100 years of the female body
“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.” – Isaiah 40:8
It’s interesting how quickly things change in this world – societal status, ethics and morality, the meaning of words, fashion trends, beauty standards, and body norms, amongst many other cultural fads.
Society (people) drives the ship across the current of culture (behavior, ideologies, preferences, etc). It always has. Moreover the “things” culture deems to be good, right, normal or valuable have changed over time, but chaos, confusion, instability and inconsistency have been a dependable constant.*
A fantastic example of cultural trends, extreme contradiction, and shifts in ideals is the evolving standard of what is considered the “perfect” body and “portrait of beauty.”
Throughout this Culture Matters article, I will outline how culture and society have shaped a woman’s body and her perception of “self” over the last 100 years. In a follow-up article to release later this month, I will address body image as seen in the 2020s and how society can cultivate a truly body-positive environment for the next generation of image bearers.
It is my hope for this basic summary to provide insight into all that has gone wrong in the past so we can seek to pursue a healthy outlook for the future.
I’ve been fascinated by the 1920s ever since I read The Great Gatsby in high school. As an adult, my fondness of this era has only grown with my appreciation for the fashion, artists, entertainers, jazz music and of course, cocktails, that were popular during that time.
In my research for this article, I discovered the impact the first World War had on the subsequent decade. For instance, the war called into question the values of Western civilization and created doubt in the minds of Americans who honored the peace, prosperity and democratic system the United States was founded on. It’s important to note this because I believe the uncertainty of the prior decade, along with the end of WWI, led to this era’s decadence, innovation, material affluence, and female exploration of more provocative behavior, such as smoking and drinking, traditionally associated with men.
This was also the age of Prohibition, a time when the manufacturing and sale of alcohol was banned in the U.S., but that didn’t prohibit Americans from having a good time. Instead, men and women sought out speakeasies or “underground clubs” to imbibe their pleasures while enjoying the jazz music of the Roaring 20s. It is this element of the era that sparked the pop culture body ideal of The Flapper.
A short-cut hairstyle was also widely seen during this period. It is not surprising that the boyish body type and androgynous-look was “in” – females in the 1920s were experiencing much liberation after finally earning the right to vote along with (a slow, but steady) acceptance of women entering the workplace. There are many other elements that played into culture’s ideal of the body, but I believe the emphasis lies on the “rebellious” behavior that was modeled throughout this age.
Despite the Great Depression’s devastating impact on the lives of Americans, culture thrived in the 1930s thanks in part to the “golden age” of Hollywood and its promotion of American tradition and values.
The “golden age” had more to offer Americans than hope, leisure, nostalgia and a sense of normalcy. Hollywood’s starlettes became fashion icons as well as the representatives of the “perfect” female body. (As we’ll see later in this article, nearly one hundred years have passed and not much has changed!)
I think it is safe to say that femininity was the goal for the 1930s woman. This influence is most likely attributed to the glamour and sophistication that was portrayed amongst Hollywood’s female elite.
Picking up where the ‘30s left off, the 1940s female body continued to focus on femininity but with an updated variation.
In the 1940s, men were away at war and many housewives were entering the workplace for the very first time. 1940s women’s fashion reflected this shift in traditional gender roles by focusing on functionality and practicality while often incorporating unused men’s clothing into the construction of women’s attire. Hairstyles in the ‘40s included soft curls and makeup that was less dramatic (than the previous era) to create a more “girl-next-door” look rather than a “vamped” appearance. Low-maintenance with a feminine twist is how I would describe 1940s beauty, presumably because men weren’t visibly present on the home front.
I have two ideas that contribute to the beginning of what would eventually become widespread body consciousness – fashion and advertisements.
In terms of fashion, form-fitting, yet classy attire accentuated arms and legs and led to women becoming more insecure with their bodies than they were in decades prior. Public relations also came on the scene during this period and had numerous ways to target, market and propagate Americans. Advertisements from this age reflect the societal pressures and cultural norms experienced throughout this decade that I believe contributed to female strength, persistence, and independence.
