Categories
Body Image Fitness Competitions History

The Hourglass Body

I spent years of my life trying to attain a curvaceous, yet also slender physique. And in 2014, when I was awarded the status of Pro Bikini Athlete, my figure was a near perfect hourglass with a 32” bust, 24” waist and 33” hips. This is the silhouette that is also favoured in the beauty pageant world.

When I researched this preference for the hourglass figure, I asked 50 women which they considered to be more more important: their body’s shape, or its weight. Most women chose shape, with 88% of them more concerned about their silhouette than the number on their scale.

88% of women are more concerned about the shape of their body, rather than its weight

The explanation for society’s preoccupation with this particular body type lies in the shape’s symbolic meaning. The hourglass figure is desirable as a biological and social signifier: its voluptuous curves accentuate the difference between male and female bodies.

In addition, scientific research proves that the narrow-waisted figure serves an evolutionary, as well as social, purpose. This preference originates in the desire to attract a mate since, according to Nancy Ectoff’s  Survival of the Prettiest, ‘men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy, and hasn’t been pregnant before.’1

The waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function

Within a theoretical context, this body is the result of biological attraction since ‘[t]he waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function.’2 Women with ‘a waist-to-hip ratio below .8’ are twice as likely to conceive and bear children than those whose waist-to-hip ratio rises above this figure.3

The constricted waist, for example, has been ‘considered highly erotic by men’ owing to its suggestion of weakness and vulnerability.4 This is often the case with women’s appearance norms since other aspects such as extreme slenderness, high heels and tight clothing also indicate submission.

Maintained in a state of passivity by their restrictive apparel, it could be said that women are thereby more easily subject to masculine control. As David Kunzle notes in Fashion and Fetishism:

‘[s]ylph-like delicacy of body and fragility of waist have exercised an almost archetypal attraction for man…It is both foil and invocation to his superior socio-sexual power.’5

The hourglass body, with its emphasis upon full bust and hips contrasted with a narrow waist, simultaneously suggests sexual innocence and reproductive potential.

Within the modern world of physique competitions, this hourglass figure is exaggerated in the bikini class where models are expected to have wide shoulders, glutes and legs, offset by a tight waist.

This body type represents the fitness industry’s standard of beauty. When I asked female competitors which aspects of a woman’s body they considered to be beautiful, they described the hourglass shape, preferring a figure with a ‘peachy bum and big breasts’ that is also ‘lean with curves.’

As I mentioned in Keeping Up With The Body Ideal, the hourglass physique has been popular throughout history from the wasp-waisted Victorian lady to the 1950s housewife.

Its modern silhouette, however, holds a specific attraction. In September 2014, Vogue magazine declared ‘We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty’6 as Jennifer Lopez (whose buttocks are rumoured to be insured for £17 million)7 was joined in the derriere hall of fame by a multitude of celebrities and fitness models. 7 years on, and big bootys still reign supreme.

With the return of the hourglass figure, it’s ‘All About That Bass’, as confirmed by Meghan Trainor’s chart topping single. Glutes have become the standard focus of a body-obsessed media, endorsed by celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian.

When Nicki Minaj released the single ‘Anaconda,’ her ode to the derriere, its shocking cover art presented her famous posterior, clad in the most minimal of bikini bottoms. The song’s raunchy video generated 19.6 million views in the first 24 hours of its release.

The music industry has since produced a multitude of songs that pay homage to the behind. Nicki Minaj appears once again in Busta Rhymes’ ‘#TWERKIT’; while ‘Booty’ by the original booty queen, Jennifer Lopez, features the curvaceous Iggy Azeala.

Most famous however, is ‘All About That Bass’, in which Meghan Trainor claims that she is ‘bringing booty back,’ having ‘all the right junk in all the right places.’ In 2014, the single was the UK’s longest running chart topper, selling over 6 million copies worldwide.8

Despite its popularity, however, the song was accused of anti-feminism. This was owing to lyrics that suggest the booty’s appeal lies in its ability to attract male attention. Despite Trainor’s protestations that her aim was to promote body-confidence, the single came under attack for thin shaming. This was owing to its reference to ‘skinny bitches’, and the singer’s claim that she ‘won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll.’

J Lo and Trainor may sing about their ‘bootys’, yet the current queen of all things curvaceous is Kim Kardashian, with her voluptuous assets contributing to her $900 million dollar worth. While Kardashian insists that she has ‘honed her curves with gruelling training sessions’,9 many famous women, including Heidi Montag and Nicki Minaj, have undergone surgery to enhance their figures.

