The History of Women’s Ideal Body Shape

history of body ideals

Body ideals change but your worth never does

 

Throughout history, the ‘ideal body shape’ for women has been constantly and abruptly changing, with new trends around every corner.

Historically, women have been objectified, scrutinised, sexualised, and crucified for what they look like.

Society has continued to construct new ideals to strive for, ideals which, often, cannot even be achieved naturally. Interestingly, these socially constructed standards have been vastly different and polarising over time, meaning the ideal body type has never stayed the same for very long.

This article will take a brief dive into the history books to explore what the ideal body shape for women has looked like throughout the years, and what this looks like today.

 

2400-2200BC: The Paleolithic era

‘The Venus of Willendorf’ was one of the first pieces of art ever discovered, and a primitive symbol of the idealised woman of the time1. “Voluptuous and well-nourished” was the ideal, with this sculpture sporting large breasts, an emphasised stomach, and wide hips.

 

1100BC: Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians viewed a woman as being fertile and, therefore, more desirable, if she was slender and tall, with narrow shoulders and a high waist.

 

500-300BC: Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek philosopher Plato coined the ‘golden ratio’, a term used to this day for judging how beautiful a face was based on its symmetry. Plump, full bodies with ample bosoms, big backs, and thick thighs and arms were seen as the ultimate symbol of virility in Ancient Greece.

 

1400-1700AD: Italian Renaissance period

Famous Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael would paint their ideas of ‘beautiful women’ at the time, whose bodies had rounded features and soft faces.

The Renaissance represented a transition of sorts, from women being seen less as objects of fertility, and more as objects of beauty and lust.

 

1837-1901: Victorian/Edwardian England

Women of the time opted for tight corsets and wide, bell-shaped skirts to emphasise their figures.

Charles Dana Gibson illustrated the ‘Gibson Girl’ of the 1890s, who had a cinched-in waist and a large bust; but was more on the slimmer side to previous eras2. This represented the beauty standards of the time, as women would try their hardest to mirror the curvy figure of the Gibson Girl.

 

1920s: Twenties era boyish figure

The twenties were, in a sense, an act of rebellion against the more feminine figure sought after in previous years. Women wanted slim, small frames with no curves, styling short hair and shorter hemlines.

Due to the invention of bathroom scales in 1917 and the rise of department stores with full-length mirrors, an obsession over women’s body types was ignited and fueled even further.

 

1930-1950s: Hollywood era hourglass

During Great Depression that followed the twenties, people couldn’t afford to worry as much about their figure. However, after this period ended, the hourglass figure made its peak, with bigger breasts, wide hips and a slim waist becoming popular once again.

 

1960-1970s: Swinging Sixties

Thin was officially back in. Women favoured petite, delicate figures and long, slender legs.

 

1980s: Eighties era fitness model body

During the eighties, a new fitness rage was sweeping the globe. The goal was tall, tanned and thin, but slightly athletic looking, with toned bodies, smaller waists and narrower hips popular among women.

This decade also saw a noticeable spike in anorexia, potentially due to the new infatuation with exercise regimes and workout videos. In fact, one publication even pronounced anorexia “the disease of the decade”.3

 

1990s: Heroin chic

A waifish, frail appearance was the look of the decade. The nineties showcased the thinnest female ideal in history, in comparison to most of the previous time periods leaning towards a fuller figure.

Women modelled themselves over skinny, androgynous, almost feeble-looking celebrities of the time, most of whom would’ve been using illicit drugs to maintain their thin frame.

 

2000-2010s: Plastic surgery revolution

The 21st century has seen a massive rise is cosmetic surgeries such as liposuction, Brazilian butt lifts, tummy tucks, face fillers, jawline fat-dissolving injections, breast implants and many others. The ‘ideal body shape’ for women has gradually become more and more artificially augmented, to the point where it is physically impossible to achieve through diet and exercise alone.

Plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures have increased in popularity at an almost exponential rate, with surgical procedures increasing by 54% and non-surgical procedures increasing 44% in 2021 when compared to previous years4.

