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Body Beauty
How Body Types Evolved Throughout History

Body Beauty
  • Peter Paul Rubens, his life and genius. ... (by )
  • An Historical Sketch of the French Revol... (by )
  • A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte : With a Sk... (by )
  • Wild women : the romance of a flapper (by )
  • Tales of the Jazz Age (by )
  • Flappers and Philosophers (by )
  • Selected Short Stories by F. Scott Fitzg... (by )
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There’s a common phrase that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” It means that beauty can’t be judged objectively. What one person believes is beautiful may not appeal to another.

This notion applies to people who come from the same culture, as well as people who hail from different cultures. When it comes to beauty, both personal and cultural standards vary. These standards also evolve over time. 

Centuries ago, a beautiful body was full-figured with lots of curves. Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty had a fuller figure with wide hips and curves. 
Many artists from centuries ago portrayed women with curvaceous silhouettes. The word “Rubenesque” is associated with Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was greatly influenced by Renaissance artists. It refers to the voluptuous female nudes who appeared in his paintings. 

In Peter Paul Rubens, His Life and Genius, Robert R. Noel described the Virgin in one of his paintings. He writes:

This picture is so beautiful, in such noble keeping, and so free from that disagreeable voluptuousness which characterizes Rubens’s females in general, that it can be contemplated and dwelt on with delight. (p. 56) 

Pablo Picasso and Fernando Botero also painted fuller bodies. Botero is known for “Boterismo,” which depicts exaggerated or “fat” figures. 

Eventually body types shifted. In the 16th century, Western women began wearing corsets. These stiff undergarments had heavy boning and accentuated the silhouette. They held the waist in while supporting the breasts. After the French Revolution, “Empire” silhouettes gained popularity. Napoleon’s Empress Josephine De Beauharnais of the First French Empire popularized this style in Europe. These elegant flowing gowns had fitted bodices and appeared to be high-waisted.  They emphasized the bosom and liberated women from the corset.
In A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Ida M. Tarbell writes:

She had always been extravagantly fond of personal decoration—she loved brilliant stones, gay silks, fine laces, soft cashmeres; and when she found herself an Empress, with every reason and every opportunity for indulging her love of finery, she abandoned herself to the pleasure until her wardrobe became the amusement of her life. (p. 395)

From 1890 through 1920, ideal body types shifted. After the Industrial Revolution, standardized dress sizes became the norm and women became more aware of their sizes. America’s liberated “flappers” donned shorter, slimmer dress silhouettes, which featured lower necklines. Flappers also opted for bras and lingerie rather than corsets. These hedonistic women danced in speakeasies and became associated with the Jazz Age.

In Flappers And Philosophers, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: 

“Lucky girl,” he sighed “I’ve always wanted to be rich—and buy all this beauty.” Ardita yawned. “I’d rather be you,” she said frankly.

“You would—for about a day. But you do seem to possess a lot of nerve for a flapper.” 

Read more about flappers in his book.

By Regina Molaro

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