Introduction to the History of Women’s Bodies and Body Image in the 20th Century (1/10)


Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York, 1991), 187, 196.

Video where Naomi Wolf explains the thesis of “The Beauty Myth”:

Katharina Vestor, “Regime Change: Gender, Class, and the Invention of Dieting in Post-bellum America,” Journal of Social History (2010).

Throughout modern history, women’s bodies have symbolized various ideals and cultural constructions of femininity and proper womanhood. Women’s bodies have represented agency and power, or the lack thereof. A struggle to gain and maintain control of women and their bodies legally or culturally has been a major trend in the history of the west and varies among racial, socioeconomic, and historical lines. Constantly changing body-type ideals, perceptions of beauty, and expectations for women to conform to specific standards of femininity demonstrate how society has connected meaning to women’s bodies and appearances that extends beyond the physical body itself. These blog posts will seek to examine how standards of beauty have changed through time in the United States, what factors have contributed to these changes, and how society has responded to popular ideals of women’s bodies (including how women may have conformed or “pushed back” against these expectations).

Problems associated with body image are perhaps especially relevant and important today; Many modern trends encourage women and girls to go to physical extremes in order to alter their physical appearance. A contemporary desire for thinness has created an epidemic of eating disorders among women today. On college campuses alone 18-30 percent of women have some sort of eating disorder and it has been dubbed the “deadliest mental disorder in women ages twelve to twenty-five.” Societal ideals preclude continue to preclude many non-Caucasian images of women and therefore perpetuate other issues of racism in society. While very few women are born with the “ideal,” sexualized female body, typified by the classic blonde, white “Barbie” doll, others are willing to sacrifice time, attention, money, and physical health and comfort in order to alter their physical appearance to achieve societal hopes for feminine beauty.

Naomi Wolf makes the point in The Beauty Myth that women of today are perhaps some of the most intellectually, legally, and socially liberated women in history because they have inherited the women’s rights movement. Despite this, many modern women expend time, attention, resources, and anxiety in attempting to make their bodies fit certain ideals. She questions why this is and how it might be remedied. She observed, “Every time there has been a really big leap forward for women, an ideology will arise that will pull them back.” She refers to dieting as “the most potent political sedative in women’s history” and “something serious being done to us to safeguard political power.” Women who are consumed with appearance are women who are not consumed with political activism.

Cultural anxiety seems to arise when women have “too much” power, and women themselves often internalize exploitative ideologies that undermine female agency. This seems to be the case for much of the modern history of culturally-perpetuated beauty ideals. While men play a significant role in creating and perpetuating these expectations, many women “buy in” to body-image trends, appearing to validate such gender-specific ideology.

In 1890, one of the most idealized female bodies was that of actress Lillie Langtry. She was about size fourteen, demonstrating that “the ideal was quite big” up until around 1920. According to Vester, Women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were encouraged to be plump, voluptuous, and models of fertility and abundance with wide hips and pregnant-looking stomachs. These body ideals celebrated and encouraged women as motherhood embodied. Women were essentially as beautiful as they were perceived to be fertile. By emphasizing the reproductive capabilities of women’s bodies, domesticity was reinforced as an aesthetic and practical ideal.


Lillie Langtry, nineteenth-century actress

Image Source:

The gibson girl and “flapper” images took over as a deliberate suppression of typically “feminine” physical ideals. Katharina Vester suggests that this shift was at least in part precipitated by the women’s movement. Women were previously encouraged to be physically sedentary, to gain weight, therefore inhibiting their health and physical freedom. When dieting originally began as a men’s trend that represented bodily control and virtuous patriotism, women found an opportunity to discover and prove their own ability to control their bodies. Dieting women challenged the cultural assumption that women’s bodies were inherently weak and soft and that only men had agency over their bodies. “The male body exhibiting visible self-control was used as testimony for the biological superiority of men over women, class privilege, and white su-premacy.” Dieting, therefore, represented “access to social power.” While “weight reduction advice initially addressed the male body,” the promises it made of “influence, political power and social privileges” in accordance with becoming slim extended to women. It was only after dieting was established as a “masculine practice” that women began to diet, 30 years later. Women’s rights activists encouraged women to take control of their diet, arguing that “women had mastery over their bodies, too.” Dieting was a resistance to Victorian ideals of femininity and demonstrates women’s increasing desire for independence and power.

Naomi Wolf draws parallels between changing extremes in women’s bodies and gains in women’s empowerment. For example, the thinness trends of the 1920s were influenced by the women’s rights movement, and particularly women’s suffrage. Likewise, the “Twiggy” trend that emerged around 1965 may have been linked to changes in reproductive agency with the availability of the birth control pill. These are just a few of the contemporary examples that have sought to manipulate control of women through bodies. These blog posts will examine these trends and others. Changing ideals in beauty are what Wolf says “preoccupy” women historically and contemporarily. Because the western modern-day “ideal” woman’s body is generally not what men find most sexually desirable, nor is it universal, Wolf argues, it is a social construct associated with cultural, political, and economic agenda. Cultural constructs of weight began before the twentieth century, but still influence the way women consider weight as an important factor in self-esteem and self-perception. The fact that the average model weighs thirty percent less than the average woman shows that there is great disparity between what is healthy and achievable and what has been construed as desirable.


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