I’m Judging You – The Body Ideal Throughout History

Trigger warning

Throughout history, Western women have been controlled by various ideals of physical perfection. Susie Orbach discusses this in her 2006 work Fat is a Feminist Issue, wherein she writes that ‘women are caught in an attempt to conform to a standard that is externally defined and constantly changing.’[1] I argue that these changing cultural representations of the female form contribute to bodily dissatisfaction and disorderly eating since, as Orbach states, ‘women judge themselves on how successfully they can reflect / reproduce the received images of femininity.’[2] When they find themselves falling short of this ideal, women may engage in potentially damaging food-related practices in order to achieve it.

While the modern ideal is the ubiquitous ‘bikini body’ with its tight mid-section and muscular curves, a lean physique has only become fashionable during the past century. Prior to this, voluptuousness was idolised and fleshy, curvaceous 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.




Hilde Bruch notes that this preference for curves ‘persisted onto the Neolithic period. Prehistoric Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian sculptures too, indicate preference or artistic admiration for women with large pregnancy abdomens and heavy hips and thighs.’[3] These bodies were big, matriarchal and venerated. Their swelling forms symbolised fertility and female power.

Since the 1800s, however, there has been a marked shift in terms of the female body ideal. This is characterised by a trend for slenderness; from the wasp-waisted middle-class Victorian lady, to the ascetic model of contemporary runways.

In 1893, fashion magazine Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls claimed that ‘[a] slender, well-proportioned figure is the desire of most women’.[4] Nineteenth century popular publications promoted slenderness and regarded corpulency as a disease. The ideal of female beauty was characterised in an 1871 issue of Le Follet as ‘Height, five feet and so many inches; age, five-and-twenty, more or less;  figure, slight and undulating.’[5] Since a beautiful figure was slender, yet curvaceous, in order for the majority of women to accord with this aesthetic template it was necessary to employ forms of artificial augmentation. The principle means of physical alteration was through the use of corsetry, which, due to its lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of internal organs to create an hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by an extremely narrow waist.




During the nineteenth century, a visual culture emerged as new technologies were developed which enabled the distribution of a feminine ideal via daguerreotypes. Images of the female form were portrayed in ladies’ magazines, fashion plates and embodied in shop mannequins. By the end of the century, in December 1892, Vogue began as a weekly society publication whose cover featured ‘a debutante’ wearing a gown with a small corseted waist.




This shift towards slenderness was the result of a change in women’s socio-political status. The balance of power between the sexes began to shift in the latter half of the nineteenth century, during which arose the much debated Woman Question. According to Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, this Question was ‘a problem of control: Woman had become an issue, a social problem-something to be investigated, analyzed, and solved.’[6] The result was that the situation of woman became an increasing site of contention, involving competing views of her position within both domestic and social spheres. Hence, the definition of female self-starvation as anorexia nervosa, proposed simultaneously in Britain and France in 1873, marks a key moment in the political contest for control of the female body. The simultaneous diagnoses suggest a pervasive socio-political context from which these classifications occurred, arising out of wider issues of gender relations.




During the fin de siècle, the suffragette movement campaigned to obtain votes for women. Their actions destabilised the gender binaries on which Victorian ideology was based: man as assertive and strong; woman as passive and weak. During this period, women’s appearance norms altered to reflect their political aspirations for freedom and power. Female emancipation coincided with a new slender ideal when the boyish ‘flapper’ became the epitome of beauty, and dieting developed as a serious female preoccupation. Hesse-Biber writes that ‘it was during the Flapper Era that cases of anorexia nervosa increased’, which was attributed to ‘“the spreading of the slimming fashion”.’[7] Standardised beauty became a national concern with the first Miss America Pageant taking place in Atlantic City in 1921.


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The following decades saw the return of the cinched waist, yet the ideal still 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 narrow waistline. In this period, however, the girdle replaced the corset as a method of achieving a diminutive mid-section. The female beauty ideal was reflected in the immense popularity of Barbie, a doll introduced in 1959 who ‘was an exaggerated version of the ideal body type of the era’,[8] with large breasts, long legs and an impossibly small waist.




