Styling a Stomach: To Tuck or Not to Tuck?

Women have been lied to all their lives. Wear dark colors and you’ll look slimmer. Horizontal stripes make you look wider. Bootcut pants will balance big shoulders and make you look more proportional. Untucked tops will balance a short torso and will also hide a round belly. Since childhood, these style rules have been ingrained in us. These rules are geared towards making our bodies appear slimmer and longer with curves only in the places deemed by society to be acceptable and those acceptable locations keep shifting. One decade it’s hips and breasts, another decade it’s just the rear, another decade and not a single curve is acceptable. It’s harder to keep up with than eyebrow trends. And like eyebrow trends, we often look back at photos of our past selves with regret.

Some style rules can distract or emphasize, but no wrap dress or even pair of Spanx will give you a different body. Take a stroll through your Facebook timeline or flip through a family album. Heck, even use Google Images to search a public figure and a single year (so it’s similar size and and age) and scroll through images of that person. What stands out? Is it how trim they look in that black dress versus the green one? Is it how proportional their body looks with that top that hits exactly at the perfect place on their hip? Is it how their shoulders look much more narrow in that photo wearing bootcut jeans than the one where they resemble a linebacker in the same top styled with skinny jeans?  I am betting it's none of that.  What stands out is color, is cool details and silhouettes, it's fun prints, and more than that it's a smile.  Happiness and confidence is more flattering than any fashion rule-following garment.

Octavia Spencer's Figure-Flattering Style Uniform

Collage of Octavia Spencer at the 2019 Academy Awards in an Oscar gown designed by Christian Siriano

I shared so many photos of Octavia Spencer in her 2019 Oscar gown because it shows how a garment and a body can look different from different angles and in different lighting.

I adore Octavia Spencer. She is a talented dramatic and comedic actress who has earned many well-deserved awards. She is an activist, a producer, even a children’s book author. Octavia Spencer is 47 years old, 5'2″, and has a shape that I and likely many of you can relate to. For the 2019 Oscars, she wore a sparkly blue gown by Christian Siriano. This is a traditionally “flattering” fit and flare silhouette paired with off the shoulder detail creates the effect of an hourglass. The column of color keeps the eye moving and the sleeves drape to strategically hide the widest part of a woman’s upper arm.  

Octavia in below the knee to full-length fit and flare dresses

Octavia, like many of us, finds a silhouette she feels good in and sticks to it. She wears the fit and flare silhouette in a variety of lengths for both red carpet and more casual events, especially when she knows she will have to sit down at some point.

Three of Spencer's favorite style uniforms: fitted dress with blazer, skinny pants and untucked top with longer blazer, peplum top with straight skirt that ends at the knees.

Spencer has a few silhouettes she repeatedly wears that tick off the style rule boxes for figure flattery – longer jackets over untucked tops with skinny pants or jeans to hide curves, blazers cut to nip in at the waist over fitted but strategically gathered and shirred dark-colored dresses to make the figure recede, or a peplum top with a knee-length straight skirt or cigarette pants to create an hourglass shape and camouflage the stomach. Searching for these images, I often found them associated with articles on how to dress in a “flattering” way when you’re “heavy” or “bigger” in a certain part of the body or providing tips on how to “look five pounds thinner.”

Some of Octavia Spencer's fashion looks from 2018 and 2019

Breaking the style uniform: Spencer in a buttoned-up suit, breaking the “column of color”, and wearing a tucked in top with a full skirt.

But when searching for images of her style in the past year or two, I found the occasional outfit where she broke those style rules and the results are quite… dare I say flattering? She wears a suit with the jacket closed instead of open over an untucked top. She doesn’t employ a column of dark color but instead breaks up the line of her body. And she wears a fitted top tucked into a skirt… a look very similar to the outfit I wore yesterday. The outfit I wore yesterday received many emails, comments, and DMs asking how to wear such an outfit when you don’t have a defined waist, when you have a belly, when you’re short. The concept of a tucked-in top with such a figure goes against every single rule yet Octavia Spencer shows it can look great… even when paired with rule-breaking horizontal stripes.