 

2022: What next?

Beauty standards seem to have become more and more unrealistic, unattainable, and unrepresentative of the average woman as time has gone by. Over the years, the ‘ideal body type’ for women has changed and warped drastically, with new looks becoming the standard and replacing previous physical goals at a rapid rate.

No amount of squatting in the gym will get you a booty the size of Kim Kardashian’s…

(unless you have $30,000 to spend on a Brazilian butt lift!)

This just goes to show that perhaps we should be taking the ever-changing ‘ideal body shape’ with a pinch of salt, and that we shouldn’t be pressuring ourselves into attaining the unattainable.

It’s time to ditch the culturally ingrained standards and learn to love ourselves for who we are – normal, beautiful human beings.

If you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating and rebuilding a healthy relationship with your body, we can help you out with our tailored 1:1 coaching. Drop us an email at hello@embodyhealthlondon.com to get started on your journey into embodiment, empowerment and embracing eating!

 

EHL Team x

Robin Wileman, EHL Student Dietitian Intern

 

References

1 Weber, G., Lukeneder, A., Harzhauser, M., Mitteroeker, P., Wurm, L., Kainz, S., Haack, F., Antl-Weiser, W., & Kern, A. (2022). The microstructure and the origin of the Venus from Willendorf. Scientific Reports, 12(2926). [online] available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-06799-z

2 Yellis, K. A. (1969). Prosperity’s Child: Some Thoughts on the Flapper. American Quarterly, 21(1), 44–64. [online] available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/2710772

3 Tredinnick, D. (2002). The Exercise Book. Meanjin, 61(4), 58–64. [online] available at: https://search.informit.org/doi/abs/10.3316/informit.220099324306013

4 American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. (2021). Procedural Statistics 2020-2021.  [online] available at: https://cdn.theaestheticsociety.org/media/statistics/2021-TheAestheticSocietyStatistics.pdf

Diet culture throughout history

history of diet culture

The history of diets

 

What is diet culture?

To understand the origins of diet culture, it’s important to first establish what is actually meant by the term “diet culture”.

Diet culture can be understood as a system of socially constructed and conditioned beliefs that thinness is synonymous with health and associated with a sense of moral virtue. It often offers a culturally prescribed body shape – an ideal that preaches an ever-shrinking, “skinny”, and sickly form, often only attainable through restriction and deprivation.

This system advocates weight loss as a method of attaining a higher health-status and sense of virtuosity, and consequently oppresses those who do not meet this thin-ideal. Certain foods and food groups are elevated, while others are demonised.

 

Where did diet culture begin?

Diet culture can be traced back to as early as Ancient Greek times, where moderation and regulation of food intake was promoted to attain “calmness”. It also represented a marker of supreme self-control – one of the highest virtues in Ancient Greece1.

Within Ancient Greek society, controlling food intake was utilized as a means for the individual to attain not only health, but an ‘aesthetically pleasing’ body. A healthy body was, within this historical context, a balanced body.

 

Anorexia mirabilis – holiness and starvation

Following the establishment of Christendom, many early Christians came to regard the body as the enemy of the soul. Founders such as St. Anthony, St. Augustine, the early Desert Fathers, St. Jerome, and St. Basil would engage in excruciatingly long fasts and self-deprivation as a means to attain communion with God and purify the body2.

This act, known as anorexia mirabilis or ‘holy anorexia’, could be understood as the basis for modern day diet culture’s association between virtuosity and dietary choices and the apparent morality of food (i.e. “good foods” vs. “bad foods”).

The idea of living in a larger body as being a sign of immorality and a lack of self-discipline persists in today’s culture.

However, in modern times this takes the form of self-proclaimed fitness gurus judging how “good” or “bad” clients have been based on how vigorously they’ve exercised, and how consistently they’ve stuck to a diet of plain chicken, broccoli, and rice.

 

The first diet book – Discourses on the Sober Life: The Art of Living Long

Despite the cultural revolution sweeping across the world in the 1500s, the idea of obesity and depravity persisted across society, with perceived gluttony still regarded as sinful.

