What is “Flattering”?

In my review of the Closet Case Ebony dress, I asked you about the delicate issue of “flattering” clothes. There were so many excellent responses that I wanted to gather them into their own post!

(Why? Couldn’t I just tell you to go read the comments from the last post? Well, as a principal I work with says, “The person talking is the one learning.” As I write, I’m learning and reflecting… and as you write back in the comments, I trust you get that same chance to consider and consolidate your ideas! Which is a ridiculously teacher-y thing to say, but I am what I am. Shall we move back to the topic at hand?) 

In my post, I said that a tent dress like this is not classically flattering, because it doesn’t make me look skinner. As a larger women, I definitely feel like that is the prime goal of figure-flattering clothes, which is probably why the word is contentious in the plus-size community. (For the best take on that, read Mary’s 2015 post for the Curvy Sewing Collective!) I am very curious though if women in a smaller size range hear the word the same way, or what else it implies to them?

At the same time, I said that I don’t really care – the dresses make me feel happy and sassy, which I think is ultimately what determines how good I look. We’ve all felt hideous in some ill-fitting or not-our-style garment, right?

So, what is “flattering” all about? 

On to the good bit: your responses, paraphrased!

  • Flattering clothes make you look the way you want to look.
  • You, and only you, should determine what is flattering for yourself. Do not tell each other what is flattering unless they specifically ask!
  • People judge each other by their clothes, and knowing how to “play the game” helps you present the persona you want.
  • Knowing the colours and shapes that you love is empowering and builds confidence. (Here, here – that’s my experience of sewing in a nutshell!)
  • Flattering is about clothes that make you more attractive, and humans like other humans who look nice. Don’t bother getting angry at the word!
  • Flattering clothes accentuate what you have, in a good way!
  • Flattering is about good fit, which will always make you look and feel your best.
  • Confidence is flattering!
  • Flattering clothes are a colour that lights up your face, and make you look happy and confident.
  • Flattering is not one size fits all – it’s personal.
  • Classically flattering clothes don’t always work with your lifestyle, be it pregnancy, nursing, running after little kids, or your profession!
  • Don’t limit your wardrobe to what is classically flattering – when you are older, you might regret the fun clothes you missed experimenting with!

As I read your comments, I had a few thoughts. First, I’m so grateful that you debate and challenge my thinking in the most positive way, because what the world needs right now is respectful discussion. I like to know it’s possible, even on the most frivolous of subjects!

Secondly, while I might say this dress isn’t classically flattering, it’s very close. It accentuates the shoulders and lengthens the legs; the slim sleeves balance out the volume of the body. It’s also on-trend, which means it’s far less radical than say, a lagenlook outfit or an 80’s powersuit!

Third, there are all kinds of ways to achieve a flattering look. There’s shape, colour, fit, and fabric, just to name a few. Picture me in this pattern made of shiny beige lyrca, for example, and it’s much less cute… or two sizes up, with the shoulders falling off and the sides even wider… or with the skirt at a midi length, making my very short legs look even shorter. On reflection, I usually only push one variable (shape, colour, fit, fabric) outside my comfort zone at a time, and that keeps it feeling flattering.

Finally… with photography, I chose how to present my clothes to the internet. I took 100 pics and posted my favourite ones. I wore makeup, waited til the light was good, stood straight and put the camera at a good angle. Now, I did actually go to work in the black and white with turquoise outfit, exactly as is, and I don’t wear shapewear for blog pics or use Photoshop to change how I look. I’m 5’2″ and 185lbs, and what you see is what you get, just the best possible version. Isn’t that exactly what most of you said about flattering clothes?

The problem is all those infographics of what shapes you should and shouldn’t wear for your figure. It’s the universal rules that ignore your personal perspective. And while sewing allows many of us to sidestep those pressures, for some, flattering is a trigger word back to caring more about how others see you than how you see yourself.

flattering

So, flattering. Flattering clothes make you feel good, and look the way you want to look. Knowing what is flattering helps you present a chosen persona to the world, and that is empowering. I think few people would leave the house in something they feel is unflattering in shape, size, colour and fit…  but that decision that it’s flattering needs to come from within. That’s why I think it’s a compliment best used with caution, or avoided. Isn’t it always easier just to say, “That looks amazing on you!”?

Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

P.S. Disclaimer – No one has ever used the word flattering on my blog in a  way that upset me. Would I be pissed if someone said “That dress hides your big belly really well so it’s flattering”? Uh, yeah, but none of you would be so thoughtless! ❤ 

 


52 thoughts on “What is “Flattering”?