The post-war era brought back American tradition and conservative values along with a return to classic femininity and gender roles.
The portrait of the perfect 1950s housewife showcased a glamourized lifestyle of a woman having it all – a family, fashion-sense, a well-kept home, and complete happiness – without a nail chipped or a hair out of place.
Thanks again to Hollywood and in particular, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, the hourglass body type was highly favored during this time and corsets and girdles were obligatory in assisting to manufacture this dramatic body shape. 1950s fashion accentuated this unnatural silhouette and encouraged allure while not revealing too much skin. As well, the original Barbie was also a product of this time period and as I’m sure you’re aware, this child’s doll was packaged with a lot of cultural baggage. (For more on Barbie, check out my review of the Hulu documentary, Tiny Shoulders).
If you wanted to see skin in the 1950s, then your go-to spot would be Playboy magazine and its overt sexualization and idolization of women. Playboy supported America’s ideal image of a woman’s body but enhanced her sexiness in a playful, yet secretive way. I believe the launch of Playboy is when the public objectification of women began and only grew in use, exposure and acceptance with time.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the 1950s is the issue of stereotypes. This era was full of unrealistic and unattainable, yet sought-after ideals that I believe our nation continues to suffer from today.
Remember how I mentioned at the beginning of this article how culture quickly and easily changes? Well, like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the next, body image in the 1950s swiftly shifted to a drastic ideal in the 1960s.
A notable 1960s international celebrity who had an influence on the American female body was the supermodel, Twiggy. Her body shape modeled the new standard – a physique that was ultra-slender, petite, and adolescent-looking. Similar to the 1920s, the desired body type of this era had thin thighs, long legs and skinny arms as well as flat chests and stomachs. The drop-waist was once again part of fashion trends as well as bright, swirly colors, psychedelic patterns and straight-line silhouettes.
This was also the decade of youth rebellion, social movements, and a heavy influence from pop culture that dubbed the 1960s the “age of the hippie.” (Think: sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). I think these elements also contributed to society’s standards of womanhood, physical appearance, body image and sexuality.
As well, an interesting development from this age is the establishment of Weight Watchers. My assumption is the founders of Weight Watchers saw a prime opportunity to capitalize on the new American body standard. Considering the dramatic change in body shape from the 1960s to the 1950s, this makes complete sense to me but perhaps there was a different motive or intent.
Culture’s influence in shaping body image was in full effect by the 1970s.
Women were fed-up with the gender stereotypes of the 1950s and spent the 1960s exploring the free world with sexual liberation and free-spirited independence.
In the 1970s, women were becoming self-sufficient and were widely accepted in the workplace. It is during this time that quickly-prepared foods, such as TV dinners and Poptarts, were regularly consumed and divorce was no longer stigmatized. I mention this because I believe these factors contributed to how a woman viewed herself and her physical body.
Fashion of this era was inspired by women seeking to be treated equal to men (rather than a sex-object or an inferior housewife) as well as to imitate the glamour and youthfulness of pop culture icons, like Charlie’s Angels and the disco queens who frequented Studio 54. Thin was in during the 1970s but so was skin.
Attributed to the popularity of disco culture, came “disco-style” which involved a slim, yet flared, silhouette that was ultra-glam and alluded sex. Blown-out, wildish, feathered hair was also quite popular along with a fresh face of natural-looking makeup and bronzed skin (thanks to the ‘70s invention of tanning booths). Even though heavy accessories, sequins, and shiny materials were emphasized in “disco-style,” general fashion during this time was overall casual (bell-bottoms) and flowy (i.e. wrap-style dresses, Mexican peasant blouses).
As far as body shape is concerned, the ideals of this era highlighted wider shoulders, thinner hips, and a long and lean build. I believe this portrait of the female body represented strength (by rebelling against society’s previously seen objectification of women) while also modernizing femininity to be natural and alluring, but on a woman’s terms.
Even though I earlier stated my fascination with 1920s culture, my heart beats for the ‘80s. The decade when I made my appearance into the world.
