The perception of the perfect female body image has changed throughout history almost as often as the latest fashions. The voluptuous female, so often depicted in Renaissance period art, has come and gone from popularity over the many centuries of man. However, some would argue that, despite popularity or lack of popularity during any particular period, the female figure portrayed in such paintings as The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli is the true, organic and nature-intended perfection of a woman. Woman in ancient art has often been shown as having heavy waists and thick arms and legs. They are rendered as being full-bodied and have a lot of curves to them. At times when the nature of society called for the thinning down of women to meet with the desires of the fashion world, art then began to reflect those trends as well. However, thinner women have never been captured on paper or canvas with the same affinity and affection that most often comes through in paintings, drawings, and sculptures of the more curvaceous woman.
The timeline of voluptuous women in art and culture is highly reflective of the societal timeline of mankind. The major themes of any particular period have a great impact on art and vice versa. As the times changed, and the physical needs of the people have changed, so has the ideal for a woman’s physique. Some would argue that the woman in a household is the example of the health and happiness of the family and, therefore, needs to look the part. Others would comment that women are held to such unrealistic standards of beauty, no matter what the period, that there will never be an attainable perfect body type, which does not require surgery of some kind.
In times past, being voluptuous indicated good health and wealth. The status of a woman is healthy and well fed was of great importance because women birthed and breastfed the children. Pale skin and body fat were thought to be aristocratic in ancient societies such as Greece and Rome. Centuries later, there came a time of female empowerment. “I am no bird;” said Charlotte Brontë, “and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” With the rise and fall of feminine power in society, so did we also see the rise and fall of hemlines and self-esteem. Taking a look at how the ideal for the female body image has changed over time, may help us to understand the changes in art and culture, which reflect that timeline.
In Ancient Egypt, circa 1292 - 1069 B.C., the ideal body shape for a woman was slim, with narrow shoulders and a high waistline. A few decades later, in ancient Greece, they preferred a woman to be full-figured and equivalent in sturdiness to their male counterparts. Then came a period, popularized during the Han Dynasty, during which people idealized the demure and small-framed waif-like figure of a woman. Later, during the Italian Renaissance period of 1400-1700 A.D., the norm shifted back to the voluptuous beauty of ancient times, which was more reminiscent of the ancient pagan earth goddesses. A couple of hundred years later, the waistline goes thinner, thanks to the diabolic development of the corset, while everything else on the woman was expected to still be full and voluminous. Within just a couple of decades, whether due to a mass rebellion of women against the wearing of corsets or, as history suggests, because of the trends in the fashion industry, the full-figured woman was nudged aside by the flirty flapper girl who was boyish in body all the way to her flat chest and knobby knees. Luckily, this trend only lasted a mere ten or fifteen years before the starving girls came to their senses and began to once again embrace their curvaceous nature. Simone de Beauvoir said, “To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.” According to some research, men are biologically programmed to seek out women with the body ratio equivalent to the “hourglass figure,” which is said to be the ideal shape for giving birth, which was most popular in the "Golden Age of Hollywood," the time of Marilyn Monroe.
When the rise of feminism came about in the late fifties and early sixties, the woman began to see themselves and their bodies in a different context. They no longer measured their appearance solely by a societal standard. They were now invariably influenced by the advertising that was specifically scripted toward them and the fashion industry that was invading their living rooms and vanities via magazines of all kinds. The popularization of mini-skirts and A-line fashions, which really only looked good on the tall, thin types, set a new standard for the female body image; one that was only attainable through reasonably unhealthy means and lifestyle. Unfortunately, the desire for a slender body, while enduring slight adjustments here and there, has endured for a lengthy period. While the 1980s brought with it an emphasis on health and fitness, it also came with a rise in diagnosed anorexia as women continue trying to fit in which led into a period during the ’90s when bony, stick-thin models began to take the spotlight.
These days, as women continue to fight for the equal rights that they were assured decades ago, they have begun to embrace a somewhat healthier overall ideal image. Naomi Wolfin once said, “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” Some would concur with her sentiments and also extend that the “obsession with female obedience” is often the catalyst for many sociological changes in human culture. The expectations of a woman’s body have changed more times during the last thousand years than it had over the millenniums that preceded this; the preference swinging back and forth like an every decade pendulum between the super thin and the modestly epicurean. In the 1910s, the curvy Gibson Girl was the fashion diva, followed directly by the loss of several pounds to the adolescent looking Flapper image. Curves gradually began to come back in style first with the elegant gowns of the 1930s, then with the sturdier look of war-era women during the ’40s. In the 1950s, the full organic figure of a woman is once again embraced by the masses as Hollywood stars like Natalie Wood take their places on the silver screen. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long.
