How women’s ‘perfect’ body types changed throughout history

Marilyn Monroe modern model


How do we determine what makes
a person beautiful? Though it might seem like the standards of beauty we have
today must be historically universal, really the opposite is true. The
“perfect” female (and male) body has greatly changed over the years,
even though the foundation of the female form has stayed the same.
So, next time you feel like
your own body might be less than perfect, just remember that
“perfection” is an ephemeral ideal, bound to change and transform —
looking stunningly different from one generation to the next.
The Paleolithic era

paleolithic goddess statue
One of the earliest examples
of art that’s ever been discovered, is also a primitive symbol of an idealized
woman. And she doesn’t look at all like the models of today. The Venus of
Willendorf — a statue crafted somewhere between 24,000-22,000 BCE — is a
paradigm of fertility.
This girl goes way beyond
curvy. In fact, she’s a little on the heavy side. Featuring large breasts,
large hips and a healthy stomach, it’s clear that a good body equalled one that
could bear many children. The model has no face — pretty eyes, or bright red
lips were clearly not a priority at the time. A big healthy body was all that
mattered because you were your own method of survival. You couldn’t bat your
long lashes at a mountain lion to make it go away, you had to be strong!
As a piece of art, it’s likely
that this figure is greatly exaggerated from what the women of the era actually
looked like, but that further proves that “voluptuous and
well-nourished” was the ideal 25,000 years ago.

Ancient Greece

Greek statue
The Greeks were defining
beauty literarily, thanks to 8th-7th Century BC author Hesiod, who
“described the first created woman simply as kalon kakon, [which meant]
‘the beautiful-evil thing’. She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful
because she was evil.” Being a hot guy back then? Lucky! Being born a
bombshell Grecian lady? Not so much! Ancient statues show us artists’ idealized
form, which for women featured largish hips, full breasts, and a not-quite-flat
stomach. But the Greeks were defining more than just “beauty” — they
were nailing down the math of attractiveness.
Plato gets the credit for
originally endorsing the Greek-born “golden ratio,” as the bar
by which all beauty is subconsciously judged, but it was his colleague Pythagoras,
who came up with the ratio for beauty — in faces, and in nature. (Remember the
Pythagorean theorem? That.) Put simply, he found that in order to be
considered “beautiful”, women’s faces should be two thirds as wide as
they are long, and both sides of the visage should be perfectly symmetrical.
Symmetrical faces continue to be regarded as more beautiful today, so send your
hate mail to “P’thag” if you’re rocking — and owning — that
The early Renaissance era

perfect body Renaissance
The artists of the Renaissance
wanted to move away from the modesty and strict religious values of the Middle
Ages. So from 1300-1500, they started painting naked breasts that symbolized a
mixture of fertility and sensuality.
The idealized women of artists
like Raphael were commonly curvy, pale but with slightly flushed cheeks, and
soft, round faces. Raphael admitted that most of his paintings were not based
on real models, simply his imaginings of what a beautiful woman would look
like. This was true for many painters. With the Renaissance began a transition
— from simply considering women to be objects of fertility, to objects of lust
and beauty.
The Elizabethan era

perfect female body Queen Elizabeth era
Queen Elizabeth was crowned in
1558, ushering in the era of makeup.  Having derived from a society,
which, according to one Harvard paper, deemed a woman with a face-full of
makeup to be “an incarnation of Satan,” the 25-year-old queen
liberally slapped on the face paint — and that signature red lip. This trending
makeup routine quickly became a symbol of class at the time. The paler you
were, the higher your status. Poor people had to work outside and get terrible
tan lines, so the wealthy would show off their pale skin as a symbol of opulent
indoor living.
Also wanting to maintain her
virginal image (and later hide her smallpox scars) in addition to flaunting her
status, Elizabeth painted her face with a thick coat of white lead-based
powder, and lip rouge. Members of high society followed suit, likely due to the
belief that lipstick “could work magic, possibly even ward off
death,” according to the paper. Not one to bail on her own brand,
Elizabeth died, wearing “a half-inch of lip rouge” on her pout.
Post French revolution into
the late 18th century

