The Evolution of Female Body Image Ideals

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This article was written by Nutritionist and Dietetically Speaking Intern Hanna Tejani and reviewed by Registered Dietitian Maeve Hanan.


Timeline including 10 cartoon women in swimsuits representing each of the body image ideas explained in this article.

Why Does Body Image Matter?

Body image, or the way that we see our own appearance, differs from individual to individual. 

This can range from (1):

  • Negative body image: where there is shame or distortion in the way that you perceive your body.
  • Body neutrality: where you accept your body as it is and shift the importance from how your body looks to what your body can do as well as reinforcing that your appearance does not define your worth.
  • Positive body image: the ability to see a true perception of your body without any distortion
  • Body positivity: feeling happy with your appearance and confident in your own skin. (1). 

Research has indicated that 61% of adults and 66% of children in the UK feel negatively towards their bodies (2). Moreover with 57% of adults feeling under-represented in media and advertising it is clear that the media plays a massive role in the perceptions and overall satisfaction we have with our bodies (2). Unrealistic beauty ideals that are presented across the media have been shown to increase criticism over oneself and can contribute to the development of disordered eating behaviours (3). The pressure to conform to these ideals has existed for centuries and this article will highlight how these ideals have evolved throughout time for women.

Ancient Egypt (1200-1000 BC)

Artefacts and literature discovered from this time period displayed and described women as beautiful if they were youthful and slim with narrow hips. Interestingly, much like today, these concepts were not easy to adhere to, as discovered through seeing the anthropometric measurements of the Egyptian mummies which showed that few conformed to these ideals (4). 

Ancient Greece (500-300 BC)

Literature and sculptures from Ancient Greece displayed women with characteristics such as a pale complexion, wide hips and a large chest (5).

The Italian Renaissance (1400-1700 AD)

This revolutionary period transitioned and modernised culture, bringing about copious amounts of art. Much of what we know about the beauty standards of this era stems from calculating waist-to-hip ratios from these works (6). During the Renaissance, the ideal body type was “a high rounded forehead, plucked eyebrows, blonde hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, white teeth and dark eyes” (7), along with larger breasts, a rounded stomach and full hips (8).

Victorian Britain (1837-1901)

During the reign of Queen Victoria corsets were widely fashionable across England; a plump, full figure with an hourglass shape was seen as desirable (8, 9). Much like today, health was disregarded for aesthetics with corsets giving rise to a myriad of negative health repercussions, including reduced lung capacity, digestive problems and even bone deformations (9).

The Roaring 1920s

Fast-forward a couple of decades to the 1920s and the introduction of the flappers; young women who listen to jazz and were identified through their short skirts and keeping their hair in a bob. Flappers symbolised liberation, pushed the boundaries on freedom for women during this time and became popular across media and advertising (10). The rise of the movie and entertainment industry after the war increased exposure to a new body ideal that was significantly different to the full-figured Victorian and Renaissance ideals in the past. Young childlike film stars influenced the emerging ideal of an androgynous body type including characteristics such as being flat-chested with short hair, and a straight figure (11). 

The Golden Age of Hollywood (1930-1950s)

The influence of the media was also apparent during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’. However, there was a drastic change from the “boyish” body type seen in the 1920s as once again the ideals shifted to a curvy hourglass figure; influenced by actresses such as Marilyn Monroe (8).

The 1960s

The Swinging 60s brought back the androgynous body type, influenced by the modelling industry with fashion icons such as Lesley Lawson (also known as Twiggy due to her slim appearance), that pushed forward the ideals of thinness, long, slim legs and an adolescent physique (8). During this time eating disorders such as anorexia began to gain more attention, although the first documented cases of anorexia actually date back to the mid-1800s (12). 

The Supermodel Era (1980s)

Slim bodies were further emphasised during the ‘supermodel era’ of the 1980s with the rise in popularity of exercise and aerobics videos (12). The ‘ideal’ body type during this time was athletic, tall shape with toned arms (8).

Heroin Chic (1990s)

The 1990s went one step further than the supermodel era in fetishizing thinness, which was eerily dubbed as ‘heroin chic’. The rise of a waif-like body type by models such as Kate Moss influenced beauty standards that celebrated extreme thinness, an androgynous frame and pale skin (8).

