From Plump to Waif: 500 Years of The ‘Perfect’ Female Body (PHOTOS)Serge Bielanko
As a daddy to a little 4-year-old girl, nothing frightens me more than knowing that the world is a super shallow pit of vipers when it comes to judging people on their looks.
There is just no getting around the fact that physical beauty, especially if you are a woman, is a real thing. Yet at the same time, when we realize and admit that so much of a young girls’ time and energy will soon be dedicated toward trying to be as attractive to the naked eye as she can possibly be, we are simply tipping our hat to one of the oldest ways that nature conducts business.
And one of the most unsettling.
Yeah yeah, of course, I understand that lots and lots of stuff matters when it comes to ‘falling’ for someone else and for ‘wanting’ to be with them, first on a date or two, and then ultimately, through the hell or high water of a long-term relationship. However, the cosmos has always and probably will always dictate to us this universal truth: that first spark between two humans is almost always a physical one.
We’d all probably like to pretend that in a perfect world each of us would be desirable to others based on the merits of our mind, our ability to think intelligently and swiftly, our wonderful sense of humor, and the bright promise of our ability to nurture and love twinkling in our eyes, but that ain’t how it really works: we both know that.
In this ever-changing world of rapid-fire technology and useless data overload, at times it almost seems as if anything short of absolute perfection, especially when it comes to how you look to others, is equal to all-out failure. That scares the hell out of me when I realize that, for young girls like my daughter will be soon, and then for adult women, this raging river of physical stuff can be even more rough and tumble to navigate than many of us guys could ever really imagine.
So Ive decided to hit the ‘Pause‘ button and take a step backwards. As a 21st century man, I feel the need to maybe try and take a broader look at just how drastically our definition of what a beautiful and desirable and sexy woman is has changed across the last couple of centuries. Because if nothing else, history often dictates the future, you know?
What I’ve come away with has been pretty damn refreshing too, I have to say.
Well, I think it’s because that the more I look at women from the past, the more I’m noticing what should be obvious to most of us without much pondering at all: that true beauty can never really be stashed away from us behind walls of malnourished elves or unobtainable anime figures.
And listen, I’m not really doing this to make you or me feel superficially better about our own physical plights (Lord knows that my physical body shape hasn’t really been deemed all that super hot since well-fed chunky railroad tycoons landed all the best gals back in like 1846). I think this whole thing is more to reassure our deeper selves, if you will, that, as with most things that are tricky to explain, what we as a species tend to think of as the ‘perfect body’ often swings drastically from one end of the spectrum to the other over time, and even standing in the middle of any given moment.
Which, when you think about it, proves more or less that, deep down in our human guts most of us understand that the most truly beautiful women we will ever know (our daughters, our wives, our mothers, etc) come in way more sizes, shapes, and colors than we are often led to believe.
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The Ideal Body 2 of 26If you want to know what sort of women were highly desirable for much of human history before, say, the cotton gin or the railroad, you need look no further than your finer art museums. Painters have long been known as the source of revelation when it comes to understanding just what was deemed beautiful or sexy when it comes to women from the past. They were the translators of their time, painting women to the ideal image of what society felt was 'perfection'. And more often than not, as Titien's early 16th Century painting, The Pastoral Concert plainly depicts robust and physically larger women were all the rage.
Perfectly Plump 3 of 26You can comb through many many of the great artworks from human history, from eras as noteworthy as the Renaissance and Romanticism, and you would be hard-pressed to find many depictions of the type of extremely thin woman that is nowadays seen as the object of our social desire. And while we are apt to often conclude that we grow wiser and more intelligent with each passing generation, we still must make note of the fact that the paintings and artists of those bygone eras still tower above most of what has followed them. My point? Well, perhaps artists like Pieter Paul Rubens knew a thing or two that we have since somehow forgotten along the way, huh? Maybe when he painted The Three Graces in 1639, he recognized a robust and healthy gorgeousness in the fuller form both men and women coveted in his day. And perhaps that is a kind of real sexy that we are sadly missing out on.
Nothing Wrong With Her 4 of 26In 1751, the French painter, Francois Boucher, used his painting The Resting Maiden to depict a woman with a body many today would automatically call 'chubby' or even 'overweight'. Yet, when we attempt to loosen our preprogrammed reigns and see her in her delicate repose across the centuries, we see that there is something stunning and alluring about her. She was the kind of woman that men in the time of Washington and Jefferson dreamed about.
Rosy Cheeks Forever 5 of 26We can jump across whole chunks of time, through much of our more modern history, and we continue to see the same type of feminine body appear over and over again in most western art. Here, Charles-Joseph Natoire, another French artist whose work depicts the world around him in the 18th Century, allows us a glimpse at a woman who appears to be bathed in that soft sort of ethereal light artists reserved for those they deemed truly stunning. With her red hair and her rosy cheeks, with her soft arms and her lack of tight muscle tone, it seems to me that the ravishing girl Natoire wanted to leave to us all of these years later was the kind of girl whose health and energy and glow made her so very desirable to the men (and women!) of her time.
