The evolution of "sexy"
February 24, 2010 8:10 PM   Subscribe

When did the cultural norm of what female body types are considered "sexy" change from this to this [nsfw]?

I am taking an art history class, and earlier this week we were discussing the first painting (Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath), and all I could think was "Hey! She's really pretty! And that's sort of what I look like!" And for the next hour or so I felt pretty good about myself, because Bathsheba was said to be so extraordinarily beautiful that even virtuous King David went nuts for her. But then I returned to the real world, where my male friends were ogling the above picture of Megan Fox, and the two were just so incongruous to me.

So what gives? What happened, over the course of the 356 years, that made such a drastic change in what is considered beautiful?
posted by elsewhen to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (48 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
In a world of insecure food supplies and malnutrition, women (and men) with some meat on their bones were appealing because their weight implied wealth (regular access to nourishing food) and health (no rickets or parasites). At least, that's my guess.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:18 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Even at the time was Rembrandt was painting, corsets were already in fashion.

IMHO, they were the beginning of the tiny-waist-and-exagerated-everything-else school of beauty.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:18 PM on February 24, 2010

People want what they can't have. if something is easy to obtain (clear skin, all your teeth, non-diseased figure) then people want the hard to obtain, super-skinny let athletic, surgically altered and post-productioned to perfection.
posted by The Whelk at 8:18 PM on February 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

What The Whelk sez.
posted by Kloryne at 8:20 PM on February 24, 2010

Also there is the whole notion of Chic or fashionable, which is almost always Not Natural. Paintings are just as warped as photoshoped models in terms of realism. Artistic beautiful is freakish compared to natural forms because it's been made and arranged and elongated or whatever by humans, not by nature.

Which is a long way of saying, we've always been like this.
posted by The Whelk at 8:20 PM on February 24, 2010

Also you're comparing two totally different things, Rembrandt was largely concerned with realism, not ideal or stylized beauty or form, that photo is concerned with creating the most maximum super sexy impact by exaggeration and stylization. You can find a bunch of paintings from Rembrandt's time that have the same thing going on.
posted by The Whelk at 8:25 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

In addition to what BitterOldPunk says, I would guess that the modern proliferation of cheap, high-quality visual media has contributed. Aesthetic ideals have changed a great deal even in the last fifty years. Case in point, Marilyn Monroe.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:31 PM on February 24, 2010

People will talk about the influence of culture and media and blah, blah, blah...

...which are all an expression of the influence of genes and evolution. Right now, in America, food is available in excess, and the reproductive focus has gone from one of fecundity to one quality. It's just r/K selection.
posted by 517 at 8:32 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

[added nsfw link, please indicate nudity if you can, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:36 PM on February 24, 2010

You're also missing some sexual cues that would have jumped out to someone at the time, A naked figure with jewlery made the nakedness explicit by calling attention to it. A purely nude form could said to be an Ideal Form or Ideal or something, Bathsheba here is clearly meant to a real woman and we're supposed to look upon her nakeness directly.

Also interesting, Megan Fox is turned toward the camera, looking the viewer dead in the eyes in a "Hey, I see you. I see you seeing me, you like what you see?" Bathsheba is lost in her own thoughts, not engaging us,.
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

OR long story short, while Bathsheba is clearly sexuality by her finery and setting, she's not supposed to be "sexy" in the same way Megan Fox is. If that makes sense. The Megan Fox photo isn't trying to illustrate a character from history or be allegorical.
posted by The Whelk at 8:42 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

One main issue is fertility and health care. In Rembrandt's day, child-bearing hips and a nice round bosom advertised the fact that a woman could not only bear children, but would be healthy enough not to die in childbirth. In the 21st century, we have contraception and medical care. In Rembrandt's day, if a woman like Meagan Fox, who probably weighs about 95 lbs got sick with even a stomach bug or water borne bacteria, she'd waste away pretty fast. Also, in a time period where people died young and often of wasting diseases, being ultra thin was like advertising that you were unwell, sick and poor. Upper class women of Rembrandt's time could afford to stay curvy and plump. A nice round wife was a type of trophy for men, proving that they could feed and care for their spouse.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:43 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing that this is a class issue, much like skin tone for Caucasians. Pale was the ideal back when it meant you didn't have to work the fields; then tan started to signify expensive leisure opportunities; and now you could argue that pale might be on the rise again as the beauty standard as a signifier of those educated and disciplined enough to think of the possible wrinkly, cancerous consequences down the line.

