Ask the Image Expert

Sherry Maysonave is the founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, one of America's leading communication-image firms. Sherry conducts corporate seminars and coaches executives, professionals, and politicians in achieving excellence in communication and image. She is also the author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success

Power Dressing for the Overweight

Question: Do you have any advice on dressing for those of us who are overweight?

Answer: Dear Leslie,

It's easy to fall prey to the myth that if you carry extra weight, then you cannot project a snappy, professional image. While being overweight may create some dressing challenges, you can still look fabulous and exude professionalism.

First, let's explore the upside of having extra pounds. People immediately experience you as having a powerful presence, especially when you are accentuating your attractive qualities. Being perceived as powerful, as having personal power, is an asset. Dictionaries define power in several ways: "the ability to do, having influence, and possessing strength" -- to name a few.

In a business environment, the downside to having weight issues is that you have to work harder to be perceived as highly professional. Of course, slacking off with one's image does not serve any success-oriented person. For the weight-challenged career woman who has goals to get ahead, it's particularly important that she pay close attention to the details of her image -- every day.

Now to the question, how do you maximize your attractiveness potential while carrying extra weight? Start with a stylish, striking hairdo. Do not settle for ordinary hair. Be bold and get a truly striking cut that flatters your face shape and a color that compliments your eyes and skin tone. Be sure to always wear tastefully applied makeup, accentuating your eyes and any other winning facial features. Attractive people have higher incomes. In our society, a woman is considered more attractive and more confident when she is wearing tasteful makeup. Keep your clothing and all accessories in perfectly groomed condition. Wear interesting earrings that suit your face shape and ones that are well coordinated with your outfit. Avoid long dangles or earrings on a wire as those can make a person appear sloppy. Monochromatic dressing is an easy way to illusion off pounds. Monochromatic simply means that all the garments of an outfit are tones of the same color family. The most slenderizing combination is to wear the darker tones on your lower half with the lighter tones nearer your face. In my book, "Casual Power," there is a chapter devoted to the benefits of and the how-to of "vertical dressing." Monochromatic or tonal dressing is a prime vertical. You will always look taller, and slimmer, when your clothing creates a strong vertical effect. More importantly, verticals are symbols of power.

Learn about your body type. Regardless of your weight, there are lines that will slenderize your silhouette or widen it. As I say in "Casual Power," the most important distinction a woman can make about her body is whether or not she has a low hip or a high hip. Hip placement is determined by bone structure, not pounds. For example, elastic waist, pleated skirts, gathered anything around the waist is devastating (adds 20 to 30 pounds visually) to a higher hip figure. High hip lines generally have flatter buttocks with a bit of a stomach regardless of how much they weigh; when weight is gained, it goes to the tummy first. A lower-hip line figure usually exhibits fuller buttocks and thighs, a small waist, and a flat stomach, if thin. A lower hip set can wear all of the items listed above successfully; they do not add visual pounds regardless of weight as they do to a low hip. Lower hips should avoid overly straight, tight garments with no ease in the hip and thigh area.

Proportion is particularly critical for those who carry extra weight. It's important to know if you have narrow or wide shoulders, if you have a long or short waist, if you have long legs with a short torso, or shorter legs with a long torso. To appear perfectly proportioned, never accent any area where you are short. For example, if you measure short from the area under your arm to your waist (short-waisted), wearing a contrasting-colored wide belt with a flashy buckle would only emphasize your short waist area and make you appear more out of proportion. Or if you have a short neck (almost no neck), avoid turtlenecks and instead opt for V-neck tops or open collar blouses that give your neck some length visually.

Try these additional slenderizing tips:

  1. Shoes should be as dark or darker than your hem length.
  2. Blend your hosiery color with your hem length and shoe. Never wear light stockings with a dark skirt and dark shoes.
  3. Taper your skirts (both long and short skirts) at the bottom, starting several inches above the hem with a graduated taper to the hem line. Many plus-size skirts are extremely wide at the bottom, which just makes you look heavier.
  4. Taper your sleeves from the elbow down to the wrist. When there is a space between your waist and sleeve, you will look thinner.
  5. Taper in waist seams for the same reason, avoiding boxy cut jackets, blouses, sweaters, or dresses.
  6. Choose garments that have some structure and shape to them (like a jacket with a tapered waist that you can see while it is still on the hanger; check the back and the front for tapering seams). Unstructured, baggy clothing reveals the true shape underneath and they can even visually add extra pounds.
  7. Shoulder pads help balance your figure. Don't wear big outdated shoulder pads, shoulder pads overdosed on steroids; do wear small shoulder pads in sweaters, blouses, dresses, or any top to create more of a vertical.
  8. Black, navy, and dark rich solid colors work as pound busters. Large prints add weight.
  9. If you like to wear scarves, go for long, vertical ones or the short scarves tied at your neck to bring the eye up to your face. Avoid the square ones as they make a horizontal line and they can look frumpy.
  10. Check for those sneak-a-peak gaps around blouse buttons. Those downgrade you and make you appear heavier.

In closing, Leslie, don't forget to put on a positive attitude when you get dressed every day. Big can be just as beautiful as thin, especially when imbued with confidence and a great smile.

Best of luck to you,
Sherry Maysonave

Also see:

  • How much makeup should I wear at work?
  • Ask your image questions
  • Personal Power: A case study from 'Casual Power'