A diverse cast of models shows how the standard of beauty for women has changed dramatically over the past 3,000 years.
Women in ancient Egypt enjoyed many freedoms that would take thousands of years for women to enjoy again. Ancient Egyptian society was sex-positive, and premarital sex was entirely acceptable. Women could own property independently from their husbands, and could initiate divorce from their husbands without shame. Women could even inherit titles, like Pharaoh!
Art from this era of ancient Egypt tells us that long, braided hair was an important aspect of female beauty. Braids framed a symmetrical face, and women wore thick black kohl around their eyes. Women are shown as slender, with high waists and slim shoulders.
Aristotle called the female form “a deformed male,” so yeah — ancient Greece was pretty male-centric. The ancient Greeks were more focused on the ideal male physique than women’s, meaning that it was the men of this time period, rather than the women, who had to live up to high standards of physical perfection. This sounds good, except that this meant women were body-shamed for not looking like men.
Nudity was a common part of ancient Greek society, but sculptures and paintings of nude women were often covered. It’s thought that the first important female nude sculpture in classical Greece was Aphrodite of Cnidus, who showed that beauty in ancient Greece meant plump and full-figured bodies.
Chinese society has been patriarchal since ancient times, which as a result minimized women’s roles and rights in society. During the Han Dynasty period of Chinese history, feminine beauty meant delicate, slim bodies with a radiating inner glow. Women were expected to have pale skin, long black hair, red lips, white teeth, and a graceful walk with small feet. Small feet were an aspect of Chinese beauty that would continue for hundreds of years.
Renaissance Italy was an extremely Catholic, patriarchal society. Women were meant to embody virtue and were often separated from men both in public and at home. A woman’s value was linked to her relationship with men, whether it was God, her father, or her husband.
The quality of both a wife’s behavior and looks were thought to reflect her husband’s status. Beauty in Renaissance Italy meant a rounded body, including full hips and large breasts. Pale skin, strawberry blonde hair, and high foreheads were all thought of as the height of physical beauty.
The Victorian era of England lasted the length of Queen Victoria’s reign. She was the most influential figure of the era, a young queen who became a young wife and mother. Domesticity, family, and motherhood were highly valued in Victorian society, because these values were embodied by Queen Victoria herself.
The style of the time reflected women’s motherly position in society. Women wore corsets to cinch their waists as tightly as possible, creating an hourglass figure. These corsets physically restrained women’s range of motion, flaunting their separation from physical labor. Women also wore their hair long as a symbol of femininity.
Women in the United States were given the right to vote in 1920, and it set the tone for the decade. Freedom! Women who had held down jobs during World War I wanted to continue working. Prohibition caused speakeasies to spring up, which, along with the rise of “talkies” and the Charleston, created a flapper-friendly culture. Women favored an androgynous look, downplaying their waists and wearing bras that flattened their breasts. Beauty in the 1920s was a curveless, boyish body.
The Golden Age of Hollywood lasted from the 1930s through 1950s. During that time, the Hays Code was in effect, establishing moral parameters regarding what could or couldn’t be said, shown, or implied in film. The code limited the types of roles available to women, creating an idealized version of women that, for the first time, was spread around the world. Movie stars at the time, like Marilyn Monroe, flaunted curvier bodies with slim waists.
Women in the 1960s benefited from a liberation movement that saw more women in the workplace, gave them access to birth control pills, and gave rise to feminism. “Swinging London” had a profound influence throughout the western world during the 1960s, and it helped usher miniskirts and A-line shapes into fashion. These fashions were best modeled by Twiggy, whose slender frame changed the ideal body type from curvy to tall and thin.
Jane Fonda created an aerobics fad in the 1980s, which made women want to be fit. Supermodels like Cindy Crawford typified the ideal body of the era: tall, slim, athletic, but still buxom. This era also saw an uptick in anorexia, which some experts thought might’ve been tied to the sudden emphasis on exercise.
After the materialism and overexertion of the 1980s, fashion swung the other way. Thin, withdrawn, and pale, Kate Moss typified the heroin chic look in the 1990s. Heroin use actually rose during this time, causing President Clinton to comment on the trend in 1997.
Women in the 2000s have been bombarded with so many different requirements of attractiveness. Women should be skinny, but healthy; they should have large breasts and a large butt, but a flat stomach.
To achieve all this, women have increasingly been turning to plastic surgery. Studies have shown that butt augmentation procedures, patients under the age of 30, and patients citing selfies as a reason for plastic surgery have all increased in recent years.