Everyone knows that the current female ideal is to be super skinny with a usually unhealthy and unattainable BMI, yada yada yada. We know and discuss how women hurt their bodies to achieve this... However, this female ideal has NOT always been the norm, and what some people do not realize is that hurting one's body to achieve the feminine ideal is NOT a new thing. Women have been doing this since the dawn of the human race, since they were first ingrained whether falsely or truthfully, that beauty is their greatest asset. For fun, I put together a very brief snap shot of various research to demonstrate the ideal of feminine beauty over the past 110 years... you can see how cyclical and silly and yet how fascinating society can be...
In the early 1900's the ideal female body was a woman who was full figured and extremely corseted. This ideal was known as the "Gibson Girl", a series of drawings that artist Charles Dana Gibson made popular which depicted her having an exaggerated S body shape with large breasts and an accentuated... well, her ass. (If someone can remember what the "butt cushion" was called that they would wear, let me know, I can't remember it for the life of me.) Her hair was piled on top of her head and she usually had a long slender neck. She was very swan-like, even the corset women wore to achieve the S shape was called the swan corset. The Gibson girl was often depicted as an equal but childish companion to her man, and she had an extreme amount of independence as she was depicted going to college... but yet she was never shown as part of the suffrage movement. The Gibson Girl was drawn of various plates and mugs, and some people argue she was the first national standard for feminine beauty. The most famous Gibson girl was Belgian-American stage actress, Camille Clifford (pictured above).
In the 1920's, the ideal female body became the more androgynous form of the flapper girl and women bound their breasts and cut their hair into boyish bobs to achieve this look. Some anthropologists such as Ann Bolin suggest that this social response to women gaining the right to vote in 1920. By shrinking their breasts and hips they wanted to show that women had more to offer the world other than merely serving as reproductive machines. Flapper girls were known as being rebellious as they would wear heavy makeup, drink, and be more loose and risque with sexual relations. It is interesting to note that this was the time period that beauty shops emerged... because barber shops would not adequately style a woman's hair in a feminine/boyish bob, women needed their own hair styling places. Clara Bow is pictured above.
In the 1930's the flapper girl ideal fell out of fashion, and curves became back in style. Women often wore broad shoulder padded suit dresses and created a triangle shape that almost mimicked the power suit of a man. Greta Garbo (pictured above) was famous for having a broad shoulders with a small waistline having the idea trangle shape. Katherine Hepburn and Jean Arthur often wore clothes to accentuate this iconic form.
In the 1940's, with WWII, the famed pin up girl body became the model for feminine beauty, with healthy curves and long legs that go on forever. It became more acceptable to show more skin and less clothing and pin up models would wear very little and sometimes props instead of clothing in order to make images acceptable for mass production. Each model would develop signature poses and oftentimes modeled their backside to accentuate their behind ad their legs. The Notorious Betty Page and Betty Grable (pictured above) were famous pinups. Back on the home front, women feminine but practical style masculine suit dresses. Because women were taking up jobs while the men were at war, they needed fashion to exhibit their strength and sexuality.
The 1950's introduced Marilyn Monroe (pictured above), one of societies most famous sex symbols and models for female beauty. She took the pin-up era and brought it to another level of acting, singing, and modeling. She had healthy curves and was a size 14, which is equivalent to today's size 8. (For my guy friends who are reading this and don't know what a size 8 is, I'm a size 6, if that gives you any perspective.) Women in the 50's strove for her "perfect" dimensions... Marilyn said, ""Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered." Yet, Monroe was not the only icon in the 50's. There were also Doris Day who showed a non-sexual sort of beauty and Grace Kelly who emphasized sophistication and realized many girls' dreams of becoming Princess of Monaco. It's also cool to acknowledge that the Barbie doll and Playboy magazine were born from this era of sexual confusion.
The 1960's and 1970's were decades of change and this included the ideal feminine shape. Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy (pictured above) were two of the decade's iconic beauties and both had petite shapes with small chests and hips. Hepburn had a little bit of curve, but Twiggy's body was that of a prepubescent boy. This was the first time in our nations history where someone severally underweight was the ideal of female beauty. Just how some anthropologists believe the 20's flapper girls were a reaction to gaining the right to vote, some believe this change in body image is a direct result of the introduction of the pill in 1960. Women now had complete control over their own reproduction and their bodies and did not want to be seen as baby machines. The ideal of being androgynous without defined breasts and hips represented independence and freedom. In the 1970's the idea body remained about the same but instead of being heavily makeuped, was a more natural and girl-next door look.
In the 1980's, exaggeration was in style. Bigger hair, bigger, shoulder pads, shorter skirts, etc, therefore exaggerated hourglass figures were in style. The ideal female form was a little reminiscent of the 1930s: powerful yet feminine. Exercise and toned muscles were also a sign of beauty as it exhibited a marrying of strength and female softness. Some anthropologists attribute this to women transitioning from home to the workplace. The shoulder pads helped give them a more authoritative look in order to hold one's own in the business world, the man's playground, yet the short skirts revealing more leg was a reminder of feminine softness. Madonna (pictured above) was one of the biggest female icons of this decade, she showed obvious sexuality yet success and control. Although, Princess Diana is comparable to Grace Kelly, in that she was a contrast to Madonna as Kelly was to Monroe.
I must admit, even though I've lived through the 90s and 2000s, there's little definite research on these years and it was difficult to sum up. The 1990's gave way to various ideal bodies. In the early 90's the exaggerated and curvaceous bodies of Baywatch and other shows and movies were the idolized, yet at the same time as the decade progressed, the underweight, tall, slender women like Kate Moss (pictured above) were the ideal. Some people theorize that as the national BMI increased and obesity became more of a national epidemic, the ideal body became skinnier and skinner. The rare becomes more desirable. The 2000's and now the 2010's continue to hold the unhealthily skinny female body as the ideal for female beauty.
I don't know about you, but I'm waiting for the backlash to happen... any time now! I guess if you are naturally tall and slender then you must be loving the ideal body right now, but for me... it's quite irritating!
Note that there have been several women throughout the years who are hailed for their beauty but don't fit the ideal body type of her era to a T, nor can fit into this little blog all nice and neat. Sophia Loren had the most extreme hourglass shape imaginable, Vera Ellen had the tiniest waist and hypnotically long legs ever(she was severally anorexic, I will note), Shakira proved that pear shaped women can hold their own as beautiful and sexy with their hips that do not lie, Halle Berry have the most perfect proportions I have ever seen on film, Salma Hayek exemplifies that top heavy women can be taken seriously, Lucy Liu proves that not all asians lack curves, and Natalie Portman exhibits how to be short, cute, and sexy all at the same time.
If you are looking for some more reading on the subject...