Perfect female body French Revolution
After the French rebelled
against the aristocracy during the French Revolution in 1789, the people wanted
to distance themselves from their disgraced royalty. Makeup became much simpler
and the insanely ornate gowns of the very rich were paired down. Though their
dresses would seem pretty fancy for us today, it was a much more wearable and
mobile way of dressing than in the past.
Before the revolution, makeup
was worn equally by men and women. As the idea of “artifice” found
disfavor in society, both sexes opted for more natural looks. But as memories
of the revolution began to fade, and the country entered the 19th century,
makeup for women in court gained popularity again.
Though it was still criticized
by some, the art of putting on makeup and getting dressed for the day became a
sort of show that coquettes would perform for potential admirers. Elite women
would literally invite spectators to watch them primp in various states of
undress. Men were into it. But makeup for men stayed mostly unpopular, becoming
a benchmark for the separation of women and men in society: it labeled a
woman’s looks and sexiness as her greatest virtue.
Victorian era

Victorian era woman
By the time Queen Victoria
earned her crown in 1837, The British Library
reported that “modest, ringletted prettiness was ‘the look’….
Bell-shaped skirts known as crinolines became wider and wider, needing ever
more petticoats, and even hooped supports.” And, according to The BBC,
ladies were getting in formation “in the home, as domesticity and
motherhood were considered by society at large to be a sufficient emotional
fulfillment for females.” The pale, frail, weak look was all the
rage. No particular body part was emphasized — just so long as a women didn’t
look too hearty or strong. According to artist and researcher Alexis Karl,
“Consumptives were thought to be very beautiful.” Who knew that dying
of tuberculosis would make you the hot chick?
Makeup of the time was also
incredibly dangerous. Lead, ammonia, mercury, and nightshades were common
ingredients. And the Victorian’s weren’t completely ignorant of the effects of
these poisons. Women were simply willing to poison themselves in order to look
more beautiful. Of course, male-dominated desire favoring weak, submissive
women sparked the trend, so it wasn’t like ladies all decided to kill
themselves to look pale just for the heck of it.
The turn of the century

the Gibson girl
The 1890’s brought about the
Gibson girl. The Gibson girl was an illustration by Charles Gibson that defined
a beautiful woman of the age. From the turn of the century to the beginning of
World War I, women everywhere tried to match the drawing. She was pale, though
not as powdered as previous years. She wore a tight corset, but the dresses
were cut to show more of her figure (her real figure — plus a bustle of
A large bust was preferred,
and, though it was still popular for girls to look a little soft and round, the
trend towards a thinner ideal was beginning. The Gibson girl wasn’t actually a
real person, but Evelyn Nesbit, considered to be the world’s first supermodel,
was the closest match. But it was a case of yet another standard of beauty
invented by a man’s drawing, rather than inspired by any existing woman.
The 1920s

Perfect female body 1920s
By the end of the 1910s, many
women were hitting the workforce during World War I. And after the war? They
weren’t about to give up all that independence. In 1920, women scored the right
to vote — and they weren’t going to take the piled-up hair and corsets anymore!
Flappers brought about a complete change in fashion and body type. Since they
were gaining a taste of men’s power, the ideal women’s body became a more
boyish figure. For the first time, the curvy, fertile look was completely out.
Girls wanted to look thin with no curves, and they were chopping their hair.
Skirt hemlines were hiked up
higher than ever, allowing women to move, dance, and finally have some fun. The
flip side of the flapper movement? It’s where our serious modern obsession with
weight began. Before the ’20s, it was difficult to weigh yourself unless you
were very rich. Full length mirrors were also incredibly expensive, so only the
wealthy had ever even seen their entire bodies. But, as bathroom scales were
invented, it became very simple to notice exactly how thin or big you were. The
rise of department stores also gave working class women a chance to finally see
all of themselves at once. That also meant they could see all of their flaws,
thus igniting our contemporary version of body obsession.
The ’30s and ’40s