300 Years Later 6 of 26Take a second and consider the slightly risque vibe of Edouard Manet's mid-19th Century classic, Luncheon on the Grass. Beyond the themes of women acting unabashed in a most modern way (well, for the 1800's, I mean) we can zoom in on a rather tastefully naked woman in the scene and see two things quite clearly: 1) The men who are picnicking with her on that fine afternoon long ago seemed quite happy and comfortable to be in her company. 2) The women they both seem to be plying for the attention of is still, physically speaking, very similar in her body shape to the women that were being depicted by other painters three centuries earlier. In other words, for a very long time, girls with a little meat on their bones and some blood in their cheeks were the envy of every man.
Change In The Weather 7 of 26Alas, we are only human. And when we are in charge of something over the long term we usually tend to find a way to mess things up, if you ask me. Such is the case then that right around the time mankind invented photography, he also began to play with the female form just a bit. Was this early photo of a woman in the mid-1800's a harbinger of things to come? Did her artificially funneled waist indicate a shifting in the curious patterns of lust and attraction (and by the way, how did they make ALL of her insides scrunch up to the size of a kid's neck??) Anyway, I think you hear me knocking and I think I'm coming in.
Not So Fast 8 of 26Okay, a few of the modern seeds of change regarding the perfect woman's body may have been planted way back in the 19th Century. Regardless, the fact remains that women like the great Lillian Russell were still seen as the sex symbols of the day. A wildly successful actress and one of the most celebrated fashionistas of the late 19th Century, Ms. Russell, as you can see, was a far cry from Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston in the body department. But men loved her and desired her back then like they pine for those two in 2013.
A New Era 9 of 26With the dawning of the 20th Century, the human race was only getting more and more complex and competitive as big industry began to obliterate the agricultural world as we knew it. However, funny enough, as this French lingerie ad shows us, the sexiest women, the ones they chose to model lingerie even (!) were still much fuller-bodied than almost any woman we tend to find portrayed as 'perfect' or 'highly desirable' today. Things were changing though.
The Flappers 10 of 26Here in America, as the Roaring 20's ran blaring it's horn into the bustling crossroads of change, women in general found themselves riding a tide of new found liberty, ability, and desire. As such, certain young ladies swept up by the spirit of change decided to turn their other cheeks at some of the grand old traditions of yesteryear. They began to smoke and drink more freely and they began to pursue a life more vigorously lived, just as many men had been doing since the beginning of time. Inspired by fashion and art and the modern idea of 'the good life', these women became known as the Flappers. Shirking the norm, they were the first generation of women in a long time who abandoned the same old feminine form of the past and embraced something radical and new. In this case, their choice was to be thin. The world would never quite be the same.
Slow Change Comin’ 11 of 26Despite the Flappers and their fashionable bucking many of the long-surviving womanly trends, many if not most ladies in the 1930's continued to closer resemble the women from 400 years ago, with their thicker softer figures, rather than the skinny party girls who were beginning to mess with the history books.
Body & Style 12 of 26The 1940's brought new and fresh fashions to much of the globe. Women were beginning to wear higher hem lines and showing off a bit more leg than they ever had before. And so guess what? Showing more body got many women, and men, thinking about showing BETTER body. As such, there continued to be more and more women who were thinner. Guess what? Yup, the guys liked it. A lot.
Old Habits Die Hard 13 of 26Of course, there were many, both women and men, who seemed to look at the thinning and streamlining of women's bodies as anything but sexy or pretty. In fact, throughout the 1940's there was still big business in bashing skinny over the head! But it was the end of an era, no matter how it seemed at the time.
The 1950’s 14 of 26By 1950, the world war was over and here in the USA men had returned to the workforce in a big way. Families were booming and women were having babies and staying at home and making dinner for their hard-working husbands. It was a time of big prosperity for the country, and for women that meant being able to make themselves look nice with better clothes, new make-up trends, and more evolved hair styles. That, in turn, continued to feed the changing image of what was seen as the 'perfect body'. More and more, women became interested in looking fit and trim.
These Two 15 of 26It's hard to try and loosely report on something as vast and complex as women across five centuries without cranking up the generic button to 11. at times. But still, in my attempt to show you just how much physical change came along with women's drastically changing role in society, I have to try and paint with a pretty broad brush. That said, I just wanted to take a short breather to show this picture of two 'Teddy Girls' (Google it) from 1950's Great Britain that I came across. And I wanted to tell you that these two would have made me crazy and that I would have pursued them to the end of the Earth just to win a single glance, or even a cross-eyed look. Just a little further proof that we all march to the beat of our own tribal drum, huh?
The End of An Era? 16 of 26This is Marilyn Monroe, one of the sexiest women who has ever walked the planet. In her early career in the 1950's she was big-boned and buxom and soft and simply gorgeous in 99 out a 100 ways, if you ask me (or any of the zillion other guys who would have killed for a chance to have her walk across our back in a mud puddle.) Yet, by the 1960's, she would be much, much thinner. Was it drug trouble? Or was it Hollywood's pressure to get women thin? Or was it something else? It's hard to say, but one thing is for certain; when Marilyn changed her shape, a whole lot of other women would follow her there.