Postmodern (2000s – present)

This brings us to postmodern beauty standards, including much of what we see in the media and throughout society today. The rise of social media during this era together with the development of editing apps and augmentative procedures, have resulted in a body type characterised by larger breasts and glutes with an hourglass yet thin body, tanned ‘flawless’ skin and large lips (8). Studies conducted on adolescents found that social media apps were associated with negative self-perceptions and internalising the thinness-ideal (13).

Global Variations in Beauty Standards

It is also worth noting that the beauty ideals would have differed globally depending on geographical, social and cultural factors. For example, the popularisation of the South Korean music and entertainment industry has promoted a variation of the postmodern ideal with a fair complexion with natural yet flawless skin, large eyes, a sharp jawline, and slim figure across Far East Asia (14). Though the ideal differs, the consequences and negative self image promoted by these ideals is the same — as seen with the surge in cosmetic surgery in South Korea (15).

What Do Ever-Changing Body Ideals Mean?

It is clear from its history that beauty ideals are constantly changing. Ideals that were desirable will fall out of fashion, and with the momentum of the body positivity movement, there is hope for inclusivity and representation in the body types we see across the media. 

Achieving body acceptance takes time and is a very individual journey. But reflecting on the ever-shifting beauty standards present in society can be a helpful step towards appreciating our body. This highlights that unrealistic beauty standards are the issue, rather than our body (16).

If you are suffering from any of the issues touched upon in this article, please reach out to your GP, a Registered Dietitian, Mental Health Professional or body image specialist for support. 

Timeline including 10 cartoon women in swimsuits representing each of the body image ideas explained in this article.

References: 

  1. NEDA. (2021). Body Image and Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. Available from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-eating-disorders [Accessed July 2021]
  2. Women and Equalities Committee. (2020). Body Image Survey Results. House of Commons. Available from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmwomeq/805/80501.htm [Accessed July 2021]
  3. Aparicio-Martinez. P., Perea-Moreno, A. J., Martinez-Jimenez, M. P., Redel-Macías, M. D., Pagliari, C., and Vaquero-Abellan, M. (2019). Social Media, Thin-Ideal, Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Attitudes: An Exploratory Analysis. International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health, 16 (21), 4177.
  4. Rutherford, M. P. (n, d). The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Beauty. Tour Egypt. Available from http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/beauty.htm [Accessed July 2021]
  5. Hughes, B. (2015). Would You Be Beautiful in the Ancient World. BBC News. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30746985 [Accessed July 2021]
  6. Brooks. R. (2017). What Science Tells Us About the ‘Ideal’ Body Shape for Women. Huffington Post. Available from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/science-ideal-body-shape-for-women_b_6827976 [Accessed July 2021]
  7. Master, R. D. (2013). The Portraiture of Women During the Italian Renaissance. Honors Theses: The University of Southern Missisipi. Available from: . https://aquila.usm.edu/honors_theses/118 [Accessed July 2021]
  8. Yang, E. L., Celestino, M., and Koeppel, K. (2015). Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History. Buzzfeed. Available from https://www.buzzfeed.com/eugeneyang/womens-ideal-body-types-throughout-history#.avw4wZpn6o [Accessed July 2021]
  9. Ngo, N. T. (2019). What Historical Ideals of Women’s Shapes Teach Us About Women’s Self-Perception and Body Decisions Today. AMA Journal of Ethics, 21 (10), E879-901.
  10. History. (2019). Flappers. History. Available from https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/flappers [Accessed July 2021]
  1. Idealist Style. (2014). Beauty Ideal Over the Decades Part 11: The 20’s. Idealist Style. Available from https://www.idealiststyle.com/blog/beauty-ideal-over-the-decades-part-11-the-20s [Accessed July 2021]
  2. Lawson, C. (1985). Anorexia: It’s Not a New Disease. The New York Times. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/08/style/anorexia-it-s-not-a-new-disease.html [Accessed July 2021]
  3. Fardouly, J., and Vartanian, L. R. (2016). Social Media and Body Image Concerns: Current Research and Future Directions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 9, 1-5.
  4. Adolph, T. (2020). The Destructive Side of Korean Beauty Standards. The Tempest. Available from https://thetempest.co/2020/10/16/news/breakdown/korean-beauty-standards/ [Accessed July 2021]
  5. Holliday, R., and Elfving-Hwang, J. (2012). Gender, Globalization and Aesthetic Surgery in South Korea. Body and Society, 18 (2), 58-81.
  6. Webb, J. B., Wood-Barcalow, N. L., and Tylka, T. L. (2015). Assessing Positive Body Image: Contemporary Approaches and Future Directions. Body Image, 14, 130-145.

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