The Ideal Woman Body Throughout History Essay

Yet no matter how aesthetically unique or historically significant a particular piece of fashion may be, most visitors to the museum typically ask one question, said Emma McClendon, the museum's associate curator of costume.

"People come and always want to know what size something is," said McClendon, who organized the exhibition "The Body: Fashion and Physique," about the history of the idealized body type in fashion, which is on display until May.

"Whether it's contemporary or 19th century, they want to know what size it is or what size it would correlate to, or what measurement it is," she said. "We as a culture, as a society, are obsessed with size. It's become connected to our identity as people."

This obsession fuels societal pressures to appear a certain way and to have a certain body type, particularly among young women,stemming from a cultural construct of the "ideal" body, which has in turn changed over time -- as long ago as pre-history.

Thousands of years ago, sculptures and artworks portrayed curvaceous, thickset silhouettes. More recently, in the late 20th century, thin, waif-like models filled the pages of fashion magazines. Now, shapely backsides are celebrated with "likes" on social media.

To mark International Women's Day, we explore how this "ideal" is ever-changing, forming a complex history throughout art and fashion -- with damaging impacts on women who try to conform in each era.

Prehistory-1900s: A focus on full-figured silhouettes

Some of the earliest known representations of a woman's body are the "Venus figurines," small statues from 23,000 to 25,000 years ago in Europe.

The figurines -- including the "Venus of Willendorf," found in 1908 at Willendorf, Austria -- portray round, pear-shaped women's bodies, many with large breasts. Experts have long debated whether the figurines symbolize attractiveness or fertility.

In ancient Greece, Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty, was often portrayed with curves.

A statue commonly thought to represent Aphrodite, called the Venus de Milo, depicts small breasts but is shaped with a twisted figure and elongated body, characteristic of that time period.

Artists continued to portray the "ideal" woman as curvy and voluptuous all the way through to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The 17th century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was even the namesake of the term "rubenesque," meaning plump or rounded, as he often depicted women with curvy body types.

To achieve this in reality, the corset became a popular undergarment among women in the Western world from the late Renaissance into the 20th century. It helped accentuate a woman's curves by holding in her waist and supporting her bosom.

As societal views of a woman's body changed over time, so did the shape and construction of the corset, also sometimes referred to as stays.

The 18th-century stay mirrored a cone-shaped silhouette, but by the 1790s, shorter stays emerged, resembling proto-brassieres, which complemented the new fashion trend of high-waisted dresses.

"There was an emphasis on under-structure to shape the body. That's true for skirts as well," McClendon said.

"Whether it be hooped or caged or padded, under-structures were worn around the lower body to create a specific volume," she said. "In the 18th and the 19th centuries, the idealized fashionable body -- so this is talking specifically about what's promoted in the fashion industry itself -- was much more curvaceous and much more voluptuous."

In the 1890s, American artist Charles Dana Gibson drew images of tall, slim-waisted yet voluptuous women in illustrations for mainstream magazines, and these depictions of the new feminine ideal were referred to as the "Gibson Girl."

The "ideal" woman's body type has taken on a number of forms over the past 3,000 years. In ancient Egypt, it was slender shoulders and a narrow waist; during the Italian Renaissance, it was a round stomach and fair skin; in the 1980s, it was an athletic build with curves.

Buzzfeed compiled these trends and more into one video titled "Women's Ideal Body Types Throughout History." The video shows a variety of archetypes through the years, and how those archetypes were directly influenced by society, art and media -- thus proving the notion "ideal" is constantly in flux.

"We intended to compare these idealized figures in an editorial fashion that evaluates the aesthetic of each era while displaying how much and how often these standards of beauty change over time," Eugene Lee Yang, a video producer at Buzzfeed and co-creator of this particular video, told The Huffington Post in an email Wednesday.

Yang and his co-creators received thousands of comments on YouTube and some were quite negative. (Yang even tweeted in response, saying "men can be really, really ugly sometimes.")

"The key visual component of the video is an objective, diverse showcase of women's bodies, and that alone sparks a strong reaction," he told HuffPost. "Many viewers had a poignant response after seeing how ephemeral our concept of 'the ideal' is. Other viewers focused solely on the way the models look and missed the point entirely. Case in point: there are some people who can't get past a woman's image, and there are others who are able to see and think beyond that."

Individuals who chose to criticize the models through a twenty-first century lens may have missed an important message: every body type has at some point been "ideal," and every body type is beautiful.

"We're so often preoccupied with current trends that we lose perspective on how fleeting our obsession with physical perfection has historically been," Yang said. "As demanding as our perception of an ideal body type may be, we should remember that yesterday's ideal will, without fail, evolve into something completely different tomorrow."

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