Who decided that tiny waists, big butts, fake lashes and tinted eyebrows were the ingredients for a beautiful woman? Was it a glossy magazine? A deified celebrity? Or was it the beauty industry, which is worth over $128 billion?
Many think beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder – rather, it may be in the eye of the advertiser. Upon closer inspection, and after speaking with Toronto MPP and cofounder of Body Confidence Canada, Dr. Jill Andrew, it appears that beauty is also in the eye of the patriarchy, the capital, and the colonizer.
A quick search query of “the history of beauty standards” yields results from popular fashion publications that capture the evolution of beauty on a timeline. In all of these references, the roots of these evolving beauty standards follow a similar pattern.
Beauty in the eyes of the patriarchy
A glaring trend we can identify in this beauty timeline is the oscillation between the exaggerated feminine form (giant breasts, big bums, long hair) and the rejection of or reaction to that heteronormative feminine ideal (boyish figures, small chests, waiflike bodies). Two examples of this occurred in the 1920s and the 1960s to 1970s, which were marked by periods of rejection of this beauty construct. They are a rejection of what Dr. Jill calls, “a heteronormative assumption that women be heterosexual and of course be desiring only the attention of cisgender men.” The 1920s were characterized by an androgynous look for women. They would flatten their chests with constricting bras, loose clothing that hid their curves, and chopped their hair, donning short bobs. The 1920s also marks the suffrage movement, where women had gained the right to vote.
Ideal beauty has consistently been unattainable, and has led many to suffer through depression, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even death.
The 1960s to 1970s that preferred slender models like Veruschka and Twiggy, was a shift away from the corsets and pinup girls of the years prior. This also coincided with the second wave of the women’s rights movement.
“While we know throughout history that women have perpetually fought against these ideals and have demonstrated their ability to resist dominant ideologies and reimagine their body image and self-esteem outside of these stifling boxes, these boxes still exist. One only has to look at any ‘mainstream’ magazine, music video, the cast of the majority of television shows, your favorite store’s ad campaign and look at the people who tend to be anointed ‘most beautiful,’ ‘most sexy’ in our popular culture to see that there are still certain bodies that are exalted more than others,” says Dr. Jill.
The aim of beauty becomes a pursuit of perfection
Another pattern that is consistent across the Eurocentric beauty timeline is the notion that in order to attain perfection, women have had to work to transform their bodies in some way – whether it was by fitting into a rib-snapping corset, dieting and exercising, or going under the knife. Dr. Jill says, “The multi-billion dollar ‘self-help industry’ counts on us wanting to change ourselves to fit into some script… some image of ‘perfection’ that never exists. This is where — once again — we see a connection between capitalism, economy and body image.”
Dr. Jill cites this ever-unattainable ideal as stemming from the Eurocentric lens, but if we take a global look at beauty standards, we can see this trend prevail even outside of this capitalist beauty economy. While Western culture covets thin bodies, countries with a lack of resources aspire to a body type that expresses abundance.
Many African countries covet curves, and in Eastern Europe, where poverty is rampant, they hold the philosophy of “more is more” – tons of makeup, fancy clothing, over-the-top unnatural looks are what is considered beautiful. Women in Burma stretch their necks with metal coils to create length and height. Ideal beauty has consistently been unattainable, and has led many to suffer through depression, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and even death.
So, who has been deciding the beauty standard?
If we plot the beauty timeline on a map, you will notice that the origins of the standards of beauty shift northwest. This is because beauty standards throughout history have been defined by European and western culture.
The northwest also happens to contain the countries with the most power and influence, and this makes it irrefutably about race. “Race is inextricably linked with our opinions about beauty and who we think is beautiful,” Dr. Jill asserts. She cites one incredibly illustrative example of the race problem herein. Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish artist and diplomat from the Southern Netherlands. He is considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. He is responsible for many famous paintings that celebrated the sensual beauty of full-figured white women – the quintessential icons of beauty in his time.
