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Evolution of the Ideal Body

Ideas of body attractiveness are culturally constructed and arbitrary and have fluctuated radically across continents and centuries. For example, Botticelli’s 1846 painting, Birth of Venus, envisions divine beauty with an aesthetic that emphasizes the belly, breasts, and other feminine curves. However, 500 years later, 1990s supermodels’ athletic bodies are profoundly different from Venus’ curves

The Gibson Girl

The 1900s Gibson Girl, named after illustrator Charles Gibson, was propagated in women’s magazines as being the “it-girl” of the era. This ultra-feminine woman wore tightlacing corsets to accentuate a small waist and both a wide bosom and wide hips. The posture of this style was referred to as the “S-bend” silhouette, which made the body look like a looping figure-s.

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The Flapper

Suddenly, the exaggerated curves of the Gibson Girl were suddenly gone and replaced with the small bust and hips of the flapper who was constantly in motion. In the 1920s, the ideal for a woman’s silhouette slimmed considerably to be more masculine, with the dramatic flattening of the entire body resulting in a more youthful aesthetic.

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The Pin-up

Following the stock market crash, the 1930s saw the flat-chested look give way to a small bustline, likely a result of the new bra-cup sizing system invented in this era. The media embraced a slightly more curvaceous body, creating a stepping-stone from the streamlined, petite look of the 1920s toward the curvier 1940s.

Post-World War II, the soft voluptuousness of the hourglass figure came back into popularity. Advertisements of the time went as far as to advise “skinny” women to take weight-gain supplements such as Wate-On to fill out their curves. Barbie was introduced in the 1950s, espousing a tiny-waisted, large-chested ideal. Popular fashion details such as circle skirts and sweetheart necklines enhanced this figure.


The Mod Look

The swinging 1960s moved toward a look that was androgynously trim. Models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton represented a new feminine ideal that was super slender and petite. Still, in the 1960s, more and more women were shedding their girdles and embracing a less constricting wardrobe meaning that a flat stomach must now be achieved through diet and exercise. Weight loss and fitness enterprises such as Weight Watchers, founded in 1963, emerged to capitalize on this new phase.

The woman of the 1960s also enjoyed the invention of the miniskirt as well as the increased acceptability of pants for women. Both styles prompted the idealization of the long leg that has lasted to the present. Following the invention of the push-up bra in the 1970s the ideal breast has been a rounded, fuller, and larger breast.


The Supermodel 

By the 1980s, Amazonian supermodels reigned supreme. These tall, leggy women come to represent the new face of beauty. Elle MacPherson, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista lead the stampede off the runway and into the heart of pop culture. Aerobics and jogging also took off, and muscles became acceptable and desirable on women.


Kate Moss ushered in the era of the waif in the 1990s, contrasting with the athletic, toned look of the uber-fit woman of the 1980s and, in the 2000s, thin was still very much “in.” National conversations about eating disorders were sparked when many young women attempted to achieve unnaturally slender figures by severely controlling their diets.

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