  1. I think it is the most important thing that YOU consider if flattering whatever that means. If you believe what you are wearing is flattering to you, you will wear it with panache, confidence and a smile which is terribly sexy and striking. When someone tells me what I’m wearing is flattering I hear an underhanded criticism in there – does that mean I wear things that aren’t? Does that mean I need to wear things that are flattering because naked I would be a mess? I’m just tickled when someone says, “I love that dress! It suits you to a tee!” and I can answer with joy and pride, “I made it!” That just makes my day.

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    1. I totally agree! I’m always flattered if someone has genuine enthusiasm for my clothes – no need to bring “flattering” into it! 😉

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  2. I like getting complimented, even with the word flattering – it means I, like everybody else, have an unique body that has some nice bits and some less nice bits. But I have yielded my powers of styling and chosen well! And let’s be clear here – I am rarely body confident, myself. I find lots of body shapes beautiful. But, I am honest with myself about the way I carry weight and how it may or may not fit into what I want to look like.

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  3. Well I like the “tent” style dresses on you, maybe because you look so free and comfortable in them. And those are the main criteria for me in my own clothes. The word “flattering” seems to have developed a trail of negative connotations, hasn’t it? I think because it always seems to be paired with an idea that there’s something wrong, and you’ve successfully hidden or minimized the wrong. That makes it a back-handed compliment, doesn’t it?

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    1. You’ve got it spot on, I think – it’s that back-handed compliment of “oh, you look better than you really are!” that can hurt! Lucily there are so many other words that we can use that it’s pretty easy to cut out “flattering” altogether, i think!

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  4. What a wonderful post and discussion. It is quite timely for me because I’ve been thinking about trying some different silhouettes recently and what has held me back is a concern that they may not be “flattering”. Seeing the two last photos in your post show me that two totally different silhouettes look great on you and that there is no reason why they wouldn’t look great on me either, as long as I get the colour right. (I so agree with you about the importance of the right colour!) Thank you for giving me the push to just get on and give them a go!

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    1. Glad to be on the right topic, at the right time! 😉 Speaking of those last two dresses, I feel way less confident in the tighter one, because it shows off my “bad” curves (aka my stomach) along with the “good”. Wearing anything remotely “look at my body!” is definitely outside my comfort zone… but I do wear it sometimes, and I do feel good in it! I love getting to play with silhouette through sewing though – I think for every experiment that I turn out disliking, there are at least 3 or 4 that I enjoy! Hope you have fun experimenting yourself!

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  5. I think, as most people said above, that flattering is subjective, but we do as humans put our subjectivity onto others. We think that what makes us feel like we look great, should also apply to others. That’s not a critisism, simply an observation (of myself and friends, colleagues, women). I think it’s inate, but actually, as long as you don’t offend others, does it matter? As you say, I would never tell someone that I thought their outfit was unflattering unless they invited me to do so. Btw I think you look gorgepus in all the photos above! You look happy and confident which is the most flattering thing of all! 😊

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    1. That’s a great point – we do tend to apply what works for us as if it’s universal! (Worst version of that is diets or health: this worked for me, so it really should work for you!) Myself, I think turquoise looks fabulous on everyone because it looks good on me, and as you say, that’s probably not harmful in itself. I think the challenge come when women have really strict rules for themselves about what is and isn’t flattering, and want to “help” others by imposing those rules on everyone.

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  6. It makes me a bit sad that when trying to compliment others that our words can sometimes have an impact other than what we intend. I am not sure how intertwined smaller and flattering are for myself. People are so much more than the clothing we place on ourselves it sometimes seems silly to comment on it in any way. At the same time I think that for many of us clothing is a form of expression and something we would welcome and appreciate a comment.

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    1. It’s hard, eh? There’s no denying that compliments are always heard the way we mean them. I agree though, people like a good compliment, so might as well be liberal with them!

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  7. There’s a blog I go to every day b/c it has a blog feed along the right side. And every time I go to your website, your face has such a dazzling smile! I’m 57, love knit prints, and my fav top I sewed this month is one w/cats. And I’ve worn it to work 2x. Who cares if I look like the crazy cat lady? I feel mah-velous in that top! And you look mah-velous! Keep sewing and wearing what makes you happy. And you do look happy.

