Professional Image, Outfit “Compliments,” and Confidence at Any Size

Self-Confidence | CorporetteWhen you get an unexpected comment on an outfit, does it make you question bigger things, like your judgment? Do plus-sized women need to be particularly wary of such office outfit comments? We’ve talked about when you can tell interns their outfits are inappropriate, and how to react when your male boss tells you you “dress too well,” but we haven’t really talked about a casual comment from a friendly coworker. A big welcome back to today’s guest poster, my old friend Kathryn Rubino, who’s written previously about the perfect plus-sized blazer and DIY options for gaping blouses. – Kat. (And I’m sure she looked FABULOUS in the blouse she’s talking about.)

“What a great top — I mean, I could never wear it, but it looks great on you!”

I heard those words and my blood ran cold, and I stuck a smile on my face and mumbled my thanks. Was this a genuine compliment or was I the victim of workplace shade?  Disturbing though it may be, most professional women have dealt with this sort of thing (Kat has even written about the back-handed compliment phenomenon before). But it is such a ubiquitous problem that for my guest post I wanted to discuss that moment that has you questioning every fashion decision you’ve ever made.

First, a little background  this is a workplace where jeans are appropriate on more than just Fridays. The general guidance is that you shouldn’t look “sloppy” but there is quite a range that is considered perfectly acceptable office wear.

Second, I felt great in the outfit. You know how some looks just put a little bounce in your step? That was this outfit. Yes, the shirt was a bold pattern (shades of taupe mixed with a bright yellow and pink), but I had it paired with a dark rinse jean, a reliable black stretch blazer, and nude wedges. So there wasn’t a lot of the pattern showing, just enough to make me feel like spring had really sprung after this interminable winter.

Also, the comment came from a colleague with whom I have a good relationship. We share stories about our lives outside of work and grab the occasional happy hour drink together. It was also a Wednesday with zero chance of client meetings that day. She very well could have meant the comment in the most benign way possible, a mere reflection on a fun top that she liked but would not feel comfortable wearing personally. So why was my immediate reaction so much darker?

As a plus-sized professional woman who really makes an effort to look fashionable, I feel there are potential landmines everywhere. Sure, there are the usual ones that all women face (don’t show too much boob, always wear heels, is this accessory too much for the office), but there are simply fewer clothing options available. And even small missteps tend to be seen as a reflection of personality traits. A sloppy look on a size-6 coworker can be written off, but if that label gets applied to me? Well, it’s a short trip from “sloppy” to “fat and lazy” and that can negatively impact performance reviews and your whole career trajectory at a particular job. Perhaps I just have a deep-seated paranoia, but I think a lot about what I wear and how it is likely to be perceived. That means when I get a comment on my look that was unanticipated I question my own judgment.

I’ve thought a lot about the incident that sparked this post, and really studied the look. I believe it was a genuine compliment and I’ll wear the top again this season. And when the whispers of self-doubt rear their ugly head again, I will trust my gut instinct. When you feel happy and pretty about an outfit, that translates into a confidence that is attractive at any size.

Readers, do you think that small fashion missteps are a reflection of personality traits — and that size plays a factor in people’s tolerance of such missteps?  Have you ever decided that an offhand outfit comment was just that — an offhand comment — and kept wearing the outfit regardless? 

(Pictured: confidence, originally uploaded to Flickr by Glenda Sims.)


N.B. PLEASE KEEP YOUR COMMENTS ON TOPIC; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course I highly value all comments by my readers, I’m going ask you to please respect some boundaries on substantive posts like this one. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. Wow. This post makes me feel terrible. Fat, sloppy, lazy, and doomed to fail in my career because I had three hours of sleep last night and working 14+ hour days, so I’m wearing flats and an untucked gray, loose top. If I were size 6, I wouldn’t be offended. But I’m less than forgiveable because I’m a size 14. Glad I used my five minute break to read this.

    • Toffee, I think you should read the post again when you get a chance. Kathryn wasn’t saying SHE thinks someone who wears plus sizes and looks “sloppy” one day should be viewed more negatively than a size-6 person; she’s only saying that she believes many people have that view of people who weigh more. She writes, “And even small missteps tend to be seen as a reflection of personality traits,” and she’s talking about the people who she thinks may be judging her if she dresses a certain way that’s not up to their standards.

    • I don’t even get how you are interpreting the article in that way. Read it again, you are far off.

    • Yes, I think it’s the three hours of sleep that are doing you in. Take a breath, take a nap and then re-read.

    • I’m with Toffee on the message, as delivered.

      OP wrote – “A sloppy look on a size-6 coworker can be written off, but if that label gets applied to me? Well, it’s a short trip from “sloppy” to “fat and lazy” and that can negatively impact performance reviews and your whole career trajectory at a particular job.”

      So, yes, I can see how Toffee would read this and walk away thinking “Great – thanks for the reminder that society believes that I’m fat, unmotivated, and doomed to fail at work.”

      • Traditionalist :

        +1 I understood it how Toffee and Anon did.

        Toffee, I’m sure you look more than appropriate and that your team really values your hard work! Hang in there! Hope you get some rest soon.

      • Anon for this :

        Well, the whole post was intended to spark this type of discussion. Kathryn acnkowledged that she may just have “deep-seated paranoia,” and asked us if we think size plays any factor in people’s tolerance of other’s fashion missteps. I assume that all of us think it shouldn’t play a role – the question is if any plus-sized women think it DOES play a role.