Sure, I may be partial because I originated from this era but let me just throw it out there – the 1980s may be the best decade of the last century. [This is my personal opinion and could be deeply rooted in nostalgia due to the movies, television, fashion, political climate, and other cultural themes that stem from this time period.]
Supermodels set the body standard in the 1980s by welcoming a tall, athletic build where muscles were desirable on women (think: Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson). Naturally, this ushered in fitness instructors like Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons as well as the foundation of women’s health-related publications, such as Shape and Cooking Light magazines, and thus, the ‘80s exercise craze was born. With it, of course, came the fashion trend of leotards, tights or spandex bottoms, leg warmers, and high-cut underwear and swimsuits.
All of this appears to be positive for shaping female body image in the 1980s. Still, too much of a good thing can often lead to excessiveness, extremes and unhealthy obsessions and I believe that is exactly what occurred in the 1980s. The opportunity to position health in a healthy way failed miserably and negatively impacted on the decades that followed.
I support the “healthier image” that 1980s supermodels portrayed over the emaciated, ultra-slender figure, hands down.
Of course, the medical community took advantage of the opportunity to capitalize on body image, manufacturing and distributing diet pills along with making plastic surgery more accessible and publicly acceptable. As a result, this decade saw a boom in plastic surgery procedures as well as an increase in eating disorders, body consciousness, a woman’s pressure to be thin, and an overall negative body image and view of self for females of all ages.
The casualties of the female body and psyche in the ‘80s bled into the “grunge” era of the 1990s and would leave behind a lasting stain.
Fashion during this age popularized “casual-chic” and “street wear,” seen in t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and sneakers, but also supported the professionalism of the working-woman. The ‘90s silhouette was minimalistic, straight, oversized or boxy and the style could have been classified as punk, hippie, goth, preppy, grungy, or smart. The fashion trends of this decade supported a rejection of traditional or proper fashion and instead favored the personal expression that we continue to see today.
Women were constantly being sold the perception that “thin was in” throughout the increase of media exposure (in particular, magazine articles and news features) and were also being used, or rather, objectified, in order to sell products. (Examples were seen in entertainment, like throughout the TV show, Baywatch, as well as in advertisements for items like a wristwatch or a car – is the wristwatch the item of focus or is it the attractive woman wearing the watch?) As well, food corporations jumped on the bandwagon with product placement (i.e. diet soda in the hands of skinny actors) as well as the development and marketing of “fat free” or low-fat food items and zero-calorie, artificial sweeteners.
In my research for this article, I discovered an interesting juxtaposition of female body image that seemed to become more apparent as the decades progressed – an obsession with one’s self, but also a freedom of self-expression. It leads me to wonder how these contrasting views can co-exist. That is, unless one view is deeply rooted and the other is artificial.
Just some food for thought 😉
Body obsession continued to grow in the turn of the new century and fashion, media and entertainment persisted to be the culprits in shaping a woman’s body image.
While eating disorders were still common and the appearance of underweight models and actresses widely seen, the early 2000s focused on a more toned body shape that encouraged the exposure of abs and the skin above the hips. This was the first time in American history where the skin in these areas was visibly seen. (Think: belly button piercings and lower back “tramp stamps”).
I want to take a brief detour to address something I noticed a few months ago while listening to SiriusXM’s Pop2K and 90son9 stations.
Pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera became instant celebrities in the late 1990s. Around that time, other female singers such as Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, and Jewel, were seeking similar fame. Hearing these star’s songs on the radio stirred some thoughts in my mind that I want to make note of – Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera rose to immediate fame with their overtly sexy, yet innocent, physical appearance and performance displayed in their late ‘90s music videos, “Baby One More Time” and “Genie in a Bottle.” The first singles Jessica Simpson and Jewel released during that same time, however, were more soulful than sexual. In terms of Mandy Moore, it was clear she was being “packaged” as a sugary-sweet pop star instead of the more sophisticated singer and diversely talented entertainer she was capable of being.
