See How Much the “Perfect” Female Body Has Changed in 100 Years
There’s a reason magazine covers include lines like “5 Moves for Michelle Obama Arms” or “The Secret for a Booty Like Beyoncé.” But if you’ve ever found yourself wishing for this actress’s waist or that singer’s legs, remember this: The media’s concept of the ideal woman’s body isn’t static. Whoever People magazine deems “most beautiful” this year is just a representation of what has bubbled up in the cauldron of pop culture. That silhouette of the “ideal woman” has been put through a series of fun house mirrors (fashion, movies, pop music, politics). It also changes year over year, so the physical qualities we embrace today are often at odds with those from previous generations.
To prove our point, we’re taking a closer look at body ideals over the last 100 years—which shows that, as they say on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”
But Gibson’s model and O.G.G. (original Gibson Girl) Camille Clifford was critical of the ideal. She sang in her vaudeville show, “Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl.”
In fashion, the waistline moves several inches below the navel, making narrow hips a necessity. But don’t be fooled, the flapper doesn’t lack sex appeal; the focus has simply shifted downward to the legs, where a shorter knee-length hemline could expose the flash of a garter while doing a “shimmy.” Margaret Gorman, crowned as the first Miss America in 1921, was the era’s ideal. Her 5-foot-1, 108-pound frame was a full 180 from the Gibson era.
More and more women are going girdle-free and embracing a less constricting wardrobe. The trade-off? Now that slim, flat-stomached look must be achieved through diet. Right on cue: Enter Weight Watchers, founded in 1963.
Like the 1930s, this decade is a step away from the petite look of the 1960s. And following the black pride and “black is beautiful” movements of the 1960s, Beverly Johnson becomes the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue, while Darnella Thomas stars in a groundbreaking “Charlie” fragrance ad.
The 1980s also ushers in an era of fitness, thanks to a pioneeringJane Fonda. Aerobics and jogging take off, and for the first time, muscles are acceptable and desirable on women. It’s both empowering and discouraging—one more beauty standard to add to a lengthening list.
Slouchy jeans, oversized fraying sweaters, and even unisex fragrances (CK One, we’re calling you out) all support the petite and androgynous waif look. Hollywood also embraces the look. A-list 90s actress Winona Ryder is so petite, costar Ben Stiller exclaims, “She’s like a little figurine for the coffee table!”
Nicki Minaj and J.Lo release their tributes to the almighty buttock:Anaconda and Booty, respectively. In Anaconda, Minaj holds a workout session while backup dancers wearing shorts that read “Bunz” do squats to the beat. Subtlety has left the building. But is it empowering? Or exhausting?
Body ideals, like everything else in pop culture, are a trend. As Tina Fey wrote in Bossypants,“Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.” Rather than chase that preposterous laundry list of attributes, embrace what your momma gave you! And remember: The media’s idea of beauty is subjective and changes, but confidence is always in style.