Viktoria Szanto brings us another installment of her ‘History of Fashion’ series, in which she ponders the historical and sociological influences on ‘ideal’ body types. Take a look at her other ‘History of Fashion’ pieces, an exploration of the history and meaning of tattoos and piercings and an analysis of suffragette fashion.
Since this week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on some of the issues surrounding ’fashionable’ or ’ideal’ female body types. I’m not trying to question the status quo (although there is some questioning due…), and I won’t be a hypocrite and pretend that I’m above all this, but these are just the musings of someone who – just like everyone else – has insecurities. The topic is also very current, so win-win! You have probably come across the Buzzfeed video that shows women’s ideal body types throughout history (or if you haven’t, you should check it out here), so instead of meticulously going over the things that are – rather sketchily and occasionally inaccurately – said in the video, I will concentrate on the problems and questions the video – and the whole phenomenon of idealized beauty, in general – raises.
Just as a quick recap – according to the video ideal body types were: slender in Ancient Egypt, but plump in Greece. Roman antiquity was interestingly left out. Now, I get that many historians over-simplify Roman art and ideals by saying that they essentially copied Greeks, but the Roman Empire officially stood for 500 years, and – for me at least – the whole purpose of this video is to show how quickly ideals change, so don’t tell me that nothing happened in that 500 years! Anyways, the video goes on: petite during the Han dynasty in China, round during the Italian Renaissance (not really, if you look at Da Vinci’s or Michelangelo’s women. Oh, were you thinking Rubens? Because he was entirely a baroque painter, and lived at least a hundred years later). Plump and round in the Victorian Era (again, at least 400 years of time travel), boyish during the twenties, curvy in the thirties, adolescent-like in the sixties (although I don’t really think Twiggy was ever a sex symbol, more like Brigitte Bardot), athletic in the eighties, heroin chic in the nineties (what… why? How? How did those two words even come to be in the same sentence?), and apparently the ideal woman today is skinny with big boobs.
Don’t get me wrong, the video is interesting as a thought experiment and quite entertaining, but to me it feels like a hit and run. You don’t just raise an issue so important and controversial, show 3 minutes of it and then stop. They never explained their sources for example. A crucial aspect of the whole matter is by whom these ideals are created. Who dictates how big your boobs/waist/feet – insert any body part here – have to be? And where do they get those ideals? Today it’s easy to say that it is the evil media that wants the money we’ll pay for different products because we want to conform to what is generally thought as being beautiful. But take the Renaissance for example. There was no television or Internet back then, so how did people know what the ideal is? And why was it important? They had art, but the commoners – in other words, most people – weren’t exposed to it.
Well, I think it all goes back to social hierarchy and status. We want someone to look up to. Now, obviously when religion is the single most important thing in your society, as it was almost until the 19th century, you have god or gods on the top of this hierarchy. Most people throughout history imagined their gods as being anthropomorphic. So, if your god looks just like your neighbour, are you going to look up to him? No, you need to make him/her an ideal beauty, a beauty that doesn’t really exist in your society – or at least is not very common. Case in point: rich people. Rich people eat a lot, hence their roundness. They also don’t really have to leave their house, because they don’t work, so they never get tanned – unlike the commoners who make up the majority of the population. Artists started painting Madonnas and religious figures rather round and fair-skinned. And when you see your god painted a certain way, you start to think that is ideal.
Since the end of the Second World War, the majority of people in the Western societies (I’m saying Western, because – let’s face it – most of the media was and still is dictated by Western, particularly English-speaking cultures) have plenty to eat, so being what is today regarded as overweight slowly went out of fashion. Skinny is the new curvy. Instead of gods, we have celebrities, and that has changed our outlook on things. Though it isn’t strictly relevant to this topic, I think it is interesting to think about why some people get so upset when they see their favourite stars without makeup. Even though the supposed ideal beauty is much healthier, than it was say, in the nineties, when girls were desperately trying to become skinny, we are still bombarded by images of curvy butts and big boobs, and this ideal is forced on us rather aggressively. Apart from the pressure placed on us by the media, there is also the question of who women want to please: men or other women? And who do men want to please? What if you don’t have a butt like Nicki? Nothing in the world happens, I assure you.
The bottom line is that comparing ourselves to others is always destructive, especially if our golden ratio is fake, artificially-created and idealized beauty. The Buzzfeed video is worth watching, as long as we don’t take it too seriously, because it shows how feeble the mass-accepted ideal of beauty is. If we take the video too seriously, well then articles like this happen! But most importantly: even though the video on its own it doesn’t overtly present us with meaningful questions – let alone answers – it makes us think, and that’s a good thing, right?