How to make your waist look smaller in clothes

Every body type has its challenges when it comes to dressing and style. I think it’s a misconception that one body type is easier to dress than another. If that were true, celebrities with “perfect” bodies wouldn’t hire and pay stylists.

As someone with a pear/hourglass shaped body, it can be easy for clothes to end up looking “frumpy” or dowdy” on me if they are not fitted and tight. While I love a nice oversized sweater as much as the next girl (beleive me, I’ve been wearing the same one from the Salvation Army for the past 7 years), I feel that in order to best accentuate my body and show it off, tight clothes are necessary. I’m well aware, as I’m sure you are my lovely reader, of the fashion rule of balancing a loose fitting top with tight bottoms (such as my oversized sweater with leggings or skinny jeans) and vice versa, but loose or oversized clothing just doesn’t do me and my curves justice.

Definining your waist is the obvious rule to avoid looking larger than you really are but it’s not always so simple. Pants and skirts impact the waistline differently and the rise of the pants or skirt makes a big impact. We must also consider the color of the top and bottom. Sometimes for some body types, separates are not what will look best. All of these elements work together to create a well defined or not so well defined waist.

Dress vs Separates

When it comes to dresses versus separates (aka pants and skirts), dresses usually provide a smooth, unbroken figure provided that they are all one material and color. With pants and skirts however, there is almost always and change in color and fabric between the top and the bottom. This results in a horizontal line that visually cuts the body in half. This horizontal line is the waistband. Depending on the placement of the waistband as well as your body type and the positioning of your breasts, this visual line created by separates can visually change how you appear in certain ways.

If you have a relatively short torso like me, and/or a lower bustline, a rise that is too high for your body type will make your torso look even shorter. And in the words of Clinton Kelly, “When you look shorter, you look wider.” It can also make your bustline look lower than it actually is by decreasing the distance between the bust and the waistband.

A higher rise will however, give the appearance of longer legs. But this is at the expense of your torso appearing shorter and your bustline appearing lower. Like everything in life, it is a tradeoff.

Conversely, a lower rise that moves the waistband closer to the hips will not make the legs look as long, but it will visually lengthen the torso and appear to raise the bustline.


The rise of your skirt or pants is crucial and in my opinion has the biggest impact on how your body looks. The rise is where the waistband of the garment falls on the body.

If the waist band of the bottom piece is directly under the breasts, I call that an “ultra high rise.” When the waist band falls above the natural waist but below the location of an ultra high rise, I call that “high rise.” Waist level is when the waistband falls directly at the natural waist, which is the narrowest part of the torso, or the part of the torso that folds inward when you lean directly to the side (most people call this “high waisted”).  Low rise is what I call it when the waistband falls between the natural waist and the hipbones. If the waistband falls at the belly button level or just below the waist, it can also be called mid rise. Anything below the hipbones is what I call “ultra low rise.” (See slideshow below.)

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As I have stated before, the rise of the pants or skirt becomes a visual reference point which determines how wide or narrow your waist looks in comparison. In order to create the visual apperance of a more narrow waist, you want the eye to compare the waist to the hips because the waist in generally the most narrow point of the body wheras the hips are generally the widest. To put it simply, when you look at something small and something large next to each other, they both appear smaller and larger than they would on their own because our minds unsconsciously compare the two.

Due to this visual comparison that we tend to make, the worst place for the waistline of clothing is the low rise position. When the outfit is viewed and the skirt or pants has a low rise, the eye will look at the natural waist and then look down at the waistline of the clothing. This becomes a point of comparison because it is the closest horizontal line that divides the body visually. Since the waistline of the clothes is not situated at the largest point of the body, the hips, and there is less of a difference in size between the natural waist and the point of reference of the waistline. Therefore the natural waist will not appear to be as small because it is not being compared by the eyes to something much larger like the hips. Instead, it is being compared to something only slightly bigger but almost the same.

The best pant or skirt rises for empasizing the narrowness of the waist are at waist level, high rise, and ultra high rise. This is because at these rise levels, there is a smooth, unbroken line from the waist to the hips allowing for an unfettered visual comparison between the small point of the waist and the larger point of the hips.

Ultra low rise is also good for waist definition but it is often too low to be appropriate or comfortable for anything other than swimwear or lingerie.


Another factor that affects this visual comparison is color. Any time there is a change in color, it increases the appearance of the body being divided visually and therefore emphasizes and amplifies the effects of that division and the following comparisons that result. A change in color means that there is no longer a smooth, unbroken line from the waist to hips.