        I think it’s great that Toffee thinks it doesn’t play a role in her life. I am also a size 14, like Toffee, and I can say that I *feel like* I have to be more careful about how my clothes hang than someone who’s much smaller. Mainly, because if you’re thin or straight, you just don’t have as many curves on your body that can cause your work clothes to get caught up. I have to think about (1) whether my shirt is too low-cut or too tight across the chest; (2) whether my skirts hang relatively straight past my bum, or if they follow the contour underneath too tightly; (3) whiskering on the front of skirts and pants; (4) muffin-top issues; (5) bra straps being too tight on my back; (6) concealing any shapewear; the list goes on. All of those issues affect how my clothes fit my body.

        All of those factors make me a little bit more on edge when I get any comments about my clothes at work, because I immediately wonder if all of my little tricks are working. It sucks. And I do think that there still is a general belief among a lot of professionals that if you are a certain size, you are a little bit lazier, or have less willpower than the size 6.

        Anyway, I guess I’m very glad that Toffee disagrees with this post, because clearly she is doing better than me. For me, however, this post resonates, because I have a number of the same concerns.

        • On your list of things to think about, I don’t think these are weight-related as much as a sign of good dressing! I am relatively thin/average and I check for every one of these, every day (well, except the bra straps part, but that’s just because I wear blousy tops where they wouldn’t show anyway.

          • Anon for this :

            Fair enough – I suppose I assume a lot of those issues are due to my weight, when in reality they could be things that everyone deals with.

          • Red Beagle :

            This. I don’t think it’s a weight-related issue at all. I think that on some level we all – no matter what size – wonder if our clothing choices that day make people judge us. I have a pair of Brooks Brothers pants I love but they are hemmed an inch too short. I sometimes tell myself they’re okay and wear them anyway, but then feel like people are judging me for being frumpy or in some way lacking for not getting my pants hemmed properly.

  2. Sydney Bristow :

    God I’ve definitely felt this. My typical experience is that someone compliments me on an accessory and sometimes it feels like they did it because the rest of my outfit looked awful so they focused on the one good thing. I know I’m more likely to feel this way when I’m ready feeling insecure about my looks, warranted or not.

    For what it’s worth, I think you can normally tell if it isn’t a genuine compliment because it either comes from a frenemy or is delivered with some level of sarcasm. If it comes across to me as genuine even if it actually wasn’t, I’d rather not know.

    • That happened to me today – someone complimented my top and immediately after thanking her I thought ‘oh my gosh, does she mean everything else I wear is awful and that this skirt is horrendous?!’… and then I told myself to shut up.

      • Philanthropy Girl :

        Happened to me yesterday. My 8-month pregnant self has a very limited wardrobe. I have a coworker who has literally tried to buy me things to wear (that I wouldn’t wear in a million years…) My mom sent me some new things, and yesterday my top got “OOOO! This is my favorite, this is best top you have, this looks like an appropriate maternity top.”

        Then today I get “You should have seen the top she wore yesterday. This one is fine, but yesterday it was perfect.”

        And I instantly felt like everything I’d been wearing since week 10 was a horrendous bag or fit terribly. And I’m still trying to tell myself to shut up.

    • Squiggles :

      I get this way on occasion, normally give my head a shake and move on. Maybe mix up the pieces and wear it in a different combination. I have a pair of shoes that is strictly at work that get complimented regularly (they are statement shoes – black/fuchsia, patent, peep-toe wedges). A lot of my outfits in the late spring/summer/early fall revolve around those shoes. I bought a new top this year and someone complimented the shoes and said something similar to the above for the shirt. Haven’t worn it since, but know I will do the above and wear a different combination of items.

    • Wow – I can’t even imagine feeling that way! I assume that they had to pick just one thing to compliment me on. I think if someone feels this way they need to learn how to take a compliment. Some women find it hard to do so.

  3. To the guest poster, I have been given similar compliments from friends and I believe that they are genuinely meant as compliments – as in, “that’s such a great color on you! I could never wear that though, it would wash me out” or something to that effect. I think you might be reading too much into your friend’s remark?

    • +1 to reading too much info things and worrying too much. If it’s someone you are good friends with, she might have just put it in an awkward way. I think it’s a woman thing to worry too much about this kind of thing. I make this blanket statement because I work with a lot of men and I hear them say all kinds of things to each other in a very blunt way but I can tell they don’t mean anything by it, it’s just the way they talk to each other.

      There is definitely prejudice in the workplace towards women who look a certain way. But I will say “a certain way” because I have seen that it can depend on the workplace as to who is looked down upon. For example, I used to know an attorney who would not hire anyone too young and attractive because he didn’t want his wife to feel insecure if he was working closely and socializing after hours with someone like that.

    • +1 I thought the same thing, she was probably commenting on the color of the top and the fact that she couldn’t wear that color. I think the friend’s comment may have come out the wrong way and was misconstrued.

    • Anonymous :

      I think it’s all in the author’s head. I say that stuff to my friends all the time. Like “that pink dress looks great on you! I can’t wear pastels but you look amazing in them”.

    • I don’t know if I’ve ever said something like that, but I’ve certainly thought it. As a redhead with a very small bust, there are a LOT of tops out there that I can’t wear (well), but still can admire on others. Also, though I probably wouldn’t want to point this out to someone, there are a lot of people out there who have a great style that I love, but would never want for myself. Dolly Parton comes to mind as a more extreme example – I think that she’s fabulous in her own Dolly sort of way, but I would never want to emulate her style personally, even though I love it on her.

