The history of changing body ‘ideals’

Welcome to the bonkers world of changing body 'ideals'. As quick as the wind changes direction, what was seen as desirable altered and women dutifully responded, to the needs of men.

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history”
― Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

We begin in the 1920's when women were looking for a stronger identity after the pale, frail, weak look of the Victorian Era. Flat chested with short bobbed hair was the androgynous look to go for.

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Flappers of the 1920s were young women known for their energetic freedom, embracing a lifestyle viewed by many at the time as outrageous, immoral or downright dangerous.

Now considered the first generation of independent women, flappers pushed barriers in economic, political and sexual freedom for women.

The rates of eating disorders however, rocketed in the 1920’s when ‘reducing’ (with creams and soaps) was the trend. With the promotion of the quick fix to shrink 'ungainly' parts, this advert wouldn't look out of place in 1990.

Men were told muscles made a man and women were being fed similar messages that thinness brought success. To be fat was to be unhappy.

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Moving onto the 1940’s, a softer body was preferred. Cinched waists and fuller breasts were in style. This post war era was a time of opportunity for women. Divorce rates soared, women wanted to work but social expectations were harsh and restrictive - the expected role for women was to raise children and carry out domestic duties. They had to be prepared to meet their husbands; to be sexually appealing with dinner on the table. Patriarchy and objectification ruled the roost. Don’t be fat, don’t be skinny, put some weight on…These adverts just blow my mind.

Our grandparents and parents, who shaped who we are today grew up with this. No wonder women (and men) have such high levels of body dissatisfaction reported do today. These suppositions are not a million miles away from today and similarly, didn't reflect real women of the time.

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Lesley Hornby aka Twiggy (because she resembled a twig according to her friends) became the first working class supermodel in 1966. Her willowy and kooky appearance (that apparently she hated as a child) lead her to becoming a British cultural icon.

Mattel created a Twiggy Barbie doll and you could even look like Twiggy if you could crochet. She was only 16 and the waif look (part 1) was born.

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The 70’s still focused on skinny but with a hint of lean. Farrah Forcett dominated teenage bedroom walls (her iconic red swimsuit poster sold six million copies in its first year of print) and we were being told to eat less. Sugar was being hailed a saviour in helping to control our appetite and phrases like undereat and stop eating were common in adverts.

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The 80’s were all about athleticism and home workouts on Betamax. The word was tone thanks to Jane Fonda and her ankle warmers. Well actually she was responsible for ‘feel the burn’ and ‘no pain no gain’. It was also the decade of the Slendertone that promised to tackle the flab, sag, droop and bulge. It was about strong not skinny, just as long as you were thin and leggy.

Sexism was rife and continued right through the 90’s thanks to Levi's and Budweiser's portrayal of 'needy' women. But the Pepsi advert with 'I’d like to be soap-on-a-rope in Claudia Schiffer’s shower' takes the top position of most insulting advert as it's take home message was fat women are hideous, disgusting people who should be avoided at all costs.

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Waif part 2 happened in the 90’s. This was the decade of grunge and ‘heroin chic’ thanks to Kate Moss and Calvin Klein and the start of a deeply unhealthy beauty standard. The media facilitated the ‘Obsession’ with the thin ideal that I don’t think we’ve ever recovered from.

I wonder whether Kate has too, reading about her darkest days of being asked to go topless at 16&17 and breaking down when asked to pose with Mark Wahlberg who body shamed her. Bloody hell 😢

So we head into 2001 when Yorkie decided their chocolate wasn’t for girls 🙄. But the noughties was also a time (thankfully) for some positive shifts in direction.

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In 2004 Dove began their campaign for real beauty. The message was to celebrate women’s unique differences. It initiated a global conversation to widen the definition of beauty and although was criticised at the time, was a step in the right direction.

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They have continued to campaign, notably again in 2014 when the lingerie brand Victoria's Secret came out with their ‘perfect body’ range featuring 100% scantily clad slim models. They pulled it when Dove came back with real women and the slogan ‘the perfect real body’. Ha!

Celebrities also started to fight back against photoshopping in the noughties. In 2002 Jamie Lee Curtis posed with no makeup or hair styling, wearing only a sports bra and underwear. In 2003, Kate Winslet called out GQ magazine for altering her figure on their cover.

But then Katy Perry offended everyone with her pop chips advert in 2010 with the tag line “I curl Popchips straight to my lips. Good thing they don’t go straight to my hips.” 🤬

Whilst the media continued to body shame and criticise celebrity beach bodies. Kim Kardashian became obsessed with fame, was taking centre stage for photoshopping her own pictures and flogging appetite suppressant lollipops in 2018.

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In 2019 Tess Holliday took beach body ready to every body. She joined the fake tan company Isle of Paradise who promoted body confidence and acceptance using models of varying sizes, shapes and abilities.

Katy Perry the redeemed herself in 2020 when she got real with her post baby body.

Lizzo held the stage at Glastonbury in 2019 and made the cover of Vogue in 2020.

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At last we are seeing black women taking up space and doing incredible work for the positive body image and body acceptance.

Last year Cosmopolitan launched their ‘This is healthy’ campaign featuring 11 women who prove wellness isn't 'one size fits all'. Yes there was backlash too as this was seen as promoting obesity but change is a happening folks. It’s coming.

So you see, body ‘ideals’ change CONSTANTLY. It's impossible to keep up and you don’t have to.

When we believe our bodies have held us back (when we feel we are not good enough – so we need to change something about our appearance to qualify for those good experiences that successful people have), it leads us to opting out and isolation. We retreat from life and opportunities. We watch ourselves from afar; seen as embarrassing projects. Sitting out and hiding from the World reinforces this message and keeps us believing we are not good enough.

Your body is not the problem you see, our society and culture is.

You are so much more than your body. Don’t wait to live your life.


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