Body Image & Health: Changing Ideal Body Types of the Centuries

In the 19th century, the fashionable middle- or upper-class woman artificially constricted her waist with a corset to meet the standard of beauty of the time. The stiff corset was reinforced with whale bone or metal and laced as tightly as possible to create an unreasonably narrow waist. It wreaked havoc on the health and natural physique of the women who wore it, causing shortness of breath, muscle atrophy, deformed ribs, limited mobility, indigestion, and the distortion and displacement of internal organs.

The pale, corseted beauty standard of the 19th century gave way during the first decade of the 20th century to a more natural shape and waistline, represented by Progressive Era women. This was also the period that saw the beginnings of mass-production of brassieres, developed as a healthier and more comfortable alternative to the corset. During the 1920s, the fashion standard did away with curves, calling for a slim and straight look exemplified by the flapper. Both dress styles and popular silent movie stars embraced a new emancipated look. Women cut their hair short and revealed their arms and legs for the first time. At the same time those newly bared arms and legs were expected to be smooth, firm, and hairless. The svelte figure called for a flat bosom, encouraging women to free their limbs but flatten their breasts with new binding brassieres. Moreover, the introduction of the bathroom scale, which coincided with this period, meant that women could monitor their weight more exactly.

The 1930s saw the return of the fuller bust and slender waist. By the 1940s and 1950s, women were wearing girdles and push-up bras or foam “falsies” to enhance their breast line. Slender legs also became fashionable in the 1940s as hemlines rose to save fabric during World War II. Following the war, women returned from jobs supporting the war effort to their domestic lives. Fuller shapes became the accepted norm for housewives and mothers. Actresses like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, with their full busts and rounded hourglass figures, epitomized a voluptuous female ideal of the 1950s. At the same time, the slender sophistication of the actress Audrey Hepburn presaged the ultra-slim look to come in the 1960s.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the feminist movement called into question female fashion stereotypes. Some women began to promote a more natural look, shunning makeup, high heeled shoes, shaven legs, and brassieres. The self-health movement encouraged women to take control of their bodies. The Black Pride movement encouraged Black women to take pride in their darker skin and curly hair.

However, the short hemlines of the 1960s and 1970s and the rising popularity of blue-jeans among women also drew increased attention to the size and shape of women’s thighs and buttocks. 65 These fashions launched a new concern for women about their bodies and fueled an industry in cellulite-fighting creams, exercises to promote so-called “buns of steel,” and liposuction to surgically remove fatty tissue.

From the late 1970s on, a new, more athletic look became popular as increasing numbers of women began to participate in sports and regular exercise. The passage of the Title IX legislation in 1972 began to give school- and college-aged girls access to more sports programs. Fitness centers and group exercise activities such as aerobics became popular among women. Adult women entered locker rooms for the first time since high school and discovered that they could be comfortable with their bodies in the presence of other women. Clothing styles became more close-fitting. Control-top pantyhose and other girdle-like undergarments made a comeback. Sports clothing made of lycra became a popular alternative to baggy sweat pants and sweat shirts.

During the 1980s and 1990s, new role models appeared among world-class female athletes. They included figures such as track and field Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and soccer champion Mia Hamm. Female film and music stars, such as Madonna, also began to present a slender but muscular build.

However, in spite of the popularity of the athletic body type, the prevailing look among top fashion models not only remained ultra-thin, but it became increasingly anorexic in the last decades of the century. By the late 1980s, the average model looked like a waif and weighed 23 percent less than the average American woman.66 In comparison, in the mid-1960s, she weighed only 8 percent less than the average woman. This unrealistic beauty norm contributed to high rates of self-consciousness among women and dissatisfaction with their bodies. It led to increases in eating disorders and fueled a huge dieting industry.