    • anon-oh-no :

      Yeah, I compliment people all the time when I see something I like. Mainly because I love how it feels when I get similar compliments, so I figure if I like it, other women probably do too.

    • This is all so very exhausting. Frequent reader, seldom commentator but moved to speak.

      So much of this is perpetuating the “Mean Girls” attitude (“I really love that bracelet!” (turns to friend) “That’s the ugliest bracelet I’ve ever seen.”).

      Size 12 here, with a peak at 16 just 3 years ago. I am aware of all that has been said in the comments and blog post so far and, yes, there is a LOT that I know I cannot wear, and many things to be thinking about always about my professional appearance. And, I say this as someone with her own major confidence/appearance/size issues – serious, medically-confirmed issues. But, since entering the professional world (I’m now in my early 30s) I have NEVER questioned the intent of someone commenting on what I wear… I question myself enough on my own to have time to worry about that.

      Where is the CONFIDENCE component of this discussion? Get out of your own way. Take advice of others – be self aware, know the limits of what you can and cannot wear, the “boundaries of your body” if you will, and stop at that. You chose to wear the outfit because you felt that, as a professional, it improved confidence. Good, then. Be done with it. There’s not enough hours in the day (my day, at least) to entertain the Regina George’s in the workplace.

      • “There’s not enough hours in the day (my day, at least) to entertain the Regina George’s in the workplace.”

        This. I already went through middle school 20 years ago – I have no desire to participate in that drama again.

      • Anonattorney :

        Right, but just because you have no desire to participate in it doesn’t mean that mean comments don’t rankle. I like to think I’m confident. That confidence doesn’t keep people at work from saying or doing things on occassion intended to cut me down. Even if I know I look great, or know I did a kicka** job on a project, when someone gives me a backhanded compliment stemming from their own insecurities, it is still irritating. I shine it on, get pissed/upset for a few minutes in my office, and then I say f*** it and move on.

      • Anonymous :

        I agree with the confidence component.

        Growing up, I had many insecurities, and it showed. During internships, managers would comment that I appeared too shy and that people did not trust me despite my competence. As I’ve gained professional experience, I have learned to wear whatever helps me feel more confident and take comments at face value. It was a mental exercise at first, but it has made a difference for me professionally. These days, bosses do not comment on my appearance, but they do mention that they see me with greater confidence. They give me special projects and my resume is blossoming.

        Our clothes should help us feel more confident (even though it’s easier said than done). When it comes to feedback regarding appearance, I have plenty of other things to worry about. After all, how am I going to present myself as a confident leader if I am constantly second-guessing complements? Every person has something that can make them look better, be it certain silhouettes or colors. Know what those are, and wear them like you mean it.

    • +1. I am not size 16, I am more like size 6 – 8. But I have my own insecurities about how I look. I don’t feel good about my skin (dry, keratosis pilaris skin) or my hair (coarse, rough and frizzy hair) etc. I do what I can within reason to control my problems. But some times I get compliments on my hair and facial skin (no KP, but very dry skin)..though I feel like laughing at their compliments because I have a hard time recognizing that, I have never felt that those were sarcastic comments. I have thanked them and to a certain extent made me think if I should really think about by not so good features so much.

      • I learned as a teenager that everyone is very aware of the negatives to their particular body/hair/skin and pretty much oblivious to the negative aspects of other body/hair/skin types. I was so, so jealous of my best friend’s hair. She is of mixed race and has the thickest, fullest, most amazing dark brown hair. I have limp, quick-to-look-greasy, dirty blonde hair that can’t hold a curl and gets stringy if I grow it long. And then she told me one day while playing with my hair how much she liked it. She said it’s easy to braid, easy to comb, doesn’t get frizzy, can be short without looking like a puffball, and doesn’t weigh a ton. And right then I realized we all assume that others have it better or easier, but they don’t necessarily.

        So someone with really oily skin, who is constantly battling breakouts might look at your skin and feel jealous even though you are just glad the air in your office isn’t so dry that your cheeks feel tight. And I can tell you without ever having seen it that I would feel a little pang of jealousy about your hair as I wear mine in some variation of a chin- to shoulder-length bob for the 14th or 15th year in a row.

        I feel like aside from a few mean girls, most of the time the “looks great on you/I could never pull off that look” comments are genuine compliments stemming from recognition that the same things don’t look good on everybody, but they do look good on somebody. There are a lot of styles I like that don’t look good on me. But if I see someone who does look good in them, I’ll tell her. Because I can still appreciate how it looks even if I know it wouldn’t look good on me.

  4. I agree with you about the worries about looking ‘sloppy.’ I sometimes try putting together the airy casual outfits that some of my friends wear, and it just feels like I look ‘slubby’ – so even when it’s hot and I’m in complete casual wear it’s usually fairly structured (I’m currently in love with the Boden Chino Shorts)

  5. “What a great top — I mean, I could never wear it, but it looks great on you!”

    A few thoughts:

    1) Nothing about this comment suggested to me that the top/outfit is inappropriate. I’ve probably said the same to coworkers previously when they’ve worn something that I like, but don’t think works on me (example – a coworker has a fantastic burnt orange dress, but if I wore that shade, I’d look seriously ill).

    2) I feel like the OP made this about size when it isn’t about size? Maybe I’m super off-base here, or my radar for judgmental comments is broken, but I’m just not seeing it.

