The Changing Shape of An “Ideal” Body

“Girls today make the body into an all-consuming project in ways young women of the past did not.”

-Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls

In the Victorian era, dissatisfaction with looks or discomfort in one’s body was based around the natural, awkward biological changes that occur during puberty, and young girls evaluated themselves based on their moral character. Today, the focus of self-evaluation commonly shifts to appearance, and in particular, to matching the “ideal” body shape.

Body image distortions are a hallmark feature of eating disorders. Yet, body image concerns are rampant even among those without these disorders. Body image refers to a mental image – what an individual sees, or imagines themselves to look like, in the mirror – and is also comprised of associated thoughts (perhaps, “These jeans fit me well” or “My arms are not muscular enough”), behaviors (such as trying on several outfits before leaving the house), and emotions. A neutral or positive body image would be characterized by a fairly accurate perception of one’s shape and thoughts that acknowledge some positive attributes; a negative body image typically involves a distortion of what one’s body actually looks like and mostly very critical or judgmental thoughts about it.

The “ideal” body that is portrayed in popular culture and the media is part (though, importantly, not all) of what influences how people perceive their own bodies. Media images are among the environmental factors that can provoke unhealthy eating behavior and poor body image. Exposure to popular images of “ideal” bodies has been found to be associated with more dieting and exercise, lower body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem.

The “ideal” body (a term put in quotes because there is actually no one way to define what an ideal body shape is) depicted in popular media has shifted over time; what we consider to be the “perfect” body today is not the same as it was years ago.

20th Century Body “Ideals”

A study done in 2000 looked at the changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) of Miss America pageant winners from 1922 to 1999, a tradition through which beauty ideals of America are reflected. The graph below shows a clear trend in the last 80+ years: steady decline in the BMI of Miss America pageant winners. Miss America of the 1920s sat at a BMI reflective of a normal weight range ( > approximately 21 kg/m2), while her counterparts toward the end of the 20th century had BMIs below the World Health Organization’s cutoff point for under-nutrition ( ≥ 18.5 kg/m2). JAMA Miss America Study In the 20th century, the ideal figure for women has indeed changed decade by decade:

  • In the beginning of the century, “the Gibson Girl” was the beauty ideal, a body shape that was slender and tall with some curves in the hips and breast area.
  • In the 1920’s, “the Flapper” was in style; large breasts were looked down upon and sporty, healthy figures were idealized.
  • During the 1930’s-40’s (World War II era), women were expected to avoid looking too thin and instead were encouraged to have curvier bodies and after the war, the busty and voluptuous shape (think Marilyn Monroe) was highly popularized.
  • The super-skinny look started to become more prominent in the 1960s, with the introduction of the “hippie” look; curves were no longer idealized, but instead looking very slender and petite was.
  • In the 1970s, a time when dieting and diet pills was widespread, an unhealthy thin was decidedly “in.”
  • By the 1980s, supermodels were even more likely to be underweight and simultaneously much taller, and by the 90’s, “heroin chic” (think Kate Moss), a style characterized by boniness and even more extreme thinness (like that sometimes seen in drug users and hence the nickname), was depicted as the ideal.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the “heroin chic” era ended. In its stead, a more muscular build began to be idealized. But the changes are really constant; most recently, the curvaceous look (think Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj) has taken over as an “ideal.”

Understanding Shifting “Ideals”

What can we make of this? What does it all mean?

One response to the changing trends might be to consistently strive for a body type that is not inherently yours, and then to feel discouraged or disappointed when you cannot meet this unrealistic standard or the standard shifts.

Another response, however, would be to interpret the fact that “ideal” is not just unrealistic but also a moving target as further confirmation that body “ideal” is actually a subjective, fluid concept.

At the end of the day, there is no objectively “perfect” body shape, and therefore, there is no one way we ought to look.  If you are seeking to work towards acceptance of and appreciation for the body you have, rather than the body you might think you should have, check out our related post with helpful hints for improving body image.

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