Image from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/body-image-history-of-beauty-explainer-intl/index.html

Throughout the last 120 years or so, the rising popularity of media in America has allowed its citizens to meticulously track a trend that directly correlates to the lifestyle health, diet culture and exercise popularity of women, despite such being almost completely controlled by genetics. This trend overemphasized by the media is the shape of a woman’s body. Think about this, in today’s America, countless women look up to the Kardashians’ hour-glass figure and larger-than life butt. And if one is “fortunate enough” to look like that too, countless praises of “I wish I had your figure,” and “I wish I was curvy like you,” would be received. 

However, this ideal body shape hasn’t always been this way. By looking at the American trends of body shape decade by decade since the early 1900’s, one can see that the shape of the women’s bodies has been an obsession of American media. In various forms, the media has constantly stayed on top of “what’s in,” much like it has with fashion, hair and makeup. For more information of the topics discussed in the article, visit the links below:

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/body-image-history-of-beauty-explainer-intl/index.html

Beginning leading up to the 1920s, the first shift towards a notable slenderer physique than ever before can be observed.  During this time, women idealized “the flapper,” who had a smaller chest, shorter stature, narrow hips. This is the first observance of mass amounts of eating disorders in modern America, because women are trying to look like this small, slender “flapper.” This trend was propagated through magazines, billboards and advertisements that depicted the classy, popular, sought- after “party go-er,” and women desired to fit that description, so they desired to look that part. 

In the 1930s, we begin to see a rising popularity in a larger shoulder to waist ratio, meaning that it is beginning to be trendy again for women to have a slimmer waist than their shoulder line. This trend transitions through the 1940’s, where taller women with strong broad shoulders make up the models in magazines. During war time, a stronger woman was needed to uphold her family while her husband was away, and that was depicted in governmental campaigns and cartoon icons such as “Rosie the Riveter.” This idea of a strong, full woman paved the way for the “Golden Hollywood,” a time of entertainment and less hardship than wartime. This time period was characterized by a rise in models and movies, and therefore actresses like Marilyn Monroe and her fuller, curvier figure with a tighter waist, and larger bust and hips. 

In the beginning of the 1960s, there is a return of the petite women trend, popularized by European models like “Twiggy,” who was short in stature, incredibly thin, and doll faced. When she became so iconic in Europe that her popularity spread to America, her image was idealized through fashion media and therefore influenced thousands, even though she was the exact opposite of the icons that lead the trends just a few years prior. This shape resembles the “flapper” in many nuances, and here there is a development of diets that set the foundation for diet culture.  

The trend of skinny continues into the 1970s, but the media emphasizes the disco-dancing queens of the time, idealizing very tall, slim and athletic bodies, with very little curves to them. This continues to grow and develop in the 1980s, with the emergence of the traditional “supermodel” look of a woman who is strong, toned, and tall with very long legs. This was a particularly strong and long-lasting trend because television was making a powerful impact now that most Americans now have them in their homes. 

The focal point of women’s ideal body shifts in the 1990s from strong to skinny, with the slim frame with a flat chest and butt being the look that women sought after. With that trend, eating disorders rise sharply again, similarly to how they did in the 1920s, because women were chasing a look many referred to as “heroin chic,” popularized by Kate Moss. This propagation of diet culture and eating disorders lead to levels being higher than ever seen before in American history. 

In the 1990s, health organizations began to spread the word on the growing obesity epidemic in America in a negative light, and by contrast idealized the skinner than life super model. With such stark differences, and limitations, in the types of bodies seen on mass media, that leaves no room for what the normal body should look like. This contrast with such a large deficit of representation for the “normal, healthy” body shape lead to an epidemic of chronic body image issues and body dysmorphia. 

Today we live in a much more body positive environment in relation to our media here in America, even though it can still be hard to believe with the amount of teeny-tiny super models ruling the fashion industry. A wider rage of body shapes than every seen before are being seen in the media, and the numbers of representation are continuing to rise. As a society we are still recovering from our long history with distorted body image, deliberately working as a society to not only make seen and known the various body types that run our world, but also to celebrate them through the media. 

To get a visual of this trend progression, visit the following link: https://www.buzzfeed.com/watch/video/5088  


Madeline is a sophomore at Old Dominion University. She is very passionate about learning how she can incorporate her minor in Women’s Studies into her future career as a nurse. Madeline spends her free time working out, traveling or getting coffee with friends.