Minaj’s behind has even served as an inspiration to other celebrities, including ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ star, Chloe Sims. According to Reveal magazine Sims went to her doctor and said:

Give me the Nicki Minaj10

With cosmetic surgery becoming increasingly normalized, the most popular invasive treatment in recent years is the Brazilian Bum Lift. For those looking to create the hourglass figure, it is now possible to combine this treatment with ‘a fat transfer into the breasts.’11

This obsession with celebrity backsides is fuelled by social media. Typing ‘glutes’ into the Instagram search box yields 6.4 million results. This includes almost 376,000 ‘belfies’ (bum selfies). This is a trend that emerged within social media’s narcissistic world of self-photography. Allegedly instigated by singer Rihanna, the belfie is now a social media phenomenon.

In 2015, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article entitled ‘The Most Bubblicious Butts on Instagram’, which showcased 58 women who have apparently truly mastered the ‘belfie.’ One of Kim Kardashian’s voluptuous offerings went viral, with ‘more than 250,000 likes on Instagram after two hours of being posted’.12 Kim has since profited from her assets and launched her own range of shapewear in 2019. Her first collection sold out in minutes, earning her $2 million on the first day.13

When a celebrity is photographed with anything other than a perfectly sculpted (or posed) derriere, however, horror ensues. Pictures of Miley Cyrus’ less than toned bottom, snapped while she was ‘twerking’, became a media sensation and the subject of anti-motivation memes throughout the internet.

The belfie trend not only pervades the world of celebrity, but is also a dominant aspect of the fitness community. In a departure from tradition, Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary edition depicted models in a pose that showcased their behinds.14 The ab crunch has been replaced by the hip thrust, an exercise that was popularised by ‘The Glute Guy’: trainer and glute specialist, Bret Contreras.

Despite the current trend for curves, however, this fetish for the voluptuous does not normally extend to plus size women. Curves are typically desirable only if accompanied by low body fat and a tight waist.

For now, women are still kept restrained and powerless by a primal preference for an hourglass body that has been taken to cultural extremes.


  1. Ectoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Rothblum, Esther D., Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders
  5. Kunzle, David, Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture (Sutton Publishing Limited, UK, 2004)
  6. http://www.vogue.com/1342927/booty-in-pop-culture-jennifer-lopez-iggy-azalea/
  7. http://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/articles/a30167/mariah-carey-jennifer-lopez-doly-parton-celebrities-insured-body-parts/
  8. Fraser, Deborah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Interview with Meghan Trainer
  9. Packer, Sarah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Sarah Packer, Kim blasts Amber: ‘I’m the booty queen – stop copying my curves!’
  10. madamenoire.com/446585/celebs-who-admitted-to-butt-injections/6/
  11. comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  12. www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/kim-kardashian-nearly-naked-picture-2461774
  13. hypebae.com/2019/9/kim-kardashian-skims-shapewear-sold-out-restock-earnings
  14. mamamia.com.au/wellbeing/sports-illustrated-swimsuit-cover-2014-butts/

Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders History

It’s Not Just Us! A Brief History of Restrictive Eating

Eating disorders are now a widespread problem. Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected: around 10% of these suffer from anorexia nervosa.1

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV) defines anorexia as:

  • restriction of energy intake relative to requirements leading to a significantly low body weight
  • intense fear of gaining weight
  • persistent behaviour that interferes with weight gain.2

Restrictive eating practices are not new, however. Self-starvation has a long history, dating right back to the fifth century.

The first evidence of self-starvation comes from the Middle Ages. During this time, food restriction was commonly practiced a form of religious observance. This occurred particularly during Lent, where the control and reduction of food intake was culturally institutionalised. This provided women with the means of experiencing bodily suffering through spiritual fasting.

In her book Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Caroline Walker Bynum explores the role of women role in divine practices that involved abstaining from bodily desire. This included renouncing their appetite for food.3

These women would fast in order to prepare themselves for Christ’s body and blood. They derived nourishment from prayer and the Eucharist, rather than from real food items.

In England this practice lasted until 1534. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, worship of saints was abolished and ‘[t]he renunciation of food, once experienced and explained as a form of female holiness, was increasingly cast as demonical, heretical, and even insane.’4

A century later, however, the development of scientific and medical understanding shed new light on restrictive eating behaviours.

