Throughout history, women have been compelled to alter their bodies in order to meet variable standards of physical perfection.
With its tight mid-section and muscular curves, the ‘bikini body’ is the ideal to which we are currently told to aspire. A lean physique, however, has only become fashionable during the last century.
Prior to this, voluptuousness was idolised and fleshy figures were prized in cultures all over the world. Evidence of this dates back to 21,000 BC, as portrayed by the Palaeolithic chalk statue, the Willendorf Venus. The ideal body was big and matriarchal, its swollen form symbolising fertility and female power.
This notion of beauty persisted until the 1800s when there was a marked shift in the female body ideal. It was during this period that slenderness first came into fashion: the ascetic model that graces our modern runways originated in the wasp-waisted silhouette of the Victorian lady.
In 1893, one beauty journal claimed that ‘a slender, well-proportioned figure is the desire of most women.’ Replicating this aesthetic that was both slim and curvaceous required the use of a corset. The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs to create the coveted hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by a narrow waist. Vogue magazine even featured a tightly-laced model on the cover of its first ever publication in 1892.
This move towards slenderness was the result of a change in women’s socio-political status. During the latter half of the nineteenth century the balance of power between the sexes began to change when suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote.
During this period, the alteration in women’s appearance reflected their political aspirations for freedom and power. In the 1920s, female emancipation coincided with a new svelte ideal when the epitome of beauty became the boyish ‘flapper.’ As a consequence, dieting became a serious female preoccupation. This resulted in a marked increase in the number of women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
The following decades saw the return of the cinched waist, yet the ideal body retained the slenderness of the narrow-hipped, small-chested flapper. It was not until the 1950s that the hourglass figure returned in full force.
Glamorous celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe contributed to a voluptuous ideal that had echoes of Victorianism with its petite waistline. This was achieved by wearing a girdle, however, rather than a tightly-laced corset.
This beauty ideal was reflected in the immensely popular Barbie doll, which was introduced in 1959 and boasted a large bust, long legs and an impossibly small waist.
Since the 1960s, the figure possessed by models, playboy centrefolds and beauty contestants has become increasingly slim. This trend began with British model Leslie Hornby, nicknamed Twiggy, who stormed the fashion scene when she appeared in Vogue in 1965.
Twiggy quickly became a cultural icon of femininity with millions of women across Britain and America engaging in self-starvation in order to emulate her waif-like fragility. As the ideal body reduced in size, definitions of ‘overweight’ subsequently began to include ‘normal-sized’ women.
By the early 1980s, the fashion for delicate femininity was replaced by a more ‘toned’ physique. This was reinforced by an emerging culture of health and fitness. For the first time, the ideal female body had muscle.
Shortly afterwards, however, health gave way to self-destruction and dissolution since the 90s’ aesthetic was based around ‘heroin chic’. The look, characterized by pale, emaciated features and unkempt hair was propounded by fashion models such as Kate Moss, who found fame in 1993 after featuring in an advertisement for Calvin Klein.
In 2020, those androgynous angles and unsmiling faces have now been replaced with toned, feminine curves as magazine covers and Victoria’s Secret runways are graced with happy, healthy looking models. Fitness culture has returned, bringing with it a trend for bodies that are curvaceous, yet also lean.
The hourglass figure of the nineteenth century is back. Without a corset, however, women must work even harder to achieve the contradictory aspects of a tight waist and ample curves.
Throughout the centuries, self-comparison with the ideal female form has contributed to bodily dissatisfaction and disorderly eating. From organ-shifting corsets, to extremely restrictive diets, women have engaged in physically damaging practices for hundreds of years in an attempt to replicate a perpetually shifting ideal.
If we are to achieve freedom from this, we must remember that the concept of the ideal body is merely a concept. It is an idea, invented by culture and continually subject to change.
Consequently, striving to achieve the ‘perfect’ physique will inevitably lead to failure. Today, we are told that we must aspire to have a curvaceous bikini body. Tomorrow, the fashion may change to a more androgynous figure and the hard work must begin all over again….