The Tummy Torture

Our stomachs are the body part most quickly affected by hormones, diet, sleep, illness, injury, posture, and pregnancy. We have babies, we lose babies, we go through menopause, we go through hysterectomies, we gain weight, we lose weight, we have a fitness routine and then we get injured, we have undiagnosed allergies and illnesses that cause bloating and digestive problems. Who cares about our neck dear Nora Ephron, we feel bad about our stomach and it rarely has to do with age or even size. We suck it in with control garments, we hide it under tunics and shift dresses, we choose colors that we hope will make it disappear, and even change our posture to hide it.

Octavia Spencer in two-piece skirt outfits

Spencer in full skirts with tucked-in tops and blouses

The way to look stylish is not to try to hide, but work with what you have. And you have a waist, but it isn’t necessarily where your belly button lies. Look at the four looks Octavia Spencer is wearing above. Instead of trying to achieve a waist near her navel, she highlights at her ribcage, which is where she goes in and where she can define space between her bust and her midsection. No, these looks don’t make her look five pounds younger or five inches taller but you can’t say she looks bad in them. In fact, the switch up from her uniform is refreshing and fun. You’re not noticing her stomach, you’re noticing the whole beautiful package.

A Style Challenge: Try Tucking it In

I challenge those of you who don’t tuck in tops to try it this month and see how it feels. Start off slow with one of these methods:

  • Try knotting a t-shirt. This could be in the center or off to the side. If you go to my Instagram account, you’ll see circles at the top and one is titled, “T-shirt Knot.” I share how I tie my shirts in a more streamlined fashion. You can try this alone or do it under a jacket or blazer.
  • Try the French Tuck. Also known as the half tuck, it's a trend that has been around for a while but became extra popular thanks to Tan France. this is where you just tuck in 2-3” in the front and leave the rest untucked so only a portion of your lower half is exposed. Some prefer this tucking right in the center, some like it better when tucked in off to the side so play with it and see what feels and looks right on you. A high-low hem tunic is a great gateway garment into half tucking as it’s easy to tuck the front part to the side slits and leave the back untucked.
  • Tuck in a fitted top into wide-leg pants or a skirt with volume. Instead of using a long top to cover your midsection, try a looser bottom that doesn’t cling to your lower half. If you’re looking for wide-leg pants to do this with, go with a high waist that will start above your tummy therefore not segmenting it at the waistband. I recommend either a stiff denim that works a bit as a corset or going in the opposite direction with a lightweight non-stretchy fabric that has drape. I write this while wearing my glen plaid wide-leg trousers from Universal Standard which do a great job of skimming the midsection and rear without looking dumpy or ill-fitting.

Shop Wide-Leg Trousers:

Strategic cropping: The unedited version of a photo used in yesterday's blog post showing my midsection

Don’t Compare your Everyday to Another’s Highlight Reel

For yesterday’s photoshoot, like most photoshoots we have for the blog, my husband took literally hundreds of photos. And like most photoshoots, I deleted 90% of them. Some, because I had a weird face. Some, because they were blurry because I was moving. But a lot of them? It was because of my stomach. This is my site and I get to control the narrative. I am not ashamed of my stomach, but I’d rather choose the photos where I feel the most comfortable and I think they best showcase both me and the clothing. I have soft curves like many of you, and an outfit like yesterday’s doesn’t camouflage my midsection or make it look smaller than it is. A photo is taking a second in time and making it last forever.  While my stomach was more prominent in some photos, it's not as obvious when I am a moving, laughing, sitting, hugging, chatting person.  While you may not take hundreds of photos of yourself, you do a similar thing when gauging your appearance by your reflection in the mirror.  You are usually still, and after years of helping women get dressed, I'm guessing you have a certain pose you do in front of the mirror that you never recreate in real life.  Your belly is not as important as you think it is, and wearing what makes you happy will make you look a hundred times better than any fashion rule. 

