Body Image and the Media. What's Your Body-Shape Era?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @TemmaEhrenfeld
October 14, 2015

No matter what happens with body image and the media, cultural perception of beauty goes in trends. Find self-esteem in any body shape era.

In my high school, the most-admired girl, Gigi, had long red hair. My curly brown hair didn’t satisfy me at all. I wanted Gigi’s and given a chance might have yanked it off her head.  

Most of us are afflicted by envy of designated desirable people and yearn for their traits, especially when body image and the media intersect. We women want straight hair if ours is curly, or curly if ours is straight. We want longer (or less spindly) legs, bigger (or smaller) breasts, a smaller (or more rounded) butt. A man might want a stronger chin, a flatter belly, some extra inches in height, or penis length and girth. Media often guides our perceptions of body image.

I doubt I’d have longed for red hair in a high school without Gigi. We admire what we see others admire. If you’re dissatisfied with your looks, it may help to know that cultural ideas about beauty are a form of fashion, and like fashions in clothes, they change. In another era, Michele Obama’s toned muscular arms would have gotten much less attention.

Body image and the media

Let’s take a tour of the American female ideal body image and the media of the last 125 years. Unusually tall women with haughty expressions became fashionable in the 1890s. But the “Gibson Girls” of the time, named for an illustrator, had dramatic curves. They were statuesque Marilyn Monroes, with luxuriant curls piled on their heads.

In the 1920s, the bridal updo disappeared and flat chested, narrow hipped girls were getting dates. Height was no longer required; the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was 5 ft 1 inches tall.

Busty curvy women reigned in the 1950s, with the arrival of Barbie dolls. Marilyn Monroe won our hearts. Later on, all eyes were fixed on a model called Twiggy, who could have been Marilyn’s pre-teen daughter.

In the 1980s, the new super models were a kind of amalgam of earlier fashions, women with Gibson-Girl height but narrow hips and flat chests. We started to see muscles (like Michele Obama’s decades later). But the boyish style got another moment, in the 1990s, when tiny women like Kate Moss and Winona Ryder won attention.

Following this zig-zag, you can imagine that a slight petite girl longed for long legs and an hour-glass figure in the 1890s and today craves a big muscled rear-end. The trouble is that you can’t make your legs longer or make your waist narrower if you’re not overweight.

Artists and lovers have always seen beauty with less conventional eyes. Take a look at “Annah the Javanese,” Paul Gauguin’s 1893 portrait of his muscular mistress, or “Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne,” Modigliani’s 1918 portrait of his soft-middled love. For a range of female beauty ideals, see this slide-show.

How to build self-confidence in your body image

For health reasons, it’s important not to carry too many extra pounds, but your primary goal should be fitness. Never obsess over dieting. Focus on a "live-it" rather than a "diet": eat in way you can live with rather than adopt a regime that feels like you could die. Scientists debate whether beauty ideals for women may have underlying waist-to-hip ratios that indicate fertility and health. Let your goal be health, and your own style of beauty will shine through.


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February 27, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN