Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders History

Keeping Up With The Body Ideal

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.

The ideal body was big and matriarchal, symbolising fertility and female power

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.

The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs

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.

In the 1920s, dieting became a serious female preoccupation

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.

Striving to achieve the ideal body will inevitably lead to failure

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….

Categories
Body Image Dieting

Paying To Be Perfect

Throughout history, society has been preoccupied with the concept of the ‘ideal’ female body. The modern definition of this ideal, slender and toned, yet also curvaceous, is so unattainable that women who try to reproduce it often develop problems with body image and disorderly eating.

But where does this ideal originate? And why do so many of us want to achieve it?

The answer lies in the current global market, which reflects a $166 billion health and weight management industry; a $532 billion beauty industry; and a $51 billion cosmetic surgery industry. The flawless female body is economically exploited by multinational corporations: it is ‘an icon created by capitalism for the sake of profit.’1

Beauty, fitness and diet industries target our insecurities

Beauty, fitness and diet industries generate their income by presenting us with a vision of the perfect body that targets our own insecurities. We are vulnerable to the power of this image since, in comparison, we are made to feel overweight and ugly.

The same companies then sell us products so that we can ‘correct’ our many physical deficiencies. These products promise to make us appear younger, slimmer and more attractive.

Under the guise of counselling women on ways they can attain physical perfection, companies increase their profit margins by nurturing bodily anxiety. They create a problem; then offer the solution. As long as bodily dissatisfaction is maintained, women are controllable and profitable.

These industries profit from selling bodily insecurity

Since these industries profit from selling bodily insecurity, they make us believe that we can improve ourselves by purchasing their products.

Women’s magazines and websites are packed with articles and adverts that provide solutions for sculpting the perfect glutes; reducing body fat; and getting rid of wrinkles. They tell us that transformation is easy, as long as we are willing to spend.

Companies not only advertise products to improve our physical exteriors; they also offer consumable items that promise to reduce our weight and size. Within modern culture, women and dieting are almost synonymous.

This weight preoccupation is created by the diet industry that is worth over £2bn in the UK alone. Diet companies profit by offering weight loss solutions that are unsustainable in the long term, thereby ensuring that women return to buy their products.

Low carbohydrate diets, for instance, can cause rapid weight loss, yet the rate of this loss decreases as the body adapts and metabolism lowers in order to compensate for lack of nutritional energy. Most diets offer a quick and easy solution, yet fail to counsel women on the long term effects, or their possible health risks.

More than 1 in 5 women claim they would consider weight loss surgery

In addition to investing in diet plans and products, an increasing number of women have resorted to surgery to shed the pounds. Weight loss surgery is on the rise, with a market worth of almost $6 billion in the USA. More than one in five women claim that they would consider surgical procedures to combat their weight.2

There is also a growing market for surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments. This is owing to the current body ideal that is both curvaceous and lean. Since this is almost impossible for most women to achieve naturally, surgery is often required.

According to The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, the top 3 cosmetic surgeries of 2019 include breast augmentation, with 7727 surgeries carried out during this year.3

Owing to the somewhat unnatural body ideal and the over-commercialisation of surgery, going under the knife has become a social norm. Since it is now possible to drastically change our bodies through diet, exercise and surgical procedures, however, the ideal has become increasingly unrealistic.

We are led to believe that we are perfectible

In these ways, capitalist industries perpetuate the myth that the physical form is a blank canvas to be constructed, improved and enhanced. We are led to believe that we are perfectible: that the body can be shaped according to our volition.

Feminist critic Susan Bordo points out that the body is no longer understood as ‘a biological “given” …but as a plastic potentiality to be pressed into the service of the image-to be arranged, re-arranged, constructed and deconstructed as we choose.’4

Being told that we have the power for self-improvement creates the illusion that we are in control of our own transformations. In reality, however, we are victims of commercial enterprise. 

Not only is the concept of the ideal body created for capitalist gain, it also serves to maintain patriarchal power. In a culture obsessed with bodies, we are made to feel ashamed of our own figures and engage in damaging behaviours in order to ‘fix’ them.

Accepting this ideal and believing that we can alter our bodies to achieve it has, according to Susie Orbach, ‘contributed to…a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.’5

Subscribing to the demands of the cultural ideal, we become agents of our own oppression by engaging in self-regulatory practices as we starve, purge, nip, tuck and beautify our bodies.

By directing our energies towards meeting an impossible body ideal, this means that we do not have the time, energy, or confidence to challenge our position in society. In this way, our bodies have become mediums of cultural control that ensure we remain attractive, silent and obedient.

Society leads to believe that the problem lies with us: that if we mould ourselves to fit their ideal, our problems will be solved. Instead of trying to squeeze our bodies into a single cookie-cutter shape and size, however, we should celebrate the beautiful variety of female bodies. Instead of striving for individual change, we should aim for social revolution.


  1. Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996)
  2. https://comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  3. https://baaps.org.uk/media/press_releases/1708/cosmetic_surgery_stats_number_of_surgeries_remains_stable_amid_calls_for_greater_regulation_of_quick_fix_solutions
  4. Bordo, Susan Feminisms
  5. Orbach, Susie Bodies, (Profile Books, London, 2009)