A Historical Exploration of Body Image & (Feminine) Beauty Ideals

by - July 21, 2016

People are all the same
And we only get judged by what we do
Personality reflects name
And if I'm ugly then 
So are you
So are you
Sugababes - Ugly

History will be the judge...

At the beginning of this month a historical moment happened. I know, I know, nowadays everything is being bombarded into a 'historical moment' (I made a sandwich today #historicalmoment), but this time it truly is! "An actual historic moment?", I hear you all gasp. Yes, a historical moment THAT'S NOT DEPRESSING. Praise Rembrandt! Because indeed: I'm talking about the two paintings that made their way to the Rijksmuseum this 2nd of July. What wonderful news! (except when you hear the number on the pricetag they came with... you can't have it all, you can't have it all). Co-owned by France, these two beauties -Marten and Oopjen- took their place in the hall of fame of the Rijksmuseum (they got a nice spot next to the Nightwatch).

Obviously this HISTORICAL MOMENT got a lot of attention from the press. However one article really stuck with me from the (sponsored) special by De Telegraaf, which explored the idea 'are Marten and Oopjen (especially specifically Oopjen) ugly or not?'. Indeed a very important question to ask. The article states that it's a natural occurance -throughout history- that women are being judged for their looks. In the 19th century the portrait of Oopjen was being scrutinized because of her (supposed) ugliness. The Dutch poet and writer Carel Vosmaer remarked that you can only forget the ugliness of her being through the brilliance of Rembrandt (who'd painted her so vivid and expressive). The article concludes that taste is subject to fashion and that in the 17th century -when the painting was made- she might've been a good looking woman.

This made me think about a quote from The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich: "The trouble about beauty is that tastes and standards of what is beautiful vary so much." Aesthetics play a very important role in the way we perceive our body and how it's being perceived by others. What does it mean to be ugly anyway? According to Google Translate UGLY; unpleasant or repulsive, especially in appearance. Used in a sentence: "She thought she was ugly and fat." Ugly and fat. Being fat (or the idea of being fat) often goes -or is made to go- hand-in-hand with the perception of ugliness as a 'symptom'.

Throughout the course of the 19th and 20th century, the thinner body takes over the ideal of the thicker body. The preference of the thinner body (or at least the thinner waist) within Western society can be traced back to the idea that 'we' take the acces (or excess) of food for granted. As Colin McDowell explains in The Anatomy of Fashion: "Slimness is thus a sign of self-control and positive body image. In ages when no such assumption about food was possible, the filled-out belly of the succesful male was a potent sign of social success and thus a sexual attractor, while the rich man's wife's 'proper double chin' (...) was considered proof of her husband's power and importance."

Control becomes very significant or important within society around the 19th century. Therewith replacing the idea of big being beautiful -or rather powerful- to its opposite (although it must be noted that within Western society the ideal of the ancient figures -especially that of the Greeks and Romans- has been idealized and taken as a beauty standard throughout history). Being fat equals to having no power, because self-control has taken over the idea of being powerful. And thus being fat is a sign of too much indulgence, no self-control. Therewith: the inability to change; instead of the denigration of fat it became the denigration of powerlessness (often shown or signified through the idea of fatness). As Georges Vigarello says in The Metamorphoses of Fat: "(...) The reprobation becomes more psychological, more intimate; they are no longer accusations of awkwardness or gluttony, but of nonmastery, a lack of power over oneself as one keeps an 'impassive' and ugly body whereas 'everything' says it ought to change." The body became identified with the person(ality) occupying it, making 'ruling over oneself' during the Victorian era a personal business based on impersonal or the outer-perspective of how things should be run. The corset gained popularity because -one could say- it literally controlled the body and (directly) illustrated to the outside world this concept (of self-control and therewith being powerful opposed to no self-control and being powerless). According to McDowell, the "possesor [of a corset] was willing to undergo intense pain and privation in order to achieve a silhouette that was idealized to the point of caricature, and completely unnatural."*

This has led to the idea of self-control (or power) that needs to be conducted onto and signified through the body -with help from corsets- whereby the sign or idea of wealth is being distributed by the inability to (consciously) indulge too much in basically anything. Not only in food, but also most importantly in movement and therewith 'being'. The corseted body hindered many women to do, literally being laced into a cocoon that would dictate their existence and development (bodily as well as mentally). This idea of restriction was also based on the gaining knowledge about the working of our bodies. More importantly: what is and is not good for you. Arguably the corset -as later turned out- wasn't that good for you either, but neither was being obese.

In the second half of the 19th century the idea of 'spare time' became more frequent, which was being filled (by the rich) with active or sporty activities. Vigarello: "Silhouettes became thinner in the second half of the nineteenth century, and treatments for obesity become more numerous. The multiplication of pastimes, the new attention to the self, and the revolution in medical knowledge were all factors." This not only changed the customs of dress and the reorganization of (private) living spaces, but also had a very big influence on the form of the body, more importantly: the way of perceiving and judging bodily forms. Women, more than before, were being labelled as fat or obese, most probably because of the changing of silhouettes and the increasing attention this gathered in the media and society overall. And therewith the 'explosion' of media -especially mass media- coverage and the way this has/does influence the way we perceive others, ourselves and 'the (female) body' in general.

