Western Standards of Beauty: An Illustrated Timeline
When Thin Wasn't In
Hard to believe as it seems, thin wasn't always in. There are centuries of documentation of female beauty, and except for ours, the trend is fairly consistent: beautiful women are shapely, soft, and rounded. What a contrast is that idea to our current ideal - the waif-like figure introduced by Twiggy and popularized by the likes of Kate Moss!
This timeline is an illustrated journey through the last 600 years, from the portraits of the European Renaissance to red-carpet photos of modern celebrities. Take time to study each picture as you scroll. What would our society today say to these women about their bodies? And, perhaps more importantly, what would these women have to say to us?
Renaissance - 15th Century
Elizabethan Era - 16th Century
Rococo - 18th Century
The Portrait: Women as Art
Before the invention of the photograph, the only way to capture your likeness was to sit for a portrait. Some of the most respected works of art by the great masters are paintings of women: the da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Frieda Kahlo's amazing self-portraits.
Modern art has moved away from the realistic portrait, and you hardly ever see one used in home decorating, but for hundreds of years, the female body, in all its voluptuous glory, was the epitome of art - the ultimate subject - beauty itself. These women were curvy, full, and solid. They seem to occupy space in a way foreign to us. We are so intent on making less of ourselves.
Turn of the Century - 1890-1910
The Jazz Age - 1920's
Post Depression - 1930's
The "New Woman" Emerges
The turn of the century was a pivotal time for women. Magazine covers echoed the shift that was occurring, showing small men against large, powerful women. Feminism was in the air. The famed Gibson Girl drawings were buxom by our standards, s-shaped, and aloof, their hair piled high upon their heads - but for the times, girls like Camille Clifford (one of the original models) were considered slender. Women compensated for their growing intellectual prowess by restraining their bodies in corsets.
The next generation went further, rejecting the modest advances of their predecessors, donning baggy, short dresses and bobbing their hair. These "flappers" flaunted their new-found freedom in a way their mothers would never have dreamed, going dancing, listening to jazz music and smoking cigarettes. Though currently portrayed in film as delicate and petite, flappers were not waifs. Some did bind their breasts down, but not to look thinner, but rather to appear more boyish. They were out to prove that they were every bit as good as their male counterparts, which initially manifested itself as imitation.
Later, women would regain their curves as, feeling more secure in their rights, they began to flaunt their femininity.
The War Years - 1940's
Recovery - 1950's
Social Upheaval - 1960's
Claiming Our Space
Women found sexuality a new source of power. Clothing became skimpier in the 1940's, until World War II broke out. Feeling the "American tradition" threatened, families reverted to more conservative values, but the pin-up remained a staple of popular culture.
The 1960's saw civil rights campaigns, as well as a new wave of feminism, throwing off the domesticity of the 50's. As women sought to distance themselves from the role of wife and mother, the androgynous ideal once again surfaced in Twiggy, a stick-thin model made popular overnight by a single photo shoot.
Sexual Revolution - 1970's
Prosperity - 1980's
Globalization - 1990's
From Liberation to Objectification
The Sexual Revolution brought breasts and hips back into the picture, before the fitness craze of the 1980's swept the West. Struggling to find bodies that might fit with their identities as liberated women, a generation was born obsessed with having "buns of steel" and "rock-hard abs."
Body-building gave way to weight-losing with the rise of heroin chic. The new "power" women used to define themselves was the power to resist: the discipline to deprive oneself. Waif-like icon Kate Moss led the movement as Calvin Klein spokesmodel. When her drug use was uncovered, she was quickly disavowed by the company and the fashion industry alike, but was a working model once again within six months.
Present - 2000's Onward
Where We're Left
...with worth determined by weight, compulsively counting calories and pounds, deconstructing ourselves into imperfect parts. We trumpet our gains in the professional and political sphere, while we pare away our bodies as penance.
Finishing my work on this piece, I scroll through the pictures one more time, pausing at the knowing smile of Mona Lisa. Countless songs and poems have wondered at what secret she keeps behind her smirking lips. Her smile is so much a part of her. It seems to come from the very core of her identity. She feels that sense of entitlement so elusive to the diet-obsessed mass of mothers, daughters, and sisters, forever afraid of wanting too much, eating too much being too much. I wonder, if she lived here and now, would she be just another one of us, perpetually putting herself down, or is her power so deep-rooted she would manage to rise above it? I'd like to think we all have that power, ingrained in us somewhere... that deep down inside, we possess that kernal of knowledge that has the potential to free us, if we could only access it; the knowledge that we are art, by our very nature.
600 Years of Women In Art
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