But sometimes it feels as though people take this health argument and use it as an excuse for size-ism of a sort.

    Anyway, thanks for another great conversation, all!

  24. This is definitely a touchy thing. I've been struggling with how much curvier my body is after having my son. Numbers on the tape are much less frustrating I think than numbers on the scale.

    I feel really empowered while I'm sewing because I can shape those curves with a little application. RTW never fits me right--its far too large in some place and far too small in other...the end result being much less flattering and a great deal more depressing than even the worst of my own creations.

    At the end of it all, it takes so much energy to be upset about how we're built. All women are beautiful.

  25. Wonderful post, Gertie - and another fascinating approach to the weight issue. A

    lthough I understand where Erika and Kate are coming from, I have to take this opportunity to promote the concept of being healthy at any size, what the "fatosphere" refers to as HAES. It goes beyond simple Fat Acceptance -which in itself is a great step forward - to encourage people of all sizes to be healthy - FOR THEIR BODY. Not for anyone's else's ideal, fashion or otherwise.

    Too often, plus-size women see their diet (and their lives) in terms of black and white, either/or, happy or un-. There IS a happy medium (or a happy large - lol!) that we should aspire to without judgment.

    Thanks, Gertie...

  26. I'm trying really hard these days to refer to my body shape/size in factual ways rather than using loaded or judgemental terms. For example if I post about a creation I want to just say things like 'I altered for length because I am 5'2" rather than 'because I am a stumpy-legged leprechaun'. I used to do that sort of thing a lot without even really thinking (and I also have pretty good self-esteem). I realise if we do this sort of stuff, even in a joking way, we are normalising critical stances on our own bodies. But also on other's bodies... what if another gal my height is reading what I say and feels bad about herself, or thinks I think she is less-than? I know that especially when I was younger, when teen magazines would have articles where girls would criticise their bodies, I'd look at their pictures and they'd look slim and well-proportioned to me so I'd feel worse about how I looked... was I deluded? Should I be even MORE ashamed than the person in the article? It can be very damaging. Its very insidious too... body-image articles in magazines don't actually even encourage you to like your body exactly... instead, they push an idea 'don't feel bad about feeling bad about your body because that's the way we girls are, aren't we silly? Don't pay attention to every ad in this issue telling you you need to change, you silly thing!' Well, we don't pop out of the womb finding fault with ourselves... we're told where to look and what to judge! I'm not going to participate in body-negativity anymore, even in jest and even if only about myself. It serves noone.... great post Gertie!

  27. My aunt had a "Rubenesque" figure that I longed for as a child...alas, only stick figures were in my genes then! See? The whole "Grass is greener on the other side of the fence" bit!

    Now, after three children, I have a little more of me to like but I am healthy, not overweight, but not skinny anymore either!
    When I sew, I have to make adjustments for my narrow shoulders, my wider hips and it takes time....but I take a measure of pride in doing that, making MY body look good for the way it is!

  28. I just would love it, if Burda (where I get most of my patterns from) and other patternmaker would put their stuff on real people for photographs. That is why I like sewing blogs. To see the garments on real people and without pinning to sample size, which is mostly probably smaller than the smallest pattern size. Also models are around 1.75m-1.80m, normal sizes are made for women 1.65m-1.70m, they have to cheat. I would rather like to see stuff on gorgeous woman, who haven't the models genes (the tall and skinny ones) and have a figure that complements the style of the garment. Because skinny doesn't look good in everything. Some styles need curves to work.

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Gertie, just found your blog and it rocks. I think I love absolutely everything about it.

    I especially love this post. I think that as a culture we seem to be happy to nip and tuck our own bodies to wear mass produced clothing, which strikes me as making alterations in completely the wrong place.

    I'm 4'10" and while I have a very healthy weight for my size, I am super curvy. There are not enough surgical options or diets in the world to make me look like a model, and I find that odly liberating. Frankly, I rather like my body. I'm working on building up my sewing skills to make stuff just for me. I treasure those garments because of the whole experience of making them. I love getting compliments from strangers. It makes me think 'see, I knew I looked good, just took a dress that fitted to show it off!'.

    I love laying out my modified pattern pieces next to the originals and giggling at the difference, and delighting the feeling of having something so personal.

    I think looking at my body next to other people's bodies is like looking at a pony next to a race horse. Ponies look like other horses, but they are smaller and stockier in build. They're not race horses, and they never will be. But they don't need to try, because who doesn't love a pony?

