Shifting Body Types Through the Ages

Every era has its body type, and ironically, like hemlines they can change radically in short periods of time. Just think about how quickly we went from buxom bombshell supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell (who was not all that big but womanly and curvy) to the short and waif like Kate Moss who beget the likes of Shalom Harlow and Amber Valetta- all of whom look like chunky monkeys next to the skeletal remains of what is left of the Victoria Secret Angels of today. It makes me long for the ‘90’s when you would open that catalogue and see the voluptuous Frederique, or a Paulina Porizkova. The 90’s was a time when there was a bit more diversity in the concept of what beauty, sexy or desirable was in a Woman. For quite a while these divergent types occupied the same space, even walked the same runways. Anna Nicole Smith burst on the scene in the black and white Bruce Weber campaign for *Guess Jeans and the world’s jaw dropped, not at how “big” she was, (and she was) but how sexy she was. There was never a whisper of her being “plus sized” she was simply gorgeous. It was clear that she was not a runway girl, and she was accepted, she had her lane.- She was a campaign girl, she had a body, and a look that harkened back to the iconic bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, Bridgette Bardot and Sophia Loren. Those sex symbols of old would nowadays be considered plus size, or just plain fat. The ‘90’s was an era of diversity in the fashion industry from runway to print, a time when *actual models were cover girls, not the hot actresses of the moment.  It got me thinking about bodies change through the times both in real life and in the media projected image of them. What I found even more interesting was how I, in my new millennium mind regarded and related to those bodies. Ironically as Americans have grown plumper over the years the media projected ideal has wizened. I thought about how diverse the ladies of past eras were, or at least seemed to be, (I’m sure that they too felt much like we do) sure they too were typed, but perhaps there were more types to choose from, or perhaps I am just being romantic.


The ever-narrowing concept of beauty makes me feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole; either I am getting bigger, or things are getting smaller, either way something isn’t right or nothing, (meaning myself seems to fit) I reside in the murky middle earth of body types. Recently on Facebook I came across some great photos, of a personal female icon of mine, Josephine Baker. I discovered Josephine quite by accident as a sophomore in high school. My English teacher assigned a book report on a biography. Relatively uninspired, and having no one in particular mind I went down to the library and started to peruse what was to be had. That’s where I came across the banana skirt wearing chanteuse. I was enthralled with her look, and her life. As a young African American girl that type of glamour, style, and refinement was generally reserved for the “lighter” side of life, like Elizabeth Taylor or Rita Hayworth. I knew about Lena Horne, but she was so fair, it was hard for me, a brown girl with more traditionally African American features to relate to her. Conversely Josephine baker looked black, and there she was in all of her glory and I do mean all as her topless and nude pin up shots were a good portion of what made her famous in the early days.

At that time as a young ballet dancer I was always striving to be more and less, better in my are but thinner, and less muscular physically, however there was something in Baker’s shape and hue that comforted me. In the photos she was curvy, and she looked to be and soft, like veal. Though the writings mentioned her muscular and wild abandon, I couldn’t see it, and even in pictures of her dancing she did not look “powerful” and perhaps because of the exotification of the Black people at the time I got how she appeared to them to be “wild” and “savage” but in the ‘80’s her body type would not be considered athletic. This I chalked that up to the racial stereotypes that were assigned to Black people at that time. To me her body looked like the epitome of womanliness, she was a brown Marilyn Monroe. She oozed sex, she looked like something that men wanted to melt into, and that women wanted would long to emulate in the in hopes of arousing such desire. With adult eyes I noticed her curvy thickness, and thought that it was beautiful in the second beat I thought that, by today’s standards she would be consider thick, not quiet “fat”, not slim but what could safely be deemed as healthy… The third beat brought me back to myself, I thought, “I’m probably about the same size as her, but I couldn’t see myself or size as ideal”. Somewhere I still feel like would be “better” if I was just…. Smaller, less athletic, more balanced. Where I know full well from doing work such as this, that these feelings of inadequacy are mainly in my head and not a “reality” I also know that it is a part of the disease of the body image crisis, the in ability to see yourself as okay, unbroken, perfect as you are.

A few days later there was a photo of Marilyn Monroe pressing weights posted on Facebook. She is wearing some manly fitting jeans and a bikini top, she looks sexy, and healthy, not super chunky like she could be, but not skinny- she was never skinny. I think she looks wonderfully natural, very Norma not Marilyn at all. Once again I thought her body looked great and once again I tried to see if I could be acceptant of myself (and size) as I looked at the photo, and once again it was difficult. I write all this to say that I truly believe that some of my inability to see myself reflected in these two icon women of iconic body types is because in present day these types are barely represented and when they are they are labeled as the “alternative” idea of desirable—even when the majority of country looks more like that– then like the marketed “ideal”. One of my favorite writers Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  did a TED talk about the danger of the single story. The single story makes itself the only- leaving little to no possibility for the presence of others. It becomes “The” thing not “A” thing. The single story, whether by default or design is exclusionary and omitting, and that is dangerous, whether we are talking about a single race story, gender story or body story.


In the media we are constantly being told a single story of what beauty and the idyllic female type is. Certainly there are some exceptions, people will quickly cite Kim Kardashian, or a Jennifer Lopez, or even a Sophia Vegara. But when you can could the “other” on one had or call them by name, what does that tell you? Also the “others” I have mentioned are all a single type of other? They still fit comfortable into a preexisting female context of “Sex Symbol” We have not yet truly advanced as much as we have gone retro; we are not broadening but recycling a body image of yesteryear. This is one of the reasons I find the British singer Adele to be so interesting, on multiple levels. Okay she is full figured, for sure, and she is fine with it, I say this because usually at her level of success you would see the pounds come off and her hair get blonder, (or redder), it’s just what happens in the industry. You make it and you get thinner and lighter, be you black or white. She has not. She stand firm in the body she inhabits, and has commanded that the world * listen to her gift not ogle her and try not to hear as most of the pop and R&B female vocalist do. Her talent is pure and her confidence in it is staggeringly stalwart for women her age. And the world has not only embraced her but also exalted her for it. She has been at the top of the music charts for 2 years with the same album breaking all sorts of records and like Old Blue Eyes she did it her way. I think this says something about what people are craving, honesty, truth and authenticity. I can’t go on the Huffington Post without seeing a post about the errors in photo shopping, from elongated images, to thinned out waist lines and thighs to missing limbs, it’s out of control. We as a culture are sick of it, but when there is nothing else to eat, you consume what is placed before you.


There is hope; at least we are actively acknowledging the fact that the enhanced and altered images are just that altered. They are not real. In our minds we know that in such cases we can not believe what we see although it still takes a beat to snap us back to that reality and out of those all to familiar feelings of in adequacy that they produce. The day will come, and it will come that we will simply dismiss what we see and when we do will we will see it no longer, because when it comes down to it, we are still (by the power of our dollar) driving the demand, and there for have the power to dictate what is supplied, we just have to remember that. By created our own concept of beauty, one that includes ourselves just as we are we can change the way the world sell us to ourselves.