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Then vs. Now: The History of "Ideal" Female Body Types

Your idea of a perfect figure may go out of style soon.

What is a  “perfect” female body? If you asked a person from every country this question, you’d get a lot of different answers. Some may base their idea off of female role models, and some may base it off of what they find physically attractive.

No matter what your idea of a “perfect” female body looks like, it’s likely based off of some outside factor. Just like hot new fashions or travel destinations, there is often an influencing factor, a trend, that leads to one’s desire to acquire. Something that leads to the thought: Wow, she has a perfect body. And history proves it.

From “Deformed” to Dazzling: Body-Type Trends Before the Common Era

Before the Common Era (which are time periods labeled BCE or BC) an "ideal" woman was often full-bodied and curvy.

c. 300 BCE

In around 300 BCE, Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, said women were “passive” and the female form was a “deformed male.” Women were shamed for not having sculpted, male-like bodies—until one sculptor changed that.

Renowned sculptor Praxiteles of Athens was the first to sculpt a nude, life-size statue of the female form. That female was Aphrodite, the goddess of sex, love, and beauty. (Fun fact: After seeing the sculpture, the Greek Anthology (VI.160) has Aphrodite herself saying, "Where did Praxiteles see me naked?") This sculpture was said to inspire an appreciation of a plumper physique for centuries to come.

From Corsets to Curveless to Curvy: Can Women Keep Up? 

Artists continued to portray the "ideal" woman as curvy and voluptuous through to the 17th and 18th centuries. That was until another fashion trend was invented.

c. 1800 CE

In 1837, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain took the throne—and she was quite the fashionista. Her popularity as a fashion icon was said to be the birth of the hourglass shape ideal—with the help of waist-cinching corsets and hip-expanding crinolines, of course.

These fashion accessories were very uncomfortable for women to wear. (Just think of that iconic Gone with the Wind scene where Scarlett O'Hara hugs a bedpost while Mammy laces her corset … ouch.) Comfort, however, was a sacrifice women felt they needed to make in the pursuit of full hips, big breasts, and a tiny waist. 

1920s

Less than a century later, hourglass was out, and roaring 20s flapper fashion said boyish, curveless bodies were in. Flapper fashion, which originated after World War I, demanded a skinny, boy-like, flat-chested figure to show off the then popular straight, fringy dresses.

According to the book Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children by Sarah Grogan, to achieve this, women would bind their breasts with breast tape, and use starvation diets and vigorous exercise to achieve this ideal. Not surprisingly, this was also when the Academy of Science began to study “a new phenomena of eating disorders.”

1930s-1960s

In the 30s, former flapper girls tore off their breast-hiding tape because shapely was back in.

During this time women saw a different kind of perfectionism. According to Grogan’s book, the mean of Miss America winners’ measurements (bust-waist-hips) changed in parallel to the trends of the time. In the 30s, the average measurements were 34-25-35 (a 2-inch increase in bust size from the 1920s). In the 40s, the average Miss America measurements were 35-25-35. Then in the 50s, that jumped to an exaggerated hourglass shape of 36-23-36.

In the 50s, the Hollywood industry touted for that hourglass shape: big breasts with a tiny waist, wide hips, and slim legs. Marilyn Monroe, actress and first Playboy centerfold, personified this trend. 

As the 60s approached, the industry molded a more sophisticated, less sensual, ideal. Stars like Audrey Hepburn, Gracy Kelly, and Twiggy boasted a svelter, more refined look. 

From Perfection to Body-Positive: There’s Still Work to Be Done

As the supermodel and aerobic eras began to creep up, it was clear that the pursuit for a “perfect” body was far from over. Women’s average weight and measurements continued to decrease—especially in the fashion community.

1980s 

In the 80s, the desired bod was tall, slim, athletic, but of course, still buxom. In the 70s, women were encouraged to exercise, but discouraged to build muscle—that was until Jane Fonda’s Workout Book came out in 1981. Her figure influenced the chic, yet toned body type that many women of the 80s sought after.

1990s

The fitness boom continued throughout the 90s, but within the fashion community the “ideal” weight began to drop. Models like Kate Moss popularized the “heroin chic” look—which was characterized by a skinny body, pale skin, dark under-eye circles, and an angular bone structure. 

According to the book, Femininity and the Physically Active Woman by Priscilla Y. L. Choi., models in the 90s weighed 23 percent less than the average American woman. To put that in perspective, models of the previous generation weighed on average only 8 percent less than the average American woman.

According to a study published in Current Psychiatry Reports, anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder causing people to obsess about weight and what they eat, was associated with the highest rate of mortality among all mental disorders during the 90s (and still is today).

2000s

After the 00s, women were expected to be healthy, but slim, with large breasts and shapely bottoms.

The first episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” aired in 2007, which influenced an even more exaggerated hourglass shape—with an emphasis on the bottom half.

 The unrealistic ideals of the 00s led women to resort to plastic surgery—which has been on a rapid upclimb. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, cosmetic procedures have increased nearly 115 percent since the year 2000. 

2010s-Today

While body perfectionism and shaming is far from over, media and societal expectations are undoubtedly shifting. Different body types, shapes, and colors are being embraced and celebrated, and the picture of what a “perfect” body looks like is beginning to blur.

The rise of social media has had a profound impact on body image—in good ways and in bad. Social media has brought on many body-positive movements, such as the “no-filter” and “no makeup” trends, #droptheplus, and clothing brand Aerie’s untouched #AerieReal fashion photography. Conversely, with “selfies,” the highlight reels of social media influencers, and #FOMO (fear of missing out) social media also has a way of making its followers feel inadequate.

In terms of squashing the expectations of a “perfect” female body, media and society is improving—but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Your best bet? Love the skin you’re in—’cause there’s no such thing as a perfect body.

Duration: 2:02. Last Updated On: March 22, 2019, 8:30 p.m.
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: March 22, 2019
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