THE HISTORY OF THE 'IDEAL' WOMAN AND WHERE THAT LEFT US

Whether you are thin or thick, tall or short, confident or not, regardless of your ethnicity, it’s unquestionable that our society has an obsession with body shapes and sizes. We learn that we are supposed to look a certain way through subliminal messages in images on television, magazines, social media, advertising, etc. 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 -

19th Century

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Women’s fashion becomes popular in the USA. Makeup was associated with prostitution, cosmetics were homemade, and too much concern with physical beauty was considered vain. In fashion marketing, engravings would be hand colored and women were never depicted by themselves.

1920s

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The flapper girl reflects the shift toward the Western world desiring a more slim physique. Women became the central targets of the booming advertising industry. Ads equated beauty with love and social status, they also used imagery that encouraged women subconsciously to compare themselves to models. Beauty advertisements established regimes as a goal and even mandatory duty to all womenkind. As slender women's bodies started to appear in magazines. In the mid-1920s, an epidemic of eating disorders also occurred among young women, according to some studies

1960s

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With sexual revolution of the 1960s came a substantial reversal of the ‘50s idealized image. Female body became increasingly exposed and subject to scrutiny. Images of women became slimmer and average women were encouraged to strive for this. Twiggy, a major supermodel of the 1960s, embodied many of these seismic shifts in idealized body types - minimal chest, a slight frame, short hair, and a boyish look.

1980s

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While the thin ideal persisted, there was now also an increased emphasis on fitness. Toned but not overly muscular bodies were prized, and aerobic exercise shows and videotapes became a widespread trend – dieting was no longer the only way that women were expected to keep a perfect figure. Media depictions of women in the '80s tended toward even more slenderness and greater height. 

16th Century

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“The Three Graces”by Peter Paul Rubens (1635) showcases how women were often depicted during the Renaissance era: curvy, full-figured bodies. Having a fuller body was associated wealth and prosperity as the general population struggled with food shortages and famine since before the 16th century. Artist continued to portray the “ideal” women as curvy and voluptuous all the way through the 17th and 18th centuries.

1910s

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The Gibson Girl, a creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, was a synthesis of prevailing beauty ideals at the turn of the century. This ideal was depicted as tall and hourglass-shaped bodies. To achieve this ideal, corsets became popular undergarment among women in the Western world.

1950s

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Television brought moving images of glamorous actresses and beauty commercials into homes. Cosmetics sales boomed, new products were invented, and beauty products were increasingly marketed to teens and tweens. Increasing popularity of Hollywood films helped glamour models like Marilyn Monroe to widespread public consciousness. During this period, curvaceous figures defined the “ideal” female body and average woman’s BMI remained steady at 23.6.

1970s

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The dominance of a Twiggy-like thin ideal continued through the ’70s, which began to have a widespread impact on women's health and eating habits. Anorexia nervosa received mainstream coverage for the first time when singer Karen Carpenter dieted at starvation levels over the decade.

1990s

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The thin ideal became even more exaggerated. Women were expected to maintain an increasingly thin look, yet with large breasts as well, as popularly depicted by Pamela Anderson on “Baywatch.” Meanwhile, high fashion also began to emphasize the “waif look” and “heroin chic.” This movement stood opposed to the fit and healthy look of '80s supermodels, instead focusing on thinness alone and a bony appearance. Women were mostly typically playing the role, and looking the role of a sexually-available object. Photoshop created a new form of feminine perfection, erasing natural body fat, signs of age, and any other “imperfections”.

Today women are exposed more and more to digitally-altered media than ever. We are surrounded by images of women that are mostly underweight, white, and often hyper sexualize at younger and younger ages. Adding social media into the mix, women are put in the position to compare themselves on a daily basis, not only to celebrities and models, but also to their peers. Retouch mobile applications gave the general public the ability to modify their own bodies, making it even harder to identify what body images are truly real.

Although we see a wider variety of body shapes and sizes with the body-positive movement, the vast majority of the images surrounding us still portray mainly thin and white women. It's unquestionable that the thin ideal sells and while this remains profitable to companies, they are not going to regulate themselves and to stop promoting unrealistic body standards. Studies also show that the environment that a girl is raised in might increase the chances of low self-esteem and body-image issues.

In order to change that, we need to educate parents on how to make sure that their daughters are growing in an environment that promotes confidence and empowerment. Making sure that the next generations aren't going to fall into the traps and lies that the media tells about body image is crucial to changing the way that brands advertise their products.