The human skeletal frame, with arms at rest, is rectilinear and remains so at almost any weight. Only with arms outstretched, does it acquire truly square dimensions. It is extremely rare for anyone to be literally wider than they are tall, and generally results from morbid obesity. [See note below.]
To figure out your basic body shape, consider the outline of your body only — not your actual circumference measurements, which are misleading. (They don’t take into consideration your width from front to back.) Whether you trace your outline from a mirror or from a photograph, you want as few visual distractions as possible (even trying this nude might create optical illusions). You might try wearing an all-over color in a leotard or a one-piece swimsuit. Personally, I prefer doing this from a photo because you can place the camera at about waist high, which gives a good optical sense of proportion between your upper and lower halves.
You can then trace your outline (or not). But you definitely want to check your main measuring points: shoulders, bust, waist, and hips. Do you see a specific shape emerging already such as definitely wider hips, bust, shoulders, or a waist distinctly thinner than bust or hips? If you’re still not sure, try drawing a line from the shoulder to the hips and see which extends further. If you’re still not sure, keep reading till you get to the “Standard Shape.” Something may yet click.
Basic body shapes are created by lines and curves, but don’t get obsessed trying to categorize yourself exactly. Small divergences from your closest shape category are normal. You can deal with the aberrant details later. What you want to do is get the BIG PICTURE first, then zero in on the rest. I have chosen to use typical letter descriptions because they are fairly universal and very simple. (And don’t worry right now about how long, short, wide, narrow, or proportioned your shape is. Why complicate things?)
Body Shapes Described
H-Shape – The H-Shape is essentially a rectangle, with shoulders and hips approximately equal in width and very little waist definition (side-to-side). It may look like a square (or become more squarish with weight gain) or it may look longer. It may even be hard to tell from an 8-shape if you have a bit of a waist–but not much. A lot of H-shapes have one, but a lot of them don’t. Usually, however, their hips are more noticeably straighter than an 8-shape. If it possible to be in between? Undoubtedly. And, if so, keep reading till you get to the “Standard Shape.”
I-Shape – This is a visually long, thin H-shape. Asking how you can tell if you are an H or an I is like asking, “When does a hill become a mountain?” Someone probably has a mathematical formula for it, but it’s still a point of perspective. Do it the easy way. Take a picture.
What does your shape look like, objectively? To you? To your friends? You might just be a skinny H-shape. But what does it matter? Either way, your side-to-side lines are parallel and fairly balanced. The recs for H and I are pretty similar with the exception that an I-shape might require widening detail from side to side (belts, stripes, etc.). If you feel like a complete spaghetti noodle, you might want to consider it. However, I-shapes seem pretty popular nowadays and lend themselves pretty well to modern, dramatic, high fashion, and ethereal treatments, depending on other features of face, coloring, and proportion.
A-Shape – Hips are wider than bust or shoulders. It’s not unusual for this shape to be combined with an hourglass shape, also, typically with a smaller, defined waist. Most likely to develop saddlebags with weight gain. This type seems a traditional favorite in many cultures.
O-shape – Waist appears wider than bust or hips. Often associated with weight gain, though not always.
Oval-shape – Elongated version of the O-shape.
V-Shape – Shoulders are wider than waist and hips, often has narrow or boyish hips and undefined waist. In some systems, a large bust is considered a V-shape if it is the strongest line of width.
Hourglass – Defined waist line, bust and hips approximately same width. There are greater and lesser extremes of the hourglass shape, sometimes referred to as a “full hourglass” and a “neat hourglass.” Either way, it’s an hourglass and the differences have more to do with size and proportion than with shape.
X-Shape – Bust and hips are approximately the same width, but lower hips are wider than upper hips. May develop saddlebags with weight gain.
8-Shape – Bust and hips are approximately the same width, but upper hips are approximately as wide as low hips and form a “shelf” under the waist line.
If you are fairly balanced and find that a distinct category of shape eludes you, you may have what is known as a “Standard Body.” Think of actress Jennifer Aniston. I have seen her classified as a “pear shape” (A-Shape), but it’s difficult to tell except in some old photos where she’s dressed all-of-a-color (she even looks vaguely like an X-shape in some photos). She is neither extremely straight nor extremely curvy, though she has moderate waist definition and a generally vertical line. She just seems “average” in every way. Likewise, if you feel fairly average in outline–possibly leaning towards one or more categories but not quite landing full-on in any of them– you may be simply a “standard shape.”
This “standard shape” has stood as the “average fit” of American women’s clothing for decades; it is the median of womanly figures. You may decide it’s more sensible to bypass or not emphasize hip, waist or shoulder areas in your clothing details rather than trying to offset them–depending on how much of a standout your “problem” area is (if, in fact, you consider it a problem at all).
Some Modifying Factors
It is possible to have one predominant shape in the upper body and another in the lower part. In such cases, you may want to consult separate recommendations for these and dress each half accordingly.
It is also possible to have a primary and a secondary body shape that contradict one another when you try to mix them. If you have a straight body shape mixed with a fit-and-flare shape, find out if one of them is dominant. Try on the lines of each and see which is better. Whichever is primary, go with that and only use the other as a modifier to the overall line, but do not let it dominate.
The most important thing to remember is that these categories represent ranges, not absolutes. Therefore, there is nothing to be gained in creating new and improved categories. These are generic shapes that blend into one another in varying degrees from person to person.
[Note to opening paragraph: The human body may actually shift shapes with extreme weight gain. I have seen some pretty impressive changes with weight gain or loss. Typical is the woman who becomes an O-shape or an Oval-shape after having been some other shape entirely. However, I have even seen an O-shape become an I-shape with weight loss! I cannot stress enough, though, that finding your style is not a substitute for good health and weight loss if O or Oval is not your native shape. Even so, do not give up on dressing primarily for your face and personality. Those are what people primarily respond to. But, please promise me you will not use these guidelines as a palliative for whatever is causing your health or weight issues!]