    • I had the same thought, but I realize that many of us look at our body image in very different ways. I did not grown up with low body self-esteem like many of my friends did so I understand that my first reactions are often different.

    • Killer Kitten Heels :

      I agree – I think the friend in the guest poster’s example story was commenting on the bright colors, which not everyone can pull off, rather than trying to hint that there was anything wrong with the shirt.

    • Orangerie :

      Agree with all of this. I didn’t read the comment as back-handed at all.

    • I said that to someone who was overweight. She was wearing canary yellow and it looked good on her. I look best in jewel tones but would like to wear fun colors once in awhile. I meant it as a compliment even though I really didn’t like her.

  6. On a somewhat related note, I recently started at a new job where I am basically the only woman in a 100+ person office (it’s a really male industry but this is shocking even for the industry).

    Beyond all of the expected gender issues, I realized how much I missed having other women around for workplace fashion inspiration/camaraderie/compliments. Thankfully my male colleagues totally avoid commenting on my appearance in anyway, which i appreciate, but I really miss that somewhat social aspect of dressing for work. It’s also a lot harder to break out of work fashion ruts by being inspired by how other women are dressing since I see so few of them.

  7. My favorite frequent variation on this theme……

    “Oh! You cut your hair!”

    Yes…. What do I say to you…. Are you in shock? Expressing your tacit dislike? Do I acknowledge and thank you for noticing the length of my hair has changed because this deserves thanks?

    I try to say… “Yes” and change the subject. And then I feel bad/self-conscious for the rest of the day, especially if no one else says anything positive, and hate myself for being so insecure.

    • I tend to be optimistic about this particular remark. When I see someone has gotten a haircut, I usually say “Oh, you got your hair cut! It looks nice.” However, if I only said the first part of that phrase, it would mean the same thing.

      • What I don’t like is when you get your haircut and someone says it looks “cute” – am I the only person who gets that? I mean, I am 47 years old, I think the ship sailed on “cute” a long time ago.

    • I cut my very long hair because I was sick of dealing with it. I hadn’t cut it in 16 years and I know I look better with long hair but I did this for me because it was easier on me. I have gotten many comments in this thread of complete shock “you cut your hair….a lot of it….” awkward pause……”but I mean it’s cute…..” I know they think it looked better long and that’s fine because I didn’t do it for them. I did it because it made me happy.

    • Sometimes I say, “no, it just shrunk in the wash.”

      • LOL! I’m going to say this to my friends.

        When I cut my hair from long (shoulder blade) to a bob (between chin and shoulder), my female boss commented positively. When I cut my hair from a bob to a pixie, she didn’t comment at all.

    • Wildkitten :

      Also men don’t understand that hair can look different without being cut. Every time I do something different (like straight it after not for a while, or wearing it down after wearing it up) the men in my office compliment my new haircut. I just graciously accept the compliment and move on rather than explain to them that no, I showered in the morning instead of at night so it just looks different today.

      • This is especially frequent when you wear your hair natural as an African.
        My hair shrinks, then stretches. some days I have tight curls, other days it’s a fuzzy mess that I conceal in a bun. Yet, males coworkers still didn’t understand that I do not cut my hair every 2 weeks.

  8. This could be in the same vein:

    My mother and I were opening Christmas presents one year. We both got some sort of Crabtree & Evelyn / Bath & Body Works type gifts (scented soaps, etc.).

    We both giggled and laughed and said “do we smell?” We now exchange scented soaps regularly as a joke and laugh about how we will now be clean and non-stinky.

  9. Penny Proud :

    Maybe this post should be re framed as ignoring your insecurities when someone compliments you. There is nothing negative about that comment. For example, any woman who looks good in a button down is working something I would never wear.

    • Agree wholeheartedly. Even if it WERE a snarky comment about her size (say, if it had come from someone who had made jabs about her weight before), then you still shouldn’t take it seriously. It tells you much more about the person who’s making the comment than about how you look or what you’re wearing.

    • S in Chicago :

      I don’t think it’s all about insecurities. It comes from someone making a point to add that it is something she would never wear. Why do that at all?

      Without that qualification, it would be a perfectly nice comment. The comment in it’s entirety is stating that it is “less than” in some way–and that’s where the burn is (even if that “less than” is just that it’s not complimentary to the viewer’s figure, it shouldn’t be on the recipient to have to figure that out).

      Like I said, why add that on to the comment at all?

      • Sometimes I add that I couldn’t wear X very wistfully, because there are some styles and colors I really love, but they just don’t work on me. So it’s a genuine compliment and a bit of an expression of jealousy.

        • Anonattorney :

          Is it still “jealousy” if it’s not backed up by anything mean-spirited? I’m envious of friends all the time, but usually not in a mean way (I hope!). What word do I use for that? Envious? Jealous? Wistful longing?

          • Yeah, some friend and I were wondering if the Germans had a word for “happy jealous.” Sort of the opposite of schadenfreude.

  10. I almost always decide that an offhand comment was just that. I think it just makes life easier if when given two options of a) assuming a comment is innocent/positive or b) assuming it’s a secret insult, you assume the best case scenario. Of course, sometimes I second guess myself – but I always try to err on the side of the positive and it makes much happier, even if secretly everyone might hate my clothes.

    I’m curious though: do you ladies find yourself giving fake/secretly insulting compliments to people ever/often? Because the only time I really do tend to second guess myself is if I am wearing something rather loud or unusual, and I think this is because sometimes when I see someone wearing something very unusual (yellow lace suit, for ex.), I feel like the person catches me staring and then I have to say something to make up for the awkwardness, like, “wow, what a great color!” As a result, if I am wearing something very eye catching, I will wonder if someone complimented me for the same reason…. Sort of like if you lie, you think everyone else is always lying. I wonder if there’s any connection.

