I have a confession: I’ve always wanted to own a bodycon dress.
What I really mean is I’ve always wanted to be the type of girl who owned a bodycon dress.
For a couple of years in the mid-2010s, the figure-hugging outfit appeared to be the uniform of choice for every slender Singaporean Chinese girl celebrating various occasions, from Christmas to Chinese New Year to 21st birthday celebrations. On any given night, I couldn’t go out without seeing at least one young woman pulling on the hem of her too-tight, too-short bodycon, while teetering on stilettos outside a club, grimacing through the pain.
Yet, for a period, I wanted to be this woman. I was young and naive, and measured my self-confidence and self-worth in the amount of male attention I received. It wasn’t enough for me just to be attractive; I wanted to be attractive to men.
Somehow, I was dead sure that the bodycon would help me achieve that goal. It was seductive, on trend, and possessed the remarkable ability to boost one’s attractiveness by 84%. To me at least, the bodycon represented the pinnacle of feminine charm; owning it meant I would have been the ideal woman.
Of course, the original bodycon was Hervé Léger’s bandage dress, made popular by celebrities like Kim Kardashian. But even I wasn’t ready to empty my savings account to look better. So I resorted to cheap, high street knock-offs from Forever 21 to Topshop.
These ‘fake’ bodycons were similar form-fitting dresses that promised to accentuate my curves and make me appear slimmer at once. Whenever I tried one on in the dressing room, I hoped they’d magically transform me into the type of woman who could wear a potato sack and still look like a Victoria Secret’s Angel.
Instead, as I tugged the dress over my hips, nearly suffocating myself by holding my breath half the time, I’d remember that ‘bodycon’ was simply short for ‘body conscious’. In that moment, however, it felt more like ‘body self-conscious’. All of a sudden, I was hyper aware that my curves either protruded from the most unsightly angles or I had a dire lack of them in a particular department.
Even as I tried to convince myself the discomfort was worth it, I couldn’t deny that a bodycon never fit quite right because I never felt quite right.
Over time, it started to represent my relationship with my body. Some bodycon dresses had a low-cut neckline that allowed me to show off my clavicle, a personal marker of having succeeded at being conventionally attractive. Others that sported a low back made me feel sexiest.
Then there were a few bodycon dresses that shaped my hips perfectly, boosting my self-esteem. Yet they also drew attention to my untoned arms, immediately removing all trace of aforementioned self-esteem.
And because of the way they’re made with little breathing room, all bodycon dresses appeared to target the single, most talked about ‘problem area’ for many women: the tummy. Unless you were blessed with washboard abs or the superhuman ability to suck in your stomach for a whole day, the bodycon was unforgiving.
If it sounds like torture, it kind of is.
The bodycon might often look amazing on the rack and on models, raising any ‘normal’ woman’s hopes that it would look the same on them. Yet staring in the mirror while attempting to work a bodycon usually feels like a subtle but stinging attack on yourself, akin to getting asked by a nosy relative why you’ve put on weight every year.
In an ideal world, fashion would be merely superficial, an inconsequential aspect of life that wouldn’t affect our sense of self-love. But because a bodycon was so common and highly lusted after by men and women, it reinforced traditional notions of a specific body type that was appealing to society.
As the Atlantic’s commentary on Hervé Léger’s bandage dress aptly put, “To wear a bandage dress, according to a man charged with marketing bandage dresses, you have to have curves, but not too many of them. You have to have flesh, but for heaven’s sake, not too much of it.”
In other words, the entire freaking bodycon trend was a slight against the average woman. The dress was downright exclusive, probably meant for the male gaze, and didn’t prioritise a woman’s comfort, all of which were exactly what made it desirable.
As a result of this strange obsession to be the right woman to pull off a bodycon, I would even occasionally convince myself to buy a dress that I knew I couldn’t quite fit into. Then, I would embark on various weird diets to get the body I wanted, so that I could eventually be slim enough to wear the dress with confidence.
Fortunately (or not?), none of these diets lasted more than a few days because my love for food and my sanity overpowered my desire to adhere to society’s definition of beauty. I also ended up wearing these dresses without having attained the body I wanted, just because I was too impatient to wait.
And so, these dresses were worn once, often with an added touch of insecurity, then relegated to the corners of my closet to collect dust.
Around 2015, the bodycon made its slow but gradual exit from clubs. While I can’t recall what trend came next, whether it was the crop tops or the athleisure, I doubt any were as distinct as the ubiquitous bodycon. For women who were looking to impress, and men who wanted eye candy, there was no longer a clubbing staple.
Coincidentally, this was also the period where upcoming fashion brands like Aerie started recognising the cultural and financial significance of representing ‘real’ women of all body types. Granted, beauty standards were perpetually changing, but this societal shift towards accepting diverse shapes and sizes in fashion marketing marked a change in the way women started to perceive their fashion choices.
‘Empowerment’ and ‘inclusivity’ were no longer just fancy buzzwords or lofty ideals. They became money-making, marketing tools.
I suppose that was also what helped me reconcile my love for the idea of the bodycon with the fact that it just wasn’t a great dress in reality.
Still, it remains the hallmark of a certain period in my life when all I wanted was to fit into someone else’s idea of what it meant to have the perfect body. While I don’t think I ever hated my body, I haven’t fully forgiven myself for treating myself with such contempt.
The thing is, self-love is complicated; knowing something isn’t the best for you doesn’t make you want it any less. If I were being fully honest, I would still like to be able to wear a bodycon, never mind that it would probably look tacky in today’s context. This is probably the same internal conflict that author Roxane Gay feels when she discusses feeling like a bad feminist for enjoying Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, which objectifies women.
These days, when I’m out shopping and I see a form-fitting dress I want to be able to pull off, a part of me is overcome with pure hope. So I head to the dressing room, dress in hand, knowing I’d likely not purchase it, yet wanting to see if I could.
In the moment, standing in front of the vanity mirror and checking myself out from various angles, I am once again the 22-year-old who wishes she could don a bodycon with confidence and ease.
The only difference now is that I no longer let that girl define how I feel about myself.
Strangely, every dress has looked better on me since then.