The author is a homemaker and retired medical transcriptionist. She holds a Masters degree in English and loves to write.
The term "body image" refers to both one's mental image of one's appearance and the accompanying emotions regarding one's body's size, shape, and attractiveness. Numerous studies have examined the relationship between body image and general self-esteem, and the majority of them have discovered that women are more invested in their physical appearance and are less pleased with their bodies than are men. These anxieties begin in childhood and continue throughout one's adulthood. Many scholars relate these concerns to the impact of idealized beauty images of women in the media.
Female body ideals are fast-moving, ever-changing trends that bubble up through the mainstream media. Every day, we are exposed to hundreds of pop culture pictures that are saturated with prescriptive, yet unrealistic and often doctored, representations of women. These images may be seen on television, in newspapers, magazines, movies, comic books, video games, billboards, and the Internet,
A number of significant changes have occurred in the feminine ideal during the course of the last century. But, what never changes is the fact that all fashion requires a substantial modification of a woman’s natural appearance. Women as a group strive to emulate what they see in the media, only to be disappointed for not succeeding in meeting the impossible standards placed before them.
19th and 20th-Century Ideals
A cursory look at body ideals over the past 100 years proves the point that physical qualities we embrace today are often at odds with those from previous generations, and even at odds with those from the past decade or year. Some of these trending body ideals from the past are seen in the "Gibson Girl," the "Flappers," the "Star-Spangled Girl," Marilyn Monroe, and Twiggy.
The Gibson Girl. The beautiful, posed, and anonymous Gibson Girl, with her statuesque height, big hair up-do, long neck, small waist, ample bosom, and exaggerated S-shaped torso (achieved by wearing a "swan-bill" corset), personified the feminine ideal of physical attractiveness during a 20-year period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as portrayed by artist Charles Dana Gibson's pen-and-ink illustrations. Merchandise bearing her image included saucers, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillow covers, chair covers, souvenir spoons, screens, fans, and umbrella stands. Some people argue that the Gibson Girl was the first national standard for beauty for American women.
The Flapper. The flappers were women of the 1920s who dressed and behaved in a very modern manner. In contrast to the Gibson Girl, they were continuously moving instead of sedentary. The Gibson Girl's accentuated curves have been replaced with a straight body shape, tiny hips, and small breasts. The haircut transitions from a voluminous pile to short hair that "flaps" around the neck (thus the term "flapper").
The Star-Spangled Girl. Military shoulders (broad, boxy, and aggressive) became the trend for women after World War II. Fashion then was all about angularity, replacing the straight outline of the flapper of the past. Bras, named "bullet" or "torpedo" bras, took on a pointed look. All of this led to the creation of a silhouette that was long-limbed, taller, and square in shape.
Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe, one of America's most powerful and enduring sex symbols, starred in a number of commercially successful films in the 1950s. She had a glitzy appearance with a voluptuous hour-glass figure, bleached wavy hair, and a light complexion. Skinny women of her generation were advised to take weight-gaining supplements.
Twiggy. Twiggy, a 1960s supermodel and fashion icon, restores the feminine ideal back to its skinny state. Initially, she was renowned for her thin frame and doll-faced look, which was a consequence of her large eyes, long lashes, and short, blunt hair.
The ideal woman at the turn of the 21st century was not just exceedingly slender, but also large-breasted. The requisite shape was a size 4 in the hips, a size 2 in the waist, and a size 10 in the bust. This figure rarely occurs in nature, and so must be created through surgical intervention
Today's ideal female physique is described as 5' 5", 121-130 pounds, and with an unattainable 26" waist. There is a new focus on developing defined musculature throughout the body, which can only be accomplished via intense weight training. Now women need only to hire a trainer and find an additional hour or two of spare time each day to be considered beautiful.
Like everything else in popular culture, body ideals at any given time are nothing more than a craze. Tina Fey comments upon the perfect female body in her book, Bossypants:
Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.
Rather than chasing Tina Fey's funny and ridiculously long laundry list of unachievable physical attributes, women should cherish all of what their mothers have given them, and keep in mind that the media's concept of beauty is arbitrary and subject to change at any second.
Frances Bozsik and and Brooke L. Bennett. “The Ideal Body Type is Getting Even Harder to Attain.” https://theconversation.com/the-ideal-female-body-type-is-getting-even-harder-to-attain-91373. Accessed September 2021.
Mary Crawford. 2006. Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology, 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill, NY.
Tina Fey. Bossypants. 2011. Reagan Arthur Books.
Maria Hart. “See How Much the Perfect Female Body Has Changed in 100 Years (It’s Crazy!). https://greatist.com/grow/100-years-womens-body-image#1. Accessed September 2021.