02/04/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Privilege Influences Our Perceptions of Style

A while back, Kasmira posted about a What Not to Wear contestant who was called out for her offbeat, off-kilter dressing style. She generated a great discussion about quirky dressing, body size, grooming and other factors that figure into how women are judged on their appearances.


Image courtesy Glamour, Getty Images.

And then Lena Dunham wore an extremely short dress with hotpants, and got an earful from the press for her bad fashion sense, to which she responded, "I don't think a girl with tiny thighs would have received such no-pants attention. I think that it really was... 'Why did you make us look at your thighs?' My response is, get used to it because I am going to live to be 100, and I am going to show my thighs every day till I die."

And it got me thinking about how appearance-related privilege figures into fashion. I thought about it for a long time and am still sorting through my thoughts a bit, but feel like I can at least get the conversational ball rolling.

Thin privilege is a touchy subject. In my opinion, it cuts both ways: Thin women are often assumed to be healthy, perceived to be beautiful and afforded the luxury of approval and attention from both sexes. That can be fantastic, it can be oppressive, it can be confusing, and I'm sure it can be countless other things that I cannot even imagine. I have no wish to demonize thin women merely for being thin. Let me be very clear: To do so would be just as prejudiced and unfair as demonizing fat women merely for being fat.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny that thin women seem able to "get away" with more than non-thin women, especially when it comes to style choices. Look on Pinterest, street-style blogs, even mainstream fashion magazine editorials. You'll see that the vast majority of women photographed and showcased are very tall and very thin. Find an outfit that seems outlandish or very revealing to your eye, and then imagine it on a larger figure. On a thin woman, such choices seem edgy, quirky or sexy. On a non-thin woman, such choices are often deemed garish, ill-advised, even appalling.

Beauty privilege and youth privilege often go hand-in-hand with thin privilege, and also influence how some people react to style choices. Pinterest's fashion offerings are rife with examples of beauty and youth privilege, especially when it comes to dressing simply. Loads of young, gorgeous women wearing incredibly simple, barely accessorized outfits comprised of basic pieces get pinned, repinned and repinned ad infinitum. Pretty young celebs are photographed wearing the simplest of ensembles and lauded for their innovative style choices.

And they look good! They do! But I feel like folks are potentially seeing youth and beauty instead of innovation, inspiration or creativity. A white tee, jeans and black heels might look marvelous on a gorgeous 22-year-old woman... but is it really such a compelling and inspiring combination that you need to file it away for future reference? If the same combination was shown on a plain-looking 48-year-old woman, would it receive the same outpouring of enthusiasm?

And yes, some of this is down to dressing to your figure, regardless of size, age, or socially sanctioned attractiveness. All figures can be flattered, all figures can be adorned in graceful and appealing ways, and there are garments and styles that work better on certain figures and sets of proportions than they do on others. Would I have advised Lena Dunham to wear a loose, short dress, hotpants and flats? No, because the outfit doesn't work well on her specific frame. Do I think she looks inexcusably awful? No, I think she looks like she pulled together an outfit that felt breezy and fun and wasn't fussed about traditional figure flattery that day. Do I think that Alexa Chung would've received the same deluge of hate if she'd worn this exact same outfit? No, I think she would've be re-crowned the Reigning Queen of Stylish Quirk.

I feel like sometimes we cannot separate the clothes from the woman. We see a beautiful, young, thin woman and label her as stylish without really considering if she has made unusual or interesting fashion choices. We see a non-beautiful, non-young, non-thin woman and -- because we are conditioned to do so -- feel less inclined to label her as stylish unless she is very clearly making fashion choices that help her seem more beautiful, younger and thinner. Which makes it even more challenging for these women to push their boundaries, make alternate figure-flattering choices, or do anything that feels like a sartorial experiment. The risk of censure is very real.

Again, I do not believe that all thin, young, beautiful women should be scorned or punished, and I'm well aware that LOADS of them are incredibly creative and stylish. (Including the aforementioned Alexa Chung, who, in my opinion, expresses truly creative personal style and has said some very astute and valid things about her own experiences being scrutinized for her thinness.) Additionally, I do not believe that all non-beautiful, non-young, non-thin women are inherently stylish. I've just noticed that the deck is stacked. And I'm glad that Lena will be showing her thighs until she's 100 because it will remind people that ALL women can make non-traditional style choices. And have fun with them.

What's been your experience with thin, youth and beauty privilege in the realm of style? Do you feel the deck is stacked for or against you because of your age, shape, or beauty? Do you make non-traditional style choices yourself? What feedback do you get, if any? How do you respond?