The Sixties 17 of 26So much has been written and said about the 1960's in America that it would seem petty for me to even go there. It was, let's just say, a massive decade in the history of the world. So much change came about as a result of so many minds moving in new directions at the exact same time that to try and put it in words is tough. We CAN say though that women were a huge global force in the 1960's as they kicked down walls together that had stood since the beginning of time. And with all of that new liberation and freedom came an even more eclectic approach to fashion AND to physical beauty. A few decades on from what the Flappers started, thin became more in than ever.
The Reinvention 18 of 26Throughout the 1960's, young women became more and more of an influence in every single facet of society. As they did that, they became bolder and more daring in their fashion creations and decisions. Thus, with the eyes of the world watching them closer and closer, women became really conscious of looking their physical best all of the time. They were busting down a billion barriers and now they wanted to look hot doing it.
A New Kind of Gorgeous 19 of 26Without mincing words let me just say that the 1960's saw women changing their physical shapes and sizes more than they had in a long long time. Yet, if anything, they became even more beautiful as they appeared more physically fit and more empowered at the same time. And yes, in case you didn't know, fit powerful women are damn sexy, ya'll.
The Perfect Woman? 20 of 26Maybe it's just because I came of age in the 1970's and found lust and strange desire in the dancing shadows of my TV set, but I sometimes think to myself that Wonder Woman and Farrah Fawcett and Daisy Duke were the sexiest most beautiful women I have ever seen. They were fit, but no too fit, and somehow, even though I didn't get it at the time, they stood for everything that sexy ought to stand for, in my humble opinion. (Linda Blair...I still love you. Facebook me!)
And These Two, Too 21 of 26There was something about the 1970's that just kind of oozed the right kind of sexy, if you ask me. Women coming out of the '60s were established now, they were confident in their choices and their newly earned super powers. Look at these two above. Just two really beautiful women, neither one of them extreme in any way, but both of them personifying what made American girls so hot by the time the Queen of the 80's rolled us over like a steamroller.
Madonna 22 of 26I speak truth. Except for the aforementioned Marilyn and maybe Jackie O, no single woman has affected the way women's bodies were seen or idealized in the course of the last 100 years as much as Madonna did it in the age of MTV. She was scary talented, mega-fashionable, uber-sexy, cocky to a delicious tee, and kept her body in tip-top shape without looking like the odd Martian-esque beanpoles who were waiting in the nearby wings. Madonna a force of nature, a galaxy of her own, and damn near all of us, women AND men, were forever changed by her impact.
When Fitness Was Fun 23 of 26Something worth noting about the 1980's was that physical fitness came back into vogue (VOGUE!) again and this time it was fun. And sure, maybe a lot of the people who got into aerobics were there more because it felt like the new disco/night club as opposed to really wanting to get themselves in shape, but still. A lot of people DID start getting back in to prime physical condition back then and that includes a ton of women. 1980's aerobics classes seem so funny to us now but remember THIS all of you 21st Century gym rats: they helped pave the way for women to re-enter the world of the gym. And we all know that that has made big differences in the way women's bodies and their body image continue to change, now don't we?
The 1990’s 24 of 26The 1990's was a whirlwind of grunge and super models and by the time it was over, a lot had changed. Looking back on that decade, it's kind of strange to see how some of the women who we thought of as the sexiest people on Earth (like Cindy Crawford) were drop dead knockouts with better bodies and better smiles and just overall healthier dispositions than others, like Kate Moss, who we also called the sexiest woman on the planet, despite the fact that she looked drastically different from Crawford and her body type. Oh well, that was the 90's for ya; no one knew WHAT the hell was going on.
Women Today 25 of 26If you are apt to look at this picture and jump to the conclusion that women today are skinnier and more unhealthy looking all in the name of sexy than ever before, you might have a point...but then again, you might not, either. See, this picture of Nicole Ritchie is a shocker of course, because it shows a girl who went from having a rather voluptuous figure to a girl who obviously wanted to appear pretty to the world and kind of lost track of how exactly to get to that place. The funny and kind of beautiful thing about that though is the fact that this picture is from a few years ago and if you are to catch a glimpse of Ms. Nicole on the TV today, or in a magazine, what you will see is a young woman, a young mom, a young wife, who eventually trusted her own instincts and led herself out of the very hole of physical expectations and desires she had dug herself into. Nowadays, she is a radiant woman, a fashionista who looks healthy and sexy and seems happy as hell in life. Which all serves to prove my highest point, people. Teach your kids that beauty has never really been something we can define with words or even with a picture of a person. Because we all see it very very differently, no matter how much some people try and convince us otherwise.
The Eye of the Be Hold Her 26 of 26This is my wife, taken a month or so ago. She's in her mid-30's, an awesome mommy, and a damn great partner-in-crime to yours truly. She's ideal to me. And that is that. And that is enough.