The "Ideal" Body Looks NOTHING Like It Used To

Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
By Maria Hart

There's a reason magazine covers include lines like "5 Moves for Michelle Obama Arms" or "The Secret for a Booty Like Beyoncé's." If you’ve ever found yourself wishing for some actress’s waist or some singer’s legs, remember this: Even the media’s concept of the ideal female body isn’t static. Whomever People magazine deems “most beautiful” this year is just a representation of trends and features that have bubbled up in the cauldron of pop culture. That silhouette of the “ideal woman” has been put through a series of fun-house mirrors (fashion, movies, pop music, politics). It also changes from year to year, so the physical qualities we embrace today are often at odds with those from previous generations.

To prove our point, we’re taking a closer look at body ideals from the past 100 years — to show that, as they say on Project Runway, “In fashion, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.”
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Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
Meet the It Girl of the era: the Gibson Girl. Illustrator Charles Gibson was to the early 1900s what trend-setting fashion photographers are to 2015. His dream girl, broadcast on the pages of LIFE Magazine, Collier’s, and Harper’s, quickly became the Beyoncé of her era. Women raced to copy the Gibson Girl's signature look: a showstopping, feminine body that looked like a looping figure-eight thanks to a super-cinched corset. (Don’t try this at home.) In Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, Linda M. Scott writes that "The Gibson Girl was not dainty… she was dark, regal in bearing, [and] quite tall.”

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But, Gibson’s model and O.G.G. (original Gibson Girl) Camille Clifford was critical of the ideal. She sang in her vaudeville show, "Wear a blank expression / and a monumental curl / And walk with a bend in your back / Then they will call you a Gibson Girl.”
Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
Say bye-bye to monumental curves, statuesque height, fussy updos, and all that jazz — and hello to the flapper. Unlike the frozen beauty of the decade before, the flapper is constantly in motion. The exaggerated curves of the Gibson are gone and have been replaced by a small bust and hips.

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In fashion, the flapper waistline moved several inches below the navel, making narrow hips a necessity. But, don’t be fooled: The flapper doesn’t lack sex appeal. The focus simply shifted downward to the legs, where a shorter, knee-length hemline could expose the flash of a garter while the flapper did a “shimmy.” Margaret Gorman, crowned as the first Miss America in 1921, was the era’s ideal. Her five-foot-one, 108-pound frame represented a full 180-degree turn from the Gibson era.
Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
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Following the stock market crash, spirits dipped down, and so did hemlines. Dresses were draped on the bias. Translation? A less boxy, more fitted silhouette. The natural waist (around the belly button) came back, with a hint of shoulder, too. And, the flat-chested look so popular in the 1920s gave way to a small bustline, likely a direct result of the new bra-cup sizing invented in this era. The media embraced a slightly more curvaceous body, making this era a stepping-stone between the streamlined, petite look of the 1920s and the curvier 1940s. Photoplay, the People magazine of its day, declared actress Dolores del Rio to have the “best figure in Hollywood.” The article applauds her “warmly curved” and “roundly turned” figure.

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Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
This is no farewell to arms, but rather a farewell to the softer look of the '30s. During World War II, military shoulders (broad, boxy, and aggressive) and angular fashion were the order of the day. Bras took on a pointed look, too, with names like "bullet" and "torpedo." All that translated into the look of the moment: a long-limbed, taller, and squarer silhouette. Don’t be fooled by Rosie the Riveter; the ideal body type didn't include bulging biceps. Still, it became more commanding — possibly echoing women’s expanding role in the workforce.

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Image: Courtesy of Greatist.
Welcome to the era of the hourglass. In the 1950s, the ideal body type reached Jessica Rabbit proportions. After the war era, a soft voluptuousness was prized above all else. Ads of the time even advised “skinny” women to take weight-gain supplements like Wate-On to fill out their curves. Playboy magazine and Barbie were both created in this decade, echoing a tiny-waisted, large-chested ideal. Fashions also showcased this body type with the rounded shapes of sweetheart necklines and circle skirts.

For the rest of the decades, check out Greatist.

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