As popularity of Spears and Aguilera grew in the early 2000s, I discovered an interesting career turn for the other 3 stars I mentioned – Jessica Simpson, Jewel and Mandy Moore redirected their “image” into a more sexualized imitation of the pop star persona (seen in their peers, Spears and Aguilera). The music each of these women released in the beginning of the 2000s reflected that changed of image, however, those stars did not receive the same level of praise or success as those they were compared to.
Society responded to a particular “look” with approval, adoration and aspiration. The women who “played the game” and showcased this “ideal image” received fame and success.
The 2000s could be viewed as the first real awakening of how damaging an unrealistic body image can be and how easy it is to manipulate the “ideals” pursued in society.
It is fitting, then, that the repeated influence of media and entertainment along with the rise of reality TV popularity in the 2010s shaped the public’s perception of the “perfect” female body. The response can be summed up in one word – bootylicious.
Additionally, the 2010s were the first full decade where social media became an influential part of daily life. Increased exposure to technology as well as the impact social media has had on society is another topic of conversation completely, however, it is important to note its role in generating body ideals.
Social media has manipulated insecurities in an unforeseen way while contributing to an increase in comparison, loneliness, lust, promiscuity, and a longing or greed for things one doesn’t possess (i.e. home, societal status, relationship, wealth, appearance). For the first time, “normal” people (that is, non-celebrities) were able to capitalize on social media “fame” and the vulnerabilities social media preyed on. Thus, the “influencer” status was born.
Ever since “average” people stepped into influencer-status, I believe there has been an increased pressure for “average” individuals to look their best, be their best, and have the best. (Hmmm…does this remind anyone else of another era? Say, the 1950s?) Furthermore, social media has encouraged many of the ideals seen throughout society, specifically the surge of physical enhancements such as eyelash extensions, brow tinting, lip injections, and numerous other forms of plastic surgery. Of course, social media filters do not contribute to a positive body image but again, an in-depth discussion on the negative effects of social media is a different conversation for a different time.
A positive outcome from this decade was welcoming dialogue and debate about the negative impact media and entertainment has had on shaping body image. Nevertheless, I believe society has a long way to go, mainly because of the inescapable existence of social media.
It is easy to see that body image has fluctuated in various extremes over the last century. Body image has always been a complex topic and one that has puzzled psychologists and neurologists for years. It’s a complicated matter because it involves not just physical or objective attributes of one’s body but also the subjective feelings, beliefs or perceptions of one’s body.
Body image has changed over time because the world is constantly evolving and essentially, is floating in air. The only way to achieve stability, consistency and a firm foundation in this world is to be rooted in God’s Word. The Maker of the Universe made each human in His image. Knowing Him will lead you to view your “self” through the lens in which He sees you – fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), a perfect design uniquely crafted by the perfect Creator (Genesis 1:27).
The intent of this article was to present the case that society and culture work hand-in-hand to propagate what is seen as the “perfect” body.
The conclusion I came to is that culture thrives off of extremes and drives the public’s perception of what is ideal, realistic and attainable. What culture cultivates, society accepts or eventually adapts to. Very much like the conversation on gender where culture encourages certain stereotypes (such as inferring the color blue is a “boy” color and considering any boy who prefers the color pink to be a girl trapped within a boy’s body), body image can be measured in the same way.
I believe society can combat these stereotypes, ideals and perceptions by embracing individuality and releasing individuals from the “pressure box” of conformity or “normality.” But that’s just my opinion 😉
There are many different body shapes. Thinness doesn’t always mean someone is healthy and “fatness” doesn’t always mean someone is unhealthy. Body positivity should always be focused on an individual’s overall health, not limited specifically to the shape or size of one’s body.
I will directly tackle the “body positivity” movement, body image in the 2020s, and how to nurture a truly positive body image in the minds of Gen Z in a future article to be released later this month.
*For a fantastic resource on all things body-related and how society and culture have directly impacted body-related issues (including body image and sexuality), check out Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey. Click here for my full review!
**This article, like every Culture Matters article, is written from personal opinion, experience and perspective. Any thought or idea expressed is my very own.