In fact, Venetian nobleman Luigi Cornaro published the first diet book, Discourses on the Sober Life: The Art of Living Long, which was heavily celebrated at the time.

Cornaro began an extremely strict and restrictive diet from his 30s onwards, after previously indulging in a life of excess. It is even reported that he only ate approximately 100g of food per day, with the overall goal of attaining longevity3.

Subsequently, several other diet-related books were published throughout the 1500- 1700s. Therefore, Cornaro’s book, among many others, paved the way for 19th century dietary practices and the emergence of modern-day diet culture.

 

1800s – the emergence of modern diet culture and dieting

Throughout the mid to late 1800s, the ideal frame for both men and women was thin and determined to be romantic in a sickly way.

Clothing became very form fitting across both sexes – women were laced into bone-crushingly tight corsets, while men were trussed up in breaches, resulting in radical diets to try and maintain this silhouette.

For example, famous poet Lord Byron’s vinegar diet, in which he’d drink vinegar several times a day with water (does it remind you of the apple cider vinegar diet of today at all?).  Several Victorian women were reported to have died from imitating their romantic idol4.

Around 1850, the idea of “Victorian Anorexia” developed, where women would undergo self-imposed starvation to look as thin and frail as possible. As a result, it was during this period that the first real diet-retreats, calorie counting books and low-carb diets were produced and promoted to the masses as a means of weight-management.

This concept has even perpetuated throughout more recent years, with diet culture of the 1990s romanticising a ‘heroin chic’ physique, an extremely slender and feeble body type.

 

2022 – quick fixes & fad diet crazes

Fast forward to 2022: we’ve heard of, read about, tried (and probably ‘failed’ at) the Cabbage Soup diet, or the Grapefruit diet, Intermittent Fasting, the One-day diet, the Atkins, the MIND diet, the Russian Air Force diet, going Paleo, detox diets, the magic-bullet diets, keto, the 5:2 diet4, and many other flawed, quick-fix dietary protocols.

However, all these fad diets require some form of restriction, deprivation, and the demonisation of one or more food groups.

This dieting mindset is extremely toxic and harmful, especially when it is being advertised to an increasingly young audience.

Diet culture has been further amplified by advancements in technology over recent years, with apps such as MyFitnessPal to keep track of your activity levels and micromanage your calorie intake. It enables you to set yourself goals founded on a conditioned ideal, one that society has ingrained into us as being the ultimate achievement.

We can constantly engage in this endless cycle of self-surveillance digitally, in culmination with the little stomach pinches, prods, and body checks. However, it is vital to remember that weight loss is not the panacea to all mental and physical ailments.

 

How can we dismantle decades of disembodiment?

If we are to learn anything from history, it is that unrealistic body goals are always going to be unattainable, and that diets fundamentally do not work. If they truly did, why would we have been stuck in this timeline of ever-changing diet culture since the 9th century BC?

In a society fuelled by diet culture, there will always be a new goal or fad with the same harmful, unsatisfactory result – eroded trust with your body, slowed metabolism and inadequate nutrition, among many others.

Diet culture is a belief system, one which you can chose to stop believing in.

 Instead, re-direct all that wasted energy into believing in yourself instead: choose to believe that you are more than just a body or a number on a scale.

You always have the option to lead a life beyond the confines of counting calories and pondering portions.

If you’re ready to reclaim your body, dismantle diet culture, and practice a more intuitive approach to eating, email us today at hello@embodyhealthlondon.com.

We’d love to help you nurture and build a healthier relationship with food and your body. This is your birthright.

 

EHL Team x

 

 

References

1 Yanis, T (2009), ‘The historical origins of the basic concepts of health promotion and education: the role of ancient Greek philosophy and medicine’, Health Promotion International, 24(2), pp.185-192. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dap006

2 Griggin, J and Berry, E.M (2003), ‘A modern day holy anorexia? Religious language in advertising and anorexia nervosa in the West, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, pp. 43-51.