Also, we must consider that changes from clothing to bare skin does count as a change in color, unless the clothes you’re wearing are the same color as your skin tone. In fact, one of the reasons that ultra low rise items work well for waist definition, especially in swimwear and lingerie, is that when the midriff is exposed, there is a smooth unbroken line from waist to hips, or from under the bust all the way to the hips which is even better.

This can hold true even if one garment, such as a dress or jumpsuit, covers the whole body but has stripes, color blocking, or a waist seam. Yes, there is no horizontal waistline as with pants and skirts that visually divides the body but horizontal lines of any kind within the dress or jumpsuit can have the same visual effect of breaking up the body, albeit to a lesser extent.

Pants vs Skirts

If you are like most women then your abdomen is not completely flat. And even if it is, it’s not always flat. Something as simple as eating a large meal or as uncomfortable as bloating during your menstrual cycle can quickly turn an otherwise flat tummy into the opposite.

The obvious distiction between pants and skirts are that pants are a biforcated garment and by definition have a crotch seam, unlike skirts. Due to this obvious difference, skirts have more “tummy space” than pants. The nature of pants encapsulates and encloses the tummy within a relatively limited amount of space.

It seems like an obvious and simple point to make but one that can make a big impact. For one, if I’m uncomfortably bloated and I’m unable to suck in my stomach because it’s too painful, I would much rather be wearing a form-fitting pencil skirt or dress (although a skirt with gathers at the waist or sweatpants would provide the most comfort and the fabric will pull on the sides of a fitted skirt) than fitted jeans or even leggings.

Fabric pulled on the side
Fabric pulling on the sides of a fitted skirt without gathers

The reasoning behind this is that when the abdomen becomes distended and expands horizontally, at least with a skirt, there is space and room for the fabric to move. This is why people with large behinds often find that the back hem of their skirts are higher up than their hemlines in the front; the expansion of the buttocks or the stomach results in the rise of the hemline. The same is true in reverse- when the stomach expands in front (such as with pregnancy) the hemline in the front will move up to accomodate the belly.

Not so with pants. With pants, especially tight fitting pants with slim or skinny silhouettes, the material covering the abdomen is already competing for space with our buttocks. There is no open space below the crotch to allow for expansion of the abdomen. The reverse of what happens with the hemlines of skirts happens with pants- if someone has a large behind, the waistband of the pants will tend to move down since there is open space above the waistband to accomodate the body.

This means that those super stretchy yoga pants with the fold-over waistbands are a godsend for when I’m bloated and on my period. Unfortunately, I can’t just unzip my jeans and fold the waist down. It also means that when it comes to having a fuller stomach, skirts are likely to be more flattering and comfortable than pants.

With a full stomach and pants, the  two options are either to have pants with a rise that goes high enough to cover the entire stomach area to allow for enough room within the pants for the abdomen (and then I end up with a pooch I don’t like) or a rise that goes low enough to allow the abdomen to go over the waistband (like the fold-over yoga pants). The issue with low-rise pants however, is the risk of exposing your underwear when you bend over and not everyone wants their stomach or lovehandles to overhang their waistbands.

So the best solutions (besides shapewear because not everyone wants to wear shapewear but it is an option) are to either choose a low-rise pant and risk the infamous “plumber butt” or “whale tale” (which is sooo 2002, and not always work appropriate). Or you can choose a waist level/high-rise pant that is fitted at the waist but otherwise  loose and flowy with a large(r) crotch depth.

These pants are fitted at the waist yet flowy for maxium comfort.

This will maximize the space for the abdomen while still defining the waist and minimizing the appearance of a pooch. It will also be more comfortable than tight high rise pants.

So the best solutions (besides shapewear because not everyone wants to wear shapewear but it is an option) are to either choose a low-rise pant and risk the infamous “plumber butt” or “whale tale” (which is sooo 2002, and not always work appropriate). Or you can choose a waist level/high-rise pant that is fitted at the waist but otherwise  loose and flowy with a large(r) crotch depth. This will maximize the space for the abdomen while still defining the waist and minimizing the appearance of a pooch. It will also be more comfortable than tight high rise pants.

You could even choose an ultra-high rise flowy pant and then have a belt to define the waistline. The good thing about belts is that you can quickly and easily adjust them to be tighter or looser. I really wish jeans for adults came with adjustable waists like they do for children. It would make those times my stomach is bloated much more comfortable.


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