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    1. Is it Debbie? She’s got a great blog roll!
      I’d love to see your cat top! I’m a hardcore cat lady myself, and I’m always on the lookout for cat fabric. Glad you are wearing your top with joy and pride, and I bet other appreciate it too!

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  8. I think that the word “flattering” has come to mean “slimmer and conventionally attractive”. That if something is “flattering” it makes you look “better” than you really are.

    I think that I have developed issues with the word “flattering”!

    I have found a definite link on my blog between clothes that are conventionally “flattering” – i.e. those that hide my belly and fat rolls – and the number of positive comments I get. I definitely get more comments for those garments.
    Garments that I feel fabulous in and reckon are completely “me” only get the same sort of feedback if they are also conventionally flattering.

    It’s an interesting topic! All of us want to feel great and think that we look good. The question becomes in whose eyes that judgement is made – and how we choose to respond to that.

    I have been pondering on “flattering” for a while, and really appreciate this post and the previous one.

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    1. I’m genuinely upset that the sewing community is rewarding the conventionally flattering! I can’t say I’ve ever noticed that here, but boy, I would be fascinated to poll other bloggers! I’m always happiest when a blogger posts something that seems so perfectly suited to their style – whether or not it’s my style doesn’t matter! I’m picturing you and Meg meeting in Thailand and showing up in matching green cocoon dresses, and each looking like the fun, interesting people I’d like to someday meet. How much more boring (and sweaty!) would things be if you’d both dressed to, I don’t know, flatter your waistline and make you bust look bigger? Shine on in what you want to wear!

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  9. Anything that makes you smile & glow like the Ebony has to be flattering. When we wear something that makes us look like you do we exude confidence, self esteem and the ability to take on whatever life hands us. To me; that is flattering.
    You asked for comments on the meaning of “flattering” for those of us who are in the smaller zone. The Ebony is on my sewing table right now ( I bought it Sunday night too). I know it will be flattering on me &I’ll receive compliments while wearing it because it will add pounds onto my frame. While I’ve never been larger than a size 5; I now find myself wearing xs or xxs due to some ongoing health issues. If I wear clothes close fitted enough to show my body size I am constantly told “Looser clothing would be so much more flattering on you!”
    So, from what I’ve learned over my 50+ years is we’re just opposite sides of the same coin.
    One large difference between us is while not many would ever call curvy or plus sized women the dreaded F word, not many stop from calling women of my size skinny..which is to me at least, the opposite of that Fword that I refuse to use.
    I’ll jump down off my soapbox now, and apologize If I rambled on for too long. It’s a subject I’m passionate about.

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    1. I got to be on my soapbox for two whole posts – You definitely get to say as much as you want! Your comment really hit home with me. I”m sorry that people feel like they are entitled to comment on your body because it is small in a way that they wouldn’t comment on mine for being big. It’s blowing my mind that people would actually say to you that you should choose different clothes to fake an illusion.. that’s the sort of thing I’d accept from a close friend or family member in private, IF I’d been asking for advice, but nowhere else would is be appropriate! Thanks for bringing the perspective from “the other half of the coin” – proof that no matter what size we are, thoughtless comments or even compliments can hurt!

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  10. I just made up my Ebony too. I ordered it Sunday night and couldn’t wait to get the paper pattern. I love Heather Lou and her patterns! I popped it on as soone as the side were sewn up, so excited to see the style on myself. I have to say I wasn’t sure…did I like it? I read your post and you captured my feelings exactly. I love the feeling of the top but it is big and swingy. It does cover up all my flaws. I think you look fabulous in both versions. I will be taking a couple inches off the bottom of mine, it swallows me. Is it flattering on me? I love how it feels so I going with you on this one😉

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    1. I hope you end up liking it because it’s fun to wear and looks cute – not because you feel like it’s a tent that covers your flaws! I bet you’ll love it once you adjust the length – if I’d kept mine 3″ longer as drafted, it really would have swallowed up short little me. I’d love to know how it turns out – keep me posted?

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  11. Flattering to those of us in a smaller range still sounds the same. Until you’re actually well into the eat-or-you’re-going-to-end-up-in-the-hospital range, the pressure is always to be thinner. And thinner still! When I was in college, I had some serious digestive issues. I ate well over 3000 calories a day and LOST twenty pounds. I wasn’t big to begin with, so knocking twenty pounds off made me scarily tiny. And I remember looking in the mirror at my one remaining bit of body fat and thinking, man, if I could get rid of that, I’d be good!
    I think the problem is that clothes aren’t fashionable anymore. BODIES are fashionable. Most of us will never look like conventional models; sadly, it doesn’t stop us from trying. It’s a terrible thing.

