What Defines Beauty? The Scrutiny of Women Today and Throughout History

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484–86, tempera on canvas, 172.5 × 278.9 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image via Wikipedia.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, c. 1630–35, oil on canvas, 221 x 181 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image via Wikipedia.
Marilyn Monroe in 1954, wearing a dress designed by William Travilla. Image via Wikipedia.
Kate Moss by Corinne Day for Calvin Klein. Image via Vogue UK.
Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Sotheby’s.
Kim Kardashian West. Image via @kimkardashian on Twitter.
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From 14th century oil paintings depicting plush, naked figures in the Renaissance period to the latest nude Kardashian selfie to brace Twitter, we take a look at how art, publications and social media have informed and shaped feminine beauty ideals over the years.

TEXT: Carina Fischer
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

The definition of “ideal beauty” has evolved rapidly throughout history. What has not changed is the lens through which women are constantly scrutinised or otherwise judged. In the past, a woman’s beauty was determined by her purpose to serve, whether it be motherhood, her role as a housewife, or a virgin. Very gradually, and only more recently this has become a more self-led narrative. But what led to the popularity of certain body types or facial features as more desirable than others to begin with?

Constant exposure to repeated imagery and the context in which we are shown them, positive or negative, can create positive reactions in our brains when shown similar images. This is a common marketing technique used both today and over the past few centuries, through a variety of mediums from esteemed pieces of art and photography to magazine spreads and advertising campaigns. Commissioned works of people often depicted the epitome of beauty, wealth and indulgence, and highlighted trends in fashion and beauty whilst dictating the most desirable body shapes within that time period.

During the 15th century Renaissance period, nude female figures were immortalised in sweeping oil canvases such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1484–86), which depicts the Goddess of Love washed up in a seashell, nude for all to behold. She stands, arms loosely covering her breast and pelvis, her figure full but still mildly toned. The women depicted in Italian Renaissance artworks were emblems of what was desirable during this time period, with their long, flowing hair, wide birthing hips, and soft, full figures. A woman was considered property of her husband, her sole purpose to create offspring and reflect the status of her partner. As a result, figures exuding a sense of maternity and femininity were idealised and also seen in the works of Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo. The ability of a woman to tick the boxes of a desirable “housewife” dictated how society defined her beauty.

 

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1484–86, tempera on canvas, 172.5 × 278.9 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image via Wikipedia.

 

Unsurprisingly, the artworks that led the narrative of the female form were dictated by men. Raphael himself admitted that his paintings were not based on real models, but were contingent to what he deemed beautiful in a woman. Peter Paul Rubens also rarely worked directly with female models, basing his work on male bodies and filling in the gaps with his imagination. Ruben’s resulting works depicted voluptuous and curvy figures with plump limbs, enlarged busts and soft rolls of skin, reflecting and enhancing the ideal figure of a wealthy and fertile Renaissance woman.

 

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, c. 1630–35, oil on canvas, 221 x 181 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image via Wikipedia.

 

In the Elizabethan era (1558–1603), paintings documenting the famous monarch Queen Elizabeth I showed her pale, milky skin, thin, arched brows and perfectly cinched waist. The Georgian and Rococo period continued the corseted look, still favouring light hair and fair skin but now with a touch more colour and blush in their cheeks. Meanwhile, Victorian women struggled with conflicting expectations, expected to exude a sense of mystery and seduction as well as an air of youthful innocence and modesty. This was seen through their small, painted lips, flushed cheeks and long flowing gowns.

During the late 19th century, the shifting media formats allowed for a far wider reach with dictating body standards and fashion trends. The first issue of Harper’s Bazaar (previously Harper’s Bazar) was released in 1867, with Cosmopolitan (1886) and Vogue (1892) established shortly after, before a global explosion of fashion magazines in the 1900s. As time passed, waistlines shrank and then expanded again. Figures became androgynous and boyish before morphing once more into hourglass shapes.

Instead of artwork, popular culture and trends in body shape and style were reflected in the celebrities that cameras and fans followed and immortalised in Vogue spreads, paparazzi shots and on the silver screen. Each era saw women succumbing to the various trend of the times. Short bobs and boyish figures peaked during the roaring ‘20s, as women flaunted their disdain to succumb to society following the women’s suffrage. Shortly after, corsets were reignited in The Golden Age of Hollywood, where larger busts, slender waists and wide hips were propelled by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Jayne Mansfield. Some of the softness and voluptuousness from Renaissance times were favoured once more, but this time accompanied by waves of sex appeal and vivacity that were not socially acceptable in the 14th century.