Rejection of food was thought to result from a lack of appetite caused by other illnesses

The first medical account of self-starvation is credited to the seventeenth century physician Richard Morton. He observed that rejection of food that resulted from a lack of appetite was the symptom of other illnesses, including tuberculosis and chlorosis (anaemia). Morton named chlorosis the ‘Green-Sickness’ and in 1694 described the case of an eighteen year old girl, ‘who resembled ‘“a skeleton only clad with skin.”’5

He writes that she: ‘fell into a total Suppression of her Monthly causes … her Appetite began to abate, and her Digestion to be bad; her flesh also began to be flaccid and loose, and her looks pale.’6

Further evidence of this green sickness came 150 years later in 1838. A medical adviser in The Penny Satirist described a common disease ‘to which the tender sex is subjected, particularly in the large towns of over-refined countries’, which was identified as ‘chlorosis or green sickness.’7

The medical establishment responded by perceiving this susceptibility as a female trait and as further evidence that women were the ‘tender sex’. The advisor continues to observe that: ‘in the streets of large towns there are young ladies with a pale yellow complexion, mixed with a peculiar greenish tinge, a bluish circle around the eyes, an air of languor and debility.’8

They had cravings for strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar

These symptoms were thought to result from the patient’s ‘capricious’ appetite. Sometimes they exhibited symptoms of pica, cravings for ‘strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar’. At other times they lost their appetite altogether, sometimes refusing to eat.9

Chlorosis was diagnosed in psychosomatic terms. It was thought to arise from ‘bad physical and moral education’, which was the result of ‘[w]ant of proper exercise, improper dress, tight lacing, too much sitting, improper development of the imagination at the expense of the reasoning faculties, boarding-school education, play-going, and novel-reading’ (!)10

At this time, other ‘morbid mortifications of the appetite’ began to be diagnosed alongside chlorosis. In 1840 physician Thomas Laycock added ‘“[b]ulimia and pica’ to the list and claimed that these conditions were all characteristic of the pregnant, chlorotic, and hysterical female.”’11

Even though Morton and Laycock established a specific pathology of self-starvation, however, anorexia would not be formally named for almost two hundred years.

In 1873, anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France

By the nineteenth century, the physicians’ social status and power increased as medical authorities grew secure in the scientific validity of their own assumptions. This coincided with the official medicalisation of appetite in 1873. This was when anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France by Sir William Gull and Ernest Lasèque.

Sir William Withey Gull

While Lasèque named the condition anorexie hystérique, the term anorexia nervosa was coined by Gull, whose description of the malady first appeared in Transactions of the Clinical Society of London (1874). In an 1888 issue of the Lancet, Gull credited his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction. He stated:

That mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at of sixteen to twenty-three are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.12

Yet, while Gull noted the psychological cause of anorexia, he chose not to engage with his patients’ subjective mental states. By concentrating upon the physical effects of the condition, rather than psychological causes, Gull thereby dismissed the emotional states of his female patients.

In 1883, anorexia was divided into two sub-conditions: anorexie gastrique and anorexie mentale. Anorexie gastrique applied to patients with digestive complaints. ‘Hysteria was believed to cause a physiological disturbance leading to impaired gastrointestinal absorption.’ Anorexie mental, on the other hand, occurred in patients with ‘“pure” psychiatric conditions and involved mental rather than digestive problems.’13

Despite a more detailed definition of anorexia, however, this did not significantly alter methods of treatment, or the way in which female mental health was regarded. Patients diagnosed with anorexie mentale were still treated by controlled or forced feeding in order to overcome the physiological effects, rather than by engaging with the underlying causes.

In conclusion, from this brief history of restrictive eating it evident that it’s not just us. Self-starvation and other similar eating practices have occurred throughout history in various guises.

For more information on how theories of anorexia continued to develop into the 20th century, please click here. {link to why women theories of anorexia when its published!}


  1. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/how-many-people-eating-disorder-uk
  2. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  3. Walker Bynum, Caroline, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1986)
  4. ibid
  5. R. Morton Phthisiologica: Or a Treatise of Consumptions 2nd edition (London, 1720), pp.8-9, in R. M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (London: University of Chicago Press, 1985)
  6. ibid
  7. Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)
  8. ibid
  9. Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, p.2, Noted by Samuel Ashwell, in A Practical Treatise on the Diseases Peculiar to Women (Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Blanchard, 1845)
  10. Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)
  11. T. Laycock, A Treatise on the Nervous Diseases of Women (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans 1840), p.73, in A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  12. W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874)
  13. E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960)