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  12. I’m a smallish medium. To me, flattering clothing just means something to make you look your best. It has nothing to do with looking skinny. I won’t wear pencil skirts and I like wearing a belt to highlight my mid-section. I like big poofy skirts and circle skirts. If I dressed according to my body type, I would avoid so much volume on the bottom and keep in minimum, while focusing on more volume up top.(I’m a pear.) But, I like plainer looking tops with all the fun below and on my head. At least all that volume is helped by my big hips.

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  13. I didn’t fully understand the problem with ‘flattering’ until I was pregnant, when all kinds of people began to comment on the size of my bump and how I looked. When you’re pregnant, neither ‘huge’ nor ‘tiny’ is a word you want to hear used to describe your bump. And when someone told me ‘You look great, considering’, I wanted to strangle them.

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  14. (Whoops, sorry, I hadn’t quite finished there). I was going to conclude by saying that there’s an inherent judgement in ‘flattering’ and that when the giver doesn’t judge by the same standards as the receiver you run into trouble. Just like when I was pregnant, I’d far rather someone told me I looked happy, or that they really like my dress.

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    1. Oh man, pregnancy bodies – I haven’t had the experience myself, but it seems like from seeing others it’s suddenly “fair game” to touch and make comments about size! Ugh! Back off, people!

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  15. So so interesting, flattering to me is being able to hide/disguise the bits I’m uncomfortable with (mum tum) if it’s on show then I’m not happy or confident. So I suppose I use the word for me and my style but not for others. When I see blog posts or people in real life I look at their clothes and think is it my style? would suit me rather than whether if it suits or flatters them, does that sound selfish?? It’s all about me 🙂 I always compliment people’s clothes (hair nails and make up too)

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    1. Hahaha – I “shop” other people’s clothing all the time! Usually wondering what details to knock off and sew for myself!

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  16. Most women are, or have been, at war with their bodies for most of their lives – often hating ourselves or bits of ourselves. We look at ourselves in the mirror with critical and often self hating eyes. We are afraid to draw attention to ourselves with clothes that break rules with colour, style and trend. I look back now at photos of myself as a young woman wearing clothes that were supposed to be flattering and feel very sad. Mostly they were dull, boring, and nondescript. I was 5ft2in and weighed 145lbs which in 1972 was decidedly large. It was hard to get clothes to fit me, most sewing patterns didn’t fit and I didn’t know how to adjust them. I tried to get clothes that were flattering and now I wish I had just dressed to please myself. I had great skin, shinning hair, a lovely smile and youth and looked great – I just didn’t know it then. Gillian you too have those great attributes – enjoy them and celebrate them with adventurous and bold clothes. Flattering is just another limiting box for women. Ditch the word and dress to please ourselves.

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  17. Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful post! I went and read Mary’s post as well, and these are things I’ve never considered before. As a petite woman, I do feel a bit out of place sharing my opinion and experience on this, but I hope it’ll help me understand further.
    When someone tells me that something I’m wearing (be it a color or a silhouette or anything else) is flattering, I interpret that to mean that the thing that I’m wearing **enhances/highlights** a feature I already have, not that it creates an illusion of a feature I don’t already possess. But I can see how that word can get a bit sticky, especially when there are so many emotions and experiences tied to ones appearance. I think Mary hit the nail on the head when she said (and I paraphrase) “your waist is already that small. You are already that sexy.” That, at least when I use the word “flattering”, I mean that whatever it is I’m commenting on is highlighting a beautiful feature you already possess.
    A couple years ago I made a shirt that was not very flattering on me in my opinion, but it looked wonderful on my friend. It made me look shapeless, but that didn’t meant I *am* shapeless. It just meant that particular cut was not flattering on me, as in it didn’t enhance a feature I already possess. I can only speculate, but, as Mary said, the Plus size RTW clothing industry assumes Plus size women would want to cover their bodies up instead of wearing stylish and beautiful clothing. The RTW industry *tells you* that you don’t have a beautiful feature to enhance by telling you to cover up all your features. I can’t imagine living in a world where I’m told regularly by the media or society that I have no features worthy of showing off, but it seems that this message barrages Plus size women daily. It’s no wonder that the word flattering, then, is considered a back-handed compliment.
    Thanks again for such a thoughtful post and for encouraging discussion surrounding this topic. I’ll have to come back and read through the rest of the comments another time!