25 Comments

  1. Zaeobi
    February 18, 2020 / 2:02 am

    It sounds silly perhaps, but a big reason why women often have a bigger stomach than men (ie it doesn’t lay flat) is because we have more organs in that region. I mean, ovaries? Uterus? These all need somewhere to go! I used to beat myself up about my stomach too (especially without the ‘legitimate’ reason of childbirth & my mother’s constant berating over this), but this revelation helped to make a bit more sense out of it. Hope it’ll help you all too!

  2. Tina YB
    January 18, 2020 / 3:48 am

    As someone of Asian descent who has struggled all her life with her big belly, THANK YOU for this, Alison! A million thank yous and BIG big love, you have no idea how your down to earth, CLEAR advice and empathy mean to me and so many women–we love you!!

  3. DNW
    January 17, 2020 / 11:01 pm

    Girl, looks like you hit a nerve with this post.

    To my sisters who are deep but not wide – I am the same but in a petite package. We need a community where we can share what designers and styles work best for us. And if someone finds a gem, let the rest of us in on it!

    Should I start a FB group?

  4. Chris
    January 17, 2020 / 6:31 pm

    I have a short torso with long legs and arms. My legs and arms look like they belong to a thinner person. From neck to crotch I am fat. To me I look like 2 giant, round beach balls with branches sticking out. If I let only my arms and legs show and hide the rest. I look almost OK.

  5. January 16, 2020 / 8:38 pm

    What I have also learned as I age is that few people ever remember what I wore…but compliment me on always looking put together. That works for me…happyily earned stomach and all!
    Good post.

  6. Venera
    January 16, 2020 / 7:36 am

    Hello! Thank you soooooo much! I live by the untucked, long shirt, Not because I like the style but because I am not confident showing my middle section, especially since giving birth. Will read your post again and again, and make it my mantra!
    I never comment here, and rarely on instagramm but again, thank you so much for your work, it helped me in so many ways, and I known it did for a lot if other women all over the world. Can’t remember how I found you years ago, but I am so glad I did! ❤️

  7. Robin
    January 16, 2020 / 12:13 am

    Thanks for this post. I am a middle aged plus sized woman built much the same as Octavia Spencer. I describe myself as “deep, not wide” because I have a chubby belly and big boobs, yet my hips and thighs are not big. I am often frustrated with plus size clothes because the designers seem to assume that all chubby people are built the same with big hips and thighs. I haven’t been brave enough to do any kind of tuck, half or otherwise in a long time, but after reading your post and seeing the pictures I might just have to chance it.

    • Diane
      January 17, 2020 / 12:30 pm

      Hi Robin! I have the same figure as you- not wide side to side, but deep front to back (I’m 5 feet tall). I don’t think there are many of us, or perhaps there are not many of us still trying to be stylish- it is really difficult and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our size and shape just give up and are not vocal or active in the “style community”. I have found that the half-tuck is a true solution, especially if I tuck it off-center and add some asymmetry in the drape from the tuck on one side to the opposite hip. It looks much better than an untucked, straight across the hipline shirt or blouse. Anything I can do to add angles or asymmetry seems to be the key!

  8. Lee
    January 15, 2020 / 9:44 pm

    This post & these comments—I want to hug you all, while I cry a little bit. We are so hard on ourselves. Count me in as another member of the “I hate my stomach club.” I’ve never been a skinny gal but before pregnancy, I tucked in like crazy. Now, 13 years later, I’m still struggling. These pics of Octavia Spencer are fabulous & your guidance here is good as well. I’m going to think about what you’ve said. But, I’m honestly so unhappy with my stomach that this could take a while. Still, I do agree that we usually judge ourselves way too harshly. One little area of improvement for myself is that I’m wearing lots of crew neck sweaters this season—even though I’ve gained some weight & tend to think my shoulders are like a line-backers (& I had this “idea” that sweaters just enhanced that). But I like crew neck sweaters & feel so comfortable in them, so I’m just doing it. Baby steps…

  9. Patricia Smith
    January 15, 2020 / 8:31 pm

    Alyson,

    Posts like this are what I love about your site. This conversation is forcing me to rethink the barriers I erected to presenting a more authentic image of myself.