3 Le Conteur, D and Simpron, S (2018), ‘90th Anniversary Commentary: Caloric Restriction Effects on Aging’, The Journal of Nutrition, 148(10), pp. 1656 – 1659. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxy146

4 Foxcroft, Louise (2011) Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 Years, Londone: Pinecroft Books.

Why am I still binge eating if I am eating enough?

why am I binge eating?

 

What is binge eating?

Contrary to what you might think, binge eating is not the same thing as overeating.

Binge eating consists of episodes involving eating large quantities of food in a short space of time, until you feel uncomfortably full or even sick. Those who binge eat usually do so alone, and will often experience feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt after an episode.

According to statistics, binge eating disorder affects up to 2.8 million adults across the USA, making it more prevalent than both anorexia and bulimia1.

 

What causes binge eating?

A mixture of several different factors can contribute towards binge eating behaviours – unfortunately, there is no single cause that can be easily addressed.

Binge eating is often linked with psychological factors such as stress, depression and anxiety. Several studies have found that stress and anxiety can significantly increase the risk for a binge eating episode2, evidencing the relationship between mood and food.

Dietary restriction is also a big factor that can lead to binge eating episodes.

Restricting your food intake makes these foods seem more desirable and rewarding, causing you to crave them more. Continued restriction will also make you hungrier, increasing the chance of binge eating.

 

But I’m eating enough – so why am I still binge eating?

As mentioned, binge eating does not always stem from biological hunger or cravings – a lot of the time, the root cause is more psychological.

You may be using food as a coping mechanism to try and deal with negative emotions such as stress or anxiety, even if you’re not biologically hungry.

When we eat foods we enjoy, our brains release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This chemical is associated with pleasure and motivation, making us more likely to seek out whatever it is causing the dopamine release – in this case, food3.

Therefore, if you find yourself binge eating even when not physically hungry, it may be because your body is seeking a dopamine rush to negate negative emotions.

 

Our top THREE tips for avoiding binge eating 

 

1. Say goodbye to dieting and restriction

The key to breaking the cycle of binge eating is to let go of holding yourself back. Not only is constant restriction going to affect your physical wellbeing, but it will also take a toll on your mental health.

Even if you do feel like you are eating enough, you may still be stuck in the restricting mentality, which can be physically and emotionally draining. Shaming and guilt-tripping yourself for eating certain foods is not healthy – there is no such things as a ‘bad’ food!

Through allowing yourself to find food freedom, you can make the first steps in overcoming binge eating once and for all.

 

2. Tune in to your body and your mind

Becoming more in touch with your thoughts and feelings will allow you to get know yourself better, making you more adept at understanding what your body needs.

If you feel hungry, listen to those hunger cues, and allow yourself to eat. If you’re craving a specific food, tune in to those signals and let yourself have it. After all, your body knows you better than anyone else!

Similarly, if you’re experiencing a lot of negative emotions, try to understand why this might be, and whether you might need some extra support in dealing with them. Which brings us on to tip number three…

 

3. Seek out professional help

Recovery does not have to be a journey you embark on alone. If you are experiencing binge eating and feel that it may be stemming from a place of unmet emotional needs, there is no shame in reaching out for help. In fact, sometimes this is one of the most helpful things you can do!

Here at EHL, we provide tailored, 1:1 coaching to help you improve your relationship with food. For specialised support in your recovery from qualified healthcare professionals, get in touch with us today at hello@embodyhealthlondon.com

 

 

References

1 Hull, M. (2022, May 26). Binge Eating Disorder Facts and Statistics. The Recovery Village. https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/binge-eating/binge-eating-statistics/

2 Rosenbaum, D. L., & White, K. S. (2015). The relation of anxiety, depression, and stress to binge eating behavior. Journal of Health Psychology, 20(6), 887–898. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105315580212 

3 Bello, N. T., & Hajnal, A. (2010). Dopamine and binge eating behaviors. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1), 25–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2010.04.016