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6 September 2023

Don’t let TikTok tell you how to dress

Influencers are charging hundreds of dollars for consultations to tell you how to dress for your “seasonal colours” or “Kibbe somatotype”.

By Sarah Manavis

What does dressing for your body mean to you? Achieving a particular shape? Cultivating a physical feeling? Maybe it’s prioritising comfort or certain fabrics. For some it might mean exploring interesting trends or classic cuts; for others it might mean accentuating what they consider their most flattering traits. It might mean trying not to accentuate anything at all.

Over the past decade, the way we dress has become far more fluid, with a rejection of conformity and a rise in rule-breaking and dressing in whichever way you feel good. Which is why it is surprising that thousands of people online are opting to adhere to a strict set of standards promoted by “image identity” influencers, following the rules of the Kibbe system, ethereal typology, style essences or colour analysis.

Of these trends, arguably the most popular is the Kibbe system – created in 1987 by David Kibbe, a management consultant – which places women’s bodies into 13 categories, or “somatotypes” (originally based on a now debunked academic study, which wrongly concluded body shape determines personality). To determine your type, you must assess your proportions, your narrowness, your width, even your face shape; whether you appear long and slender, or short and stout. Colour analysis – also popular – has similar roots, popularised by a series of books published in the Seventies that promoted the idea of seasonal colour categories. Women were encouraged to pay for in-person appointments with “experts” who would tell them which season matched their skin tone and what colours would suit them as a result.

Exclusively targeted at women, such systems became daytime TV filler (where colour analysts and even David Kibbe himself appeared in segments on programmes like Oprah) and the subject of tabloid magazine quizzes in the Eighties and Nineties, before falling out of fashion. In the past year, though, they have had a major resurgence online, with millions of young women identifying by their season or type. You can be a “cool summer”, a “flamboyant natural”; a “bright winter”, a “soft gamine”. Each comes with prescribed styles, shades and patterns that promise to make the wearer look – in the eyes of the Kibbe or colour influencer – their best. On TikTok, videos on the Kibbe system and its body types have been viewed tens of millions of times, while those relating colour analysis have had more than a billion views.

[See also: The Shein influencer trip shouldn’t have shocked us]

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On the surface, none of these trends promotes anything wholly wrong. There are endless testimonies of women who say that following such advice has helped them dress better. Some influencers have also argued that the Kibbe system provides women with more body-positive language, referring to bone structure rather than where the body stores fat. One Kibbe influencer said of rethinking her own frame: “It’s just like a new, kinder way to classify body types… I much prefer to call myself a ‘romantic’, rather than a ‘pear.’”

But underlying such systems are conservative ideas of femininity. The ideal looks pursued for each type are often about making a body more attractive to straight men, suggesting clothing to create an hourglass silhouette and recommending typically “female” colours: sugary shades of purple and pink over, say, more masculine greys or blacks. We are told by those who promote such classifications that no body type is better than another, but the adjectives used to describe traits suggest some (delicate, balanced, symmetrical) are more desirable than others (flat, fleshy, broad). The celebrities or influencers featured in such content are overwhelmingly thin. If bigger bodies are mentioned, it is usually as an afterthought, and often patronising; one Kibbe site has a generous postscript under each type explaining how that body would look “if overweight”. The clothing influencers recommend to achieve the most flattering frames are traditionally “girly” too: flowery dresses, ruffles and bows – styles that peaked in popularity in 2010 and could be described as “cheugy”.

Race is an absent factor in such classifications. Some of the most popular content relating to Kibbe and colour analysis barely features non-white women. Some of the most famous diagrams explaining these trends – such as the top Google image result for the seasonal colour wheel – feature no non-white women at all.

But beyond the problems of which bodies are heralded and which minimised, these trends are founded on a false idea: that our bodies need to be classified at all. Our awareness of how different our bodies can be has never been greater. Why, then, should taste be bound by the width of our shoulders, the definition of our jawline, the proportions of our waist?

And yet these ideas sell. Not only have image types become entire identities for social media users (much like the Myers-Briggs personality types, or identifying as a “dog-person” or an introvert), influencers who are successful in this field can charge hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars for consultations to demystify the language they themselves have popularised. Claiming a hyper-specific knowledge of what will “work best” for you, these influencers will tell you that they’re doing you a favour: providing desperately needed clarity amid the overwhelming choice of the internet; advising not just how to dress better, but how to dress “right”. 

With the internet being so vast and unending, it is ironic that, rather than exploring endless cuts and shapes, we are whittling down our options to one or two. The image identity trend is part of a wider social media paradox: despite the expansive creativity available on the internet, the same safe, homogeneous trends continue to dominate and are promoted most aggressively. Of course, you can still find people sharing different (and by many measures better) ways of dressing that aren’t focused on conforming to traditional feminine stereotypes, but these accounts do not appear at the top of most of our feeds.

Identifying with a Kibbe body type or dressing based on your perceived colour season doesn’t necessarily mean you’re upholding conservative ideals. But we should resist the temptation to think that the existence of such narrow categories means there is a “correct” way to dress. What we wear should be freeing, pleasurable and creative – or perhaps no more than an afterthought. It shouldn’t be an obstacle course in which we are propelled by the anxiety that we don’t fit into a perceived category, and are trapped by our bodies’ predetermined restrictions.

[See also: A TikTok publishing house is bad news for books]

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