The new preference is still one of a slim waistline or flat stomach but with fuller breasts and buttocks. Tina Fey, in her book Bossypants, wrote. “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.” However, there has also been a rise in women expressing a complete love of their bodies just as they are. Many are working very hard to clear away the perception that there is or needs to be an ideal body image for women and each woman has a natural and individual ideal shape that must be embraced and accepted. Many women, especially artist, are even going to great lengths to bring awareness to women’s bodies which have experienced the trauma of the world, either through illness, such as breast cancer, or trauma of some kind. William Scott Downey said, in Proverbs, “For one to admire a woman merely for her beauty, is to love the building for its exterior; but to love one for the greatness of her soul, is to appreciate the tenement for its intrinsic value.” This is something that our society is slowly coming to better understand.
Looking specifically at the societal and cultural trends that would affect the ideal body image, it is easy to understand how the popular preference for representing women in the art may change throughout time as well. The reflection of the culture in the art regarding the standards by which women’s bodies are presented is somewhat astounding. As cultural changes occur, it is often times difficult to distinguish whether art was then influenced by those changes or whether the changes are what influenced the art of the time. It’s a “chicken and the egg” story to which the answer is likely ‘both’; one hand washes another. As we comb through the addles of art history and line up each inception of nudity in art to its corresponded period in societal history, we find a direct link between the challenges, beliefs and popular institutions of the time and the portrayal of women’s bodies as well as the restrictions on their sexuality and personal freedoms. Each time conservatism rose, hemlines dropped. Every time there has been a revolution or campaign for rights of any kind, clothes also became less confining. These themes are well documented in the artwork of each particular period.
Some individual artists have always had a fundamental understanding of the value of a woman exists within her and is not directly derived from her appearance alone. Painter Gabrielle Buffet, who is responsible for the astounding piece Marie Laurencin, was quoted in 1903 in saying, “My ambition is that men should have a voluptuous feeling when they look at the portraits I paint of women. Love interests me more than painting. My pictures are the love stories I tell to myself and which I want to tell others.” Artists have always attempted to present their subjects, whether real or fictional, in the best light possible. Their work does not have the potential to be the brilliant and timeless piece that they envision without incorporating an organic honesty of the times and an intrinsic interpretation of the societal context surrounding its inception. Whether an artist is attempting to make a public statement, send a personal message or simply capture the quality of a moment, it is the responsibility of that artist to do so with empathy for the subject matter as well as respect for the medium and the audience. These three things must be in harmony throughout the piece to tell the story of the artist’s soul within the context of the artwork.
The voluptuous female, throughout time, has represented many things to many groups of people. The curvaceous female body image is one that has been revered as the pinnacle of feminine beauty most often since the dawn of time. Women who have pleasingly statuesque and full-figured bodies are considered in so many cultures to represent the wealth and success of that society. Ancient goddesses, especially those associated with the home, health, prosperity, and sexuality, are most often depicted as having a wide waistline and thick hips. A female figure was not considered womanly until it had filled out in the bust and britches. The most artistically admired statues of women are those who represent the female form healthily and well-fed. Looking at the artistic depictions of women throughout time, it is easy to believe that women are most admired when they are naturally fit and have a healthy bit of meat on their bones.
The effect that this fluctuation of the perceived ideal female body image has on a young woman is unfortunate and also profound. Each time the trend swings back toward favoring the severely skinny figure, there is an exponential rise in cases of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, in young woman especially between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two. When the preference moves to the other end of the spectrum, the cultural norm becomes one of over-eating and excessive exercise in an attempt to increase the measurement of one area of the body or another. As the perception of the female body in art, entertainment, and society at large, swiftly changes from one standard to another, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to feel assured about themselves and their bodies. It also becomes harder for parents, both mothers, and fathers, to instill the right ideals of self-image in their daughters or to teach their sons the value of the complementary gender of human beings.
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