Race is inextricably linked with our opinions about beauty and who we think is beautiful.
In complete juxtaposition to this depiction of white beauty, in the 19th century Saartjie Baartman, a South African Khoikhoi woman, “was taken from her community and, long story short, placed into a cage where she was trotted around Europe as a freak show.” Why? “Racist Europeans were… obsessed with the size of her bottom and her genitals, and they saw that as a defining characteristic of why she was inferior to white femininity and white womanhood,” explains Dr. Jill. She continues, “Upon Saartjie’s death, her bottom and her genitals were actually dissected and placed into a jar for display.”
Gulp. This was not a chapter in our high school history textbooks, and it is certainly not included in the syllabi of cosmetology programs. “White women were revered, and seen as the quintessential form of femininity and beauty, but black women were anything but,” says Dr. Jill, “Talk about some scientific racism and some white supremacy all mixed up in one.”
Here’s where we’re at with beauty standards from the last decade
Let us fast forward to the present day, where big bums and inch-long eyelashes reign supreme. The 21st century has been defined as an era of choice and freedom of expression. Celebrities are now posting cellulite selfies and reclaiming the “flaws” they have been forced to cover up or Photoshop out of existence. 2015 saw the first plus-size model featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, with Robyn Lawley (size 12). In 2016, Mattel came out with a line of Barbie dolls with diverse body types.
“While there have been certain moments in time when a more fulsome body, a plus size or ‘fat’ body was seen as acceptable — even desirable and the ‘norm’ in visual arts of centuries past for instance — for the most part, thinness has been idealized as the preferable body type,” Says Dr. Jill.
Furthermore, these more ‘diverse’ representations still only occur at certain times of the year when a client might be capitalizing on a trend. For example, Dr. Jill points out that, “During Pride month you’ll see more 2SLGBTQ+ images. During Black History Month, you might see more Black models featured. So all this is to say that tokenism or exoticizing certain women of colour or certain ‘diverse’ bodies is not a nod to inclusivity, it’s actually just as problematic as their absence.”
So, the fashion industry still needs to catch up. “While there are exceptions, and we do see significant movement towards more ‘diverse’ bodies, it is still relevant to question why fat women still have such difficulties finding modern fashions at similar prices and the same stores as their straight-sized women counterparts,” Dr. Jill states.
There is no consistency in actual size with “S,” “M,” “L,” “XL,” etc. The fact that there is a size double zero is absurd. And, don’t even get me started on bra sizes.
See also: Can you be body positive and on a diet?
Looking ahead: democratizing media
With legacy print publishing on the decline, and digital media reigning supreme, the rise of social media has potentially provided a more democratic media content hose, allowing us to shine a spotlight on the everyday person.
“We see disabled fashion models and designers, gender non-conforming young people refusing to be neatly squared away. We see people challenging gender expression and identity in new and revolutionary ways,” says Dr. Jill, “Will they completely redefine it? Maybe. Time will tell.”
Social and digital media has provided an avenue for us to celebrate “real” body types. These include body types of various races, genders, sizes and abilities. Gen Z has turned to digital apps and platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, where kids are now idolizing vloggers, creators and entertainers that they admire for reasons above and beyond aesthetics. But we have to be careful even here.
“Whose redefinition then becomes the definition? And what new assumptions, stereotypes, dominant ‘looks’ become reinscribed?” challenges Dr. Jill. “Every generation has its trials and tribulations where beauty is concerned.”
Dr. Jill believes, “We can become more aware of the ‘games’ the systems of oppression… These systems of oppression operate by getting us to see ourselves as the problem… as the ones who need fixing rather than these broken systems themselves… and all of these systems work together to uphold beauty ideals.”
Social media has the potential to be a medium that reinforces positive body images and vanquishes stereotypes. But let’s continue to ask Dr. Jill’s question wherever we go, IRL and traversing cyberspace: “Whose voices are missing?”
Beauty standards throughout time