Female beauty standards through the ages
The standards of female beauty have changed through the ages. They will continue to change. What remains beautiful, though, is the quiet confidence of a woman who, no matter what her weight, face shape, or body type, drifts through the world fully aware that she is a force of nature to contend with.
Female beauty standards have changed throughout the course of history. They have been dictated by whatever people found desirable at the time, and this is depicted in art. Nothing more clearly shows how beauty standards differed than art, which is a perfect mirror to the world it was created in. For instance, when you look at the beautiful voluptuous women Peter Paul Rubens loved to paint, you see how female beauty standards at the time favoured plumpness and curvaceousness. Rubens’ women were overtly sexual in nature, their beautiful bodies treated with respect and care in his paintings, and leading to the term Rubenesque. Of course, since he was a man, his treatment of the female form naturally retained the male perspective, but he also managed to inject his art with a sense of the innate qualities and experiences of womanhood which was rather rare in a male painter at the time.
The obsession with looking a certain way and trying to fit in to existing beauty standards has unfortunately always existed, although I’d argue that we are currently more obsessed with size than our counterparts would have been in the past. In Ancient Egypt, the ideal woman had narrow shoulders, a high waist, a symmetrical face, and was slender. Independence for women was encouraged and pre-marital sex was not frowned upon. Women could divorce their partners with ease.
Moving on to Ancient Greece, the female form was shunned because it was the male form that was revered. As a result, men were subjected to high and exacting beauty standards (similar to what women are subjected to now) and women were more or less free to be themselves. The ideal woman in Ancient Greece was plump and full-figured, with fair skin. In China, during the Han Dynasty, the ideal woman had small feet, a slim waist, pale skin, and large eyes. Women who were ultra-feminine were preferred, with long thick black hair, red lips, and even white teeth.
During the Italian Renaissance (1400 to 1700), the ideal woman had an ample bosom, a round stomach, full ample hips, and fair clear skin. It was a woman’s duty to reflect the financial success of her husband and so women dressed in grand attire, wore jewellery, and their full figures denoted wealth and plenty. In Victorian England too, women were expected to be full-figured and desirably plump, although this was the era of the corset, and women often spent hours in their dressing rooms with their maids trying to achieve the perfect cinched waist that was so popular amongst the Victorians. The perfect hourglass figure was very desirable, and as uncomfortable as those corsets must have been (and that is putting it mildly) women willingly subjected themselves to this torture on a daily basis.
In the 1920s, or the Roaring Twenties, things changed. Skirts became shorter, dresses became tighter (although still stayed rather loose at the waist), and hair became shorter. From the curves and the hourglass figure that were earlier preferred, women now embraced flat chests and favoured a more androgynous appearance, even going so far as to wear bras that flattened their chests. The favoured long haired look became a thing of the past as women embraced shorter bobs and cuts closer to their heads.
Hollywood’s rise in the 1930s meant that a brand new look for women was preferred because the industry began to (and continues to) dictate international beauty standards for women. The rise of stars like Marilyn Monroe meant that the ideal beauty standard for women was large breasts, ample curves, an hourglass figure, and a slim waist. During the sixties (the age of hippies and free love) models like Twiggy dictated beauty standards and women wanted to look like her. So the waifish look was in, with women wanting to be thin, willowy, long-legged, and with a girlish figure. This trend started in London, England, and spread like wildfire to the United States and to the rest of the world.
The 1980s saw the rise of the supermodels, which meant that the most celebrated female body type was the unattainable thin but athletic, svelte but curvy, long-legged, small-waisted type with toned arms. There was a massive exercise craze in the 1980s, as evidenced by the many exercise videos that were released during the time (with Jane Fonda’s series being the one that springs to mind). Fashion revolved around leg warmers (in case anyone remembers that) and leotards. Women were urged to be thin but fit, although this predictably had a horrible side effect. There was a massive rise in anorexia as women struggled to fit into this often impossible stereotype, and a fair few deaths (Karen Carpenter comes to mind) of celebrities highlighted the problem with the obsession with impossible body types.
The rise of Kate Moss in the 1990s meant that hers was the celebrated beauty type. Called ‘homeless chic’ or ‘heroin chic’, the beauty standards of the nineties meant that women had to be extremely (unhealthily) thin, waifish, androgynous, skeletal, and have translucent skin. Women struggled to achieve the frail and neglected look that Moss personified. I was a teenager in the nineties and I remember this being a particularly difficult time for me because like 99 percent of the women and girls on the planet, I certainly was never going to be a Kate Moss. Luckily, most of us outgrow the compulsion to fit into the prevailing beauty standards of the day.
And so, from Ancient Egypt, we move on to the beauty standards of today, which is dominated by women like Kim Kardashian. Women today have to have a flat stomach, have large breasts, a bubble butt, be skinny but also look healthy at the same time, and of course, there is that all-important thigh gap (which many young women try to starve themselves to achieve, not realising that having this particular feature is a question of frame and not weight). It is probably unsurprising to hear that plastic surgeons have reported a growing trend of women seeking help to achieve these beauty standards.
Finally, I just want to add that the standards of female beauty have changed through the ages. They will continue to change. What remains beautiful, though, is the quiet confidence of a woman who, no matter what her weight, face shape, or body type, drifts through the world fully aware that she is a force of nature to contend with. I think it is pointless to try to live up to beauty standards that are dictated by a handful of women. Not only is it impossible, it is unnecessary. It’s time for every woman to just embrace her own beauty and own the space she inhabits because there can never be another woman like her in the entire world, and that is as it should be.