    • I give fake compliments, but to friends not colleagues. If I get the feeling a buddy is having a bad day or feeling insecure about her looks (after, say, a bad date) a compliment is an easy way to give her a boost. I wouldn’t compliment an outfit I considered unflattering, but have no problem complimenting clothes that I think are good, but not great.

    • I definitely think people do that. There’s a somewhat fashion-impaired lawyer I work with who has a hideous necklace that she says people always comment on. Yes, because it’s so obvious that you feel like you have to comment. (And trust me, with this necklace, it’s quite clear why it’s being complimented.)

    • I never give fake compliments; you can always tell with me they’re not genuine (or at least I feel like a liar, haha). I just don’t say anything at all.

  11. I agree that plus size women are definitely under more scrutiny for missteps (also women of color and very petite women, and possibly others. . .)
    A comment like that would make me feel slightly weird too. What’s wrong with just saying, “That’s a great top” or “That’s a great color on you?” I mean how are you supposed to respond, “Oh no, you could totally wear this! Anyone can wear prints!” or whatever.

  12. Anne Shirley :

    I definitely think the boundaries narrow for people who are larger and for people who aren’t white. My skinny coworker wears all kinds of crazy stuff to work and gets away with it because she’s conventionally gorgeous. As someone on the larger end of things, I feel much more constrained in my choices because if I draw attention to my body, I’m also risking people focusing attention on it (and me) in a negative way. I am not at all qualified to speak to the wardrobe challenges women of color face, but I will take my non-white friends at their word that when you’re already obviously different, there’s some pressure to dress even more conventionally to fit in (obviously not everywhere, but in at least some offices).

    I also think the criticism of the poster for reading too much into a compliment is misplaced. Why are we not assuming that she is smart and sensible and understands her own experience? Jumping to “oh that doesn’t sound too bad” is risky if it lets us off the hook of considering someone else’s reality for a while.

    • Well said.

    • TO Lawyer :

      I think that’s really true. And although this is an issue at the other end of the spectrum, I feel like sometimes skinnier women also get offensive comments about their outfits/bodies because somehow, it has become acceptable to comment on skinny bodies. It makes me feel uncomfortable that my body is commented upon in the workplace.

      I think it’s important to consider “someone else’s reality” (I love this!) and also – STOP commenting on women’s bodies generally.

      • Cady Heron :

        As a woman of color, I don’t feel any particular scrutiny of my outfit choices. Maybe because I’m a “model minority” and they think I dress like a white girl? If people look askance at my outfits, it’s because of the outfit itself, I think, and not because I’m not white. Some of my angular/asymmetrical stuff would get the same looks if my WASP friend were wearing it. In other words, it’s not always about race.

        • As another woman of color, I don’t feel particular scrutiny of outfit choices, but I definitely do about general attractiveness and a few non-outfit related things related to professional dress. For example, my hair. (I’m also a “model minority”) It’s definitely not always about race, but I think that we do look upon the appearances of women of different races differently.

          • I am petite, a size 4 and dress like Europeans (can’t help it.. that’s what you get from decades of colonialism). I wear understated makeup instead of loud colors, but I wear my hair natural. That one detail gets me so many comments and unwanted hand-in-hair situations.

    • Wildkitten :


    • +1000

      I have always said slim women can wear a $10 shirt and pants and look good. And us ‘robust’ women have to wear $100 pants and shirt to look tidy

    • Another yes. I’ve been both larger and smaller than my current size and it is absolutely the case that smaller opens up a much wider range of dressing options.

  13. cataliente :

    Aw, we women are an awful lot.
    When we get no comment or reaction we worry what words are withheld and what drama remains unspoken.
    When we get nice comments we worry, keep tossing and turning words in our heads to decide whether they are genuine. And when we finally decide they might be fairly genuine, it’s only to a certain extent that makes us end up secondguessing again all other facets of our professional appearance and image.

    It almost comes down to asking for flat-out rudeness. We can handle that. Well, at least it keeps us from secondguessing the other, and triggers us to focus on our own view.

    Makes me wonder; why do we expect comments on our appearance to be so multiple layered? Why don’t we check if the message we hear is really spot-on what the sender meant? Are we so uncertain about showing our uncertainties? Are we ourselves used to communicating the same multiple-layered messages to our co-workers? How would we feel knowing our innocent (or not so innocent) comment kept a coworker twitchy about her outfit/hair/skills all day long?

  14. skinny girl :

    I am just having a hard time following this post, but maybe it is because her thought process is so far outside of what would be going through my head if I received the same compliment. Similarly, I could say the same thing about a top that “needs” cleavage, or something that highlights curves that I don’t have. There are just some things that look funny when you don’t have much in the mammary department.

    I do believe, however, that there is both more scrutiny and more slack for plus sized folks. My boss is very large. I have no idea what size she wears, but she is morbidly obese. There is only a small universe of clothing choices for her, so I feel that some level of slack is deserved/warranted. But at the same time, what may look sloppy and unprofessional on her (say, a pair of what would amount to skinny jeans and a swingy trapeze printed top) would look passable if not cute on someone smaller.

    But, I’m just not buying or following this post–I feel like I can’t relate to it too well.

