How Female Body Shape Changed in the 20th Century (Gallery)

How has body shape changed during the last century? What were the popular and glamorized body shapes of the day?

For centuries it seemed that women with curves were celebrated.

Early 1900s


Camille Clifford

Actress - the quintessential "Gibson girl".



Louise Brooks

Dancer, showgirl, and actress. BMI: 19.9



Lisa Fonssagrives

Fashion model, dancer. Referred to as the first supermodel. This picture is from Vogue 1939.

Also: Greta Garbo


Betty Grable

The pin-up girl of the 1940s: "The girl with the Million Dollar Legs" 



Marilyn Monroe

Actress, model. BMI: 20

Also: Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly





Twiggy's BMI: 15.
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 24.9

Actresses of the time were in stark contrast to Twiggy:
Jane Fonda (the movie Barbarella, 1968)
Sophia Loren (the "perfect" hourglass - 38C-24-38)
Catherine Deneuve (measurements 33½-24-35)
Ursula Andress



Farrah Fawcett


BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 25.3

Also: Jacqueline Bisset, Bo Derek, Brooke Shields.



Cindy Crawford
Model - the late 1980s marked the beginning of the age of the supermodel.

Cindy's BMI: 19
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 26.6

Also: Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Madonna



Kate Moss

Model - marked the beginning of the 'waif' look.

Kate's BMI: 16
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 28.1

Models Thinner While the Rest of Us Get Fatter?

It is tempting to find a correlation between the BMI of models and celebrities against that of the general population. It seems that as we got fatter, the people we idolized became thinner.

However it is not quite that simple.

Many fashion models have been thin over time. Lisa Fonssagrives (above) described herself as a "good clothes hanger". Did she starve herself to get that way? Probably not.

The 1920s and 1960s Also Had Thin Models...

The 1920s and 1960s both bucked the trend of the curvaceous woman. Anthropologist Ann Bolin says that "during periods of liberation, like the 1920s, when women had just gotten the vote, and the 1960s, when the Pill became available, the ideal shape for women de-emphasized their reproductive characteristics--the nourishing breasts, the wide, childbearing hips."

...But From the 80s Beauty Pageants Got Thinner

  • Waist measurements of winners of the Miss America pageant went from just under 26 inches (1920) to around 24 inches (1980s).
  • During the period from 1979 to 1988, 69% of Playboy models and 60% of Miss America contestants weighed 15% or more below the expected weight for their age and height category.

Don't Confuse High Fashion With Mainstream Media

Some countries have attempted to "ban" fashion models of a certain size - but how much impact will this have on body shape ideals of popular culture? The real mind games don't come from the subculture of high fashion - but from the insidious influence of popular mass media.
Catwalk Models - Representative of a very small body type.

Remember Ally McBeal?

The TV show of the late 1990s portrayed women as being very thin. At a time when average female BMI hovered around 28 - actress Calista Flockhart had a BMI of 15.6.

The trend continues today - much of the entertainment industry is fixated with thinness - in spite of a viewing public that keeps on getting heavier.

We See a Lot More Pictures Than We Used To

The last 40 years has seen explosive growth in the accessibility of visual media. Portrayal of full bodies rather than just faces has also been a trend (source). Modern channels of media allows a level of scrutiny undreamed of 40 years ago. Idols are rapidly created and discarded - leaving behind impressionable masses endlessly pursuing impossible goals.

And Don't Forget: EVERYTHING is Retouched

See some samples here of how every image is photoshopped.

Today's Ideal Body Shape Is...

A bizarre combination of male desire and waifish androgyny; thin, no hips, big bust.

For most this is only possible with a genetically-blessed bone structure along with surgery - something which America is pursuing with a vengeance. Couple this with the "toned" look, where muscular (but not overly-so) women play lead roles in Hollywood, and champion the fitness industry.

Sophia Loren (1955)
The quintessential hourglass

The much admired "Hour-glass figure" is disappearing: Only 8% of women have an hourglass shape.

How willingly do we subscribe to a cult of perceived beauty that is attainable by so few?

Could it be that after all these years, women are still judged (by themselves and others) on the basis of body shape and little else?

We are a two-body society: one body is an advertising medium, the other body is what you see on the street.

I think it would be nice if hating the way you look weren't so good for the economy. [...] We know, too, that women in ads, knockouts to start with, are artificially perfected beyond human emulation. We know, but we forget. - Anne Bolin
Sources Changes in Waist-to-Hip ratio of Miss America Pageant winners From 1920s to 1980s (PDF). Influence of fashion magazines on body image satisfaction (link). Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index, United States 1960-2002 (PDF). Body shape ideals in magazines (1997) (link)