The shapes and sizes of female bodies in mainstream media are more diverse than ever. After a 50 year stretch of thin figures dominating everything from magazine covers to fashion catalogs, it’s refreshing to see a plus size model on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and curves and muscles being celebrated in ads for popular clothing brands. But what is driving the diversity?
Back in the agricultural days, it was fashionable to have a pale complexion which indicated having a place in society that doesn’t require working in the fields. As the working class moved towards indoor office jobs it became more attractive to have the sun-kissed complexion you get from outdoor leisure and beach holidays. Similarly, as the age of abundance replaced the age of scarcity, we noticed a shift towards a thinner ideal body image. What all of these examples show is that the ideal body image is tied to what we perceive to be the most desirable lifestyle of each era.
It turns out, beauty is not timeless. It changes with our societal norms, and is driven by our ambition to achieve the lifestyle we subconsciously aspire to. During the economic growth in the late 20th century - which favored men's wages more than women's - the perceived ideal lifestyle for a woman was to marry a rich man. The magazine covers of those days featured thin models, racy Italian cars, and Wall Street bankers.
It's more than just symbolic that following the 2008 housing crisis caused by the unscrupulous behavior of the big banks, our new heroes are brainy tech moguls like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer. As the undisputed role of men in society came crashing down with housing prices, women stepped up to the plate and helped popularize more holistic movements like local and organic foods, clean energy, and fair trade. The increased influence of women in contemporary culture has prompted a yet another shift in the perceived ideal female lifestyle; the modern heroine is confident, outspoken and financially independent.
Along with an increase in their financial independence, women are getting married later, having children later (if at all), and becoming more outspoken in the conversation about body image. In a letter to readers, Women’s Health editor-in-chief Amy Keller vowed to never again put the words “bikini body,” “shrink” or “diet” on a cover of the magazine after survey respondents communicated their distaste. In the London tube last year, an ad for protein powder asking travelers if they are “beach body ready” (alongside an image of a blonde in a string bikini) prompted 378 complaints to advertising watchdog ASA (Advertising Standards Authority). Subsequently, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that Transport for London would no longer run promos which could cause body confidence issues.
So what is the new ideal body image? Are we moving back to the curvier figures, as a nod to the more confident modern woman? Or is it more chic to be fit and physically strong, resembling the changing power structures in our gender roles? Looking at the trends in Google searches, it appears that both of these body images are growing in popularity.
The new ideal body image is neither curvy nor skinny ― it simply doesn’t exist anymore. As women approach equal financial footing and refuse to be objectified, their body image becomes less significant and, subsequently, less defined. So instead of making one group of women feel great at the expense of others, we are finally able to accept ourselves and others as we are ― diverse, complex and beautiful.