Figuring Out Your Figure


By now, most of you are aware that I released a book back in June titled Already Pretty: Learning to Love Your Body by Learning to Dress it Well. What you may not know is that less than 10% of the book was drawn from existing blog content! The book outlines a process that is very much aligned with everything I write here, but has never been described in its entirety on the blog. The book presents a highly customizable regimen to help you define and hone your own personal style.

I wanted to share another excerpt from the text with you. This particular tidbit focuses on understanding your unique figure by focusing on your features. I hope you enjoy it!

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The shortcut to understanding your body is to identify your body type, yet pinpointing your body type can seem impossible. You pore over photographs of women in black unitards labeled as “pears,” “apples,” and “string beans,” and see nary a one that resembles your own body. (Shortly after that, you ardently wish that the female form could be described in non-food terms.) I’ve seen body-type breakdowns with as many as twelve possible options and never once found an example body shaped like my own.

And I know why.

Because almost no one is a true pear, apple, or string bean. Most of us are string beans with bulky, muscular thighs, or pears with relatively broad shoulders, or some variation on the template that makes fruit-specific clothing styles look atrocious on our actual bodies. And while body-type breakdowns are meant to serve as guidelines, the folks who write them never seem to offer work-arounds for those of us with variations on the highlighted themes.

Nevertheless, you’ll have a hell of a time finding clothing that flatters your form if you don’t familiarize yourself with your form. You need to know about your shape and proportions to effectively evaluate clothes—both new and old—and to know they conform to the four figure-flattery mandates listed above. But you needn’t base that familiarization on body type. Why use such a confining and imperfect system? I’ve got a better, simpler, and more personalized way to learn about your marvelously unique shape. So grab your style journal, haul out the full-length mirror, strip down to your undies, and take a long, hard look.

What aspects jump out as your defining physical traits? Look at yourself in the mirror and identify which bits are markedly large, small, or relatively out of proportion. Try not to judge yourself and don’t use someone else’s body as a point of comparison. Just take an honest look. Do you have a prominent stomach, long neck, tiny feet? Do your arms seem short, your shoulders broad, your breasts small? Does your torso seem much longer than your legs, or vice versa? Look at everything, not just the major regions like hips, midsection, and bust. Examine your wrists and ankles, leg and arm length, calf and thigh circumference. Then jot down some notes in your Style Journal about the features of your physical form that seem to define it.

Let’s use me as an example. I have broad shoulders, which make my A-and-a-half-cup breasts seem relatively small. My hips and thighs are full, which make my natural waist seem bitsy. My feet are well proportioned to my muscular calves, but my hands and wrists are small compared to my arms.

Notice how I am noting my features mainly in comparison to my other features. What’s the point in comparing my boobs to Salma Hayek’s? Even if I had her boobs, I wouldn’t have her stature, her shoulder span, or any other aspect of her figure. Her boobs would look totally different on my frame. I’d rather focus on how my boobs interact with other aspects of my frame.

What do you love best about your body? Every woman secretly longs to brag about her flat abs, ladylike collarbone, long legs, or shapely derrière. Subtler physical traits can become favorites, too: radiant skin, lustrous hair, delicate bone structure.

Put your clothes back on and sit down with your trusty Style Journal. List your top ten favorite physical aspects, right off the top of your head. Now rank them from the thing you love most to the thing you love least. Think about why you adore these traits so much. Did you inherit them from beloved relatives? Work hard for them on your own? Do they set you apart from the crowd? Think about clothes you already own that accentuate these features and write down any techniques you already employ to draw attention to them. Think about how you feel when you’re able to show off your body’s best and how differently you’d feel if doing so were an everyday priority.

Attempting to identify yourself within a set of predetermined figure types is often frustrating and confusing. Your body is unique and wedging it into some arbitrary category can feel downright unnatural. But these two simple steps are both personalized and detailed, helping you identify traits that define your body and features that make it marvelous. Thinking long and hard about these two questions will give you a good idea of what you’ve got, so that you can decide how to work with what you’ve got.

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16 Responses to “Figuring Out Your Figure”

  1. Jennifer

    Amen! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated trying to shoehorn my body into one of the available descriptions, wondering why the hell certain clothing items everyone swore should look smashing on me made me look so awful.

    I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person, but I had such a hard time with this concept until I read your book and had my own a-ha! moment. The whole thing just made so much sense (everything in the book, not just the body type bit). I really appreciated the dialectic approach you took, instead of making sweeping proclamations like your typical style guide.

    • Sally

      SO glad to hear that, Jennifer! Huge thanks, and I’m thrilled you found this approach helpful.