In a food-scarce society, fat wives are a status symbol; in a food-abundant society, fat can signify (disclaimer: I don't buy this) ignorance and lack of discipline or self-care, or simply the lack of means necessary to buy ($$) healthy fresh food, maintain a gym membership, etc.
posted by availablelight at 8:52 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aesthetic ideals have changed a great deal even in the last fifty years. Case in point, Marilyn Monroe.

... who is still considered beautiful and sexy. Posters of her are wildly popular on college campuses, at least as of a few years ago when I was in college.

Conversely, I've seen a contemporary review of a Marilyn Monroe movie that criticized her as overweight back then (ridiculously enough).

It's harder than you might think to ascertain what the "societal standards of beauty" are at any given time. Whose standards?

I'm a straight guy, and I've had conversations with straight guys my age where no one else was in the room. Anecdotally, based on these conversations, I can report that most of us are not fixated on particularly skinny women to the exclusion of other body types.

Sure, a fraction of men are only interested in skinnier-than-average women. Also, a fraction of men are only interested in heavier-than-average women. But most men don't fall under either category.

It's women who tend to have the more stringent standards of female beauty/skinniness. This has been empirically tested.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:53 PM on February 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

Aesthetic ideals have changed a great deal even in the last fifty years. Case in point, Marilyn Monroe.

Um, urban legends aside, Marilyn Monroe was a tiny thing with a 23" waist (much smaller than mine and I'm a modern size 2-4)--she was only "fat" to the extent that she was the feminine curve department. She would only be considered "plus size" on a runway where anyone above a size 6 is "plus sized."
posted by availablelight at 9:03 PM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Marilyn Monroe is often erroneously held up as an example of contemporary society's stricter ideas of what is beautiful: only skinny people. Often, her dress size -- 16 -- is held up as an indication that she was heavy or slightly overweight. This is utter bunkum.

American women's dress sizes are notoriously irregular, but a size 16 in the 50s/60s was definitely smaller than today's size 16 -- vanity sizing has become more common. Marilyn was definitely not skin-and-bones, but neither was she "plus-size."

/slight thread-derail; I get tired of the Marilyn Monroe myth.
posted by fantine at 9:06 PM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Damn, should've previewed. What availablelight said.
posted by fantine at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2010

I think it's more than just a weight/food thing - it's just a testament to the fact that beauty ideals are not set in stone and are ever changing. For example, food was pretty plentiful in Western society all throughout the 20th century, yet we have a pretty big variety of ideal female body types - the small-chested-but-not-stick-thin ideal of the 20's, the curvy hourglass figure of the 50's, and the modern girls like Megan Fox. There are, obviously, a lot of different social factors at stake.

And if you look at Renaissance paintings, not all the beautiful women were as heavy as this Bathsheba, but most of them have drastically different proportions from modern ideals - they're often pear-shaped with a relatively small bust.

What does all this mean? Probably that, in 10, 20, 30 years, we'll have an entirely new female ideal. What fun!
posted by vanitas at 9:21 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

...yup, there's probably room for more than one brand of "sexy" in any given time period....
posted by availablelight at 9:53 PM on February 24, 2010

That Rembrandt is not a picture of a pin up girl like the photo is. And I'm pretty sure Megan Fox would have been considered attractive whenever she was born.
posted by fshgrl at 10:03 PM on February 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

In times when your world was the village you lived in, and the most beautiful woman you had ever seen was one of maybe 500 people, and nobody had any spectacles, the bar was lower.

Really, some front teeth, no smallpox, and a full head of hair made you a fucking goddess.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:16 PM on February 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

[few comments removed - Marilyn Monroe is one example, let's not overfixate on her.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:23 PM on February 24, 2010

You live in a world where selling shit is job 1. You can't present to people the image of attainability because once they attain it, they stop buying the shit. If you present the image of unattainability people will keep trying and trying and trying and buying and buying and buying...

As if anything one could buy at the cosmetics counter could possibly make them look like the genetic (not to mention airbrushed, like the photo you link) freaks portrayed in the adverts. But they keep trying.

