Did you know that there’s more to being petite than just your overall height?
Vertical balance is the proportion of your body that is above, below or at your waist. Depending on your proportions, you might have a very even vertical balance, or you might be proportionally longer in either your top half or your bottom half, as follows:
People of all heights can have these proportions. But when you’re petite, it affects how you shop for and wear clothes, as well as your perceived vertical line.
Why does this matter? Because the eye is naturally drawn to symmetry. Anything that looks too visually out of proportion will distort the eye and trick people via optical illusion into seeing things that aren’t there. For instance, longer legs can make a petite appear overall taller, while shorter legs might make a tall person make shorter. Meanwhile, a short torso comes with other problems, such as making you appear bottom-heavy, or giving you a bulge at the middle that isn’t really there, due to clothes bunching up or hitting your waist below the natural waistline.
How to measure your vertical proportion
The quick and dirty method: Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Does your waist (the place where you bend sideways) — usually higher than your belly button) appear to be visually at your midpoint? Higher than your midpoint? Lower than your midpoint?
The 2 hands method: Place one of your hands sideways under your bust (while wearing a bra). Place a second hand below the first hand. If you have more than 2″ of space between the bottom of your second hand and your waist, then you’re likely long-torsoed. 1-2″ of space, you might be balanced. Less than 1″ of space, or unable to fit two hands between the bust and waist? You’re short-torsoed.
The super-scientific method: You’ll want to get a friend to help you with this one. Measure from the bottom of your feet to the top of your hipline, i.e. the place where your pant waist will sit on a pair of midrise pants. If you can’t find a friend to help you, you can approximate this by taking a favourite pair of mid-rise pants or jeans and measuring their outseam, and adding an inch or so to account from the ankle to the floor. If this is roughly half of your overall height, you’re a balanced type. If it’s more than half, your legs are longer and your torso is shorter. And likewise, if it’s less than half of your overall height, then you’re the opposite.
3 types of petite bodies
- Longer torso and short legs: You’re petite on the bottom. You might have no problem shopping in the regulars section for tops, tees and jackets, and might actually be baffled as to why this is a struggle for some petites. But you constantly struggle to find pants that are short enough for you. You love tucking in your tops and wearing high-waisted pants and skirts, which make your legs look longer.
- Short torso and longer legs: You’re petite on top. You may not feel like your legs are all that short, and you might have little trouble shopping in the regulars section for pants and skirts, perhaps opting for shorter inseams, but not super-short ones. Meanwhile, tops and t-shirts and jackets and dresses are always too long on you. You need to shop the petites section for anything that touches your top half, and you like to leave your tops untucked in order to visually lengthen your torso.
- Balanced: If you’re under 5’3″, you’ll probably be petite all over. But you may not find a marked difference between the struggles of shopping for your top and bottom half, and you can wear different rises proportionally to your size.
I’m a petite (5’1″) with a proportionally short torso. My outseam length from the top of my hipline to the floor is roughly 37″, which is over 60% of my height; on a balanced type, this would be more like 50%. This means that:
- My inseam is roughly 29″ on floor-length pants, or around 27″ for skinny ankle-length pants.
- Petite-length pants usually fit me perfectly, with no need for shortening or tailoring.
- I can occasionally buy pants, jeans and skirts in the regular section, provided they carry “short” inseams or 30 length pants.
- Even if I do have to shorten things on my bottom half, it’s usually only by a minimal amount.
The flipside to this means that my torso length is extremely short — only 14″ from my C7 vertebra (bump at the base of my neck) to my iliac crest. I’ve already discussed this in my post about my challenges finding a backpack that fits. Basically, if your torso is below 17″, you are considered to have a short torso as an adult.
This impacts so much more than just backpack shopping. It impacts shopping for virtually every piece of clothing other than pants: Jackets, t-shirts, sweaters, tops, dresses, coats, blazers… basically anything that goes anywhere near my top half gives me issues. The implications are:
- I can only ever buy petite tops, tees, jackets and dresses. Shopping in the regular section is a lost cause and completely a non-starter. Even petite tops are often too long for me.
- Almost every top I wear is assuming I have an extra 4-5″ of height at my shoulders than I do. That means that straps fall off my shoulders, necklines and armholes are too low, and the waist of almost every top bunches up below my bust because it’s looking for vertical real estate that just isn’t there.