    Hooray for you and all your work and thoughts and awesome look. Thankyou so much for sharing. I am so inspired!

  31. Hi Gertie, I just found your blog through Kathleen Francis' free pattern week and Casey's Elegant Musings. I have been going through your archives from the beginning so that I can follow your journey and I really admire the way you generate such interesting and thoughtful discussions on womanhood! I am a doctor and know what everyone really looks like, and I am here to tell you, no one is perfect, and everyone has some good points. I love that you emphasize that in your blog and show how you adjust these patterns to maximize yours, while modeling them yourself. Great legs, by the way! You have your skirt lengths just right!

  32. Great post. I think that making a garment to fit will always look more flattering than making a garment to fit your "ideal" measurements for yourself. It will fit better and you will be much happier with it, and wear it more. No sense in putting in hours of work to have something sit in your closet for the magical day you get skinnier or whatever.

  33. Hi Gertie!

    I am really REALLY loving your blog! I found you after searching for body image and sewing because I have a theory I wanted to check out. My theory is that historically, women's body image degraded in tune with the rise of ready-to-wear clothing.

    I think there are a few factors responsible. The big two are:

    1. Previously shape and silhouette were primarily determined by corsetry, and was a matter of decency even more then it was of beauty. Fashions changed therefore corsets changed. Giving up corsets was SUPPOSED to be freeing for women, but IMHO, it was not. Not at ALL.

    Most women are even more tightly corseted and are expected to fashion their corsets out of their OWN BODIES now. So much for freeing!

    2. Ready-to-wear sizing is about the manufacturers convenience or choice and has literally NOTHING to do with real actual people. I'm in Canada and we are mid-centre on this issue. In Argentina nice clothing stores often have no sizes above 6!

    Whereas in India, virtually all traditional clothing is sewn to measurements. From what I hear from friends, toxic body image in Argentina and Brazil is much more crippling then in India and I think clothing sizes have a lot to do with it.

    Ready to wear sizing should not determine correct and acceptable sizes of real actual individual people.

    I learned to sew pattern free using a home-made dress-form to fit on so I actually don't know my 'size' and I'm fine with that. When I see something I like I just make my version of it.

    It's an old-fashioned way to live and a very body positive way I think.

    Keep in blogging, you are absolutely wonderful!

    ~ Renata

  34. I really appreciate all of your thoughts on body image, Gertie. Before I started sewing last year I had all kinds of hangups about my body shape and size. To be honest, I always felt like a bit of an ogre (I'm quite tall and fairly curvy). But taking measurements (especially in a class full of other women) completely changed my opinion of myself for two reasons:
    1. It turns out I'm actually way more proportional than I ever believed, and
    2. It's made me grow to love and embrace my curves and learn how to work with them - even accentuate them sometimes!

    Of course, the timing of me going through this discovery and Mad Men being popular is certainly helpful.

    As better as I feel about things, I'm sure looking forward to the day that I don't even give it a second though.

    LOVE your blog! Thank you. xo

  35. Wonderful blog! Thank you. Along with apologizing for our body share and size, I've noticed over the years that women also have a habit of pointing out imperfections in the things we do and make. They aren't noticeable to others but for some reason we feel compelled to point them out. Your healthy attitude about your body size has really helped me accept my size. I use to be skinny - 5'4" and 115, but I hated my figure because I had a tummy and my waist was wide (this runs in my family). I also never allowed myself to enjoy food. Now, I'm a size 16, I still have a tummy and a wide waist, but I'm happy and I enjoy food and life. I'm proud of my shape/curves and my husband thinks I look great!(He knew me when I was skinny) So, after spending 40 years of being skinny. I'm now going to enjoy 40+ years of being shapely.

    1. Allllright, Ms. Teresa. Yes, your hubby is a smart man. This made me smile 'cause I can certainly relate. Matter of fact think I am going to go blog about this blog post. Come on over and see it if ya like (give me a chance to get it up though, LOL)

  36. Good for you, Carolyn. I like the way you think.

    Recently I purchased a MOB dress for my baby girl's upcoming wedding. I was horrified that (according to THEIR site) I needed an XXXL! Did you read that, three (3) x's and a L, oy vey. Thankfully, I ordered it. It fits on point!!! I'll be beautiful at my baby girl's wedding and it's all good.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

© Gertie's Blog For Better Sewing. Powered by Cake