A brief history of body shapes
by Catherine Jarvie
These days it seems that you can't open a magazine or turn on the telly without seeing some reference to women and our body shape. We're fascinated by the minor weight fluctuations of our celebrities and appalled by the one in four of the rest of us who are fast becoming clinically obese. But this obsession with the female form is hardly new.
In fact, the shape of women's bodies has provided a reliable marker for female attractiveness and desirability throughout history – both for men to admire and women to aspire to. What has changed dramatically, however, is the shape of women's bodies themselves.
The shape of things
As any quick trot around classical art will tell you, the feminine ideal throughout much of the last millennium was rather more fleshy than it is now. From the curvaceous beauty of Botticelli's Venus rising from the waves to the buxom forms displayed in the work of 17th-century maestro Rubens (it's not for nothing that such voluptuousness is still called Rubenesque), the most sought-after female forms were represented by plumpness to symbolise well-fed strength and vitality in what were difficult times (there was no NHS and vaccinations for all in those days, my friend).
It wasn't until the late 19th century that things started to change. Back then, Victorian women in the leisured classes were routinely tugged and pulled into restrictive corsets to achieve that society's ideal form – the hourglass figure. The gradual tightening of corsetry would routinely reduce a standard (for the time) 22-inch waist down to that of a hand-span. As a result, the internal organs were forced to reposition themselves within the abdomen; cracked ribs were not uncommon and the restriction of oxygen to the lungs led to fainting fits that became routine among a certain type of society lady. Oh, the things we do for fashion!
Fat is a feminist issue
The 20th century was witness to what has perhaps been the most dramatic shift in ideal feminine beauty for centuries, if not millennia. A burgeoning feminism meant that women, slowly but surely, were making an active mark on society and demanding an equal place within it; and as women's activities increased, so the female body ideal changed shape.
The slender Gibson Girl of the turn of the century reflected women's new interest in athletics at a time when science was beginning to focus on body weight and discovering the 'energy in, energy out' principles of calorie counting.
But the most famous look of the early 20th century – and one of the most dramatic – was that of the '20s flapper girl. With her bobbed hair, short skirts (relatively speaking) and boyish, athletic figure, she was as far removed from her swooning, tight-laced Victorian cousin as Sunny D is from an Innocent smoothie.
By then, single women were routinely going to work, giving them economic power for the first time, and this liberation was reflected in how they looked. The first breast-reduction operations were carried out at this time to help women achieve a much-admired flat-chested frame, and breast binding (tightly wrapping fabric around the chest and back to push breasts in) was routine.
Pleasures of the flesh
The next big change to the feminine ideal was in the '50s. During the '30s and '40s, decades overshadowed by the Depression and World War II, we had remained athletic and active – as much through necessity as choice – and a certain utilitarian leanness had continued to typify the way women looked.
But post-war abundance in the '50s was reflected in a new body shape, as female curves came back with a bang – and no woman personified this fleshy ideal better than screen goddess Marilyn Monroe. All over the land waists were cinched, breasts were accentuated (and often padded) and a shapely derriere was de rigueur.
The 20th century was witness to what has perhaps been the most dramatic shift in ideal feminine beauty for centuries, if not millennia
It was a look that was to carry on into the next decade. But the '60s was also a time of burgeoning female empowerment. As more women headed out to work and play like their male counterparts (the contraceptive pill first went on sale in 1961), the elfin, lanky, mini-skirt-friendly beauty of the likes of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton proved to be the new ideal.
From then on slim was most definitely in. In the '70s, as women burned their bras and worked on getting ever-more active outside the home, the perfect body became increasingly athletic and toned. Women were encouraged to become fit and strong – the correlation between fitness and health was really beginning to be hammered home – and that was reflected in our changing shape.
In a Barbie world
By the '80s, diet and health influenced every aspect of the beauty industry. This was a decade when women worked hard at having it all and being in control. It was an ethos that was reflected in the shape we most aspired to be – gym-toned thighs and a perfectly taut abdomen spelled success with a capital S.
Throughout the '90s and into the new century little has changed. Even if, rather ironically, a super-sized, highly processed diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyles mean more of us are fatter than ever before, the ever-expanding science of health and exercise (and a weight-obsessed media) ensures the ideal feminine form remains fit and lithe, albeit with a curvaceous twist.
For while the ultimate body remains thin (and looks set to stay that way), we've also decided that there was something in that buxom '50s ideal. Sadly, nature has a way of giving most of us either large breasts or small thighs; very rarely do the two come as a matching pair. Which brings us to the dubious joys of plastic surgery: with a little upper-body enhancement we can now have our perfect-body cake and eat it too. Indeed, the number of breast augmentation procedures performed in the UK increased by 28% last year alone, indicating that the Barbie trademarks of tight buttocks and big breasts are where it's at right now.
A children's plastic doll as the vanguard of the ideal female figure – whatever will they make of that in 2050?
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I just thought I'd share, because I recall a discussion from a while ago talking about changing regulations in clothing sizes. Thought this'd tie in nicely - and since it's not a medical type thing you can feel free to switch your brain off and join me at my level ;)
Hope y'all find it semi-interesting.