As was the case during the wasp-waisted Victorian period, this change in body ideal towards a more curvaceous type one again reflected women’s social position. During the nineteenth century, there was a gendered division between public and private in which the home was designated as the woman’s sphere. The 50s was saw women’s return to the domestic role and became the era of the middle-class housewife. Incarcerated within their homes, safely in their social place, women did not require a slender ideal to keep them thin and passive. Their minds ‘occupied in domestic seclusion’,[9] women were already contained.

Since the 1960s, the ideal body as seen in fashion models, playboy centrefolds and beauty contestants has become increasingly slim. As was the case when women received the vote during the 1920s, the re-emergence of the slender ideal coincided with the feminist movement. Female attempts to gain equality led to the creation of new body ideal that signified obedience and passivity. Slenderness can therefore once again be read as masculine control of women’s socio-political aspirations.

This physically slight ideal came in the form of one 17 year old girl. British fashion model Leslie Hornby, nicknamed Twiggy, stormed the fashion scene when she appeared in Vogue in 1965. At 5′ 7″ and weighing just 97 pounds,[10] her look was characterised by thinness; a look that reassured men with its ‘suggestion of female weakness, asexuality, and hunger.’[11] 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” and “obesity” began to include normal-sized Americans.’[12] Roberta Seid notes that for pageant contestants in the 1960s, the average height and weight was 5 feet, 6 inches, and 120 pounds: roughly ten pounds below the national average for that age group, and twenty pounds below women overall.’[13]




By the early 1980s, the fashion for waif-like femininity was replaced by a more ‘toned’ aesthetic. During this period, ‘the weight of Miss Americas plummeted, and the average weight of Playboy Playmates dropped from 11 percent below the national average in 1970 to 17 percent below it in eight years.’[14] Julie Hepworth reports that  ‘[a] vast, multi-million dollar “slimming industry” reinforced the culture of thinness by encouraging practices of “calorie counting”, “weight-watching”, and “dieting”’ and ‘[s]limming food supplements became commonly used as a means to weight loss’.[15] With the emergence of a health and fitness culture, the ideal female body became more muscular. Shortly afterwards, however, health gave way to self-destruction and dissolution as 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 a Calvin Klein advertisement. Based upon addiction and apathy, heroin chic was firmly anti-glamour.




These androgynous angles and unsmiling faces have now been replaced with toned, feminine curves as the magazine covers and Victoria’s Secret runways of 2015 are graced with happy, healthy looking models. A fitness culture has emerged, bringing with it a trend for bodies that are curvaceous, yet also firm and contained. This ideal is reflected in social media hashtags such as #strongis thenewskinny and #shesquatsbro and Instagram and Tumblr feeds abound with sculpted torsos and rounded derrieres. The hourglass figure of the nineteenth century has returned, yet without the corset to create this silhouette, women must work harder than ever to achieve the contradictory aspects of a tight waist and ample curves.




[1] Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue (Arrow Books: London, 2006), p.17

[2] Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue (Arrow Books: London, 2006), p.200

[3] Hilde Bruch, Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Person Within (London and Henley: Routledge and Kegen Paul, 1974), p.9

[4] Beauty and Hygiene for Women and Girls (London, 1893) Bodleian Library <http://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=193> [accessed 6th March, 2009], p.31

[5] Anon., ‘There are Three Ways of Describing the Appearance of a Beautiful Woman’, Le Follet: Journal du Grand Monde, Fashion, Polite Literature, Beaux Arts &c. &c., issue 297 (London, England), 1st June, 1871

[6] Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p.4

[7] Am I thin Enough p.27

[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/missamerica/peopleevents/e_body.html [accessed 31/01/15]

[9] The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.184

[10] http://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/eating-disorders/whos-to-blame-for-anorexia/ [accessed 19/01/15]

[11] The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.184

[12] Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.7 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid

[13] Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.7 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid

[14] The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (Vintage, London, 1991), p.185

[15] Julie Hepworth, The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa (Sage Publications, 1999), p.52

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