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What's Your Body-Shape Era?

Cultural perception of beauty changes, over and over again.

Key points

  • Cultural ideas of "ideal" body types change over time.
  • These ideals are always extremes that only a few women can achieve.
  • Artists see beauty with more generous eyes.
Source: Anom Triwiyanto/Pixabay
Source: Anom Triwiyanto/Pixabay

In my high school, the most-admired girl, Gigi, had long red hair. My curly brown hair didn’t satisfy me at all. I wanted Gigi’s and, given a chance, might have yanked it off her head.

We admire what we see others admire. We can’t escape advertising and social media telling us what's attractive, so too often, we women want straight hair if ours is curly or curly if ours is straight. We want longer (or shorter) legs, bigger (or smaller) breasts, and a smaller (or bigger) butt.

A man might want a stronger chin, a flatter belly, or some extra inches in height.

Cultural ideas about beauty are a form of fashion, and like fashion, they change. Michelle Obama’s toned muscular arms would have gotten much less attention in another era. Cultural ideals are also extremes—most of us simply can't get close and shouldn't try.

It's not like you haven't heard this before—but still, it's easy to feel bad if your look isn't in vogue.

So let's tour the American female body over the last 125 years.

Body Image and the Media

Tall women with haughty expressions became fashionable in the 1890s. Their height matched our current high-fashion clothing models, except the “Gibson Girls,” named for an illustrator, had dramatic curves. They sported larger butts but wore more clothes and piled up luxuriant curls on their heads.

In the 1920s, the bridal updo disappeared, and flat-chested, narrow-hipped girls were getting dates. Height was no longer required; the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was 5 ft 1 inch tall. If you were tall, now you might have felt gawky instead of gorgeous.

Busty, curvy women reigned in the 1950s with the arrival of Barbie dolls. Curvy Marilyn Monroe won our hearts. But by the 1960s, all eyes were fixed on a model called Twiggy, who could have been Marilyn’s pre-teen daughter.

Grooming norms changed too. People wore pointy bras and hair spray until the big shift in the late 1960s into the 1970s, when it was cool for hippy "chicks" to burn their bras and wear their hair long and parted in the middle, with no hair gel required. It was popular not to shave your underarms, or legs.

Today's "Brazilian-style" waxing would have seemed bizarre: were you trying to look like a presexual child? Hair was good and celebrated in song, not whisked away like an embarrassment.

In the 1980s, the new supermodels were a kind of amalgam of earlier fashions, women with Gibson-Girl height but narrow hips and flat chests. We started to see muscles (like Michelle Obama’s decades later).

Then came the usual zig-zag: the boy-child look got another moment in the 1990s when tiny women like Kate Moss and Winona Ryder won the public's attention.

And here we go again, back to embracing curves, on figures such as Kim Kardashian. Is she wearing a Victorian bustle?

Someone is always left out: You can imagine that a slight petite girl longed for long legs and an hourglass figure in the 1890s and today craves a big muscled rear-end. Two things are wrong: the standards are extreme, and our bodies aren't all that malleable.

Source: Wikiart, Public Domain
Source: Wikiart, Public Domain

Artists and lovers have always seen beauty with less conventional eyes. Take a look at Annah the Javanese,” Paul Gauguin’s 1893 portrait of his short, muscular mistress, or “Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne,” Modigliani’s portrait of his soft-middled love.

For those concerned about being attractive to romantic partners, the truth is that tastes vary. Even when thin is in for women, lots of men like women with curves rather than protruding ribs. People most want to know that you're into them. It's hard to walk away from someone who is happy to see you, laughs at your jokes, and is responsive in the bedroom.

How to Feel Good About Your Body

Sure, it's important to eat a healthful diet and exercise. Focus on a "live-it" rather than a "diet": eat in a way you can live with rather than adopt a regime that feels like you could die. Let your goal be health, and your own style of beauty will shine through. And should your look be out of style, go look at photos from 20 years earlier.

A version of this story appears at Your Care Everywhere.

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