Over the years, notions of the ‘ideal’ woman have changed. It’s been evolving quickly too — sometimes it only takes a couple of years before the next unattainable figure comes along. But what are the common themes of this neverending cycle of diet culture and fitness and beauty products targeted at women? And what role does pop culture play in shaping it?
I’ve certainly struggled with body image and trying to fit into the impossible standards set for women. People have made comments about my body, even from the young age of 10. I come from a family that is very embracing of being who you are, but unfortunately that doesn’t go for everyone in my life. I still remember a boy telling me how hairy my legs were when I was only 11 years old — which ultimately led me to start waxing my legs. I still struggle with it, but I’m working on challenging this mindset of basing my entire worth on my appearance.
It can be easy to blame beauty icons like Marilyn Monroe and Twiggy for setting impossible beauty standards for women over the years. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not these women who are necessarily at fault here. The pressure for women to look a certain way stems from the male gaze and the patriarchy’s manufacturing of gender roles.
In this piece, I explore how body image has changed over time, and how much I’m sure it will continue changing — hopefully towards a more positive, inclusive place. There’s no such thing as a universally ‘ideal’ woman’s body, and history shows us that. We have the agency to choose what we do to our bodies, so if we want to make changes to them that’s totally okay, and if we don’t, that’s totally okay too!
History is a useful way of gaining a broader perspective on current issues. By learning more about the roots of the ideal female figure and how it has been manufactured over time, perhaps we can develop a more healthy relationship with our bodies.
The ‘flapper’ look was popular during the Roaring Twenties. Source: https://thevintagespectator.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/flapper-inspiration/
Let’s start in the Roaring Twenties: the era of flappers, The Great Gatsby, and the jazz age. During the 1920s, the Western world was going through significant social and economic change. For example, the nineteenth amendment was passed in the United States of America, which gave women the right to vote.
For Western women, the ‘flapper’ look was highly sought after. Flappers were young, fashionable women typically known for their ‘unladylike’ appearance, slim figure, short dresses and short hair. Being a flapper was not only about fashion, but defying societal expectations about women and embracing freedom. While flappers flaunted their growing independence and self-expression as young women, unfortunately the ideal flapper look also shows the toxic idealisation of slimness.
Hollywood star Jean Harlow. Source: https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a44839/jean-harlow-death/
Moving on to the 1930s, where the threat of another world war was steadily creeping closer. In the 30s, American actress Jean Harlow became a sex symbol, especially for her portrayal of ‘bad girl’ characters. Many aspired to look like Jean Harlow, as she closely fit in with the beauty standard at the time of having a curvy body with a soft waist. Gone were the days where the ‘boyish’ style was desirable — society demanded that a ‘healthy’ body was in, and wanted women to believe that there’s only one type of healthy body. Spoiler alert: it’s not true.
Rosie the Riveter poster from 1943. Source: Wikimedia commons.
During the 1940s, the ‘ideal body’ was very much influenced by being in the midst of World War II (1939-1945). ‘Military shoulders’ were in, as were tall, commanding presences. It is widely believed that this is a reflection of women emerging in the workforce since men had left to fight in wars overseas.
In terms of 40s pop culture, new stars had arrived in Hollywood. Veronica Lake, who often portrayed femme fatale roles, was seen as being classically beautiful, and many women aspired to have a body like hers. While Rosie the Riveter was flexing her biceps in the iconic ‘We Can Do It!’ image, muscles were not considered attractive.
In fact, Rosie Respect is named after Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter represented women in the US during World War ll who went to work in factories, and over time this image has become a symbol of female empowerment.
Barbie’s hourglass figure. Source: Elena Mishlanova on Unsplash.
On to the 1950s, when one of the most notoriously toxic body image standards began: the hourglass figure. The hourglass promotes a small waistline and a bust and hip measurement almost equal in size. Playboy and Barbie were created in the 50s, and both idolise the hourglass.
The 50s was the Golden Age of Hollywood, which saw the rise of Hollywood stars Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. In the 50s women were expected to have a tiny waist and a large bust with both of these women modelling this ‘ideal’ body.
60s fashion icon, Twiggy. Source: https://groovyhistory.com/twiggy-and-the-beginning-of-the-skinny-model
The 1960s saw a rise in the harmful patriarchal phenomenon we call ‘diet culture’, where weight-loss is promoted as a broader political project to control women. This (often unhealthy) idealisation of slimness saw its ultimate embodiment in actress, model, and singer Dame Lesley Lawson, more widely known as Twiggy. During the swinging 60s, Twiggy was a popular model who was part of the youth-driven cultural revolution of the United Kingdom, where music, art, and fashion thrived.
While Twiggy’s stardom is often associated with a boom in diet culture, we must understand diet culture as a set of ideas driven by societal systems and structures rather than the result of individual actions. Once we can see diet culture as something external to us, we can reconsider and challenge the patriarchal norms that it stems from.
Farrah Fawcett poster from 1977. Source: https://goldfm.lk/life/other/4803/heres-groovy-farrah-fawcett-poster-from-1977
In the 1970s, the new ideal was an athletic figure with no prominent muscles. 30 years on from Rosie the Riveter, society still wasn’t ready to accept women with muscles or the confidence of having muscles.
