Throughout history, beauty ideals for women have changed continuously, yet the constant expectation for women to adapt the way they look in line with this remains.
In the same way we all have different tastes for ice cream; we also have different preferences for what we find attractive—including men. A lot of what we are encouraged to do as women is for the male gaze, but what does that even mean if all men think differently?
I believe beauty ideals are so much more than that.
Let’s take a quick trip back in time.
Palaeolithic Era (25,000 years ago)
One of the first depictions of an idealized woman was discovered. It was a statue of a curvy goddess, described as “voluptuous and well-nourished.”
Beauty focused less on body image and more on the face. The specifics of ‘beauty’ in this time were huge, with the ideal being that a woman’s face would be two-thirds wide as it was long and perfectly symmetrical.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth in England (1558)
The queen’s pale make-up and signature red lipstick became all the rage and an expression of upper-class.
The pale skin trend went crazy. Some historical documents show that women’s most attractive appearance was deemed pale, frail, and submissive.
Women regained some power, as the feminist movements led to women being allowed in the workforce and gaining the right to vote. At this time, they started wearing clothes that were stereotypically designed for men (shock-horror, that lady is wearing trousers!), cut their hair short if they wanted too and gained confidence in the fact that it’s OK if you don’t have curves.
When the Great Depression and World War Two ended, everyone celebrated indulgence, which often resulted in weight gain. From here, hourglass figures and big busts were yearned for, popularised by Dior’s ‘New Look.’
The years of heroin-chic, where people were literally dying for this appearance. People thought, the thinner, the better. Who can forget Kate Moss and her “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” mantra.
So, where are we now?
Big bums, tiny waists, and all things Kardashian-esque is acceptable. It’s crazy to me that just over 20 years ago, people would ask, “Does my bum look big in this?” and if the answer was “yes,” they’d change immediately. Nowadays, we have bum lifts or buy leggings for exactly that.
Sure, there continues to be an underlying societal expectation that women should do everything in their power to be attractive to men. We are still breaking through the misogyny to prove that our entire existence doesn’t equate to being fertile or sexual objects for the use of a man. But that doesn’t explain why there are time-specific cultural ideals when all men have different views of what attractive is?
It seems that toxic expectations placed on women are impacting men, too, telling them what they should find attractive and shaming them if their preferences don’t align with this. It’s vital we are all attracted to different people for different reasons, physical and otherwise.
The world would be pretty boring if we were all into the same thing.
Some ideals come from high-powered people that we respect and look up to. Some theories are biological; for example, a well-nourished woman is assumed to be more able to carry healthy children. Others, especially in the twentieth century, can come from capitalism and consumerism. If we tell people, they aren’t good enough unless they buy this product, we will earn money.
Let’s take cellulite, for example, a word people often associate with being fat and unworthy or unattractive. Cellulite is something we now buy ointments and cream, massage tools, and all kinds of rip-off products to eliminate. Yet, this word was originally nothing to do with fat. In fact, in the 17th century, cellulite was highlighted in paintings of beautiful people. It was deemed a sign of beauty in both women and men (although we know it is more common in women).
But in 1933, Vogue published an article defining it as a “feminine problem,” advertised treatments, and encouraged women to spend their money on trying to rid themselves of a make-believe health condition. Cellulite doesn’t determine health, nor does it impact our health, yet we have been shamed into hiding it at all costs.
Beauty ideals are fads. They shouldn’t exist, but unfortunately, they do. Even so, they change so often—why should we? By the time we have successfully transformed our appearance, the next ideal will come along, and we will be back to square one. The mainstream media brainwashes us. You don’t need to change. There is no one standard of beauty. Diversity is beauty.