    • Anonymous :

      Maybe because you’re insensitive enough to comment on a post about the challenges plus sized women face using the handle “skinny girl?” You don’t have to relate to it, and you’re lucky you don’t. You just have to read it and get that people who aren’t “skinny girl” actually experience the world differently than you.

      • Identifying as skinny doesn’t mean she thinks she’s better than a heavier colleague! It gives information about her point of view, which is, as she acknowledges, very different from the OPs. FYI, skinny people have body issues too. (As the poster makes clear, self-consciousness about being flat-chested is high on the list).

        • anon for this :

          Agreed – in fact, the post is titled “confidence at any size.” Just as there are women of different sizes with body issues there are women of different sizes with strong body confidence.

        • Anonymous :

          I agree.
          Why are we buying into the idea that “skinny” is inherently better?
          Maybe “skinnygirl” feels bad about herself because she thinks she’s too skinny? Or too flat-chested? Or not feminine-looking enough?
          Hasn’t anyone considered that option?

    • This comment makes me feel…pretty not great. I’m just not comfortable with the language that you’re using around your boss. I think this would be a great time to put yourself in the (hopefully fabulous) shoes of the guest poster or your boss, and think about whether you might be a little more willing to buy or follow the post if you try stepping outside of your skinny-girl perspective.

      • Blonde Lawyer :

        I would agree with you if this was regarding a different topic but if someone is talking about how larger people and smaller people are perceived then some form of adjective to describe people is required. She said “morbidly obese” which I am fairly certain is a clinical term and “very large” which denotes size, generally. She didn’t say her boss is fat. She didn’t say her boss is humongous. I agree that her handle and “not getting” are probably not necessary comments. I also agree that we should always try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see things from a different perspective. That said, I feel like whatever word is currently PC to describe someone of a certain type fast becomes an insult and then a new PC word pops up in its place. I’m curious, in a conversation like this, what words would you describe to explain that you are comparing the experience of someone on the high end of the plus size spectrum to someone on the low end of the “misses” spectrum.

        While we are on the topic, I had a good laugh in a store one day when I couldn’t find anything my size in the “women’s department.” (This was right after college and graduating the “juniors department.” A store worker suggested that I should be looking in the “misses department.” I said, “oh, I’m looking for work clothes, not casual clothes.” She then explained “women’s department is the larger sizes and the misses department is the smaller sizes.” I was totally surprised by that. Given that Miss used to mean “unmarried” and “women” are adult females, it seemed weird to me to divide the departments that way. But I digress.

      • Anonymous :

        What? If she is indeed morbidly obese are we only allowed to use “curvy” to describe her? Ridiculous. Not OP.

        • +1. Also, as a thin girl with major curves, I have a really difficult time discerning whether “curvy” means plus size or accommodating to more robust than average lady features.

          • Anonattorney :

            What does “accommodating to more robust than average lady features” mean? Curvy generally means significant T and A – not Giselle Bundchen, more like Salma Hayek+. Yes, “curvy” can be a euphemism for plus size, but it also is nicer than calling someone morbidly obese.

            Also, I’m aware that thin people have problems too, and that everyone is more than just their body type. But, I think that self-proclaimed “Thin Girls with Major Curves” should probably check their privilege. Complaining too hard ends up sounding a bit like those men’s rights activists. Complain away, but be aware that skinnier women generally enjoy a privilege in our society that larger women don’t have.

    • Squiggles :

      As a big girl (size 22) there is not more slack. Yes, there are fewer choices (even fewer in Canada where I live), but that does not preclude us from having the same standard of dressing. My clothing budget is about double that of my regular/average sized friends, because I have to take into account that I have to A) spend 3x as much on a pair of pants, not mentioning undergarments and outwear and B) shipping. Thank goodness for the internet and easy return policies.

      In a lot of ways, we have to spend more time putting together outfits, to make certain things stay where they are supposed to stay, not gape where they are not supposed to, make certain they are long enough, etc. Plus, rely on accessories. If something goes a little off-key, then the whole look can be wrong. I have many outfits that were worn once. Even though nothing was wrong with them, someone looked askance and I felt what I was wearing was inappropriate.

      • I don’t know.
        As a decidedly not skinny person (I’m a size 12-14), I also feel there is more slack for very heavy people in terms of work wardrobe.
        I’ve had obese (and I use the term clinically) bosses and supervisors basically wear sweatsuits to work (elastic waist pants). I don’t feel I could get away with wearing that stuff to work and if I did, I wouldn’t be promoted to supervisor or director!

        • There is a very high level VP at my company, who is not visibly overweight, and she wears glorified sweatsuits and Chico’s-type flowy resort outfits on a regular basis. It’s quite unusual, but I guess it works for her.

        • Squiggles :

          Maybe it has to do with your work environments. Where I work and have worked, what I said above is true.

          However, it could be me and my perception of the situation. Maybe it is me thinking I need to step it up, because I am bigger I have more to prove?

        • Shoshi,

          I have also found your experience to be true at my company. I am a size 4 and have been reprimanded for my shift dress being an inch shorter than “regulation” (okay, fine) but my plus sized co-workers in t-shirts and elastic-waist “trousers” don’t get lectured. I guess since they are not technically violating the dress code that it’s allowed to slide. In general, I feel that my size and looks can be a hindrance. Crazy how people can be so judgmental no matter what size you are.

          Also, Squiggles, I think it’s ridiculous that there isn’t a thriving market for plus-sized clothing. Something like 30% of the US is considered plus-size. Seems like a fantastic business opportunity and it would do good for a substantial piece of the population.

