Women of Wonder: How the Standard of Beauty Has Changed Throughout Time

Guest post contributed by Hannah Whittenly

It’s hard for many people to believe, but today’s perfect model’s body and blonde hair would, at one time in history, have been termed “sickly.” Perceptions of beauty have changed throughout time dramatically just like fashion trends. That’s often due to the media’s ever-changing representation of what’s ideal. Regardless of what is considered beautiful, everyone strives to fit in. It’s just part of human nature and that often requires change on a personal level. Fortunately, unlike times prior to the Renaissance Era, over the past 100 years plenty of photographs and portraits have documented the changes. The perceptions of what’s ideal can clearly be seen, especially within the past century.

The Early 1900’s – The Gibson Girl

Illustrator Charles Gibson created a phenomenon that was dubbed the Gibson Girl. She was based on the body type of Evelyn Nesbit who was soon seen as the world’s first supermodel. She had an extremely long neck, loped shoulders, big curls and was extremely tall. She also had a soft, round body that was exaggerated by a waist measurement that was too small to be believed. Based on her popularity, the Gibson Girl led women across America to adopt the use of corsets in order to try to replicate the thin waist which was soon found to be unhealthy.

The 1920’s – The Flappers

During the 1920’s, gone were the over-exaggerated curves and in its place was the look of a 2×4. The era known for the flappers showed no cleavage, as flat-chests were all the rage, were streamlined and straight as an arrow. They were also extremely petite. An ideal for the era, Margaret Gorman, was found when the first Miss America was crowned in 1921. She stood 5’1″ and weighed only 108 pounds. Since during the era waistlines fell below the naval in fashion, narrow hips became a necessity as well.

The 1930’s – The Siren’s Call

Curves were back during the 1930’s but in a more subtle way than in the early 1900’s. The result was a less boxy look with a natural waistline at the belly button and a smaller, rather than the lack of a, bust-line. Bra-cup sizing was invented during this period which supported the change from a bound bust-line to allowing it to take a more natural form. Still, 34B was considered huge at the time. The ideal of the era was Actress Dolores del Rio who was felt to have the best figure in Hollywood. She was considered to have the perfect warmly curved, roundly turned figure of the time.

The 1940’s – Rosie the Riveter

The softer look of the 1930’s were out and broad, boxy and aggressive body types were in due to WWII icon Rosie the Riveter. That meant an angular figure with broad shoulders, long limbs and a taller, squarer silhouette were all the rage. That translated into a more commanding appearance helped by the invention of the girdle. A-list actresses such as Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall were considered to have ideal body types and, at 5’8″, were some of the tallest female stars in Hollywood.

The 1950’s – The Hourglass Figure

The 1950’s welcomed back the hourglass figure in a big way. The new look was soft and voluptuous. As a result, skinny, flat-chested women were encouraged to gain weight through the use of supplements as well as the use of bust cream. The look was reinforced when the Barbie Doll and Playboy Magazine came on the market. That meant that tiny waists and large chests were the ideal. As a result, hip and booty padding flew off the shelves as women sought better ways to fill out their figures. This was also the period where the measurements 36/21/36 became the goal of women throughout the world.

The 1960’s – The Era of the Twig

During this era, thin was back in. The model Twiggy represented the new ideal standing only 5’6″ and weighing 91 pounds. She was considered doll-faced, petite and super slender with large, doe eyes. Women everywhere wanted to replicate the look. A smaller bust-line and narrow hips were considered ideal and the last thing women wanted was an hourglass figure. Girdles were out because of the less constricting wardrobe of the times. Unfortunately, many women found that the ideal slim, flat stomach desired could only be achieved through dieting. The result was the creation of Weight Watchers in 1963. Another growing industry during this period was plastic surgery for cosmetic purposes. Along with the invention of silicone, which began to be used in every part of the face and body, it’s use was still limited for mainstream America for use to correct perceived imperfections.

The 1970’s – Disco Fever Meets Flower Power

Synthetic fabrics came on the market which, although super popular, turned out to be unforgiving and far more revealing. As a result, the ideal body type changed to require a leaner look even though there were some curves that began to creep back in. Still, narrow hips and flat, hard stomachs were required to be considered idealistic. However, taller body types were in as well as “the black is beautiful” movement. As a result, Virginia Slims began advertising that smoking could be used as a weight loss measure, Dr. Atkins released the low-carb diet and cosmetics companies began expanding their lines to include more skin tones. During this time Farrah Fawcett became the poster girl for the ideal body with a bust measurement of 34B.

The 1980’s – The Supermodel

Tall, leggy Amazonia supermodels set the standard for the new feminine ideal. It was also the time when fitness became the best dieting tool, especially jogging. That meant that muscles became a highly desirable trait which became another beauty “must have” to add to an already long list. The sports bra was invented during this period and Elle MacPherson, standing at 6′ tall, was nicknamed “The Body.” In plastic surgery a push was made to change public perceptions of the practice and, with better affordability, became available to mainstream America. It was during this time that Botox was also approved by the FDA for use in cosmetic surgery.

The 1990’s – The Waif Look

This time in history ushered in what some people dubbed “heroin chic” because of the gaunt look many women began to adopt. Kate Moss, at 5’7″ and extremely thin, set the industry standard and the ideal body type for women everywhere. It was more of an androgynous look with a slim, small frame, flat booty and bust line and a pale, gaunt, glass-eyed look. To the delight of women everywhere, spandex was born at the end of the era which has turned into the modern day corset.

The 2000’s – The Buff Beauty

Fortunately, the era of “heroin chic” was out and sexy was back in in a big way. Washboard abs came into vogue and were enhanced with airbrushing and fake tans. As a result, careers in plastic surgery, personal training and the spray tan industry saw a boom. Botox came into use by more people for everything from achieving fuller lips to the treatment for migraine headaches and the FDA approved its use for reducing lines and wrinkles. Anti-aging techniques became an industry standard with new technology like laser treatments and Botox, such as those performed by the Sollay Laser Center, as a way to enhance beauty as well as correct perceived imperfections. It was also during the period that supermodel Giselle Bundchen was crowned “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by Rolling Stone Magazine and began to dominate runways, ads, lingerie shows and the red carpet making her the new “look” for the perfect woman.

The 2010’s – Booty Time

Curreconfntly, bootylicious bodies have gone mainstream thanks to individuals like Kim Kardashian and J. Lo who have decided to embrace and accentuate their assets. That also means that curvier figures are back and the world is beginning to embrace the concept that “one-size-does-not-fit-all”. Toned muscles and line-free faces are in along with a fresh, more youthful appearance. It’s a great time for women since it means they can finally be who they are with fewer limitations and fewer strict standards. Spandex is still highly popular along with botox and other cosmetic surgery procedures in order to achieve that toned, youthful appearance but, other than that, just about anything goes.

The last hundred years have seen such a wide change in perceptions of beauty that it’s unlikely anyone could keep up. It’s important to remember that the media’s ideal of beauty is subjective and changes as often as you might change your socks. Instead of trying to keep up, be confident in the way you are. In the end, it’s the most ideal perception of all.

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