The Impact of Sewing on Body Image
When I’m not sitting behind the sewing machine, I work full-time as a psychologist. This is why I every once in a while share a mental health-related post on this blog. Please grab a coffee and join the conversation!
This isn’t a scientific research article. As there is very little research to review on this topic, information given in this post is largely based on my work experience and training as a mental health professional.
For a long time I have been wanting to write about making your own clothes and its relationship to body image. While sewing encompasses our skills, tools and materials, our bodies are the foundation when it comes to making and wearing garments. I myself feel like I developed a healthier body image of myself since starting to sew my own clothes. There are many other sewing bloggers who have written about how they feel sewing affected their perception of themselves. (I’ve put together a list of blog posts I could find at the end of the article.)
Why is that? And how can sewing help to see ourselves in a more positive light? First, let’s have a look at the term “body image” to know what exactly we’re talking about.
Body image is the mental representation you create of yourself and the way you look. It consists of the mental image you have of your own physical body, meaning your size, shape and appearance, as well as your personal attitude toward that physical self. Your attitude is made up of your thoughts and feelings and also beliefs about your body. All this together is your “body image”. And, this mental image of your body does not necessarily represent reality. It is also not super stable and can change as it is subject to all kinds of distortion from moods, perceptions, feelings as well as a number of social factors.
Healthy body image has to do with self-acceptance and self-compassion. It means you are comfortable with the body you have, even when you do not think that you are perfect. It is about accepting flaws, embracing the body that is given to you and caring well for it.
When someone has a negative or unhealthy body image they find it very hard to accept and think positive about the way they look. They might be very preoccupied with perceived flaws. They might experience discomfort, disgust and shame, as they will also believe that others think about them in the same way. Severe dissatisfaction may result in a constant desire to change their body, even when such changes are not achievable. Negative body image may contribute to low self-esteem, unhealthy eating behaviour and therefore might affect your well-being. In severe cases unhealthy body image might cause severe distress, contribute to depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, self harm etc. In those cases the help of mental health professionals is needed as it seriously affects functioning and quality of life.
Healthy body image is not synonymous with healthy body weight. It this case we’re differentiating between physical and mental health (although these two are very much connected). Even if you’re over- or underweight, it is important that you find ways to accept yourself the way you are, whether there is a need to get to a healthier body weight or not. A diet or lifestyle change will be more successful and long lasting if you do it out of self-love and self-care instead of disgust and self-hate.
The term “body positivity” appears to be now used interchangeably with the term body image, whereas body positivity sounds “trendier” and appears less connected to mental health problems such as eating disorders and body image disorders, self harming etc. I am a bit cautious using both terms as synonyms, as body image is a very complex term consisting of many factors and variables, whereas body positivity mainly focusses on loving yourself unconditionally. Your body image will always contain negative perceptions, too, as it is normal to be critical of yourself. The extreme promotion of body positivity seems to lead to a converse trend of not allowing body negativity. People that are “objectively” perceived as beautiful (if there even is a chance that we can speak of being objectively beautiful…) are often openly and very harshly reprimanded on social media for “attention seeking behaviour” when they open up about not liking themselves. But this isn’t my topic today (I’ll save it for some other time, though.)
Many of skills we use when sewing a garment for ourselves are similar to certain therapeutic techniques used for building positive body image.
In my profession as a psychologist, I used to mainly work with eating disorder patients for a while, a group suffering from one of the more severe forms of body image disturbance. There are various methods and techniques to try and help someone change their perception of themselves. I’ve noticed that many of these techniques that focus on observation, non-judgment, neutrality, acceptance and self-compassion are similar to certain skills we use when sewing a garment for ourselves.
I found this very exciting, as I’ve shared the opinion that sewing changes body image in a healthy way, but there is pretty much no research on this topic so it is hard to pinpoint the causalities and correlations.
When sewing, instead of rejecting your body, you are working with it.
It’s hard to reject your body when you sew. As it is our foundation, we have to work with it. Working with instead of rejecting it means we are a big step closer to embracing our bodies and what we look like. To make a garment fit your body, you have to go beyond the “I don’t like the way it looks on me” or “my body doesn’t fit the pattern”. You have to take a step back and look at yourself from a more objective angle. You’re looking at general forms and thinking in shapes instead. You’re on a very different level of judgement. Instead of judging the way you look and whether or not you like the overall image of yourself, you’ll be judging whether one shape matches the other shape and if not, where and what you have to mathematically tweak in order to make it fit. This is a healthy way of observing yourself in a more neutral, constructive way and taking a step back from judging yourself in unhelpful ways.
We tend to compare ourselves to others all the time. This is reinforced through social media. The sewing community is no exception, but it’s certainly a „slightly healthier crowd“ to compare yourself with. It’s about achievable goals, constructive skills and support. You might notice that almost no one has a perfect body. Everyone has to make adjustments. It’s a very rare thing to fit into the ‘average size’. Reading about other people’s experience when sewing a certain pattern and learning about their struggles with fit, can help to develop some self-compassion toward your own body shape.