 

Marilyn Monroe in 1954, wearing a dress designed by William Travilla. Image via Wikipedia.

 

With the fitness craze of the ‘80s, figures became more svelte and toned, many inspired by Olivia Newton John’s controversial hit single Physical, and Jane Fonda’s bestselling instructional workout book. The ‘90s took the slender figure to an unhealthy extreme, with a trending look of “heroin chic.” The 1998 movie Gia was at the helm of this movement, a film centred around a drug-addicted supermodel played by Angelina Jolie. Her hipbones protruded, her ribcage showed—her figure was gaunt and skeletal. Supermodel Kate Moss was plastered across cities with campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein and other prestigious brands, whilst wafer-thin silhouettes were seen strutting down catwalks during fashion week.

 

Kate Moss by Corinne Day for Calvin Klein. Image via Vogue UK.

 

While many aspired to achieve this extreme level of thinness, some artists saw how the tabloids chose to highlight females and their figures and spoke out. British painter Jenny Saville shattered all social norms and expectations with her self-portrait, Propped, in 1992. The image is stark and confrontational, standing seven feet tall and six feet wide. The details of the female form are magnified in broad, honest strokes, highlighting everything that society deemed unsightly. Her breasts are large but do not defy gravity, her thighs are wide and pressed into the chair, nails digging into her legs as she gazes down at the viewer. Although the style of painting and subject matter was similar to that of Rubens, Saville’s work differs because she is in control of the dialogue, creating an empowering message from a woman to a woman.

Her self-portrait spoke volumes—literally and figuratively. Superimposed over the painting is a paraphrased section from feminist writer Luce Irigaray which read, “If we continue to speak in this sameness—speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads—disappear, make us disappear.” The text is scratched into the canvas backwards and in mirror image, seemingly intended for the subject of the painting and not the viewer.

 

Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992, oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Sotheby’s.

 

With the turn of a new century came a new wave of image access and sharing brought about by the Internet. With the launch of Google Images, Facebook, and Instagram, a database of millions of images were available at the press of a button and the celebrity-to-consumer connection was closer than ever before. But with mass outreach and connectivity came heightened anxiety and expectations. Beauty standards have grown increasingly unrealistic and self-worth has spiralled downwards with endless pages of perfect women for comparison. A Dove study in 2016 involving over 10,000 women reported that 96 per cent of women did not feel beautiful and felt increasing dissatisfaction with themselves and pressure to conform, with many reporting media as a primary factor. While many brands, celebrities and other influential figures stepped up to create a more inclusive space, the overwhelming reality of what is deemed attractive, let alone socially acceptable, still remains incredibly rigid.

 

Kim Kardashian West. Image via @kimkardashian on Twitter.

 

The pressure to perform is arguably greater today than it was in the past, as influencers and celebrities post flawless, seemingly effortless images of themselves. Previously those that graced the covers of magazines or the subjects of art pieces were subject to lengthy preparation with hordes of makeup artists, hairstylists, stylists, and more. Today, the same flawless outcome is expected on social media, as image after image of so-called candid photography is uploaded—the viewer none the wiser to all the prep that may have gone into the image.

In regards to what is deemed attractive, society today seems to favour extreme proportions, from oversized lips, breasts and bottoms to impossibly tiny waists and slender legs, enabled by both an increase of women lifting weights and the normalisation of plastic surgery. Looking to the future, it becomes difficult to determine the next new “look” which will hook society. Confidence and individuality seem to be front runners for this title, as women have begun to take charge of what defines their beauty. And with celebrities and influencers like Rihanna and Jameela Jamil urging for acceptance, and models and artists such as Paloma Elsesser, Ashley Graham, Saville and Yumna Al-Arashi paving the way, perhaps it is not too much to hope that the next trend of body shape will simply be the body you are in.

 

 


 

Carina Fischer is a writer, photographer and content creator, curious about pushing the boundaries between art, photography and fashion. She is also passionate about environmental sustainability, ethics and inclusion, which she frequently incorporates into her work. See more of her work at www.carina-fischer.com.

 

 

 
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