ophelia × riley: fashion for body image empowerment

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If I weren’t studying psychology, I’d work in fashion. Really. I love fashion. I like putting pieces together, color-coordinating, finding accessories and shoes to go with my outfit and basically creating different looks that express my personalty, my style and my uniqueness. Unfortunately, having struggled with severe body image issues since the age of 16 prevented me from being able to experiment with clothes. I disliked my body and my hatred was compounded by the endless fashion spreads in magazines, models for clothing stores and even friends who were thinner than I was.

I’d see tall and slim models (so what else is new?) wearing fabulous gorgeous clothes that I always pictured myself wearing but never dared to. Why? Because I assumed that I wouldn’t look good in them. I wasn’t able to accept that my body was bigger and curvier than the average Chinese girl here.  So I shied away from wearing anything sleeveless because I saw my arms as lumpy sausages. I banned skirts because when paired with my muscular calves, the skirt lost its feminine appeal. I avoided colors, loud prints and stripes because they added bulk to my wide frame. Local fashion labels stocked free size outfits or had clothes than came in only in sizes S and M; each time I came out the dressing room and handed my outfit back to the saleswoman, I experienced a tightness around my heart which I eventually came to learn was a mixture of mortification, anger and self-disgust. I stuck to wearing jeans, shorts and basic black all day every day because, well, because black is slimming right? And because I felt safe in them. It covered everything just about right. I didn’t need to see my arms or muscular calves.

Out of sight, out of mind. Pure denial. A defensive mechanism

When it comes to body image issues, people tend to look at fashion with a weary eye.  Research tells you that the rise of body image issues and prevalence of eating disorders are increasing and one of the reasons is because people not only wan to be able to look as good as the model who is wearing the very outfit he/she is wearing. We see tall and thin mannequins flaunting tight body con dresses and although there are gorgeous plus size fashion pieces, in some stores, we see  “plus-size” mannequins wearing frumpy frocks in the strangest prints and patterns and in fabrics that look like they came from our great-grandmother’s knitting boxes.

With the wide use of slim models, we want to wear cropped tops and show to everyone we have a flat tummy or wear body con dresses to show everyone that “look I am slim enough to wear a body con dress without having to feel insecure about myself or have people comment about how it doesn’t stick to my belly!”  There are “fashion rules” that we follow: don’t wear stripes because they make you look bigger, wear nude heels to elongate your legs, don’t wear cropped tops if you have a wobbly belly, don’t wear skinny jeans if you’re not slim. Its these rules that made me feel even more insecure about my body because it brought more attention to the fact that I didn’t have a flat stomach and somehow I felt “defined” by a particular rule and this left me in throes of self-pity and jealousy.

One of the reasons I decided to start dabbling more in photography and fashion this year is because fashion is more than just expressing my own personal style. Its also about accepting myself. Getting someone to take my pictures and having myself to look at these pictures forces me to sit down and say “Girl, you know what? This is how you were born to look like and you’re not going to be able to run and hide from pictures all your life. Do you want to spend another 60 years running away from cameras and pictures and hating the fact that you weren’t born a leggy brunette with razor sharp cheekbones and green eyes and a to-die-for hourglass figure?!?”

For the past few years, I’ve avoided looking at myself in pictures simply because I absolutely hated how I looked. I hated how my body wasn’t of an hourglass shape, I hated that I have muscular calves, I hated that I have broad shoulders, I hated that I have narrow hips and a flat butt. I even hated my Asian features and hated that my older sister looked more European than I did. However, as I entered my final year of undergraduate studies, something in me clicked – it was the sudden realization that I am 23 and that I had just wasted 6 years of my life hating my own body which prevented me from doing so many things I would have done if I weren’t busy hiding in my room and feeling sorry for myself and wearing the most frumpy and boring clothes ever.

Now. I want to stand out and shine. I wanted to wear clothes that made me feel good because I want to feel good.

 I met Ophelia, a witty down-to-Earth and fashionista (check out her new blog Curve Is Love!) a few weeks ago and together with our shared understanding of the struggles of body image issues and desire to define fashion as a construct to express our individuality and accept our body, we decided to do this little collaboration entitled: ophelia × riley to capture what fashion really means to us.

I chose the name Riley because it carries the meaning “courageous”. Stepping away from my “safe” outfits, and donning something that was more than just a top and jeans required a huge leap of courage for me. I selected this long black dress because it shows one of my biggest physical insecurities. Cardigans and long sleeved tops are my best friends because they camouflage my arms, and they do so because I had trouble accepting how my arms weren’t lean and toned. I was frightened of baring my arms because it didn’t live up to my standards. Wearing this dress and knowing that I’d be photographed made me incredibly nervous the night before the photoshoot. Already my mind was trying to imagine how wide my arms would look like and whether or not I would even want to publish these pictures into blog. But after a while I thought to myself: “Sod it for God’s sake, you are 23 years old. You don’t have time to hate your arms! You have exams coming up! You have to start thinking about what you want to do in the future! If you want to accept your body for what it is, then you’re wearing this dress and you will be photographed in it and you will accept the shape of your arms as it is.”

And so I did. With some slight trepidation, no doubt, but here are these pictures are.

There is no denying that fashion plays a part in contributing to negative body image, but is that not mainly because we feel that we are are unable to look as good as a model does in the clothes that he/she wears? In the quest to look as good as the model wearing the clothes we love, fashion has been reduced to a construct that harms women instead of empowering them. Shouldn’t fashion should make you feel good, not worse about yourself? Fashion is an integral part of life, so why not utilize it to our advantage and make ourselves feel beautiful?

Don’t feel good in a cropped top because you don’t feel comfortable with not having the most toned of abs? Then don’t wear it. Instead of thinking about how much weight you need to lose, simply ditch the cropped top and go for something that flatters you. Wear clothes that make you feel like Beyonce on the rocks because forcing yourself into that cropped top won’t make you feel any better. It only sharpens your insecurities & make you feel like a second-rated version of somebody else. Girl, and boy, you’re more than second-rate.

I don’t want to limit myself to long sleeved outfits or long skirts and jeans every single time because I don’t want to conform to a self-constructed fashion rule brought about by hatred for my body. I sincerely hope that this won’t be the last photo shoot that I will do because I want to continue showcasing my journey of body acceptance through fashion on this blog. I’m probably sure you know this, but body image issues are kind of hormonal. There are days where we just feel like a queen and then on other days we feel so bloated and unattractive and throw all our body positive mantras out the window. However, my plan in the long run is to use fashion as a form of empowerment to see the beauty in me and gradually learn to love myself more. If I want to accept the way I look, why not put on some good clothes that flatter me instead of moaning about how I don’t look as thin as a size 0 model does? Fashion is about finding your style, showcasing your unique identity and in the process feeling good about yourself

With the glorification and idealization of thin models, the fashion industry is unwittingly molding us into something that we are not, and to be yourself in a world that is trying to fit you into something else is one of the greatest and most courageous accomplishments you can ever achieve.

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How do your body insecurities affect how you perceive fashion? Drop off your comments/feedback/anything on your mind!

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2 thoughts on “ophelia × riley: fashion for body image empowerment

  1. Pingback: Love Your Body Week: Look 1- Back to Black | Infamous Lipstick

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