- Ideas about female beauty are constantly changing and have been for 23,000 years
- Yet the impact on body image remains the same, experts say
Yet no matter how aesthetically unique or historically significant a particular piece of fashion may be, most visitors to the museum typically ask one question, said Emma McClendon, the museum’s associate curator of costume.
“Whether it’s contemporary or 19th century, they want to know what size it is or what size it would correlate to, or what measurement it is,” she said. “We as a culture, as a society, are obsessed with size. It’s become connected to our identity as people.”
This obsession fuels societal pressures to appear a certain way and to have a certain body type, particularly among young women, stemming from a cultural construct of the “ideal” body, which has in turn changed over time — as long ago as pre-history.
To mark International Women’s Day, we explore how this “ideal” is ever-changing, forming a complex history throughout art and fashion — with damaging impacts on women who try to conform in each era.
Prehistory-1900s: A focus on full-figured silhouettes
Artists continued to portray the “ideal” woman as curvy and voluptuous all the way through to the 17th and 18th centuries.
As societal views of a woman’s body changed over time, so did the shape and construction of the corset, also sometimes referred to as stays.
The 18th-century stay mirrored a cone-shaped silhouette, but by the 1790s, shorter stays emerged, resembling proto-brassieres, which complemented the new fashion trend of high-waisted dresses.
“There was an emphasis on under-structure to shape the body. That’s true for skirts as well,” McClendon said.
“Whether it be hooped or caged or padded, under-structures were worn around the lower body to create a specific volume,” she said. “In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the idealized fashionable body — so this is talking specifically about what’s promoted in the fashion industry itself — was much more curvaceous and much more voluptuous.”
“Then, in the 20th century, there’s a very defined shift towards an increasingly young and increasingly kind of athletic and slender body,” McClendon said.
It remains somewhat unclear what triggered this shift, but the interest in thin bodies would continue well into the modern day.
1920s-’50s: Eating disorders — and a changing bust-to-waist ratio
“Such findings would constitute empirical support for the hypothesis that the mass media play a role in promoting the slim standard of bodily attractiveness fashionable among women,” the researchers wrote. “Through this standard perhaps the eating disorders that have become increasingly common.”
By the late 1940s, that ratio climbed back, increasing by about one-third in both magazines, the study found.
The ratio then dropped again.
By the late 1960s, the ratio had returned to approximately the same level it was in the 1920s, the study found.
1960s-’70s: ‘A complete fallacy’ revealed
“People talk about the ’60s, even the ’70s, as this moment when the woman’s body is freed,” McClendon said. “But that notion that women were all of a sudden completely free in their bodies after that point is a complete fallacy.”
Although women were no longer squeezing themselves into corsets, the media messaging and societal pressures to adhere to an “ideal” body still continued. That “ideal” was instead a very young and thin body type.
“Foundation garments were replaced by diet and exercise,” McClendon said.
What remained was the “notion that in order for your body to be truly fashionable, you had to probably change it some way,” she said. “You had to maintain it in some way.”
1980s-’90s: The rise of the supermodels — and obesity
Though images of thin women continued to be mainstream well into the 1980s, there became more of an emphasis on strong, athletic and toned body types.
“We do see an interest in a fit, toned, strong body — still lean but athletic. So this is where you get the emphasis on those classic supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell,” McClendon said.
Though there still was an emphasis on a thin body, there was also emphasis on a healthier and fitter body.
Then, by the ’90s, that emphasis shifted back to more skinny, waif-like body types.
“The term that gets so much associated with that decade is the ’90s is the moment of the waif,” McClendon said. “Kate Moss is the epitome of that. Her nickname was ‘the waif.’ She became a household name from Calvin Klein ads in the early 1990s.”
As images of obesity flashed across media screens as a part of public health outreach efforts, in contrast so did images of skinny models, McClendon said.
“We begin to see a stark divide in the way bodies are presented across the media, with extreme thinness celebrated in fashion imagery while larger bodies are highlighted as ‘unhealthy’ and bad in reporting on obesity. And we begin to judge our own bodies through the same binary lens,” she said.
So, it seems, the psychological impacts from that included impacts on body image.
2000s: Loss of self-confidence
The report, based on a review of existing studies on body image and media, also found that between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders in the US spiked 119% among children under age 12.
“When kids are entering adolescence, they’re developing their own identity and trying to figure out what’s socially acceptable so when they’re inundated with images of a particular body type in appealing scenarios, they’re more apt to absorb the idea that that particular body type is ideal,” said Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content and distribution for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on helping children, parents and educators navigate the world of media and technology.
Overweight and obese study participants underestimated their body size and desired to be thinner, whereas normal and underweight participants overestimated their body size and desired to be fatter, according to the study. Only 12% and 10.1% of participants attempted to lose or gain weight, respectively, that study found.
2010s: Embracing diversity
Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a shift toward celebrating diverse body types in the media and fashion. That trend appears to correlate with the use of social media, where diverse types are represented by everyday users online.
On the other hand, the rise of social media has allowed for real women to celebrate real body types. McClendon even called social media a “frontier for body-positive expression.”
“Over the course of the last 50-plus years, the American ideal has shifted from curvy to androgynous to muscular and everything in between,” Filucci said.
“As these ideals change, they are reflected and reinforced in the culture through media — whether it’s fine art or advertising billboards or music videos,” she said, adding that however those ideals are presented, they can still influence the body image of young women and even children.