Unfortunately it works as well on the boys as it does on the girls.
posted by klanawa at 10:48 PM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also since most of the push for the long lean look has come from other women, I would argue that the current ideal has less to do with sexual attractiveness to men than it has to do with modern female concepts of health, youth, physical prowess and success/ achievement (people work out like fiends to look like that past the age of 25 and we all know it. You have to admire their dedication and drive even if it makes you tired just thinking about it).
posted by fshgrl at 11:03 PM on February 24, 2010

I remember a comment from a panel of advertising executives, and one woman said "if women everywhere in the world felt good about themselves, the world ecomony would collapse".

Maybe an exaggeration, but she gave the indication that making people feel bad about themselves, then selling them a solution is worth a lot of money.

If that is an unrealistic goal "Men! Get a 6 pack in 2 weeks, go from flab to ab!" "Women, how to loose 2 dress sizes and thrill your man!" then all the better, it keeps you payin.
posted by Admira at 11:47 PM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Find a copy of Never Too Thin by Seid. The beginning section has a fairly in-depth analysis of how fashionable body shapes changed through history.
posted by Ouisch at 1:37 AM on February 25, 2010

Being even marginally overweight has become something that is associated with being low status. And seeking a low status mate has never been particularly appealing to either sex.
posted by paperzach at 1:45 AM on February 25, 2010

Sorry, but it's simply wrong that the ideal of female beauty has changed from chubby to slim - check out e.g. Eco's History of Beauty for a variety of reference material disproving such an assumption.

Also, as has been mentioned, one has to consider the medium, production, audience etc.: I myself know from life drawing classes that curvy models are generally much preferred by artists, because it's all about the flow, the lines and the shading. That doesn't mean that artists have any such preference when it comes to choosing partners in real life, which is a totally different matter ;).
posted by RabbitRun at 1:45 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's often claimed that the ideal female body-type has changed from plump to skinny ('from Rubens to Twiggy') over the last few hundred years. I've never been convinced by this, and the use of dubious arguments from evolutionary psychology (e.g. 'food was hard to come by in those days, so fat women were perceived as sexy') doesn't do much to change my mind.

The problem is that images of women in Western art are so numerous, and so diverse, that it's very easy to pick and choose your examples to suit your thesis. Instead of Rembrandt's Bathsheba, take Cranach's Venus, and you could easily make a case that the ideal of female beauty hasn't changed in five hundred years. (Indeed, Cranach's Venus was deemed so sexy that when she appeared on a poster for a recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, she got banned by London Underground.) But I'd hesitate to say that Cranach's image of sexy was any more 'typical' than Rembrandt's. A recent academic article on 'The female nude in Rubens' argues that the waist-to-hip ratio in Rubens's paintings is significantly higher (0.776) than the supposed standard (0.70). But even if this is true, I'm not sure what it would prove. Perhaps Rubens, like Lucian Freud and Stanley Spencer, just found fleshy models more interesting to paint.

I don't mean to deny that ideals of beauty are culturally constructed, but I'd question the assumption that there is a single cultural norm of beauty at any given moment in history. It just seems to me that the situation is far more complicated and diverse.
posted by verstegan at 3:54 AM on February 25, 2010 [13 favorites]

You oversimplify a bit. I know I'm not the only one who goes gaga over Nigella Lawson.
posted by massysett at 4:34 AM on February 25, 2010

The "thin ideal" is not the beauty standard in places like Africa and India...or Latin America. (as far as I am aware). Also, among American Blacks, Latinos, and Indians, it doesn't tend to be either! Many men from these populations prefer a plump-to-overweight woman.
posted by bearette at 4:46 AM on February 25, 2010

the use of dubious arguments from evolutionary psychology (e.g. 'food was hard to come by in those days, so fat women were perceived as sexy')

Well, that doesn't strike me as an argument from evolutionary psychology. It makes no sense under ev psych to say that beauty standards have changed dramatically in the last 500 years. Ev psych says our brains have evolved to maximize fitness in the ancestral environment, which was many thousands of years ago. The amount of evolution that's happened since Rembrandt is negligible.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:07 AM on February 25, 2010

Also, among American Blacks, Latinos, and Indians, it doesn't tend to be either! Many men from these populations prefer a plump-to-overweight woman.

Erm, again, like with Marilyn Monroe, I'd argue that this is about curves (that generous waist-breast-hip ratio), not the kind of abdominal or all-around fat associated with the Renaissance "plump-to-overweight woman."

