At a book signing event in Washington, DC, earlier this month, style guru Stacy London fielded questions from the 800 or so women and five men in attendance with the ease of a celebrity used to doling out advice to her fans.
“What are mom jeans?” One older woman asked.
“You’re wearing them,” London responded.
“I hate myself,” said a 19-year-old redhead, really wondering how she can learn to love herself when she’s overweight. London, cohost of TLC’s What Not to Wear, coaxed her up onstage and gave her a hug.
That’s what women really need sometimes when they’re trying to determine what image to project outward to the world: confident, risk-taker, self-possessed, whimsical, romantic, sexy, brainy, or all of the above. Having a little reassurance that they deserve to look good even when their infant is spitting up on them or they’ve just had a mastectomy can go a long way.
But too many women, London told me in an interview this week, don’t even have the self awareness to realize that they’ve given up on trying to look good and would prefer to just blend in or vanish in the crowd.
In her new book The Truth About Style, London admits that she stopped caring about fashion—a lifelong passion since toddlerhood—when she developed anorexia in college and that she dressed to cover every bit of skin in middle school after she developed scaly patches on her skin from a nasty case of psoriasis.
“I really do believe that my style is informed by the fact that I had such issues with my appearance at various times of my life,” London told me in a phone interview.
But it wasn’t until she started working through emotional issues from her makeover participants on her TV show that she said she understood how much her own emotional state impacted what she wore. Here are seven lessons she learned.
1. Stand in front of a mirror naked to get familiar with your body shape. Often, women who wear clothing that doesn’t fit have a lack of body awareness, said London. “Their clothes are too tight, and they’re hoping their bodies looked like they did 20 years ago, or their clothes are oversize because they don’t want to think about their shape.”
When you do stare in the mirror, don’t judge or pick out all your flaws; just be mindful of the canvas that you’re working with. “Once you figure that out, you can dress to flatter your shape.” Having an open and accepting awareness of your own body can improve your body image, which may give you the courage to try new styles until you find one that works.
2. Step away from the mirror. While a little body-awareness is a good thing, too much navel gazing can make you feel like an object, not a person. “Your self-esteem won’t come from body parts,” said London. “You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while, and look for another reflection, like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you.” Taking stock of your values, abilities, and deeds is just as important as evaluating your body type, she added, since “your sense of self will inform your sense of style.”
3. If you’re happy with how you dress, stick with it. “I don’t argue style on the basis of tastes,” said London. “If you feel like you’ve reached your personal best, don’t change.” If you’re not satisfied with your style and need a little help, seek out the services of a stylist at a department store—which often requires you to purchase some clothes—or privately, where you will be charged by the hour.
You can also ask a well-dressed friend for help, but London warned that too many women make the mistake of trying to dress like their friends even if they have very different body types.
4. Don’t just wear black to be safe. Yes, black is slimming and works on most women, but it’s also a crutch used by women afraid to take risks. “If you wear black a lot, ask yourself what’s the impulse driving you to feel safe? Do you fear being laughed at? Do you not want to stand out and just blend in? That, to me, is the bigger issue,” said London.
5. Dress as if you’ve got an important place to be every day. Wearing pajamas or sweats every day can be comfortable if you have no particular place to go, but it can also leave you feeling down and less than your best. In fact, we often dress to reflect how we feel, throwing on something we don’t care about when we feel drained or stressed, but that only enhances a low mood. If anything, working against this natural tendency by making an effort to look good can lift your spirits, said London.
6. Acknowledge your age. Moms who dress in their teenage daughter’s clothes are in age denial. “Your personal style should evolve with age,” said London, along with your personality, body, intelligence, and life experience. “To say you want the same style at 25 as at 45 is a mistake.”
7. Dress for the weight you are, rather than what you’d like to be. London admits that she gained 15 pounds over the past year while writing the book. “I had to do a big fat speaking tour, and I didn’t fit into any of my clothes,” she said. “I was flipping out a bit, having a hard time with it when my T’ai chi instructor told me we teach what we need to learn.” London bought herself some new outfits that fit, rather than trying to squeeze herself into too tight dresses and skirts in the hope that she would shed the weight on tour.