Beyond Skin Deep
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What is Beauty?
02:43 - Source: CNN

The history of the ‘ideal’ woman and where that has left us

body image history of beauty explainer final shot TEASE
What is Beauty?
02:43 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Ideas about female beauty are constantly changing and have been for 23,000 years

Yet the impact on body image remains the same, experts say

CNN  — 

Hidden in the halls of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York are historic textiles and glamorous garments, many of which hold secrets from years past.

Yet no matter how aesthetically unique or historically significant a particular piece of fashion may be, most visitors to the museum typically ask one question, said Emma McClendon, the museum’s associate curator of costume.

“People come and always want to know what size something is,” said McClendon, who organized the exhibition “The Body: Fashion and Physique,” about the history of the idealized body type in fashion, which is on display until May.

“Whether it’s contemporary or 19th century, they want to know what size it is or what size it would correlate to, or what measurement it is,” she said. “We as a culture, as a society, are obsessed with size. It’s become connected to our identity as people.”

This obsession fuels societal pressures to appear a certain way and to have a certain body type, particularly among young women, stemming from a cultural construct of the “ideal” body, which has in turn changed over time – as long ago as pre-history.

Thousands of years ago, sculptures and artworks portrayed curvaceous, thickset silhouettes. More recently, in the late 20th century, thin, waif-like models filled the pages of fashion magazines. Now, shapely backsides are celebrated with “likes” on social media.

To mark International Women’s Day, we explore how this “ideal” is ever-changing, forming a complex history throughout art and fashion – with damaging impacts on women who try to conform in each era.

Prehistory-1900s: A focus on full-figured silhouettes

Some of the earliest known representations of a woman’s body are the “Venus figurines,” small statues from 23,000 to 25,000 years ago in Europe.

The figurines – including the “Venus of Willendorf,” found in 1908 at Willendorf, Austria – portray round, pear-shaped women’s bodies, many with large breasts. Experts have long debated whether the figurines symbolize attractiveness or fertility.

In ancient Greece, Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty, was often portrayed with curves.

A statue commonly thought to represent Aphrodite, called the Venus de Milo, depicts small breasts but is shaped with a twisted figure and elongated body, characteristic of that time period.

Artists continued to portray the “ideal” woman as curvy and voluptuous all the way through to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The 17th century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was even the namesake of the term “rubenesque,” meaning plump or rounded, as he often depicted women with curvy body types.

To achieve this in reality, the corset became a popular undergarment among women in the Western world from the late Renaissance into the 20th century. It helped accentuate a woman’s curves by holding in her waist and supporting her bosom.

As societal views of a woman’s body changed over time, so did the shape and construction of the corset, also sometimes referred to as stays.

The 18th-century stay mirrored a cone-shaped silhouet