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    1. Oh no, don’t feel out of place at all – if smaller and larger women could understand more of what it’s like for each other, the world would surely be better, right? Thank you for sharing!

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  18. Such good thoughts! Could you post links or references to the various outfits you have pictured? There are some I’d like to put in my to be sewn list! I’m especially intrigued by the top left and leftmost picture in the two collages.

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  19. Gillian, What an interesting post! Yes, what’s flattering are the clothes that make my face glow with happiness.

    Btw, whats the pattern used for the last but one dress! I love the lines.

    Also, Didn’t know you were a petite at 5′ 2″.

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  20. Gillian, I love your Ebony dress, it looks great on you.
    In my professional life I’m an industry trained patternmaker who has designed and sold clothes from the mid 1980s and during this period Ive personally gone from a size 10 at age 24 to a size US size18 and are now aged 57. Like Thornberry (hi Lara!) and many other commentators here I’m pretty ambivalent about what is the subjective meaning of having someone say a garment “flatters” you. On a personal level of interaction with the commenter I always take it as absolutely literal – that the observer thinks I look attractive in whatever is their definition of that word. As a feminist I frequently suspect their definition means I look smaller and more conventionally hour glass shape. To be truly complimented what I want “flattering” to mean is – that garment accentuates your personality which is vibrant, creative, distinctively individual and showing your confident delight in being a woman.

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    1. You are so right about the twin interpretations: personally, I don’t think people are out to insult me, but like you say, my feminist side wishes they could choose a less loaded word!

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  21. I love this discussion! I also happen to think the tent dress looks great on you! I think the overall shape is more important than looking thinner. I never thought of it before, but the term “flattering” does imply that there is some imperfection to be improved upon. I am thin but have narrow hips and a not-as-flat-as-it-used-to-be belly from my 3 babies. I don’t mind if something makes me look a bit heavier as long as it doesn’t draw attention to that “imperfection.” As you mentioned, color is so important. I have only recently been convinced of that and wow, that a difference!

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  22. Late to this very educational and interesting party–sorry! But I really enjoyed the discussions on both posts, and am grateful to you and your commenters for sharing so many varying thoughts! I agree that “flattering” tends to be a loaded word–particularly when said to curvier women–but ultimately, we can all define it *for ourselves.* The important thing is, like someone said above, not to apply our own understanding of what is flattering to other people as if it were universal. I think that any garment that makes you feel as good as you look like you feel in these Ebony dresses is absolutely Flattering-with-a-capital-F. 🙂

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  23. how lovely. I am a believer in if you are fully comfortable in the clothes you wear, then you are more confident, and better able to deal with the day. I remember having to go to a formal event years ago and getting the loan of clothes, and while the clothes were lovely and all they were not ‘me’ , I would have been better in my jeans as I felt the clothes were wearing me and I fidgeted thru the day, and another time wearing a huge hat to a wedding with a simple dress I made and feeling brilliant as I loved wearing both and I felt they were ‘my style’.

    I will wear jeans and an oversized sweater some days if I am working away at home and probably not the most flattering (its called my sick sweater as I wear it when I am tired) but the fit of jeans are great and the oversized sweater is in a shade of blue I love, so I still feel I am dressing ‘mindfully’. I decided a few years ago to cull and curate my wardrobe and then started to make my own clothes again as I knew I could get the colours and fit I wanted as well as giving myself clothes of distinct value

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  24. Flattering is also a word I dislike immensely. I also read into that word that it is covering a multitude of sins and even though I am averaged size whenever I hear that word it makes me cringe. I prefer to tell women that they look good in something. There are no negative undertones in saying something looks good on someone or they look lovely wearing it.

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  25. Firstly thankyou so much for your blog . I love reading sewing blogs – so much inspiration out there and as I avoid fashion magazines for so many reasons, blogs are my source for what is out there. Secondly thankyou for your interactive posting to really get discussions going. Now this post has been fascinating but I am now worried that I may have inadvertently insulted people . I would love to know what people do find acceptable as a compliment / comment . I have often commented on blogs but not realised by doing so I may have been interpreted as body shaming.
    I fear that I may have to stop leaving comments entirely because I have meant any harm. I read blogs from people of all nationalities, colours and sizes. I don’t care about that I just love sewing and this is my escape! I would love to see a discussion on this as I now know what not to write but am confused as to what would be acceptable.
    Cheers Janine.

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