A Question of Image

Venus Looking in the Mirror by Rubens
Adding up the Figures

October is Women's History Month in Canada.

I was trying to think of something to write  on the subject. Not coming up with anything on my own, I asked my fourteen year old son. He suggested I talk about how the fashion for different types of women's figures has changed over the years.

I've often said I was born in the wrong century. This is untrue. Peter Paul Rubens was born in the wrong century. I'm sure he'd prefer the twenty-first century with indoor plumbing and modern medicine more than I'd enjoy seventeenth century Europe during the Thirty Years War.

Speaking of war, one of few benefits of World War I and II were the changes to the status of women. Being called upon to do "men's work" in the factories, shipyards and in the military, changed how women saw themselves and how they were portrayed in the media. The muscular Rosie the Riveter comes to mind. Photos of sturdy young women were used to promote the Land Army. Attractive but business-like women in uniform were used to entice recruits for the women's army, navy and air force auxiliaries.

Canadian expat Elizabeth Arden was commissioned to create makeup set for the US Marines Auxiliary. The cosmetic maven promoted good health as well as the right makeup to achieve beauty. The clear message was that women could be pretty and useful at the same time.

Post World War II, an equally vigorous campaign was waged to send women back to the kitchen. What real women wanted was a new washing machine or vacuum cleaner, not independence. It wasn't enough to be pretty, you had to be glamorous. The model of beauty became Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield.

Young women exercised to chants of "We must... we must... we must develop our busts." Lifting a separating was important. Tight sweaters and big skirts were in vogue. (Not unlike tight, rip-able bodices and bustles a century before.)

At least Marilyn Monroe and her contemporary pinups* were meatier than the average starlet these days. That trend started with Twiggy. She popularized the notion that you can't be too skinny.

The frail, almost anorexic look isn't new. Lord Byron made it popular with his passion for Caroline Lamb. But you had to be a member of the small number of elite to have the time and inclination to subsist on a diet of vinegar and wafers. The thin poor didn't choose to starve themselves.

It took mass media to get a hold on the collective women's conscious and convince them they didn't look right. Too fat. Too flat. Too sort. Too tall. Too not like the models seen in ads. With the help of Photoshop, the models don't look like the ads either.

So, will the pendulum of fashion and history swing the other way? Or will we look beyond fashion to define beauty?

[* Note: I have a great deal of respect for Marilyn Monroe's ability as a comedic actor. For that matter, I don't have anything against Twiggy. I do object to how they were used to objectify women in order to sell products. Advertisers should stick to kittens and cartoon bears to do that.]


  1. Interesting as I've thought of this recently too-- particularly how it pertains to our characters and covers in writing.

    On a personal level, some is the difficulty women have of seeing themselves as beautiful no matter how others see them. One after another of the women the world sees as beautiful admits they haven't see it for themselves.

    Then there is the difficulty of recognizing unique beauty and being comfortable being different. We are in an era of conformity where you look at these celebs and the wantabe celebs and they look identical often due to nose, eye, and chin jobs as well as Botox to take away expression. Beauty is culturally defined and who decides what it is-- it's beyond me.

  2. I ran an experiment in an engineering class (all male) I was teaching in the mid 90s. Who was the sexiest? Marilyn Monroe, Kate Moss or Christie Brinkley? The over 40s said Marilyn Monroe. The under 25s said, "Are you kidding? She's Fat. Kate Moss." The over 40s said, "Kate Moss looks like a boy! You like boys?" That convinced me that the media of the time determines beauty.

  3. There was a psychological study done some time ago where young children were asked to pick the most attractive out of pairs. The one consistency was that all the children preferred people with symmetrical facial features. Since noticeable asymmetry is often a sign of injury or disease, that makes evolutionary sense. It also make sense that men like women with big breasts and wide hips and women like men with broad shoulders and narrow hip. The former are markers of good baby-bearers and the latter of strength. That's just evolution.

    The rest is culturally defined and always with a purpose - though in some cases the purpose might be lost in time. Showing wealth is the most common. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye wanted his wife Golda to have a proper double chin - a sign of wealth. Now wealth and status is displayed by being able to have nose-jobs and tummy-tucks and Botox treatments.


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