The Ideal Woman’s Body – a Gift of the Gods?
We all know what the perfect woman’s body looks like. Or do we?
Is it Kim Kardashian, with her popular ‘internet-breaking’ big behind, or Marilyn Monroe with her voluptuous movie curves? Is it a powerful and athletic Beyoncé? What about the waif-like, angular fashion models on the catwalks? For thousands of years, we’ve been changing our minds about what the perfect body looks like.
Who started this ‘ideal body’ thing anyway? Perhaps we could start by blaming the gods.
High on Mount Olympus the gods sat quarrelling. As usual. Their disagreement of that day? Waist-to-hip ratio. They’d come up with the idea of humans, but they couldn’t decide what might look best. What should women look like? What mathematical percentage of body-fat distribution would be the fittest and most attractive?
Growing bored with the conversation, the 12 Olympians decided that rather than quibble about the minute details of body attractiveness, they’d simply let the humans fight it out on earth. (Or that’s what was said at least, but Venus had other plans...)
Aphrodite/Venus. Parian marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Greek original of the 4th century BC (Marsyas/ CC BY 2.5 )
In our modern era, supermodels – supposedly the pinnacle of ideal female body types - tend to have a very well-known, slender look. Scientists suggest this enduring look may be based on body measurements that seem to cross cultural boundaries and ages.
Devendra Singh, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas calculated in the 1990s that, “body fat distribution as measured by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is correlated with youthfulness, reproductive endocrinologic status, and long-term health risk in women. Three studies show that men judge women with low WHR as attractive.”
In other words: “[Singh] famously demonstrated that images of women with waists 70% as big as their hips tend to be most attractive. This 0.7:1 waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), it turns out, also reflects a distribution of abdominal fat associated with good health and fertility,” explains Rob Brooks, in What Science Tells Us About the ‘Ideal’ Body Shape for Women .
But how did ancient people recognize an ideal body before science told us what to think about it?
The Birth of Venus
Peering into the past to examine the ‘ideal’ female form in prehistory, we may see a very different picture than our modern one. Food shortages and challenging environments meant that those who were able to increase their body mass likely had an advantage over others in terms of health and fertility, notes Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. Swami writes that this advantage is “supported by the archaeological record of Venus figurines – such as the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ from the late Stone Age – which suggests that between ten and 100,000 years ago, the ideal female figure was robust and round.”
Venus of Willendorf, August 7, 1908 near Willendorf, by Josef Szombathy. (MatthiasKabel/ CC BY 2.5 )
In archaeology, these types of artifacts are called “Venus figurines”, due to the belief that prehistoric depictions of nude women with exaggerated sexual features represented an early fertility goddess.
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The voluptuous figure being the feminine ideal was a mainstay of the ancient world. Venus (or Aphrodite), was goddess of renowned beauty for the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as goddess of love, pleasure, passion, procreation, fertility, beauty, and desire. She was typically depicted with a round face, large breasts, and a pear-shaped body. And boy was she depicted! There is no lack of images, paintings, sculptures and flowery words to describe her beauty, (which is likely just as Venus had arranged it).
Fresco with a seated Venus, restored as a personification of Rome in the so-called ”Dea Barberini” (“Barberini goddess”); Roman artwork, dated first half of the 4th century AD. ( Public Domain )
The Classical Standard
In ancient Greece, Aphrodite, and then in ancient Rome, Venus was often portrayed with a curvaceous body, if perhaps not with the robust contours of the Stone Age artifacts. But this portrayal of an ‘ideal’ of smaller breasts, a longer body, and full hips became a classical standard of female form which endured for many centuries.
So-called “Lely's Venus”: Aphrodite surprised as she bathes. Roman copy of the Imperial era after a Hellenistic original. ( Public Domain )
Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’ portraits of women became renowned for their ‘Rubenesque’ look, featuring plump and rounded bodies representing health and wealth.
Venus at a Mirror by Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public Domain )
Botticelli set new standards with his famous painting The Birth of Venus .
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484-86) ( Public Domain )
The figures of the gods and goddesses were as inspiring as they were impactful – then and now. The voluptuous image of Venus that women wished to aspire to developed into trends; “the corset became a popular undergarment among women in the Western world from the late Renaissance into the 20th century.”
