One could say that the history of female body image dates back to the dawn of mankind. However, female beauty and the need to achieve a standard of beauty or physical perfection has changed continually over the millenia. In ancient Egypt, women and men strove to attain a godlike physique and persona. The ancient Greeks and Romans did the same, though their gods were different. Our focus will be on the 20th century, the western world in particular, and the continual evolution of the feminine physique.
In the early part of the 20th century, women were struggling for independence and to flee the trappings of the Victorian era. The classical standard of beauty was still very much thriving and people strove to attain a traditional fair skinned and well rounded figure. In those days, a full figure was a good thing and the Gibson Girl personified this classical image of womanhood.
With the right to vote came freedom and independence for many women. For the first time in United States history, women had a voice and the ability to freely express themselves as they chose. Many women chose to dress as flappers and wore the characteristic short skirts and dresses that flaunted their um assets to the world as they danced the night away. The flapper style waved goodbye to long hair and concealed appendeges, and said hello to long legs and a somewhat androgynous bob hairstyle.
By the 1930s, the film industry had begun to produce the first movie stars and some might call it the “age of glamour”. Clothes were still taylor made and fabrics such as silk, chiffon and satin showed off the female figure to great advantage. A tall, slender figure was most sought after, and long trousers that many women wore accentuated the long lines and slim waists of the era.
The pin-ups of the WWII era such as the recently named “Notorious Bettie Page” were all about curves. It became acceptable to show more than a little skin, and long legs were a must. Many pin-up girls (so named because posters of them were “pinned up” in male locker rooms and mechanic shops across the country) wore elaborate props instead of clothing to make their pictures acceptable for marketing to the masses. They also tended to use signature poses in sillhouette or from behind that accentuated well…the behind.
Marilyn Monroe really took the pin-up era to another level and became an iconic beauty whose standard remains even today. Models, actresses, drag queens, even every day women in modern times strive to attain her classic and timeless beauty. Though she was much larger than today’s fashion models (some place her size as the equivallent of today’s size 8), her body size and proportions especially, are and perhaps always will be seen as close to perfection. She was an icon and a standard of Hollywood beauty in her time and forever.
The swinging sixties saw a split in body image with so-called “supermodels” leaning toward one end of the Body Mass Index and actresses leaning toward the other. Many actresses of the day (including Marilyn Monroe) were revered for their classical figures and their curvy shapes while high fashion began a trend that continues today…the thinner the better, even if you have to starve to death.
A return to natural beauty was the hallmark of 1970s female beauty. Women desired to attain a girl-next-door natural look that would affirm their increasing independence from and rejection of male approval. Televison shows such as Charlie’s Angels and The Dukes of Hazzard showcased women in unadorned yet still powerfully feminine roles.
Anyone who remembers the huge shoulder pads and dark lipstick (no matter your complexion) of the 80s will also remember that bigger was always better. To emphasize the transition of women from the home into the workplace where we became power players, clothing and fashion began to reveal a strikingly dramatic and powerful woman. This decade was all about more, more, more and apparently it’s coming back…to the chagrin of many of us who lived through it the first time. Maxi jeans show more curves, shoulder pads show more power etc. etc.
Examining the past can show us that we have definately entered an era of acceptance where we are free to copy more than ever before. It shouldn’t be surprising that the fashion industry tends to revive lost styles in the absence of creativity. There are so many wonderful women and fashions to draw from. One would hope that today’s woman is free to immitate any and all of her predecessors in the pursuit of self-acceptance and expression. A glance at any fashion magazine today will reveal the gamut of female body shapes and sizes though some are clearly favored above others. Take a look at our pages on Advertising and Entertainment and Body Image Psychology to find out why.