Even the most joyful celebration of non-Caucasian beauty standards ("I'm tired of magazines/Saying flat butts are the thing/Take the average black man and ask him that/She gotta pack much back") of our day takes care to emphasize over and over again that the ideal is more hourglass, less Bathsheba:

And when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
And a round thing in your face


So cosmo says you're fat
Well I aint down with that
Cuz your waist is small and your curves are kickin


Little in the middle but she got much back.. (Repeat 4 times)

posted by availablelight at 5:17 AM on February 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Going even further back than the Renaissance, Aphrodite (the very personification of erotic love in the Western tradition) as represented in Greek and Roman art wasn't fat. Different strokes for different folks.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:29 AM on February 25, 2010

(Aphrodite also wasn't a stick figure, FWIW. I'm guessing that the evolution of the stick figure/boyish frame-- which Megan Fox definitely doesn't have-- as a beauty aspiration happened sometime in the mid-20th century with the rise of fashion models as celebrities)
posted by oinopaponton at 6:32 AM on February 25, 2010

Seems to me the sexyness of the Rembrandt isn't so much the shape of the lady involved, but the voyeurism of it.

Also, sexy != beauty.

Finally, I think most people would agree that beauty/sexyness/etc. is less about what one's got, but how one works it. One rarely sees Christina Hendricks wearing an ill-fitting ensemble from Wal-Mart.
posted by gjc at 7:01 AM on February 25, 2010

The "thin ideal" is not the beauty standard in places like Africa and India...or Latin America.

You're wrong about India. All you have to do is check out the matrimonial ads and see that "slendar" and "fair" are extremely important qualities. Alternately, you can look at Bollywood. No plump ladies. Plump was never in, despite what you see in the figures carved on the temples. That's like Manga.
posted by anniecat at 7:30 AM on February 25, 2010

There are four qualities of attractive qualities in the female form as shared by my bachelor uncle.

Cute, Pretty, Beautiful and Sexy. All women have these qualities in varying degrees. Megan Foxx is not particularly beautiful, but she is pretty and sexy. Winona Ryder - mostly cute and pretty. Angelina Jolie - not pretty or cute but beautiful and sexy.

I think the OP might be off base thinking that Rembrandt was painting Bathsheba as sexy. Beautiful in a matronly way like the mother of one's children is beautiful, but not launch a thousand ships sexy.
posted by mearls at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2010

Ditto for parts of Latin America (I'm thinking Argentina and Colombia, at least), where starvation diets and plastic surgery are far from uncommon.

Another data point for your timeline (which is most likely going to be covered in your art history class later) is the early 19th-Century Grande Odalisque, which caused a good deal of furor at the time for being both very sensual and very unrealistically proportioned.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:44 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

[comments removed - semantic discussions about words other than what the OP is asking about probably need to go to email.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:01 AM on February 25, 2010

When I was about 10, I saw this dress-up Venus refrigerator magnet set. I was really confused because, when I looked at the nude Venus I thought she was beautiful, but when I looked at the Venus covered with the magnetic jeans or dresses, I thought she was fat. This may be a bit too chicken vs. egg, but I wonder how much clothing trends factor into our perceptions of what is sexy or beautiful. You look at a Rembrandt painting and you don't wonder, "Yes, but how would Bathsheba look in skinny jeans with that tummy?"

But more importantly, I suspect that "sexy" has evolved in an expansive way even if the most visible commercial products are aimed at one kind example of "sexy." We perceive Megan Fox as sexy, partly because she's marketed to us as "Sexy! Woman! Gawk NOW!" and partly because whatever diet/fitness regimen she does makes her body look amazing in a particular way. But that doesn't preclude the perception of other bodies (and body types) as "sexy"--and, moreover, a body one person perceives as sexy will not necessarily be perceived by everyone else that way.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

More on-topic: one thing I've noticed is that we're (generally) less interested in faces than people were in the past. I'm not saying that people don't know how to appreciate a pretty face. Of course they do. But in the past, beauty was (relatively) more about faces and less about bodies, presumably because people showed less skin (and wore less tight-fitting clothing) then they do now. Obviously, that doesn't apply to nudes.

I've noticed that most artists paint models with pretty faces, regardless of the body type.

