Is the perfect body attainable? Was it ever? Most likely not. Throughout the ages, women have been faced with body ideals that mirrored the society around them. From fertility to sickliness, body trends always seem extreme in retrospect, but at the time they were a serious achievement to obtain. How did we get to where we are today? Here is a brief (and mostly Western) look at the ideal body standards throughout history:
25,000 years ago, full figured women were the complete ideal. The larger and more voluptuous women were, the more fertile they were. Being well fed and strong was the only way to survive at that time.
Greek times were all about theorising human form through ‘science’. Aesthetic theories such as the golden ratio applied to women’s faces and symmetry was ideal (thanks a lot Pythagoras). If you go to any museum, you can see the greek female body ideal – she is full breasted, wide hipped and has a bit of a stomach. This fertile woman is seen in the majority (if not all) artworks from this time.
The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) focused on the ultra-feminine standards that can still be found in China today. Beauty was seen through small feet, pale skin, small waists and large eyes. The small feet continued as a beauty ideal for centuries within Chinese culture.
The Renaissance period was a time of great artistic achievement. With this came artistic liberties on subject matter. Women were often depicted within the paintings of the time and were typically painted to the standards of the painter (i.e. men) and not actual models. This meant soft women with pale skin. This is also a period where women were depicted as more sexual within art. This is due to the rejection of previous Middle Ages religious modesty.
The 1700s also had many men painters who painted their ideal women (ugh). These painters showed women as curvaceous and pale, a theme that continues to be popular through the next few eras. Corsets and skirt volumes varied to fit whatever dress format was fashionable. The waists went up and down and the skirts got wider and wider. Regardless, women often resembled a cone like torso and wide hips.
In the mid 1800s (the time when Queen Victoria was crowned), appearing to be weak and pale was the trend. Skirts were insanely large due to crinolines so women were mostly found sitting in this era. Toxic makeup was also a trend that continued from previous eras (lead based – how fabulous). The point of this look was to appear one foot in the grave, regardless of weight. Many women also went for the ‘plump’ look, but with a cinched waist due to the high popularity of corsets. This era was definitely uncomfortable!
A man named Charles Gibson decided that women needed look like his ideal. His illustration defined the standards from the turn of the century (1890s) to the beginning of World War I. She was pale, had a tight corset, wore a bustle to give the illusion of a booty and a large bust. Thanks a lot Charles Gibson! This look was coined the Gibson Girl and defined the female beauty and body standards. This was also a time where 40% of women were factory workers (in 1901), and the last thing on their minds was trying to look like a man’s illustration.
As the war came to an end, women were still the empowerment of the workforce. This bled into the twenties as the Suffragette movement aimed to give women the right to vote. With this came the rejection of preconceived notions of beauty standards. The ideal figure became more boyish (to mirror the male power they were feeling) which gave them much more freedom of movement – no more corsets! Women were emulating the new trendy figure: the flapper. Looking round, soft and fertile was no longer in vogue. Women wanted to look thin and curve-less. This was a double edged sword as this is when an unhealthy obsession with weight began. The bathroom scale was invented at this time and ignited a fixation for being smaller. Full body mirrors were also not easily obtainable for the masses, but with the rise of department stores, the working class could finally observe themselves fully. This also led to a stricter form of narcissism and self consciousness.
During the Great Depression, fashion and body image were definitely not at the forefront of people’s minds. Due to food rationing, women did not want to look waif-like (as it would make them look like they were starving), so a fuller body type became more attractive. Fashion reflected this rationing as crafty ensembles were created from men’s suits. This brought forth a silhouette that emulated an hourglass with strong shoulders. Again, this was not the priority for many women at the time. Emphasis on this look became more popular after the depression ended.
The fifties are hallmarked by the cinema sirens who blessed Hollywood screens. These women were certainly larger than the average model of today, but were indeed still thin. The image of women of this era being voluptuous is most likely due to the fact that these stars tended to have large chests. Coincidentally, the first issue of Playboy came out in 1953, further cementing the pin-up ideal. This shows how much media affects self esteem. Film, print and other forms of media and celebrity truly integrated with the public (for better or for worse).
The swinging sixties brought the phenomenon known as the British invasion. With this came a new type of model – Twiggy. Just as her name suggests, Twiggy was tall, slender and had few curves. This was also the time of the second wave of feminism, and women did not want to abide by previous feminine standards.
These standards included foundation garments, which were replaced by diet and exercise. This was a time where there was a serious rise of eating disorders as the body needed to look young and thin.
The eighties were a time of wealth and excess. There was a strong emphasis on exercise as models of the time (or supermodels) were athletic and lean. Health was the name of the game up until the nineties when Kate Moss and photographer Davide Sorrenti came on the scene. This was the thinnest female ideal in history. Models looked like they were on the edge of death. Kate Moss was the poster child for this aesthetic as she was the face of Calvin Klein in the early nineties and then later the model for Davide Sorrenti’s “heroin chic” photographs. This was certainly one of the most unhealthy decades in history in terms of body standards.
With the rise of social media, women are under more scrutiny than ever. It is difficult to filter the constant barrage of ideal imagery that plagues our screens. The six-pack is a current trend that comes along with many health ‘gurus’ and social media influencers. As we look less at celebrities (as we did in the early 2000s with the rise of reality TV) and more at ‘relatable’ influencers, the ‘perfect’ body seems closer than ever. Yet, social media is still a toxic playground for many when it comes to self esteem. The flip side of this is a positive component to the six pack. It promotes the healthy lifestyle of yoga, spin cycle and smoothie bowls. It says that women should be strong, shredded even. It says that women can have the ideal musculature that men idealise for themselves. This may be part of the androgyny movement that has been sweeping the fashion world right now. How gender is seen as an illusion more than ever, and how health itself is an aesthetic. The focus of our society is more of an institutionalised individualism that almost praises narcissism and self improvement. Luckily, if we play it right, we can see the empowering imagery we want to see. Body positivity media is at an all time high! Even if you have no desire (or physically can not) to achieve a six pack, you can flaunt what you got!
CROP TOP OR NOT
If you want to show off your beautiful waist (from one pack to six pack), check out these pieces that are guaranteed to accentuate, from cropped, sheer to fully-exposed:
If you are like most of us and are more comfortable hiding your one pack as opposed to flaunting your six pack (!) wear something with a front gather or nipped at the waist: