It’s been a year since the pandemic began and the internet has found yet another fatphobic way of commemorating this virus that took over the world. Memes are circulating—again—about “quarantine 15” and a lot of them, if not all of them, are exploiting fat people in the process. These jokes make it seem like the worst thing that can happen to you in a global pandemic is gain weight.
However, there’s another side of the internet that makes jokes about going back to the ancient times and lounge naked while eating food. The irony in that is: most ancient civilizations wouldn’t have been fatphobic or body policing others—they would’ve embraced how big a person was. It begs the question, “how has the concept of beauty changed over time?”
Luckily, your local, fat-positive writer—Kerasa Dimitrios Tsokas—loves to research and answer the hypothetical questions that she poses to herself. Throughout history, beauty standards have changed, especially when it comes to what an ideal woman should look like. To understand the evolution of ideal beauty and body types, we must look at how geography and different time periods changed human’s expectations for women.
A Brutally Honest Look At Beauty Standards Throughout History
Note: the standards that will be mostly discussed are Eurocentric female beauty standards. Different countries have their own standards of beauty, trends and what they consider a “perfect” body, face or even skin. In this article, the countries that will be discussed are primarily white—it would be inaccurate and inconsiderate to not make note of this.
The Paleolithic Era (2.5 million years ago to 10,000 B.C.)
The Paleolithic Era, also known as, “The Old Stone Age”, is where our beauty history timeline will begin. It’s important to begin with this prehistoric era because it’s the first time humans left artwork behind such as; the carving anthropologists are calling “Venus of Willendorf.”
Venus of Willendorf is a faceless figurine found in Austria that heavily focuses on a woman’s body. Due to the carving’s large breasts, hips and stomach, researchers have concluded that this Venus figurine was probably used for rituals surrounding fertility, femininity, and eroticism.
While I have absolutely no historic degree to back up my statement about this statue, I truly believe that the carving wasn’t exaggerated like many articles say it is. I’m not here to debate if this is a ceremonial statue or not; I simply want to bring up the possibility that there was a fat person during this time period and the person who carved this was accurate.
Though Venus of Willendorf has no face, it does have what looks to be hair in a crown of braids or a headdress with a pattern. It’s possible that in this era, a fat woman with braids was the height of beauty. No one has any answers to that yet either, but it’s nice to point out smaller details in a statue that most ignore upon first glance. Speaking of which, how did those artists in Ancient Greece carve the marble to look like cloth?
The Hellensitic Era (323 B.C. to 30 B.C.)
Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue carved in 100 BCE that most people think of when they think “ancient Greece”—and you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s currently in France at the Louvre and believed to have been modeled after the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite.
Oftentimes people who write about Ancient Greek body standards refer to the ideal body type as “plump.” As shown in this marble statue of an Amazon, this is a fairly fit woman, indicated by the toned muscles in the arms, with curly/wavy hair but the actual body doesn’t look plump by any means.
Though this statue of Aphrodite was Roman made, it was a copy of a Greek statue showing the nude goddess with a flat stomach. This is yet another example of how women weren’t expected to be “plump” or—as I like to bluntly call it—fat. If anyone were to be fat in ancient Greece, it usually signified someone of extreme wealth.
As you may have noticed at this point, or will soon, most beauty standards throughout years have been dictated by men. Remember the Pythagorean theorem? Well, the same guy (Pythagoras of Samos) created a “golden ratio” of perfection which Greeks took and just ran with it for a few thousand years.
Due to this, face symmetry was a focal point of beauty, including unibrows. Unibrows signified purity, intelligence and women who had them were extremely lusted over. Those who didn’t have one would use black powder to draw one on. If only 14 year old Kerasa knew this, maybe then she wouldn’t have allowed her classmates to tweeze her eyebrows during lunch.
The Renaissance Era (14th-17th century)
Jumping a bit forward in the beauty timeline, we have the Renaissance era, a time in history where art was at an all-time high. The problem with comparing a human woman—or person for that matter—to artwork is that they will never live up to that standard.
Back then, artists would create artwork that pertained to their own preferences and desires, not what was necessarily accurate, even if the era was known to be naturalism.
The Renaissance era began in Italy and slowly spread throughout Europe. For this reason, I will be focusing on what an ideal woman looked like during the Italian Renaissance. Portraits of women during this time are seen as incredibly important because there wasn’t much written about women during this time period. In this case, a picture is literally worth a thousand words.
Portrait of a Woman is just one of many paintings that showcase the ideal female beauty during the Italian Renaissance. A high forehead, blonde hair, pale skin and long neck were all characteristics that were ideal for women to have.
Women would go as far as plucking their hairline to achieve their high hairline. Paintings like; Madonna with Child Enthroned with Two Angels and Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement also showcase this ideal of beauty.
Clothing and hairstyles weren’t only a way to express oneself but to showcase one’s status. If she wore her hair down, she was single. If a woman tied up her hair, she was taken. Women’s roles in life and beauty were heavily surrounded by men and how to keep or attract them.
This concept of beauty (looking good for men) was carried throughout years and countries, as is evident in our society today still trying to break free from men’s beauty expectations.
Victorian England (1837-1901)
In Victorian England having a pale face was desired because it signified that you never worked in the sun—it was a symbol of extreme wealth and privilege. Women would go as far as to poison themselves with arsenic and ammonia in their beauty routine to achieve the desired look.
Corsets were also a huge trend during this time period and unlike modern-day corsets, these would extend a few inches past a woman’s waist. Wearing corsets was not an exclusive fashion trend to Victorian England, at the time countries such as; France and Italy were also participating in this beauty trend.
Corsets were so integrated into Victorians’ lives that it was common practice to begin wearing corsets from a young age and not stop wearing one even if one was pregnant. The practice of women needing to have an hourglass figure did not end here: it migrated to the United States.
Beauty Standards in America (1960s-2016)
There are many years and trends I could focus on when it comes to the United States. Let’s start with Marilyn Monroe and how she was seen—for years—as a “blonde bombshell”, a sex symbol and beautiful.
When Monroe performed the infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” she was a size 4 or 6. At her “biggest” she would maybe be a size 12; if you want to read a personal essay about what it’s like to be mid-size, Whimsy Soul’s founder Kara wrote one.
Bringing up Marilyn Monroe’s true size isn’t to shame her or anyone else that size; it’s bringing light to the fact that so many women would compare themselves to her and see themselves as morbidly fat which caused a lot of body dysmorphia amongst women.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, a woman was expected to have a full hourglass figure. For four decades after its passing there was the expectation for women to be insanely thin. I say “insanely thin” because during these 40 years is when anorexia started to be discussed and when even models would starve themselves. It was mainstream to glorify starvation diets in order to be thin and beautiful, which also resulted in body dysmorphia among women. If you want to read a personal essay about what it’s like to have an eating disorder, Whimsy Writer Sarah wrote one.
While the United States was going through an opioid epidemic in the ‘90s, the fashion world capitalized upon this and created a new trend/standard—heroin chic. Pale skin, dark undereye circles and being thin was in. Kate Moss was dubbed one of the faces of this trend and went as far as saying the controversial statement, “nothing tastes as good as skinny looks.” Moss has since publicly stated her regret for this comment.
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Pinpointing the exact moment women in society started to turn their back to men’s expectations of their actions and bodies is difficult. However, I’d like to credit this reclaiming to the 2000s. The beginning of the 21st century brought us icons such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston.
These women all have different body types but were, and still are, seen as beautiful women. The 2000 years allowed us to see an array of women owning their bodies and their sexuality. Despite the array of body types though, flat stomachs and being “fit” were still in style.
In 2015 and 2016 fat models such as; Tess Holliday and Ashley Graham started getting signed to modeling agencies. They opened the door to a lot of public backlash, because of fatphobia, but also challenged what we saw as beautiful. When more plus-size and fat women started getting recognized, that’s what brought us to our current day beauty standards.
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Non-Western Beauty Standards
As mentioned previously, the beauty standards that were discussed are Eurocentric. In an effort to stop white-washing beauty and history I will briefly discuss non-European beauty. It is important to mention that I am white, I should not be anyone’s main source of information for cultures that aren’t my own. I will be linking to people and general sources who are from these cultures and communities where you can—and should—learn more from.
I was taught in school about the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding. It was a status symbol. If women were to be married, they were more or less forced into binding their feet and trying to touch their heels and toes together as best they could. While it is easy to criticize why someone would bind a part of their body, may I point you back to the corset section of this article.
It is also common in Asian communities to desire double eyelids. Blepharoplasty surgery helps one achieve this look which can be done for aesthetic reasons but also for medical reasons. In some Asian countries, having pale skin is a sought after beauty standard because it is seen as a mark of “prestige.” To hear Asian women discussing beauty standards, click here.
In Africa, beauty standards for women varied depending on the country and tribe. Stretched earlobes, face markings and lip plating are just a few beauty traditions that were common before western influences. Some tribes still practice these traditions, however, most have left them behind or modified them to be more modern. Similar to Renaissance-era women using hair to signify their marital status, African women used their hair to signify a range of things such as: age, marital status, a person’s tribe or if they were royalty. Certain hairstyles would take a while to complete so some women would use this time to bond and socialize with others.
When Europeans arrived, African culture started to get erased—more often than not forcibly. A common theme about Eurocentric beauty ideals is that white people are the main focus and standard of beauty—if you’re not white, you aren’t beautiful.
The Black is Beautiful movement that started in the 1960s was a direct stance against the concept of Western beauty standards and a space for Black people to express themselves and embrace their blackness. Natural features of a Black woman such as; “full lips, dark skin and curvy bodies” were celebrated and something that they could take pride in.
As with many other things started by Black people, white people imposed themselves somewhere they had no place in. A perfect example of this is Kim Kardashian, she has profited off of common features and trends that are found in Black culture. At some point we’re going to have to stop finding excuses for these things—I’m looking at you, white people, who only bring up Vikings when trying to explain why you “deserve” to wear cornrows. To hear stories from Black women and Black gender-expansive people, visit The Unplug Collective.
I didn’t cover every community of color in this section. Even with the two communities, I did discuss, I didn’t go as in-depth as I could’ve. I highly suggest—practically begging—you to click on the hyperlinks in this section and to also do some further research of your own.
Current Day (2021)
As a society, we have gotten better at recognizing toxic beauty standards. Women are taking up space they were told for so long that they don’t deserve to occupy and in the process are redefining what an “ideal” woman looks like. Makeup is being used to one’s desire and not out of necessity for acceptance—there isn’t a self-imposed expectation for women as much as there was.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still people out there that believe a woman should look and act a certain way. There are people out there still telling fat people that they don’t deserve to live because of their weight. Hell, there is a $72 billion dollar industry—aka diet culture—that tells fat people or those who gained weight that they don’t deserve to be respected. There are still a lot of hurdles women have to jump through to get respected.
However, we are seeing brands like Parade and Girlfriend Collective achieving diversity and inclusivity through different identities. Women of color, women with disabilities, trans women, fat women—they are all being included in a conversation and in industries that, at one point, ostracized them.
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It’s an uncomfortable and shocking change to many when their words and opinions no longer affect one’s choice of what beauty is. However it’s a necessary change if we are to move, at all, away from past beauty standards. If we are to truly grow as a society towards something better, beauty standards and the question of “what is beautiful?” needs to be left in the past with Pythagorean. Between us—men and diet culture are delusional and I don’t think that will change…ever.