There is an exact science behind what men and women find attractive, right? While that is somewhat accurate (ex. symmetrical faces), it’s not an exact science. The standard of beauty varies among different societies and cultures. The perfect body has changed and reverted back so many times in the course of history as new trends and fads are constantly emerging. There have been some crazy trends over time. I mean, foot binding was practiced from the Son Dynasty until the early 20th century in China and it was considered a mark of wealth and beauty! Ouch, and also ew? Let’s take a look at how the idea of the perfect body has changed itself over the last hundred years.
25,000 years ago, the ideal form of a woman’s body was voluptuous and curvy, and that ideal endured for a very long time. It signified wealth along with the ability to bear many children. Carrying extra weight and having wide hips signified health and fertility to men, which was sexy from a primal/survival standpoint. Ancient European art displayed the ideal female form by showing curvier women with large hips, full breasts, and a slightly pudgy stomach. At the time of the Renaissance, curvier women were still desired, and pale skin was often depicted as a standard of beauty in Europe, with people like Marie Antoinette going so far as to paint their face completely white. By the turn of the century in Europe and America, the ideal was still pale and fuller, but not as voluptuous as it was prior.
In the 1910’s corsets were still popular as were long dresses and a fuller figure, however, the perfect body has changed. In the 1920’s the flappers brought a different beauty standard and curves were out. Their bodies tended to mimic a boyish figure being straight and narrow with small chests. Women were androgynous, cutting their hair short and straying away from the preconceived notions of femininity. This could perhaps be attributed to women gaining the right to vote in August of 1920, and possessing a desire to be seen as more powerful and equal to men as opposed to homemakers and child bearers.
When the great depression hit, fashion and beauty were not the top priority. Gone were the flappers, and on the coattails of the depression, the 40’s brought the fuller figure back. Dolores del Rio (AKA the actress with the best figure in Hollywood during this time) was considered to be “warmly curved” and “roundly turned” so, yeah, whatever “roundly turned” means that was the goal. If a boy called me that at a bar I’d throw my vodka soda on him, but that’s just me. I digress. Interestingly, broad shoulders were considered attractive for women (cue the birth of women’s shoulder pads), possibly due to the influence of WWII, women stepping up in the workforce, and having to be more assertive.
By the late 1940’s the “pin up” girl look was born, and large busts were all the rage (think Marilyn Monroe obviously). Very thin women were encouraged by advertisements to take weight gaining supplements, butt and hip padding became popular. And–get this–bust cream (which was advertised as an estrogenic hormone for your boobs…ok). Both Playboy and Barbie were created during this time period, so clearly objectification of women’s bodies was just getting started. These same ideals carried through the 50’s.
By the 1960’s, the curvy figure was out due to models like Twiggy who reverted back to the 1920’s standards. The media spotlight was on youth and an almost prepubescent body type. Weight loss pills were prescribed for women and at this point I just can’t keep up with whether women were supposed to be thick or thin all within a 15 year period. Anorexia was super prevalent during this time as women were trying to fit into the aesthetic projected by the media. Thin and toned was in during the 70’s. About 80% of models were thinner than the rest of the population. The expectation of women to be a certain weight and unfortunately heightened anorexia and the mortality rate associated with it. Interestingly, during the 70’s pale was a thing of the past, and tan was all the rage, as was wearing hair naturally.
The 1980’s brought a desire to be thin but toned, athletic, and more fit. Unfortunately, this sentiment was not long-lived. The waif-like body time became popular once again during the 90’s. Many actresses had detrimental eating disorders, projecting unhealthy and unattainable standards onto women. As a result, all around self-esteem of women in the US was lowered. The 90’s also brought back the androgynous look (think Winona Ryder).
Plastic surgery is hugely popular to achieve standards that would otherwise be impossible (a full bust, small waist, big booty, thigh gap, bronze skin, and clear complexion). It is important to have a thin waist, but be “healthy skinny.” Sexuality is depicted virtually everywhere we look–especially nudity. The 2000s brought photoshop on with unimpeded force. Airbrush is able to morph models in a way that heightened perfectionism and unattainability. In recent years, woman have made strides towards body positivity and the notion that strong is sexy, but the idealist sentiments are far from eradicated and photoshop is still ever-present in the media. Body shaming celebrities and women in general is still high.
What All Of This Means
The perfect body has changed at the drop of the hat time and time again. Often in complete contrast to what was popular before. Trying to define yourself by what is “in” now will not only be physically unhealthy but also mentally toxic. It is a shame that the media has such a conscious and subconscious presence in our everyday lives. However, hopefully, we will continue to make strides in accepting diversity and imperfections. Let’s appreciating the different and equal beauty that each of us bring to the table.