The standards of body size have fluctuated throughout the ages with the peaks and troughs of, well, a curvy female body! Ellen Corrigan examines the shifting sands that represented female physical beauty standards throughout the centuries in this thought-provoking piece that exposes the fickle nature of the objectives we're constantly trying to achieve.
“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” - Mary Wollstonecraft.
The prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York boasts a long and impressive list of alumni including Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, Scott Salavador, Joel Schumacher and Michael Kors. It’s home to the Museum at FIT, exhibiting collections of historical clothing, textiles and accessories from as early as the 18th century. The exhibits are peppered with early Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior and Adrian with an emphasis on contemporary avant-garde fashion. It’s a mecca for fashionistas and history buffs alike, offering a visual chronicle of how Western style has developed over the last 300 years.
FIT’s former associate curator of costume, Emma McClendon, is a revered fashion historian and author. While at FIT, she curated countless critically acclaimed exhibitions celebrating the freedom, expression and beauty of fashion throughout history. The number one brilliant, burning question she was asked most often?
“People came and always wanted to know what size something is”.
“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.”
It’s undeniable that humankind has had a never-ending fascination with bodies. We’re not talking Renaissance-era dissections or Galen bloodletting; but a complete enchantment with all the curves and contours of the human form. Despite our evolution from Neandethralian limbs roughly 500,000 years ago, the average person will still gawk at a photo of an exposed nipple in wide-eyed wonder.
While a little unintentional voyeurism is harmless enough, this interest becomes dangerous when it translates into criticism and judgement. Throughout history, human bodies have incurred the same perishable treatment as fashion trends. Waspish waists, rounded stomachs, match-stick legs and colossal derrieres have all come and gone from public favour within the space of 100 years, despite our basic human anatomy remaining relatively unchanged. Something must always be bigger, smaller, narrowed, widened or simply cut right off.
While all genders have been victims to ever-changing body standards, women have unsurprisingly borne the brunt of the do’s and don'ts of biological existence. As if fighting for gender equality and all its trappings isn’t taxing enough, we’re also expected to fluctuate our breast size to match the mood of the media. This societal expectation can be traced back as far as the Palaeolithic era (that’s 25,000 BC to you and me). The esteemed ‘Venus of Willendorf’ figurine depicts a buxom lady with large breasts, a full stomach and thick thighs - curves were in and this lady most definitely had them.
Her figure, said to elicit notions of fertility and affluence, is a far cry from what would have been the standard shape. Strikingly, she has no defined facial features - her attractiveness lies solely within her rounded hips and bits. At a time when your next meal depended on your strength, women’s attention was being drawn from picking berries to contemplating the shapeliness of their legs.
Womankind enjoyed a slight reprieve during Ancient Greece when all eyes were on the male form. Paintings and statues became more naturalistic, with depictions of chiselled abs, bulging veins and broad pecs. This was clearly the dawn of the macho man, with societal favour shining on the big and brawny. However, women did get a standards-lashing by our trigonometrical favourite Pythagoras. While cooking up ways to torture humanity in future maths classes, Pythagoras also invented a sum to calculate if a woman was truly attractive. He determined that in order to be considered ‘beautiful’, women's faces should be two-thirds as wide as they are long, with both sides appearing perfectly symmetrical. This preoccupation with facial symmetry has seeped through generations - today's youth can now test the uniformity of their face using a myriad of social media filters.
The Victorian-era birthed the dawn of the ‘Angel of the House’. Women were expected to be submissive, powerless and simpering towards their husbands; ultimately fulfilled by the happiness of their spouse. Interestingly, this coincided with the introduction of the corset. An impossible hourglass shape became highly desirable, assisted by the iron grip of tightly-pulled laces. Corset-related injuries became rampant, with many exchanging their health for the promise of an 18-inch waist. It’s hard to ignore the link between fashionably constrictive clothing and a desirably meek demeanour.
“Women were often laced so tightly their breathing was restricted leading to faintness. Compressing the abdominal organs could cause poor digestion and over time the back muscles could atrophy. In fact, long-term tight lacing led to the rib cage becoming deformed. Doctors labelled these symptoms as Chlorosis or ‘green sickness’ and Anaemia. Blood counts were taken and patients given pills to treat the symptoms.” - Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Post World War II, America was raking in cash and indulgence was the mood of many. As the 1950s ushered in the rapid advancement of mass communication, images of the ‘pin-up girl’ filled televisions, theatres and magazines. Her full hips and breasts were a far cry from Depression-era figures, while her clothes hinted at a more sexually-liberated woman. Weight-gain pills were touted in the media, with adverts screaming, "If you want to be popular, you can't afford to be skinny!” Many women chose the fake it ‘til you make it method, using girdles to lift, press and pull their bodies in all the desirable places. Being a sex symbol became synonymous with being a star yet acclaimed actresses including Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor often found their talents eclipsed by their body shapes.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, the supermodel was born and super-skinny was en vogue. The plump, child-bearing look of yore was deemed unsightly by fashion powerhouses - androgynous was in, hips were out. Kate Moss shot to superstardom, with the media dubbing her slim figure as ‘heroin-chic’. Unsurprisingly, rates of anorexia and bulimia increased as women’s magazines printed diet plans alongside fashion spreads. The plastic surgery industry was booming, and billboards were plastered with promises of anti-aging lotions and potions. The idea of a woman ageing naturally was completely rejected by society - your looks were marked with an expiration date and so was your worth.
“When my book was published in 1991, I noted that a burgeoning epidemic of eating disorders was engulfing what should have been the feistiest, most confident generation of women ever…The way we looked determined our value to society.” - Naomi Wolf.
Today's body trends are reflective of our consumerist society - ever-changing and excessive. Cosmetic surgery is more accessible than ever, coinciding with the rising popularity of breast augmentation, tummy tucks and BBL procedures. The ‘desirable’ body shape has become seasonal; with social media platforms promoting new silhouettes with ever-decreasing self lives. A survey conducted by Dove in 2021 determined that over 87% of Irish girls aged between 10 and 17 don’t have high self-esteem, echoing the constantly fluctuating standards that they’re subjected to.
However, as mainstream media attempts to diversify their content, the ‘Body Positivity Movement’ has gained traction. The social movement focuses on the acceptance of all bodies - regardless of size, shape, skin tone, gender, and physical abilities. Famous figures including Lizzo, Sam Smith, Serena Williams, Selena Gomez and Megan Thee Stallion have promoted self-acceptance while publicly lambasting media outlets who use their bodies as preferable or undesirable hallmarks for society. Criticising her treatment by the media, Lizzo commented: "I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, b*tch!’ Even when body positivity is over, it’s not like I’m going to be a thin white woman. I’m going to be black and fat. That’s just hopping on a trend and expecting people to blindly love themselves. That’s fake love. I’m trying to figure out how to actually live it.”
Ultimately, centuries of fluctuating trends and contradicting messages have proven one thing - the ideal body shape doesn’t exist. We can live our lives according to the media outlets who dictate what our skeleton should look like on a weekly basis; or simply learn to love our bodies exactly as we see fit. Want to lift weights at the gym and get jacked? Godspeed. Want to botox your forehead and fill your lips? Find a reputable doctor and go for it. Want to tattoo your lover's name in bold across your back? We probably wouldn’t recommend that but still, the world is your oyster - go forth and self-love.