More changes challenged society to which dress -and therewith the body- 'needed' to respond to. Think for instance Feminism where -in the first wave- the fight for the right to vote and work was provoked and eventually gained. Although it must be noted that the lower class women already did work and so the latter being a wish that rather reflects the middle- to upper class women. The same women who are thus trapped in corsets and couldn't move, and were -at that point through their body- unable to work. This thus meant a change in dress and therewith -again- a change in body. However: although the corset made its way out of the closet and jeans slowly made their way into the daily wardrobe, the idea of self-control stayed hanging. According to Vigarello the transformation of the status of women even heightened the expectation of control and affirmation of self, bringing a 'new thinness' and an obsession with health and especially youth.

Since the 1960s people that are overweighed or obese have doubled, mostly in and around Western-Europe and Northern-America. We tend to eat more and 'fatter' food than our ancestors, but the (feminine) body ideal is a reflection of thinness and even becomes thinner during the 20th century. The hourglass shape (obtained by wearing corsets) stayed 'in fashion' or desirable up to the 1980s, when in reaction to the socalled 80's Super models, who were "beautiful in an alien sort of way", came the Waif or 'heroin chic' figure in the spotlight.** This 'new body' is still predominant in today's society, more over: in today's media coverage and use.

Through globalisation I think the image of 'the woman' and the body that should be obtained with it is bigger -as well as thinner- than ever before (i.e. everyone gets 'confronted' with this image of how you should look more frequently and perhaps even more obtrusively). The spread of one ideal that what must be obtained and controlled is more present than ever thanks to the internet, and especially social media.*** The need to control over oneself is perhaps even heightened by the (social) power of social media. As Kasey L. Serdar states in the article Female Body Image and the Mass Media: "The media is littered with images of females who fulfil these [mainly ultra-thin] unrealistic standards, making it seem as if it is normal for women to live up to this ideal. (...) Research has repeatedly shown that constant exposure to thin models fosters body image concerns and disordered eating in many females. Almost all forms of the media contain unrealistic images, and the negative affects of such idealistic portrayels have been demonstrated in numerous studies." However it must be stated that there are numerous developments -or at least voices are being raised- about the diversity of models within the portrayel of fashion shows, but also media coverage and advertisements.

In The Metamorphoses of Fat, Georges Vigarello says that not only fat became equal to no power but also -as stated above- to ugliness. Around the second half of the 19th century "[a]esthetics grows definitively dominant, and people become supremely alert to ugliness." Ugliness became the earliest concern, which makes me question about the relationship between ugliness, power and wealth (and most predominantly the reflection of this through the body or the depiction of the body -or naturally the way we perceive a body, say: a portrait of a woman painted in the 17th century opposed to a portrait of today used in an advertisement). In caricatures -as Vigarello gives examples of- fat became 'greedy', 'unfair' and 'lazy' while at the same time -when brought in context with the poor- fat became seen to ask compassion for the 'fattened-pig' that's being made ready for slaughter (by the fat rich pigs naturally). Fat became conflicted, but ugliness didn't, while the two became synonymous for one another. Thereby it's now interesting to see the many discussions raised past fashion weeks about the 'crave' for more diversity on the catwalk (and -again- in media coverage in general). This not only based on skin colour, but also on body shape.**** I'm wondering how much this concept or idea of 'fat = ugly = powerless' still plays a role or in what ways it's being looked upon within/outside the (fashion/media) industry and naturally its receivers (us) now. Basically: has anything changed?


*Corsets were already worn before the 19th century, however the shape and material of the corset has changed throughout the years, making them -with the fashion of the time- heavier and sturdier. As the V&A Museum states [here]: "As the skirts became narrower and flatter in front more emphasis was placed on the waist and hips. A corset was therefore needed which would help mould the body to the desired shape."
**Coming soon(ish): a blogpost discussing the 'heroin chic' look... keep your eyes peeled!
***That's to say: it's not wrong to be 'part of' the ideal norm, but it's wrong because there's just one very VERY dominant ideal norm that's being pushed to the limits. No shaming girls who do or don't conform the norm.
****Also coming soon(ish): a blogpost about racism in the fashion industry. I'd already written a short blogpost concerning the topic [here], but this one is going to be bigger (and hopefully) better...

What I'm wearing: Blouse - Dyanne / Skirt - Vanilia / Coat - Primark (old) / Shoes - H&M (old) / Hat - Vintage / Bag - Charity Shop /
Sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / And: The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich, The Anatomy of Dress by C. McDowell, The Metamorphoses of Fat by G. Vigarello, The Exquisite Slave by H.E. Roberts

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  1. Such a thought provoking piece! Great job!
    Kinga x

    1. Thank you! That's very kind... <3