Maybe I have a face-fetish, but I'm often a little surprised when people point out a hot guy/girl to me, and I look and think, "okay looking -- but just average." I'm thinking about the face. If I voice my opinion, I'm usually told to check out the bod.

It feels a bit wrong to discuss specific people, but for the sake of this thread, I'll bring up Sarah Jessica Parker. Many people seem to think she has a great body but a plain face. To some people, her face doesn't seem to matter all that much. They might wish she has prettier in that department, but they are capable of appreciating her as attractive even so.

To me, she's not attractive at all. I can intellectually note that she has a good body, but the face ruins it for me. I can definitely get into bodies, but I can't get into them in isolation -- without a good-looking face on top of them. On the other hand, I CAN get attracted to someone with a pretty face, even if her body isn't "ideal."

Is that my personal quirk for all time, or was it more the norm in the past? If it wasn't the norm, then I feel sorry for people back then. If, say, the Elizabethans were as into bodies as most people are now, they must have been frustrated much of the time.
posted by grumblebee at 10:11 AM on February 25, 2010 [7 favorites]

I don't think there's ever been A (singluair) "sexy" body type at any one time. I think what is primarily important in a sexy woman is the appearance of health. Both bigger and smaller women can appear healthy as looking healthy has more to do with facial expression (smiling or a coy expression), and a physical pose that shows a vivatious, movable body (as opposed to an atrophied bed ridden body). I know a lot of men and women who thing that the stick thin fashion models are "gross" because their bones are poking out (indicates poor health) and they walk down the runway with blank faces or serious scowls. Even the supermodels who are...super, tend to be a bit more curvier and healthy looking than the average runway walker. Think Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Adriana Lima.

Grumblebee, there's a lot of people not into butter faces, enough so that the slang butter faces came into being.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:45 AM on February 25, 2010

I realize that. I'm wondering if there's been a general shift towards greater interest in bodies and lesser interest in faces as bodies have gradually become more easy to see.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on February 25, 2010

Grumblebee-I doubt it. (Though fewer people are getting rhinoplasty these days, fewer people are getting surgery of any sort because of the economy.) far as Sarah Jessica Parker is concerned, I have only heard of one person who found her attractive, and that person was LITERALLY SWARMED with a group of people who tried to dissect the reason why.

If the internet is any indication (I know, I know), guys still post photos of women mostly slender or curvy women with pretty or beautiful faces. I have RARELY seen any bikini photos posted of a girl with a conventionally beautiful body but a conventionally unattractive face. If and when somebody does, there are cries of protest.

As for women, I know a few women who say they prefer men with plain faces (though they insist the bod has got to be rockin.)
posted by thisperon at 2:23 PM on February 25, 2010

I'm pretty sure I read that skinny models were chosen in part to show off the drape of the clothes, not necessarily because skinny = sexy. After all, fashion designers' primary aim is to sell clothes, and also the proportion of male fashion designers who are gay is probably higher than the population as a whole (i.e. it's not mostly straight guys picking out the models).
posted by desjardins at 4:32 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

After all, fashion designers' primary aim is to sell clothes, and also the proportion of male fashion designers who are gay is probably higher than the population as a whole (i.e. it's not mostly straight guys picking out the models).

Well, here's what one of the gay men (Isaac Mizrahi) who picks the models says about this:
I do think people are beautiful. Honestly, I've actually booked girls [for a fashion show] that weren't obese, they were real girls. Like gorgeous anatomy. And one was a stripper. And you could feel the energy in the room just go down. Closed the books. Pens went down. They were angry. I could feel the anger. And I never did it again, because I thought Why bother? It takes a lot to rile women. It takes like actual breasts. Someone with implants, they're fine. Yes, you're right. Fashion advertisements are hateful. Hateful. Yeah, but they wouldn't do it unless it worked, right? It works.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:30 PM on February 25, 2010

Who says the woman in the Rembrandt was the 'cultural norm' of 'sexy'? Plenty of the models at my uni aren't anything like 'magazine sexy'. They're just ordinary people who are willing to pose. Maybe Rembrandt spent all day wishing he could paint Megan Fox and worrying the model he had wasn't up to the 'very beautiful' description of the Bible. Compare this painting from a couple of hundred years ago - much closer to Megan.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:03 AM on February 26, 2010

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