The Making of a Modern Female Body (2/10)


Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, “The Making of a Modern Female Body: beauty, health and fitness in interwar Britain,” Women’s History Review (20:2), 299-317.

In “The Making of a Modern Female Body,” Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska argues that the “modern, actively managed female body was part of women’s liberation during this period.” This new modern female body “required sex reform and birth control.” Fitness, which was traditionally a man’s activity, “was circumscribed by traditional notions of femininity.” While women were not encouraged to engage in competitive sports or to slim down “in pursuit of fashion,” women increasingly considered these physical extremes. Athleticism, fitness classes, and “physical culture” rose as emblems of modernity and bodies became closely associated with the principle of civic virtue. This period in both Britain and western nations like the United States marked a widespread cultural transition in regard to women’s bodies. Meanings associated with weight, physical activity, and beauty ideals transitioned in relation to deeper political and social meaning associated with the female body.

Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska suggests that during this period to an increasing extent, mothers engaged in this physical culture and exercise. One woman reported that in England even the “heavy burdens” of “poverty and unemployment” and “motherhood”, the “spirit of adventure” was “not yet dead in the souls of our English women.” Hundreds of thousands of women participated in public rallies and displays meant to promote “health.” Women in fashion and advertising were increasingly portrayed in athletic clothing, even swimwear. Women’s dress was revolutionized as hemlines rose to just below the knee, women cut their hair short, and many began wearing makeup. “A slender, straight silhouette in which neither breasts nor waist was emphasized replaced the hourglass figure of the prewar era” that had emphasized femininity.

During the 1930s there was a shift towards “glamour,” emphasizing broad shoulders, longer skirts, and slim waists. Women’s rights activists encouraged women to abandon the confining corset, although many women replaced them with girdles. Consumerism also took off during this period, and women found themselves with more freedom to make consumer choices than their predecessors had. “Popular beauty manuals and women’s magazines proclaimed women’s right and duty to beauty, which was represented as democratically available.” The widespread attention that women now gave not only to their clothing and style, but especially to their bodies, shows that the female body was becoming the focal point of societal beauty expectations for women. There was a widespread desire among women to make their bodies fit, but also to appear a certain way.

While modern society may be critical of the “duty-to-beauty” dialogue, it was actually seen by women as a liberating ideal that emphasized health and declared that anyone could become beautiful if they could work for it. Where women’s ability to control their bodies seemed unlikely to society during the nineteenth century, the “new woman” took the opportunity to prove otherwise. Women were generally not limited by class status, as they were previously, and many enjoyed activities like “swimming, hiking, and cycling.”

These trends did not begin solely as changes in fashion fads; rather, “the body was a key site for the construction of femininity. A modern, actively cultivated body was yet another aspect of women’s liberation along with political emancipation, greater gender equality and expanded employment opportunities” during this period. Female fitness challenged notions of femininity in other ways, as well. “The fit, physically active woman challenged late-nineteenth century medical discourses which portrayed women as ‘eternally wounded’ and, thereby, justified women’s exclusion from the public sphere because they needed to conserve their limited energy for reproductive purposes.” Women could use their new physical freedom in careers such as teacher and writer. The way women viewed sex and birth control began to change as women felt greater autonomy over their bodies. Marriages were seen as “companionate” and motherhood again gained political meaning. Mothers should be physically fit to raise the next generation of citizens and soldiers, a powerful message during a period impacted by war.

As the title of this article alludes to, this period in the early twentieth century began a change in perspective of the role that the female body should play in society. While the important purpose of reproduction remained, it was infused with new meaning. Women’s bodies were now subject to a wider range of critique beyond their fertility. The rise of consumer culture and women’s participation in it contributed to the prevalence of women in advertising and the use of the female body to sell material products. Although the trends and ideals of the female body would continue to change during the twentieth century, society during this period began the association between a woman’s body and personal characteristics, including discipline, intelligence, self-control, being a good mother, and being independent and influential.  

Lillian Russell, whose body was seen as the feminine ideal during the late nineteenth-century, and actress Alice Joyce in 1926, showing the new straight, slim style.

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One thought on “The Making of a Modern Female Body (2/10)

  1. It’s interesting to see the contrast in attitudes towards women’s bodies in the past and today. Earlier, the focus on women’s bodies and their ability to achieve beauty standards was an illustration of women’s control over their own bodies (as was mentioned in this post and in class discussions). Now, this idea has evolved so much as to suggest that women’s bodies are public goods that can be critiqued by anyone and everyone.


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