Marie Antoinette in a court dress of 1779. Her corset slims the waist to extremes, pushes her breasts up and out, and the panniers of her skirt extend dramatically, replicating wide hips and a big bottom. ( Public Domain )
These attempts to shape the body were an exaggerated, and now we know unhealthy, artificial way to mimic the ‘natural’ body of a Venus ideal. While corsets were used to achieve that extreme curve, publications in the 1890s (some bluntly entitled “Fashion in Deformity” and “Death From Tight Lacing”!) listed the dangers of binding the waist, including constricting the internal organs and restricting the lungs, resulting in poor digestion and an inability to breathe.
Less Than Ideal
Professor of Anthropology Bethe Hagens has studied the Venus figurines and attempted to peer into the archaic mind. She goes a step further, challenging the interpretations of the Greek or Roman ‘ideal’ body:
“…Neither literate culture was particularly keen on women anyway. ‘Real’ women had become production machines, while mothers were sacred. You see sculptures of ideal (divine) women who are as sculpted as almost as cleanly as young males, but you do not see statuary of plump-breasted mothers. Maybe as analysts we have the wrong idea of what was being represented. Rather than the ideal woman’s body, maybe it was the profane body. The pristine divine youth of folly, sex, abandon. I think this is significant.”
“By those times, the real female body - which reproduces - was too sacred, too connected to the source of wisdom and Creation to be modeled. Look at how many cultures there are (Africa, the Pacific, ancient Asia), though, that continue to revere a really plump, possibly pregnant female.”
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The Seven Mother Goddesses, 9th-century Madhya Pradeshj, India. (Ms Sarah Welsh/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
So perhaps this idea takes us back to the Stone Age Venus figurines, and how they’re shaped so differently to the later Greek and Roman goddesses. Is it this proposed ‘fear’ of the shape of a mother-body that has women now braving criticism to post images of their post-pregnancy bodies on social media?
From slender to curvy and back, the ‘ideal’ female shape has morphed even over the last 200 years. The current appreciation of a fuller figure, diversity of shape, and body empowerment is certainly all over the internet these days, suggesting we’ve returned to an age of Venus.
So which body is the ideal? Kim Kardashian? Marilyn Monroe? Beyoncé?
At the end of the day, cultural theorists say that beauty and the ‘ideal woman’s body’ is a human construct, and completely in the eye of the beholder. While there’s something to be said about the science behind what humans tend to find attractive, ‘trendy’ beauty ideals change arbitrarily and with the times in our never-ending quest for more tantalizing spectacle and aesthetic expression. True beauty, though, humans recognize in each other and celebrate with a wide array of resulting body shapes and sizes in their descendants.
Venus might still be to blame though; perhaps a goddess’ desire to create women in her ideal image might have given us something to cherish but still argue over thousands of years later.
That’s the gods for you.
Top image: Paleolithic Venus figures
By Liz Leafloor
Devendra Singh, 1993. Adaptive Significance of Female Physical Attractiveness: Role of Waist-to-Hip Ratio. American Psychological Association, Inc. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1993, Vol. 65, No. 2, 293-307
Bethe Hagens, ,1991. Venuses', Turtles and Other Hand Held Cosmic Models. MissionIgnition.net [Online] Available at: http://missionignition.net/bethe/venus_turtles.php
Viren Swami, 2016. Women’s idealised bodies have changed dramatically over time – but are standards becoming more unattainable? TheConversation.com [Online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/womens-idealised-bodies-have-changed-dramatically-over-time-but-are-standards-becoming-more-unattainable-64936
Rob Brooks, 2015. What Science Tells Us About the ‘Ideal’ Body Shape for Women. HuffingtonPost.com [Online] Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-brooks/science-ideal-body-shape-for-women_b_6827976.html
Tim Olds, 2016. Here's what the 'ideal' body for men and women looks like. BusinessInsider.com.au [Online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/heres-what-the-ideal-body-for-men-and-women-looks-like-2016-2
Jacqueline Howard, 2018. The history of the 'ideal' woman and where that has left us. CNN.com [Online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/body-image-history-of-beauty-explainer-intl/index.html
Sheldon Cheek, 2014. When Black Venus Was the Ideal Standard of Beauty. TheRoot.com [Online] Available at: https://www.theroot.com/when-black-venus-was-the-ideal-standard-of-beauty-1790876439
Michelle Star, 2015. Vintage X-rays reveal the hidden effects of corsets. CNet.com [Online] Available at: https://www.cnet.com/news/vintage-x-rays-reveal-the-hidden-effects-of-corsets/