Marketing the image of a female ideal

In the early 20th century, advertising experts recognized the value of the female consumer as “chief purchasing agent” for the family.67 By the 1920s, women had successfully gained new social rights, including the right to vote, and were using their new political power to influence public policy. In spite of their new rights and consumer savvy, women continued to be portrayed as what one feminist of the day, Frances Maule, referred to as the “angel idiot”: youthful, feminine, and romantic.

In the 1920s, the tobacco companies used the image of the liberated suffragette to market cigarettes to women and appealed to women’s concerns about weight control to sell their products. This image persisted through the end of the century.

By the end of the 20th century, little had changed regarding the idealized female images displayed in media and advertising. The “angel idiot” could acquire a laptop computer, a fancy car, or darker skin, but she was still more than likely to be youthful, slim, and well-dressed. One change that did occur in marketing efforts that were directed towards women, however, was the trend in targeting adolescents as a unique and select age group for advertising. Adolescence became more defined over the century. Teenage girls became more autonomous and economically independent from their parents. With improvements in nutrition and health, as well as increased obesity and larger body size, they also reached physical maturation at younger ages.

Teenage girls became a prime audience for companies selling products directly related to the way girls looked and felt about themselves. Special lines of hair and skin products, makeup, and clothing were developed, especially in the last third of the century, to cater to girls at a time in life when they were struggling with establishing their identities and self-image.

It is important to note that although media images reflect and sustain idealized images of female beauty, women’s changing preoccupation with their looks over the course of the century were also rooted in broader social and economic transformations.

The advent of photography at the end of the 19th century transformed portraits to real life, real-time images. The span, breadth, and speed of photographic images was further expanded and accelerated by the development of motion pictures, television, video, and the Internet during the 20th century. Mirrors became more prevalent in the early 20th century. They began to take over public spaces as well as private ones. Increased attention to hygiene, the development of the field of psychology, medical advances, and an increased life span also contributed to women’s increased focus on their personal appearance as an expression of personal identity.

Eating Disorders

Another way in which women have historically tried to control their appearance has been through their control over what they put inside their bodies rather than on the surface. Throughout the century, women’s concerns about their diets took on enormous proportions. By the end of the century, an estimated 5–10 million women had an eating disorder characterized by either self-starvation or binge eating with or without purging.

Numerous studies indicated that the rates of anorexia nervosa—a disease characterized by self-starvation, compulsive exercising, and purging—rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Even women whose attempts to control their diet and weight did not reach the extreme level of eating disorders were highly obsessed with their food intake. By the late 1990s, Americans were spending $33 billion annually on weight loss products and programs.

Yet fasting and other forms of self-starvation were hardly new to the 20th century. Both had been practiced from time immemorial for religious, spiritual, and other reasons. In the late 19th century, self-starvation or at least the appearance of having a light appetite became a common practice among middle- and upper-class women for reasons of fashion. This practice was grounded in a Victorian Era view that equated an appetite for food with an appetite for sex.

Although eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia were known in the early 20th century, they were not widely recognized until the 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s, eating disorders were widely discussed, but they were primarily associated with white, middle-class, and educated girls and young women. Although there was some evidence linking eating disorders with depression and with a history of sexual abuse, these disorders were often associated with high-achieving and driven personalities. Rates of eating disorders appeared to be lower among women of color. To some extent this reflected the different standards of beauty and ideal body types between white women and women of color. Furthermore, health advocates in the 1980s and 1990s pointed out that non-white women’s experiences with discrimination and abuse based on their race and sex were important, but neglected, contributors to disordered eating habits among women of color.

Thus, the prevalence of eating disorders among diverse populations of women may have been underestimated.

With the advent of the 21st century, the American population is expected to become increasingly multi-racial and more multi-ethnic and to include a greater proportion of older people. At century’s end, one-half of the adult female population was overweight. The prevailing image of beauty will be increasingly out of step with a population that is growing older, fatter, and more diverse. The challenge will be to see if American women can engage support for more realistic definitions of image and beauty.

Source: The National Women’s Health Information Center

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