The “Ideal” Female Body Through Time

Over the last century, the ideal body type for women has changed roughly every decade. Influenced by music, celebrities and the socio-political context of the time, women have felt pressured to conform to an “ideal” body type, instead of loving and taking care of their bodies.

The recent fitness craze, pushing “strong is the new skinny” has been perceived by many to be a turning point for women’s body confidence. However, promoting this ultra-healthy lifestyle is just the latest trend that women are expected to conform to, and the added pressure to look tight and right isn’t necessarily healthier than the trends of the past. Every decade’s ideals could be considered unhealthy by pressuring women to conform.

A century ago, the 1910s introduced the “Gibson Girl”, made famous by Evelyn Nesbit – the world’s first supermodel. This era was dominated by the corset, used to synch in the waist and accentuate a voluptuous bust and hips, as dainty girls were seen to lack femininity. Not only was this constrictive, but women also risked developing unhealthy body deformities.

In the 1920s, a dramatic change in fashion and body type emerged. Women rejected the constriction of corsets as they gained the freedom to vote. The “Flapper Girl” was born, bringing the end of curves. All the women who were previously praised for their voluptuousness were conquered by this new ideal of women with small hips and no cleavage that wore loose fitting clothes.

The 1930s brought the return of fitted clothing and soft curves as Latin American dances such as the Samba and Rumba became popular. This slightly larger, healthier weight for women was promoted by government policy of the time, which ruled that children had the right to a third of a pint of milk a day for weight gain and bone growth.

The 1940s said goodbye to the softness of the previous decade. As women expanded into the workforce during the war their body image became stronger. Women were ideally tall with large shoulders, and had a more commanding presence. Fashion became more angular with military shoulders and “bullet” bras, as there was a need for women to be strong rather than slim.

In contrast, the 1950s welcomed “the hourglass”. Men expected women to be feminine again and soft voluptuousness was prized after the angularity of the war. Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were the stars of the decade. With the promotion of their curves, there was an unhealthy introduction of weight gain tablets, as women abandoned their image of being strong and empowered.

The 1960s saw the rise of the belief that the ideal for women was to be thin. The swinging ’60s promoted “The Twig”, made fashionable by the doll faced, petite look of the supermodel Twiggy. The sexual revolution challenged the ’50s’ ideals of attractiveness, and in the pursuit to conform to the return of the skinny era, amphetamines began to be used for weight loss, aided by a sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle.

The 1970s saw a similar transformation to the one at the end of the “Flapper Girl” era in the 20s; the “Disco Diva” became the next ideal. This decade was one huge party, but a fashion revolution consisting of jumpsuits and spandex material created pressure for women to remain slim hipped and flat stomached, despite a slight move away from the extremes of the ’60s.

In the 1980s, it was time to get physical as Elle MacPherson launched “The Supermodel” as the ideal body type for women. For the first time, muscle was seen as attractive and desirable on women. A jogging and aerobic craze began as women started exercising more, desperate to conform to the long, thin leg standards of the ’80s.

As grunge music gained popularity, Kate Moss single-handedly launched a decade of “Heroin Chic” during the 1990s. “The Waif” was born as an anti-athletic reaction to the craze of the ’80s. Being dangerously thin was deemed ideal, bringing an increase of dangerous dieting, much like the ’60s.

In the 2000s, Giselle Bundchen came to the rescue and began an ab obsession. In stark contrast to the ’90s, fake tan and lean muscular bodies were in, creating an aura of women being strong, powerful and beautiful.

Looking at the ideals of today, I bring the good news that curves are back in the 2010s. Beyoncé and J-lo have created a decade dedicated to “Bootlicious” bodies. Health and fitness is being promoted like never before, as women strive to become strong and not skinny.

It is questionable whether striving for today’s ideals is any better than the weight-gain tablets and amphetamine taking of the past. Women are expected be as curvy as possible whilst maintaining rock solid abs. The bar is now so high it’s unattainable, unless you have time to spend hours in the gym every day.

So why do we keep conforming to these ideals? People keep promoting women’s body confidence and yet every ten years we are expected to conform to a different standard or we are deemed unattractive. The 2010s is no different. Being healthy and being happy with our own bodies is unachievable if we feel the need conform to any “ideal”, even if it is deemed healthier than the super skinny looks that have dominated since the 1960s. The sporting craze should move us further away from thoughts about how we are supposed to look and not chain us into a lifetime of butt-taming burpees!

Ellie Coleman

Image Credit: Shi Devotion via Flickr.

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