Renaissance to Runway: Body Shapes Over the Ages

How did we go from idealizing voluptuous Greek goddesses to stick-thin Hollywood hotties?

The last time we saw a full-figured woman idealized and glamorized was in the 15th century. And Marilyn Monroe, Miss Size 16 (today’s size 8), surely does not count, because—although inarguably curvy—she was as teeny as they came back then.

Look at Botticelli’s Primavera, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, or Titian’s Venus of Urbino—these 14th- and 15th-century paintings represented the respected—even glorified—image of women of early times: thick thighs, round stomach, modest breasts. All very real and quite the contrast from today’s ideals. Do you think women back then were beating themselves up to be like the image of the Greek goddess Venus? Maybe they would just simply eat more? (Now that sounds like a happy world to me.)

Let’s fast-forward to the Victorian era and see how the "ideal" woman's body has changed throughout the years…

In the 1800s…
Pale, plump and perfect, that’s how women were. The full-figured, pear-shaped ladies were the ones the men wooed. A young woman’s main objective was to appear maternal, fertile and nurturing to obtain a man to later raise a family. Marriage was life’s ultimate goal, and corsets, worn to accentuate a woman’s shape, were necessary in achieving the right look to land a man. Ample bosom, a small waist and wide hips were all they needed.

In the 1900s…
Women said "Out with the corsets!" and slender was in. As women increasingly started playing sports and becoming more active, the slender figure slowly became the ideal figure. Women joined the Olympics, and Eleanor Roosevelt started teaching calisthenics and dance. After World War I, women increasingly became more active outside of the home. At this time, we started seeing weight as a part of science with the study of calories, ideal weight and body mass index.

In the 1920s…
During the women’s rights movement, rebellion was the trend for women. What followed was a drastic change in how women looked. Enter the flappers, the bad girls of the '20s. They got rid of shapely corsets for straight waists and boyish figures. The "washboard profile" became popular, as women bounded their breasts flat. Short bob haircuts topped off the chic, boyish look. With that new look also came the right to vote.

In the 1950s…
Welcome, baby boomers! Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of what women wanted to look like in this era. She singlehandedly brought back curves with her dramatic hourglass figure, but this time, the hourglass was all about sex. Monroe became an icon for men and women when she donned the cover of the first issue of Playboy magazine in 1954.

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