  15. Any time my (male) boss comments on my outfit or accessories, I immediately assume he’s criticizing what I’m wearing. Since the dress code here is pretty much “don’t wear anything with holes, everything else goes” I try to ignore it.

  16. If someone says that I look nice or they like my outfit, I say thank you, take the compliment at face value and move on unless the compliment is clearly NOT a compliment. Perhaps the OP is overly sensitive and her reaction stems from her own insecurity?

    I sometimes compliment outfits I personally would not wear because I can appreciate looks that would not look good on my either because of my body type, I don’t care for the style on ME, the color, the pattern, etc. I have said “Love those shoes! I couldn’t wear them, but wish I could!” because the gorgeous shoes in question were a shape and height that my feet don’t like. However, i genuinely liked the shoes. I also complimented a colleagues bright yellow dress. Again, I look awful in yellow. She does not. Nevertheless, I fully appreciated her outfit on her, even if I wouldn’t wear it myself.

  17. I’ve actually used this as a compliment before – when a coworker (of any size) wears something colorful, ruffly, sparkly, shiny and looks great, while I’m in my everyday nerd gear. Now I am the paranoid one — have I offended someone like you’ve described here?

    I have been aware of times when I’ve complimented someone in the wrong way. I told one plus-sized coworker that she looked like a pumpkin — because she was wearing a beautiful spicy-orange top that reminded me of fall and made me want some hot cider. NOTHING to do with her shape – I wasn’t even thinking about that! That’s been ten years ago and I still cringe at the memory.

    I think it’s a good policy to accept clothing compliments at face value – as long as the person giving the compliment doesn’t have frenemy history with you, and as long as they are not comparing you to a harvest vegetable.

    • I was wearing a purple maternity dress and my co-worker told me I looked like Barney the dinosaur. She was a joker, to be sure, and we were friendly, but I ditched that dress.

    • This made me laugh, as I have been known to give foot-in-mouth compliments like that too. Never mean anything negative, sometimes it just comes out wrong (and have been on the receiving end of them too).

  18. Philanthropy Girl :

    I’m sensing that the writer is aware she is dealing with an insecurity issue. When you are a larger women in a culture that places so much emphasis on being small, it’s easy to feel insecure and easy to second guess or over-react to a simple off-hand comment. I have great empathy for the writer who is struggling between feeling great in a wonderful outfit, and feeling uncertain of how the world around her is perceiving her.

    While we would all like to have the confidence to where whatever pleases us, we’ve all had moments we’ve succumbed to wondering what everyone around us is thinking.

    • Think this is an excellent point – it’s hard to take compliments when you’ve been repeatedly told (by marketers, sales people, society-at-large) that your body is “wrong”.

  19. I absolutely get treated differently at work at a size 6/8 than I did at a size 16. Actually, I get treated differently pretty much everywhere. I feel that I had to try harder to be taken as seriously when I was plus sized, especially clothing-wise, and have been given more of a free pass of being assumed competent since I lost weight. Harsh but true.

    It’s also just easier to throw something on now as long as it coordinates because there are not as many fit issues to deal with. Honestly, professional perception and clothing issues are the single biggest reason I’ve made maintaining my weightloss a priority. Not that there is anything wrong with not having that as a priority, I just noticed such a huge difference from being on both sides of it that I don’t want to go back.

    • FinanceJenie :

      I’m on the other side – went from an 8 to a 16 due to pcos two years ago. I’m not happy with the weight gain but have made peace with it and have learned to be comfortable in the body I have now. I started in a new division at the beginning of the year and have struggled to be taken seriously. In my last position I was a high performer, judged by my contributions to the group/company but now it’s all about my weight with the not so subtle jabs that since I’m fat I can’t possibly be intelligent or business savvy enough to support my clients. As someone who has always held her head high and got it done – it’s incredibly defeating and for the first time in my professional life I absolutely hate going to work everyday. I can’t change divisions for another year and I’m worried that if I leave the company I’ll face the same not so subtle judgement… It’s a huge catch-22 but a reality for a lot of women in the corporate world.

      • It is so hard for me to fathom this. Who are these people? I have always been between a size 2 and 6 my entire life, so I’ve never been fat. But I have never thought anyone overweight was less professionally competent. Perhaps less attractive (but that’s personal preference), but I can’t see weight having any bearing on ability in a professional setting.

      • It’s so awful that anyone would go so far to joke about it. It’s especially awful when it’s a medical issue. I don’t see a problem as long as the person looks professional, but so many others do. It’s sad.

        It honestly never occurred to me that what might be holding me back at work was my weight until after I was on the other side, since I started my career off overweight. Heck, I spent almost my entire life as borderline (or not so borderline) overweight, so that was just normal to me. I had a temporary assignment in another city shortly after my weightloss, and it was a huge revelation. Ironically, I have so many more issues about my weight, not gaining it back, food, other peoples’ perceptions, etc. that I never had before I lost weight!

  20. Practical :

    I’ve taken to avoiding complimenting people at work on things they wear or how they look, or commenting on it at all. There are so many things to make small talk about. By focusing on looks, we tell each other that it’s what matters. As seen in this thread, compliments can be taken the wrong way. “You look tired” or “when are you due” are well known offenders.

    Things to talk about instead: The weather, vacations, the crowded work fridge, the new kind of creamer, the local or international sporting event of the day/week, plans for the weekend, traffic, the success of our office plants, the current office charity drive, pets, children, work, the pictures and items on someone’s desk, how much we love or hate our phones . . .