    Thank you

  10. Karen
    January 15, 2020 / 1:19 pm

    Thank you Ally. I tried a half tuck in high waisted jeans today because of your article and I think it works. I just need to get more high waisted clothes after years of investing in mid-rise jeans. I really appreciate how you really listen and respond to questions from your readers!

  11. Allison
    January 15, 2020 / 12:33 pm

    This is post is EVERYTHING. You are a much-needed voice, Alison! Thank you for being YOU. We are all better for knowing you, even if it is not in person. 🙂

  12. jodie filogomo
    January 15, 2020 / 12:13 pm

    Girl!!! This is exactly what I’ve been saying however no one believes me as much because I am slim. But OMG…it just doesn’t matter. Like the scar on my fact…I can’t hide that unless I wear a paper bag over my head. Yet hardly anyone notices it or if they do, it’s just part of me.
    We should collaborate on a post about this to get more women hearing this…over and over. That’s the only way we are going to change the thinking.
    XOXO
    Jodie

  13. January 15, 2020 / 12:01 pm

    Thank you so much for this post! Just what I needed – and I’m already playing with that half tuck 😀 The photos are very inspiring, and I love your answer to Ruth 🙂 In the past few years I’ve noticed how I often get complemented by strangers for my outfits. One time in IKEA three different people stopped to tell me how much they appreciated my look! It’s not because I’m slim or beautiful, but because I always wear lots of colours. So yes, people do notice, but mostly the good things like vibrant colours and a bold mix of textures. How silly to imagine my belly could steal focus from my colourful outfits! Again, Thank you Alison!

  14. Linda B
    January 15, 2020 / 11:05 am

    What a great topic! Though personally I am not currently overweight, because I am 62 and post-menopausal after bearing two wonderful big babies more than 30 years ago, I do have a soft, rounded tummy, especially when my weight fluctuates a bit upwards. I also have a very long torso that is somewhere between hourglass and A bit pear shaped, and relatively short legs. So my own figure flattery dilemmas have been a complicated calculus!

    But lately I’ve been finding way more self-acceptance. And in fact just yesterday I decided to tuck my long sleeved, horizontally striped tee into my high waisted corduroys, and not care if the result was conventionally flattering or not. And surprisingly, I totally enjoyed the look and the feel of it all day!!! Thanks for encouraging us to experiment, Allison.

  15. Annie Shaw
    January 15, 2020 / 9:54 am

    I appreciate this conversation — and my awareness that my body shape (big belly) is still such a center of shame for me. Allison, and all you others who’ve commented, thank you for this topic and sharing.
    Mostly I focus on the real joy and laughter in my life, yet every morning I stand in front of the mirror with such a critical judgmental eye. I will choose to focus instead to shift my vision to one more loving. (I give others this gift, why not myself). good question.
    Again, many thanks for opening up this “revealing” topic.

  16. January 15, 2020 / 9:36 am

    This hits home. Especially since I’ve been critical of my weight gain over the last few months. I’m working on it but it’s going to take time. It’s hard to love your body when it’s not loving you back (Autoimmune disease is like that). Thanks for reminding me that if I like it and I want to wear it, I don’t have to “hide” anything.

  17. Patricia
    January 15, 2020 / 9:33 am

    What I noticed was any photo that showed her bare legs (which are quite slim) maked the rest of her look slender as well. And looks that feature a waistline (or close to it) gave her an hourglass shape. She looks curvy in a good way, not like a blob in black.
    Most importantly, she looked confident, proud and polished.

    • Dottie
      January 15, 2020 / 7:30 pm

      I also love Octavia! I use her as my muse for formal events as it’s tough to find flattering gowns when you have a tummy. She uses Tadashi Shoji often and I now have several of his gowns. The ready to wear runs to size 18 and plus sizes!