- Any item with a defined waistline is going to assume that it’s several inches lower than where it really is on my body. That means that the place on a top where the waist nips in will usually fall around my hips. Since my hips are wider than my waist, this will cause my clothes to either pull at the hips, or to bunch up at my back and stomach in order for the waist to sit above my hips. Both are bad.
Dressing the short-torsoed petite body
Some fashion tips for petites with shorter torsos include:
- Wear brighter/lighter colours on top, and darker neutral solids on the bottom. For jeans, I usually opt for dark wash denim in solid colours, or solid black pants. I’ll pair them with lighter or brighter colours on my top half. If I want to wear prints, I keep them to my top half only.
- Wear tops untucked and make sure they hit just above the hip. Finding tops that are short enough to do this is difficult, but not impossible. Untucking tops will visually lengthen your torso and shorten your leg length, balancing out your proportion. If you’re petite and pear-shaped, be careful not to wear tops that are too long; anything that ends right at your widest part will only serve to call visual attention to it. Instead, wear tops that just barely skim the top of your hipbone.
- Wear mid-rise pants and skirts. High rise everything is on trend right now, but this is a trend that we short-torsoed petites should really avoid. High waisted anything will come up right underneath our boobs, making us look like female versions of Steve Urkel, and bunching up unattractively on waist real estate that we simply don’t have. A lower mid-rise pant is the most flattering, sitting just below the belly button, lengthening the amount of vertical on our top half. However, skip the super low-rise pants if you’re a curvier petite or have broader hips, since they’ll just draw attention to the widest portion of your hips.
- Shop the petites section for anything that touches your top half. Regular tops and tees, even cropped ones, won’t work on your shorter torso. The shoulders will be too wide, the armholes and necklines too low, the waist will hit at the hip, the hips will hit too low, and the tops will bag and bunch in all the wrong places. Instead, buy dresses, jackets, tops, sweaters and tees made specifically for petites. There are lots of brand and shopping suggestions on this blog.
- Wear open necklines such as v-necks, scoop necks, and sweetheart necklines. You might be tempted to go for higher necklines like turtlenecks or shawl necks in order to visually lengthen your top half. Resist this temptation; it just makes your neck and shoulder line appear shorter, thus making your top half appear shorter. V-necks are the most flattering of all because they create a visual line that makes your shoulders look stronger and your torso look longer.
- Define the waistline. Your waist is higher than average, so it may be tempting to look for looser, boxier tops or crop tops that lack waist emphasis. Avoid this temptation; it will just widen your entire body to match your hipline. Instead, define the waistline with tops that gently draw in at your natural waistline.
- Use skinny belts. Large chunky belts won’t work on your short waist, since you don’t have enough vertical real estate for them. On the other hand, a skinny belt strategically placed at your natural waistline will work wonders, emphasizing your smaller half and reducing emphasis on the hips, and will break up columns of colour.
- Wear cropped blazers with waist emphasis. Look for blazers that fit at the shoulders, end at the high hip, and gently curve inward at the waist. Buy them in the petites section to make sure the waist doesn’t fall too low on your back, which will make it sit at the hip and pull and bunch in all the wrong places.
- Coats should be 3/4 length and gentle a-line in shape. Your best length for these is just above the knee or thigh-length. Belted styles will create waist emphasis. Again, shopping in the petites section for coats will give you the best fit, and avoid too-long sleeves, armholes that don’t fit quite right, shoulders that fall off your natural shoulder line, and too much bulk on top.
- A-line is the best dress shape, too. Avoid sheath dresses, which will cling to your broader hips and make you look wider in the middle, and shift dresses, which fail to emphasize the waist. Make sure you’re defining the waist and then gently flowing out to skim the hips. Look for shorter dresses that highlight your long legs, which will make them look a million miles long.
- Avoid too much bulk at the top. Ruffles, bows, pleats, bulky scarves, or anything that adds too much fabric to your top half will look visually off on you, because you lack vertical real estate on your top half to pull it off. If you have a larger bust, this tip goes double, by the way. Wear thinner fabrics and go with a less-is-more strategy to avoid overwhelming your top half.
- Use this simple tailoring hack to take t-shirts, tank tops, and dresses up at the shoulders: Turn them inside out. Sew a line across the shoulder about an inch or so below the actual shoulder seam on both sides. Turn right side out. Voila! Note that this won’t work on fancier or pricier garments on lined tops, and will leave an extra pocket of fabric on the inside. So only do this on cheap tees and tops that you don’t want to pay to have tailored.