Since prehistoric times, the architype of the ‘ideal’ female form remains ever-changing and fluid. Geographic, economic, cultural, political, demographic and social factors interplay with art and media, resulting in trends, fads and fashions which constitute a contemporary female aesthetic paradigm.
In fact, every female body type has been considered the ‘ideal’ type by a particular society at a particular period in time, for a different set of underlying reasons.
In the stone ages, with the preoccupation with fertility and having as many children as possible, a very large, buxum, fertile and childbearing look was prized above all others, as manifested in sculptures such as Venus of Willendorf.
In ancient Egypt, a thin, slender female figure was favoured, showcasing wealth, aristocracy and the meat-based protein diet that accompanied it, separating the elites from the masses and their grain- based carb diet. Religion also came into play, with Egyptians believing that a slim body would more easily navigate the journey into the afterlife.
Conversely, societies as diverse as Ancient Rome, Medieval India, the Ottoman Empire, Renaissance Europe and Victorian England favoured a larger, fuller-bodied woman, as a sign of the status, wealth, and good health that accompanied access to plenty of food. The invention of the corset allowed curvy women to further optimise their ‘assets’, and the art and sculpture of all those societies celebrated the voluptuous female body form.
By the 1920s, due to rail and aviation advancements, beach holidays had become feasible and fashionable, and golden tans (once seen as a mark of manual labour and low birth) had become desirable. Similarly, mass food production techniques had made processed carbs widely available at low cost in all developed countries (echoing the mass grain production in Ancient Egypt), so once again the more slender figure became popular, signalling a more sophisticated diet.
The 1930s, 1940s and 1950s – which saw the Great Depression, World War Two, the end of colonialism and the birth of the Cold War – were times of hardship, austerity and recovery, leading to large-scale escapism via the medium of film, which concurrently experienced the Golden Age of Hollywood. During this time, film producers and studio bosses – with their preference for hour-glass figured actresses such as Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe – perpetuated the curvy bombshell look and transmitted it to a global audience. So strong was the desire of women to possess the buxom look that Wate-On, a weight gaining supplement aimed at ‘filling-out skinny women’, became the fastest growing consumer brand in the 1950s.
The 1960s and 1970s, the eras of sexual liberation, hippies and disco – also known as the age of ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ – saw a return to popularity of the ‘twig’ look, while the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s saw the proliferation of gym culture and exercise videos and the emergence of athletic, toned, tall supermodels such as Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell.
The mid-1990s till the mid-2010s saw two main themes. Firstly, the ‘waif’: a reaction to the athletic supermodel, this look was personified by skinny, petite ‘heroin-chic’ models such as Kate Moss; this trend was fuelled by fashion designers and magazine editors who favoured an androgynous look. Secondly, the ‘beachbod’ or ‘sexbod’: tanned, toned, with perfect ‘assets’, usually more petite than the 1990s supermodels, this look is best displayed by Victoria Secret Models such as Adriana Lima and Giselle Bundchen; the popularity of this look was driven by large scale corporate advertising and marketing by alcohol and lingerie brands which targeted the male audience in particular.
Which brings us to the present day: the zenith of social media and reality TV, two mediums which have given immense airtime, publicity and exposure to ‘real’ women, be they reality TV stars, YouTube sensations, or bloggers. These are the ‘girls next door’, far more ethnically diverse, with a far broader spectrum of body types represented. They mix haute-couture with high-street fast fashion, and have audiences of millions of female followers who seek to emulate them, and male admirers who want their girlfriends to dress like them. Hollywood has followed their example, with mainstream films such and television shows featuring actresses with a wider array of body types than ever before.
To summarise, every female body shape has been considered ‘ideal’ in different societies at different times. In bygone eras however, fashion was monolithic and only geared towards the one desired look of the period, rendering women who were too thin or too full-figured for their era to exist outside the contemporary definition of beauty: If Kate Moss had lived in Renaissance Europe she would have been considered cadaverous and ill-looking; if Marilyn Monroe had lived in the 1990s she would have been considered ‘large’; however in their own contemporary periods they were considered to be the epitome of perfection.
We now live in an age where fashion is democratised, broad and multi-faceted enough to women of every shape to realise their full potential by identifying the wardrobe which best suits them; in essence, all female forms admired through history can now co-exist at their best, and be equally celebrated and sought after.
So, back to the title of this article, what is a guy’s perspective on all this? To me and my peers there is nothing more attractive than a woman who is confident and comfortable in her own skin and her own clothes. The woman who dresses according to her body type, optimising her assets to achieve the best possible aesthetic outcome, simultaneously maximises her innate confidence, charm and appeal.
Shahryar is an alumnus of Westminster School, INSEAD, Edinburgh University and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has studied History, Economic History, History of Art, Economics, Finance and Business