  18. Carol Zee
    January 15, 2020 / 8:31 am

    Thank you for the reminder that we are not one just particular body part and the size and/or shape of our anatomy does not define who we are!

  19. Ruth Slavid
    January 15, 2020 / 7:01 am

    Oh heavens, this really touches a chord. There are lots of parts of my body that I don’t like, but my stomach is the one that makes me ashamed. I know we shouldn’t feel like this, we should own our bodies, but i do feel like that. I haven’t had children, so that is no ‘excuse’. It sticks out and hangs down, and covering it is virtually my first priority. But… I have chunky thighs and any kind of long tunic makes them look enormous. So it is a continual compromise – hiding the indication of my lack of discipline. I know we always say nobody notices, but I travel a lot on public transport and see a lot of people. And I always notice detail about them, and assume therefore that they notice me. Those shoes are a bit ugly, they would look better if the trousers were two inches longer, oh and that’s a bit of a chin…. I’m sure we shouldn’t judge people like that but I do, I see how successfully they have put themselves together. Your piece is great and fascinating and you look great. So interesting to be reminded how we judge ourselves and others. Of course we shouldn’t. But…

    • January 15, 2020 / 8:35 am

      A lot of times we judge what we judge about ourselves, others don’t see with the same lens. When I used to be more judgemental of other’s choices of what they wore in relation to their shape, it was because I was unhappy with my own shape. As my self views have shifted, I’ve noticed my opinions of others’ style has changed to where I am more aware of fit, quality, and style. That someone with a stomach like me looks so great in X or Y or how it’s clear that this person is uncomfortable with her hips based on her style choices. By seeing my views change made me realize not everyone sees the world in the same way. It’s not easy, it takes years and it’s far easier being someone who has it literally her job to look at her body and read feedback about it (though at first it created a LOT of complexes and issues!). I feel you, I relate, I know it’s hard. And your stomach is just fine. MOST women, no matter their diet or fitness routine, has a stomach they don’t like, a stomach that is soft and hangs and it’s not always due to carrying a child. And as we get older, it’s the part of our body that is most visibly affected. Conversations like this I think are really helpful, to think about how we see ourselves and others, and to know we are not alone. <3

    • MarlaD
      January 15, 2020 / 9:04 am

      Ruth, I have a belly too and disguising it is my top priority so I know where you’re coming from. I would like you to consider that few, if any people are looking at your belly and judging it and it may free you from your misery. In my teens and early 20’s I missed a lot of fun at the pool and beach because I thought people would be staring at my (then minimal) fat and judging. After much sitting on the sidelines, I realized most people are so concerned with what they look like they’re not paying any attention to me (or you), or aren’t even looking. It set me free to swim and snorkel and have fun and not once have I noticed anyone looking at me with disgust. Lately, as I age, I notice I’ve been sensitive to whether people are thinking gosh, she looks so old and realize once again that this is in my head and it’s my responsibility to let this crap go and enjoy life. What I notice about people is when they look good in something, their smiling face, their energy. Chances are, that’s what people notice about you too!

    • Michelle
      January 15, 2020 / 7:17 pm

      I could have written this. Same type of stomach and I can’t tuck into pants. It just doesn’t work. Skirts are different though. How about you and me try not to be so hard on ourselves, deal? <3

      • Ruth Slavid
        January 16, 2020 / 6:40 am

        Deal. And I love all the responses. But I should say, things are not as bad as they sound. I do have fun with clothes, and a full life, and am loved. It was more that I realised from this post that I take it as given that I have to disguise my belly. I didn’t even think that was up for discussion and now I realise it is. It was something that I had 100% internalised. I also go to the gym and my personal trainer puts all sorts of bands around me and they segment my fat bits and look awful. Sometimes he takes photos and videos to show how I am doing and I just decide that the rolls are invisible. Ditto for swimming. My thighs look hideous revealed by a swimsuit but I just decide that I am invisible!

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