  2. Ashley

    I sooooo needed to read this today! i got dressed then tried to think of something positive when I looked in the mirror and all I came up with was, “I like the way my collarbones look in this sweater.” Thank you!

  3. Lainie

    I am SO going to follow these steps. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked at those “find your body type” and could not figure out what I am! I have small shoulders, long slender arms, large hands, large breasts, a little pooch in my tummy, slim hips and large thighs, muscular calves and not too big or small feet. I am not an hourglass, and lack the hips for a “true pear”, but not an apple or really a string been either!! Ughh!! So yeah, I am going to try this! I get “blinders” on when I really want to like an item on my body, I don’t look at it in the mirror-just pretend that it looks awesome. Then crumple when I catch a glance and it does not.

  4. Kinsi

    I think the tip on standing in front of the mirror and just LOOKING AT YOUR BODY is so important for many of us! I think sometimes we struggle to view our bodies as “normal” b/c we simply see other women’s bodies more often than our own.

  5. Rose-Anne

    Ah, I loved this excerpt! I remember not too long ago when a light bulb went on and I realized: I have no waist. I’m thin (and people have told me I’m TOO thin, which is another topic altogether), but my abdomen–from my rib cage to my hips–has very little curve to it. I also have a short torso. I realized that while I love the high-waisted skirt on other people, on me it doesn’t look as elegant because my proportions and curves are different. Now I realize why low-waisted things look better on me. Sometimes I do play with the high-waisted look, but I accept that on me, it’s not the most figure-flattering look. And that’s okay.

    PS Reading this excerpt made me want a copy of your book, Sal–it’s going on my wish list 🙂

  6. Rudyinparis

    Hi Sal, thanks for the post! I’ve noticed lately that in addition to the “pear”, “apple”, “petite”, etc. they’ve added “athletic”. Can you describe for me what that means to you? I consider myself athletic–but I’m a short runner. “Athletic” seems even more vague and confusing to me than any of the others. Thanks!

  7. Becky

    Thanks for this! Several years ago when I first started to pay attention to fashion and style, I signed up for a style advisor service that did just this – took my bust, waist, and hip measurements, put me in a classification, and then sent me recommendations. It was inexpensive and genuinely helpful at the time since I was starting from a position of total cluelessness; but their recommendations didn’t take my long neck, undershot chin, short waist, and long rise into account — thus while I started to look like I cared how I dressed, things were frequently still not-right.

    The best thing I did was an exercise I modifed from the fabulous book (recommended by Sal – thanks, Sal!) “The Triumph of Individual Style.” I took a full-length photo of myself wearing tights and a tank top, then printed the photo and traced an outline of my figure onto blank white paper. Then I drew horizontal lines at the points that are supposed to be equidistant on a “classic” figure (which few people actually have). I got out a ruler and compared the lengths and relative widths of waist, hips, etc., and for the first time ever, got a clear idea of my *actual* proportions. No amount of mirror-gazing had ever taught me how I was really shaped! It was a revelation.

    As a bonus, I made another tracing and scanned it, then cut & pasted the scan till I had an 8.5×11 image consisting of about 8 of these body outlines. Then I printed out a bunch of them. Now I have a “paper-doll” type drawing of my figure – in fashion design I think this is called a croquis. When thinking about outfits or catalog/online shopping, I can “try on” items by sketching them onto the croquis, and see whether they are likely to look good or fight my figure. Sometimes when I’m in the mood, I’ll sketch clothes and shoes and accessories onto my paper-dolls. I’ve learned a ton about flattering my figure this way.

    I was fortunate to grow up with a positive body image, but I still had a *distorted* body image. This exercise was like turning on the lights, after 40 years of getting dressed in the dark.

  8. Marsha Calhoun

    This is the first time I have ever, ever, read a strategy for understanding how I am shaped that didn’t make me want to throw something (or just up). Thank you very, very much.

  9. Rosie

    Such good advice, Sally. I have your book and am so happy to see you share this here, too. I especially loved your reminder to do these steps without any judgment. I tell my students all the time that when we make observations about ourselves- our physical, mental, or emotional selves, “It is just information. Not good, not bad, just information that you can then do something with.” Thanks for giving us such a good guide!

  10. KittyWrangler

    This is wonderful advice! Most advice for clothing myself that I’ve pulled from “body type” lists end up making me look pregnant (the under-boob-belt is not the panacea they tout it as). But people who sew and design costumes have given me spot-on advice, even if I do look a tad bit like I’ve just stepped out of an historical drama.

    The bit about the one-body-type-chart-fits-all attitude, though, reminded me of the scene from Edward Scissorhands where the mom, an Avon representative, consults her chart, compares it to Edward, and says, “yes, you’re definitely a winter.”