Images of the human body changing over time

Messages about body image today are everywhere.  From songs like Anaconda and Barbie Girl to the media, where images of supermodels and celebrities dominate the cage, body image has become a hot item. This obsession with how we look has to come from somewhere, after all.  And it’s not like the old days, where a beautiful woman was a full bodied woman.  So what happened, and why did it change?

For all of human history, people have tried to look attractive, but that is dictated through culture and era. Back in medieval Europe, men were considered attractive if they had strong chin lines, strong bodies and protected their honor.  Women were considered attractive if they were full-bodied or thicker and came from an honorable family.

As time passed, attractiveness changed.  Women became skinnier and skinnier to be attractive, while men became thinner and more fashionable.  Then, after World War I, fashions changed again.  Skinny women were still wanted, but now they didn’t have to be so incredibly skinny, and breasts weren’t as important.  Neither was long hair, or the long dresses.  Men still had to wear suits, but the top hats and canes were discarded, and they were no longer skinny.  During the ‘30s, women went back to the long dresses, though being skinny was replaced by a full bodied figure. Men didn’t change much at all.  After World War II, women were considered attractive if they had full bodies and men were strong.  Then, as time passed, women became skinnier and skinnier, with accentuated secondary sexual characteristics, like breasts and hips, to follow what was considered attractive.  This follows to today, with people like Scarlett Johansson and Kim Kardashian.  This only follows European history but has become the dominant culture over the course of history. Now, all that’s left is a mechanism to explain why this shift in views of attractiveness occurs.

To put it bluntly, we view attractiveness based on our environment.  The most attractive person is the one who best fits where we live.  In the Middle Ages, when times were tough and lives short, men had to be strong to protect themselves and their families. Women who were bigger showed that they were able to store energy in tough times.  This may seem oversimplified, or even untamed, but this is what it comes down to.  People want the best lives for themselves, and for their children.  Honor for men was seen as the ability to defend himself, and a woman who came from such a family offered an alliance with powerful people who would help give their children a better life.  Land and money was pure wealth.

As time passed, life became easier.  Through the 1700s and 1800s, women became skinnier to show off their secondary sexual characteristics.  Corsets were worn, especially in the 1800s, despite health risks.  These were worn since the standard of living was so high that even with this handicap, people could still live safe lives.  Men no longer had to be so muscular to protect their family and became skinnier.  During good times, where life becomes easier, this trend becomes more prevalent. Meanwhile, during rough times, this view tends to reverse.

After World War I, the world attempted to recover, and these views of skinny being attractive were abandoned. Women no longer had to worry about being skinny, but began to wear short dresses.  Men still wore suits, though they simplified and they became more muscular, in response to changes in attractiveness.  This accentuated in the Great Depression, and through the ‘40s and ‘50s.  The poor economy and then the war continued this kind of attractiveness.

Since then, the attractiveness standard has approached to today’s views.  Women have become skinnier with larger secondary sexual characteristics and men have grown their hair out since then.  The world since the 40s has become easier to live in.  Food has become easier to come by, especially fattening food for poorer people, while ways to burn off energy have become fewer in the electronic era.  So, those who avoid being fat, or even full-bodied are viewed as successful and are seen as attractive.  This applies to men and women, though men are referred to be slightly muscular, while women are preferred to have large secondary sexual characteristics as well as their skinny pressures.

Today, we see women as attractive if they fit a certain mold.  It seems that this was always the case, though it varied what that mold was.  Frankly, history does not make it okay in today’s world. A person having to force themselves to fit a mold just to be seen as attractive is no longer necessary.  Today, success doesn’t have to come from a person’s looks.  It comes from their mind.  This is what should be most attractive.  But since we can’t see people’s minds, the focus remains on their bodies, and will, for some time to come.