In Summary

  • For centuries, the female body has been subject to a range of set standards. With the rule book constantly changing, women have been caught in a vicious cycle of having to keep up with the shifting shapes and forms, sometimes paying little attention to their bodies’ realistic and necessary functions (like child birth or playing a neat game of tennis).
  • Meanwhile in Africa, extra-large women were the epitome of beauty, desire, fertility, prosperity, homeliness, motherliness and virtue.
  • A cultural rebirth saw the media, represented mostly by painters, go wild with paintings of nude women. 1797’s Nude Maya by Fransisco Goya is renowned as the earliest work of art to depict pubic hair. Popular artists such as Paul Peter Rubens also idealised the cellulite-thigh.

Last week, tennis star Serena Williams grabbed her 22nd Grand Slam win. Her reign as the world’s best tennis player has nevertheless been characterised by a culture that shames her for her best tool of trade – a muscular body.

Even as she battled and beat Swiss player Amra Sadikoviç in the Wimbledon semi-final match, viewers went on a Twitter rant, complaining that her nipples, showing through her white kit, had been too distracting.

Last year, as she was snagging her 21st Grand Slam win, a New York Times article by Ben Rothenberg stated that she ‘has large biceps and a mould-breaking muscular frame…(that) her rivals could try to emulate but choose not to’. The year before that, the Russian Tennis Federation president, Shamil Tarpischev, referred to Serena and her sister Vanessa as the ‘Williams brothers’, adding that ‘it’s frightening when you look at them’.

For centuries, the female body has been subject to a range of set standards. With the rule book constantly changing, women have been caught in a vicious cycle of having to keep up with the shifting shapes and forms, sometimes paying little attention to their bodies’ realistic and necessary functions (like child birth or playing a neat game of tennis).

We trace the dizzying evolution of the ‘ideal’ female body trends through history and let you decide – to what end?

20 BC – 5th Century -

Aphrodite / Venus / Cleopatra / big, beautiful Africa

Depictions of the ideal female body can be seen in sculptures of Aphrodite, the Greek God of beauty, love, pleasure and procreation (Venus is her Roman equivalent). Meanwhile in Africa, extra-large women were the epitome of beauty, desire, fertility, prosperity, homeliness, motherliness and virtue.

The ideal: Smoothly sculpted, round curves. In Africa, voluptuous. 

15th to 17th Century -The Renaissance Woman

A cultural rebirth saw the media, represented mostly by painters, go wild with paintings of nude women. 1797’s Nude Maya by Fransisco Goya is renowned as the earliest work of art to depict pubic hair. Popular artists such as Paul Peter Rubens also idealised the cellulite-thigh, serving to widen horizons of what was beautiful and acceptable to have and to show.

The ideal: Sensual, full-figured and a round fresh face.

1830s to 1900 - The Victorian Age

The female form went from big and busty to the hourglass. The corset was not only used to emphasise a small waist but also to train it to stay that way. Then there was the crinoline – a skirt cage that gave the body a beehive shape – and made this the first instance in which the enhanced hips and butt, thanks to that crinoline skirt, became popular.

The ideal: A long slim torso, small waist, full derriere, wide hips. 

Early 20th Century - The ‘feminine’ form

At turn of the century when moving pictures were a popular form of entertainment, actresses such as Evelyn Nesbit became the ideal. Termed the world’s first super model, Nesbit graced the pages of LIFE, Collier and Harpers magazines.

The ideal: Round, soft, small waist (corsets are a big deal), a long neck, sloped shoulders and a tall frame. 

The 1920s -Androgyny

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