perfect female body beauty 1930s and 1940s
Unfortunately for flappers,
the ’20s ended badly and the Great Depression made fashion an afterthought.
Most women weren’t able to worry about having a skinny figure and the perfect
clothes, so the ideal body type became slightly more full.
Because of a lack of
resources, and then the rationing of World War II, women had to get creative
with their clothes. They would rework men’s suits into women’s attire. That
brought about the padded shoulder look (not quite to the ’80s extreme, but
close), creating a sharp hourglass figure. Women were recovering from years of
a terrible economy, along with food rations for the war, and the ideal body
type mirrored that. Nobody wanted to look stick thin — it seemed too close to
starving — but a voluptuous figure was also unrealistic for the time.
The ’50s to early ’60s

Marilyn Monroe perfect female body
The depression and World War
II were history, and America was making a lot of money for the first time in
years. People were in the mood to celebrate, and with that indulgence came a
slightly fuller figure. The hourglass figure was sought after and having a
large bust was strongly encouraged.
Now, a lot of people think
that the sex symbols of the ’50s would be considered plus sized now. Though
they are certainly heavier than the models of today, the movie stars were still
very thin — they just had boobs. Most of the glamour girls of film had a BMI
between 18.8 and 20.5, much lower than the average women’s BMI of 23.6. So,
even at a modern time where the ideal woman was a little bigger, she was still
thinner than most real girls. In this newsreel clip from the early ’60s, a town
holds a “Miss Fat and Beautiful” contest. To modern ears, it’s pretty
shocking to hear a bunch of ladies being openly called “fatties”. And
by today’s standards, these women aren’t that big! Clearly, the demand for
thinness has been around for quite a while.
The late ’60s to the ’90s

Twiggy perfect female body
By the ’60s, the culture began
to shift. People weren’t happy just to have a house and car, sitting at home as
a housewife. Young people rebelled against the constricting ways of ’50s, and
with Twiggy becoming the most famous model of the age? Thin was (back) in.
The ’70s saw greater freedom
for women, but skinny was still the ideal. Farrah Faucett may have had a larger
bust than Twiggy, but she was still rather petite. Makeup and fashion tilted
toward a more natural look. Looks weren’t as bold as the swinging ’60s and hair
was worn natural and very long.
When the ’80s rolled around,
the Supermodel era began. Women were meant to be tan, tall, thin, but slightly
athletic. Hips got much smaller, though large breasts were still the rage.
Women were influenced more by models than actors for fashion and body trends,
while models continued to be wildly thinner than the average person.
Just when it seemed like the
ideal body couldn’t get any thinner, in came the ’90s. Kate Moss came along to
give Twiggy a run for “skinniest model of all time”. The Brit model
with a BMI of 16 and that famous “heroin chic” look became popular.
Funny that both the ’90s and the Victorian era modeled good looks after people
who were, quite literally — dying. With waif models in vogue, the ’90s
presented the thinnest feminine ideal in history.
What really is ‘perfect’?

Perfect female body
Luckily we’re stepping into an
age where the media is beginning to celebrate diversity of race and body type —
though there’s still a long way to go. Before New York Fashion Week 2017, the
Council of Fashion Designers of America sent out a memo to remind designers to
seek out healthy models and a wider range of types saying, “New York
Fashion Week is also a celebration of our city’s diversity, which we hope to
see on the runways.”
The thing to remember is most
of the historical standards of beauty were based on a drawing or a painting of
a man’s fantasy! Nowadays Photoshop has the same effect, making already-petite
models look unattainably perfect. You can’t possibly live up to a fictional
piece of art or a masterfully altered photograph. Since standards have changed
so much over history (just try to wear big 80s hair and makeup to look hot
today), it proves that these standards are really just temporary ideals.
If your body isn’t considered
“perfect” today? Who cares! “Perfect” is an illusion that
no one can attain. So, be happy with the body you have and celebrate all the
things that make up your gorgeous, imperfect self.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.