If you were asked to describe your body type, what would you say? You’d probably turn to words like ‘curvy’ or ‘slim’ or maybe, if you were a particularly big fan of Trinny and Susannah, compare your shape to a fruit or an object (apple, vase…cello?). What’s less likely is that you’d describe yourself as ‘flamboyant gamine’ or ‘theatrical romantic’. That is, unless you subscribe to the Kibbe body type system.
The Kibbe system is an array of 13 different body types based on physical characteristics and, according to this explainer, ‘personality traits’. It was popularised by David Kibbe in his 1987 book, Metamorphosis: Discover Your Image Identity And Dazzle As Only You Can. Despite the book being out of print, it has recently found an increasing number of followers in groups on reddit, Facebook and in YouTube communities, with fans of the Kibbe body type system saying that it has helped them understand their body/frame and consequently how to dress for it. As YouTube commenter Savana King put it: “Kibbe encourages you to embrace and emphasise your features, not counteract them. Realising my type has also been extremely helpful in becoming a more sustainable shopper. I can finally shop online and not be tricked into buying clothes that look chic on the thin models but ultimately make me look like a Victorian baby.”
But what exactly are the body types?
The answer to that question is complex and more than a bit confusing. That’s because the system aims to go beyond simplifying bodies down to different fruits, for example. Instead of purporting to focus on symmetry, Kibbe focuses on ‘harmony’ and understanding your natural lines. Consequently the variations within body types aim to be far more reflective of human diversity.
To understand them you need to understand two main Kibbe principles: yin and yang, and contrast and blend. In the context of body types, yin and yang are feminine and masculine energy – this doesn’t mean a body type looks more masculine or feminine per se but that the lines of your body are categorised by curves, round edges and circles (yin) or by strong vertical lines, sharp edges, elongated outlines and geometric shapes (yang). Marilyn Monroe has lines native to yin, for example, while Keira Knightley has lines native to yang.
Contrast versus blend is more complicated and refers to how yin and yang are mixed together in a body. If you have a mix of distinctly yin and yang features, you would be classed as high contrast. However if you have a mix of features that are neither strongly yin nor strongly yang, you would be classed as blended. For example, Marion Cotillard is said to have blended features as she is somewhere between a ‘straight figure’ and an ‘hourglass’. On the other hand, Mia Farrow has contrasted features: while she has a very straight (or yang) body, she has other features that are very rounded and therefore yin (like her eyes).
The types fall broadly into five categories: dramatic, natural, classic, gamine and romantic. Examples given for each are Tilda Swinton, Jennifer Aniston, Grace Kelly, Audrey Tautou and Drew Barrymore respectively. There are a further eight types which are mixtures of these pure types, bringing the total to 13. Looking at the key components of bone structure, body flesh and facial features, native lines of the body are defined along the yin/yang and contrast/blend spectrum to determine your final type. You can find your type by taking the very in-depth quiz here.
…I did say it was complicated.
While the Kibbe body type system is far from simple, it has a dedicated (if relatively small) fanbase who are drawn to the level of detail and purported body positivity of the system. With a focus on line and bone structure, every body type is understood irrespective of size and celebrated for what it is, as opposed to how closely it fits the dominant aesthetic of the time. When a particular body type is so fetishised, particularly on Instagram (tiny waist, big hips and butt, bigger bust), it can be a relief for some to understand how they look beyond the loose terms of ‘body positivity’.
David Kibbe saw this type of theory as a way to style people and celebrate difference rather than putting forward an aspirational, homogenous vision where everyone looks the same. The Concept Wardrobe is a style blog and one of the major proponents of the system. They write that “Kibbe encourages seeking true balance by embracing and emphasising one’s natural body type. Additionally, Kibbe suggests taking a holistic approach to appearance instead of following random fashion trends.”
On top of that, there’s the psychological draw of using intricate quizzes to analyse and understand yourself. Whether it’s establishing your Myers-Briggs personality type, reading your birth chart or working out which character on Succession you are most like (I’m a Shiv), quizzes give you a sense of place and understanding of yourself. It’s fun, self-indulgent and almost comforting. The Kibbe body type test is no different and has the added appeal of answering questions about the parts of ourselves we’re taught to have the most anxiety about – the way we look and why.
But for everyone who advocates the system there are those who question it. In her video “Deep Dive Into The Kibbe Body Types“, YouTuber Tiffany Ferguson points out the lack of women of colour among the examples given for the different body types, almost all of which focus on white women. This is not to say that the system itself is exclusionary but that the community and movement is not as inclusive (at least in its promotional material) as it claims to be.
Moreover, the quiz encourages a hyperfocus on the body, in particular on your ‘flesh’. Whether or not that word makes you shudder, it can be discomfiting to analyse yourself so frankly and in such detail. This is only more true if you have a history of body dysmorphia, body image issues or eating disorders. Unlearning fixation on your body is a common part of recovery for people who have dealt with disordered eating and body image issues; reintroducing it, even if the gaze on your body is not judgemental, could be triggering.
By the same token, the end purpose of the Kibbe test is to learn how to dress for your type, in a way that’s ‘flattering’. There is a whole page outlining which patterns, dress shapes, colours and fabric weights you should and should not wear depending on your type. By Kibbe’s estimation, your type should shape your entire wardrobe. Some might find that framework a useful guiding hand but there are others who will find it unnecessarily restrictive. Plus, it’s hard to disentangle the culturally dominant idea that to dress in a way that is ‘flattering’ is to dress in a way that’s ‘slimming’ and introducing these restrictions can feed into a narrative that fat people should not wear shapeless dresses or suits.
Is this something you need to know about yourself? It really depends on what kind of person you are, and your existing relationship with your body. If it helps you feel at peace with your shape and more confident in the way you dress, it’s a great thing. Equally, if it could become a triggering form of restriction, be kind to yourself and steer clear. And if you sit somewhere in between those two poles, measuring yourself and doing maths is a fine way to spend an hour.
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