During this period, there was a rise in anorexia as women strove to have the ‘ideal body’, impacting them in very serious and possibly life threatening ways. The goal in the 70s was a slim, tanned body, but this was a very dangerous goal as it strove for wider shoulders and thinner hips and a completely flat stomach. An example of a 70s ‘it girl’ is Charlie’s Angels actress Farrah Fawcett.
Jamie Lee-Curtis in Perfect, Jane Fonda 1985. Source: Body+Soul
A shift occurred in the 80s, where toned muscles were not only acceptable but desirable. The weight loss empire of Jenny Craig was born, and fitness and workout videos dominated the media. Aerobics were all the hype, and the beauty standard was to be athletic and impossibly narrow.
Also known as the ‘supermodel era’, it was encouraged to have long legs and a slim body that society deemed perfect for the runway. Classic supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell were hugely influential, and were seen to embody this ideal.
Supermodel Kate Moss in the 90s. Source: https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/376543218842734533/
In the 1990s, the androgynous grunge look was in. Yet there was still a focus on having a flat stomach and subtle curves. It was desirable to be thin with visible hip bones and abs. Kate Moss is an example of this beauty standard, who rose to fame as part of the ‘heroine chic’ trend and her involvement in size zero fashion.
Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle as iconic 2000s R&B trio, Destiny’s Child. Source: https://www.abouther.com/node/30141/entertainment/music-film-television/destiny%E2%80%99s-child-reunion-heres-what-we-know-so-far
The early 2000s saw the rise of stars like Britney Spears and Beyonce, who were influential fashion icons as well as musicians. The 00s were all about defined abs, much like the 80s. ‘Chesty’ bodies and super slender figures were in trend.
In the early 2000’s the concept that a woman’s weight directly correlated to her value was forced upon a lot of young girls. Women were taught that the weight that appeared on the scale was somehow linked to how deserving they were of love (which is complete and utter garbage!)
This article goes more in depth about body image in the early 2000’s and how it led to a rise in eating disorders due to the immense pressure placed on young girls.
The idealisation of defined abs lasted into the 2010s, along with a revival of the hourglass figure. Impossible beauty standards reached new heights — now women were encouraged to have a large bust and backside to accompany a small waist and flat stomach. Known as the ‘Kim Kardashian’ body, this version of the ‘ideal’ woman rose to popularity along with that of the Kardashian sisters. Sadly, this body standard contributed to a further rise in eating disorders as people strove to meet this body standard and put themselves at risk to do so.
Statistics state that women and girls are more likely to develop eating disorders than men or boys. 15% of all women will experience an eating disorder in their lifetimes. However, it’s important to remember that many eating disorders experienced in men can go undiagnosed as they may be overlooked by medical practitioners.
75% of people with anorexia are between 12 and 15 years old and 83% of people with bulimia diagnosis are within the same age bracket. There is no single reason behind eating disorders, but it’s safe to assume that body image standards and patriarchy is a big contributor to it.
The mental health of Women of Colour are also affected by certain beauty trends as a result of both systematic exclusion and cultural appropriation. For instance, only 2.5% of the beauty industry is made up of Black-owned brands, yet Black consumers make up 11% of total beauty spending. There is still a limited selection of beauty products suitable for Black women and a lack of adequate Black representation in the beauty industry, showing the unfair bias shown towards white beauty standards.
Cultural appropriation is another significant issue, which refers to the adoption or theft of another culture or identity, usually by a more privileged group. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Kardashians, who have built their fame by exploiting Black women’s aesthetics, as well as Gwen Stefani, who has put on Asian, Black and Latina aesthetics like a costume throughout her entire career. These celebrities have gained massive amounts of their fame and popularity by appropriating other cultures whenever and wherever it suits them, while ignoring how harmful and insensitive this is.
We don’t know what the 2020s will bring yet, but hopefully this will be the decade of letting women have whatever sort of body they want and not forcing them to conform to social norms in order to gain status.
Magazines will often show that a woman has to look a certain way or do certain things to her body to be deemed attractive to society. But the truth is that what society finds attractive changes so incredibly fast.
Thankfully, there are positive changes happening thanks to people who are bucking the trends and helping others become confident in their own skin. Lizzo, for instance, has become an icon for body positivity by encouraging women to embrace their bodies. The singer once quoted, “You look at the hashtag ‘body positive,’ and you see smaller-framed girls, curvier girls. Lotta white girls. And I feel no way about that, because inclusivity is what my message is always about. I’m glad that this conversation is being included in the mainstream narrative. What I don’t like is how the people that this term was created for are not benefiting from it.”
While there are still so many people that will tell you how you’re supposed to look and what your body should be like, don’t listen to them. Listen to those who will motivate you to embrace your body and who you are without having to change for anyone.
No matter how society tells you to look or what they tell you to do to your body to fit in, remember to be yourself and fight these norms. What you do to your body is your choice. Societal expectations are always changing and they will continue changing, so the most radical thing we can do as feminists is to be ourselves and be proud of it!
SASKIA DE LEEUW KYLE
Saskia (she/her) is a writer and aspiring journalist based in Melbourne. She loves to write and read fiction (especially YA romcoms and fantasy). You can find her work through the Wheeler Centre’s ‘Fantasy Fiction’ evening for emerging writers or as the winner of the 13-15 2023 One Teen Story competition. Saskia loves film, literature, languages, and travel and she aspires to be a teen author. When she’s not writing, you can find her listening to Taylor Swift or Lana Del Ray or binge watching romcoms.