There has been research on the link between body image and self-esteem and the link between self-esteem and creativity. Body image and self-esteem are different concepts, as self-esteem focuses more on personal strengths and self-worth which can be valued on more factors than just your physical appearance. According to research, body image and self-esteem are linked, but the direction of the relationship is not clear. They affect each other in many ways. Making your own clothes certainly influences the way you gauge your self-worth. Making and wearing handmade clothes might lead to higher feelings of self-efficacy as well as self-sufficiency which are quite empowering. This, in turn, might influence, but it doesn’t necessarily need to lead to, a better body image. There is good cause to believe that having a number of different things that you value about yourself leads to a more stable and solid perception of yourself and your self-worth.
Research definitely supports the hypothesis that creativity and self-esteem are directly linked (even stronger for females than for males). Our creative skills might also help us to deal with body dissatisfaction in other ways. For example, let’s look at fluctuating weight and sewing.
If the clothes don’t fit you, put your energy into changing the clothes, not your body.
Obviously, when we sew garments, we have to measure ourselves regularly. One inch more or less makes a difference. Changes in weight and shape are much more noticeable. But there are also many more options of dealing with those changes. We sewers have a very empowering set of tools!
Sewing blogger Tasha says “When I’m standing in front of a dressing room mirror and no pair of pants I try on looks good or feels right, I think that encourages me to feel like I need to change, like my body is not right” But, with making your own clothes, you have the tool to change the garment, not your body. Your body is fine as it is – the clothes do not fit! And that is changeable. You know how to do that: you can cut out a size bigger or smaller, pick more flattering shapes and fabrics, let out or take in some seam allowance, etc. You have a set of skills to make body changes count less and make self-efficacy count more.
Sewing clothes instead of going shopping saves us from exploitative marketing strategies that feed on women’s body dissatisfaction, self-consciousness and low self-esteem.
Being able to make your own clothes also saves you some really frustrating shopping trips. Clothes sizes play a major role in pigeonholing ourselves into “good or desirable” sizes and undesirable sizes. What makes this even more frustrating is the fact, that there is no standard for sizing when it comes to women’s clothes. Unlike men’s clothing, there are no direct measurements, but categories such as a “size 6/32”, a “size 12/38” etc. Different countries, and even different brands, use different sizing for those categories. Unfortunately, consumer culture shows an unhealthy trend of making those categorical sizes smaller over time. That means a woman with a size 12 might be a size 14 after a while, without gaining a single pound. As clothes and beauty ideals are very much connected, so are clothes and body image. Women tend to see clothing size in direct relation to their body size. The size she is wearing might very much affect how beautiful a woman feels. To make this even more confusing, there are marketing tactics such as “vanity sizing”, scaling down clothing sizes, so that consumers suddenly fit in smaller sizes. This strategy feeds on women’s body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem – counting on women to pay more for a smaller size.
By the way, there is also no consistent sizing when it comes to different sewing pattern brands. But size becomes less important and “just a number” once you start seeing through this system. We are also able to cut between sizes, merge sizes or alter patterns altogether. I mainly use sizing as a rough guide to cut out a pattern. I often cut out one size larger and take in the seam allowance where necessary. So, when making garments, we do not sew a Size 10 or a Size 36, we sew a “my size”. Decreasing the overemphasis on size and numerical identities boosts confidence and satisfaction with self. Furthermore, this helps to focus more on individual style and personal traits as key components of beauty. So let’s create some garments at home and save us some frustrating shopping trips!
There are various ways in which making handmade clothes can help with a healthier body image. Sewing might not necessarily lead to 100% self acceptance and uncompromised body positivity, but it might help to develop a more holistic, stable mental image of yourself and your body, that is less prone to quick fluctuations.
After all this talk about positive body image … don’t forget: It’s ok to feel body negative, too. It’s hard when we look in the mirror constantly and don’t like what we see, it’s hard when your handmade clothes suddenly don’t fit anymore, it’s hard to run around with a measuring tape all day. It’s hard if you feel like a pattern you love looks better on everyone else. It’s hard to have to cut out a larger size. There will be days like that, too, and sometimes even sewing won’t change that. And that’s ok.
All in all, sewing is good for you! It is not only a fun, creative hobby, it also helps in unexpected ways. It’s healthy and pays off in all kinds of good ways.
So next time you feel guilty for spending too much time behind the sewing machine, remind yourself that sewing may be a little like taking a trip to a spa – and what can be wrong with some spa time?
If you found this article interesting, I think you might enjoy reading the following posts:
Interesting articles by other sewing bloggers on the topic:
- Karen Ball, The Guardian, “Can Sewing Change your Body Image”
- The Geeky Seamstress, “Sewing and Body Image”
- Jennifer Rushmore of Cashmerette, “Coming to Peace”
- Gretchen Hirsch “Sewing and Body Image”
- Not Your Average Average “Body Image and Sewing”
- Tasha of Stale Bread Into French Toast “Thoughts about Sewing, Empowerment, and Body Image”
- Mary, Idle Fancy Blog, “Sewing the Curve: Thoughts on Size, Patterns, and Body Image”
- Kathleen on Sewing & Aging Bodies for the “2018 SMYLY Challenge”
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