    I think too often we focus on appearance for lack of something else to say, and it just reaffirms and twists our relationships and images of ourselves and each other.

  21. Anonymous :

    I understand that society is not pleasant to women who do not fit the mold of “beautiful,” but on the other hand, I have been criticized countless times by female co-workers who believe that it is ok to comment on my body and overall appearance because I am young and slim (not that I think I look perfect by any means). Societal expectations aside, it is never ok to comment on anyone’s body at work.

  22. I wear a size 4.

  23. I have received, and given, this very compliment more times than I can count! When people say it to me, I assume it’s because I’m known for having a more creative, risk-taking style (relative in my professional office). Because I wear that stuff, people feel like I can. Because they don’t, they feel like I can’t.

    When I give the compliment, I’m basically saying that the person is so dang inherently attractive, or fun, or artistic, that they can pull off even the most avant-garde styles with flair.

    Our poster’s experience is valid and her own, but I am posting this comment to encourage everyone who wonders about what is “behind” these compliments to know that so often, there is nothing but true appreciation.

  24. mdDoogie3 :

    Often read, never comment. But I felt like I had to add to this with what might be a somewhat unique perspective. I’m a lawyer, and I used to be plus-sized. A year ago I was a 16. Now I’m a 4-6. I got compliments before I lost weight, and I got compliments after I lost weight, and I noticed a difference.

    The biggest difference I heard was in whether they were, for lack of a better way to put it, “passive” or “active.” Before, I’d be told “your shirt is so cute!” or “that skirt is lovely.” Now I hear “You look very pretty in that dress” or “that shirt looks great on you.” I will also swear an oath and tell you that there’s a difference in the tone (genuine-ness? comfortability?) in how the compliment is delivered, but perhaps that’s just me projecting. The difference in the wording, though, was real. And weirdly, it made me more self-conscious after I noticed it, because I thought back to all the compliments I got before.

    Like the author, I used to fret over whether the passive compliments were genuine or passive-aggressive. But now that I’ve heard a difference, I second-guess every compliment I have gotten.

    So an appeal to all work-place-outfit-complimenters. Choose your words carefully, and be aware that even those of us you might not imagine are insecure are definitely going to read into what you’re saying.

  25. I can’t believe so many people think the OP is just being overly sensitive. You have no idea HOW this was said to her, but as written it sounds incredibly back-handed. I think we have an instinct about whether a person is being genuine or being snarky and your gut instinct is usually right. I had dyed my hair a beautiful but slightly unnatural looking ruby red for a while when I worked in customer service. It was not a color that would have looked good on just anyone, but I have to admit, it looked fantastic with my skin tone. I felt fabulous. I got a whole range of comments on it, about ten a day. Most were genuinely positive, some were overtly negative (exclusively from women), but I also experienced a lot that if I were to write just the words, it might be a gray area as to what they intended, genuine or backhanded. But being there and hearing them, I could tell what the sentiment was. There was a mix of both the genuine sentiment of “I love your hair color, i envy your ability to wear it, but it would look so unnatural on me” and the snarky sentiment of “Wow, that’s so glaring, you’re brave to wear it and get all that attention” I could tell the difference and I’m betting the OP could too.

    If anything I think we err on the side of thinking things are compliments. I remember one time my super bitchy male “friend” said to me one day “I really love that you are embracing the skinny jeans trend. All I tend to see are such skinny girls wearing them, so I really love that you’re wearing them so bravely.” Because he was my “friend” I glossed over it until later that night when I was reflecting.

    That said, whether the OP was being sensitive is kind of not the point. When we get the feeling that someone is pulling a mean girls on us, I think that feeling is usually correct. I think we can trust ourselves to read between the lines and pick up on body language and tone and expression and so on. The question is, do we let that affect us? When someone makes a comment about a cherished top we feel absolutely fabulous in, it’s easy to brush them off as haters, but when we’re experimenting with new trends, new pieces, new colors, new styles, it’s much harder because we’re less sure about our choices. Maybe they are right and it is an ugly top or maybe they’re just jealous. It’s harder for us to know what to do with that when we’re just trying a piece out for the first time. It absolutely can make you question your judgment.

  26. My (woman) boss has said to me twice, “Oh, don’t you look fancy!” I’m never sure how to take it. Doesn’t really sound like a compliment, but I feel obliged to say “Thanks”.

  27. This is not an issue of size, but self-confidence. I’m 35-24-36 and leggy, but I have exactly same concerns. Any time I get a compliment I’m worried that people notice my looks not work (are they distracting? Is it inappropriate? Do I look overly attractive? Does it make them notice my work less? etc.), although I dress pretty conservative for my office. I guess it would be different if I were less insecure.

  28. Bri Naslund :

    I’m definitely guilty of feeling this way, the “She made a comment, it must be a bad day” kind of vibe. But I’ve loosened up since making friends with someone at my office that I can go to for polite but genuine outfit feedback. She’ll tell me WHY she doesn’t think something looks right, or how she would mix a piece with something else I’ve worn, but she never makes that “WOW I would never wear that” kind of comment.

    However, I’m guilty of saying “I could never wear that” but I ALWAYS follow it with why, like it wouldn’t look good with my skin tone, body shape, or etc. I have honestly felt/told women that I wouldn’t wear something because I’m not brave enough, and I never mean it as an insult, I just don’t tend to feel comfortable making bold statements with my clothing.

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