The Female "Image Ideal:" Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

By Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D.
Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist
Colorado State University Cooperative Extension
October 6, 1999

Picture the ideal female figure: Curvy or thin? Physically fit or waif-like? Twiggy, Jennifer Aniston or Marilyn Monroe?

The answers depends on what decade you're living in. The female "body ideal" has been in a constant state of flux for the past two centuries. Here's a quick look at its history and the changes that may be in store for the new millennium.

Up until the late 1800s, the Rubenesque women painted by Rafael and Renoir were the female ideal. Extra weight on women was a sign of being rich and healthy.

Things began to change in the early 1900s. Plastic surgery and corsets became popular. The 1920s saw the Age of the Flapper. Thinness was the new sign of wealth. Dieting and sports became favorite pastimes. Scales started to appear in both bathrooms and kitchens.

By the middle of the century, silhouettes began to soften again. For the first time, cosmetics were widely available and used. The female ideal in the 1950s was Marilyn Monroe, a curvy size 14. Bikini sales skyrocketed.

The 1960s brought the birth of miniskirts, tights and Twiggy. For the first time in history, a woman who was severely underweight became the female ideal. The 1970s brought more pressure to be thin. The country became more aware of eating disorders after singer Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa.

The past two decades have brought an interest in fitness and even more dieting. The aerobic exercise craze of the 1980s reemphasized fitness for women. At the same time, dieting became a multibillion dollar industry. Current models and Miss America contestants are thinner than ever.

What will be the female ideal in the new millennium? With both eating disorders and obesity on the rise, it is clear that many American women are striving for unattainable goals. With an ideal that's constantly changing, women are becoming even more frustrated with their weight and other body image issues.

With the turn of the century, perhaps it's time to turn our sights toward a new ideal: health at any size. New evidence shows that optimal health is more a matter of "metabolic fitness" than actual weight. Metabolic fitness means having normal values for blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar. Too much weight, of course, contributes negatively to metabolic fitness. But so do inactivity, a high fat diet and many other factors.

Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and author of Big Fat Lies, says that people should try to reach their "natural weight." He defines this as the weight at which your body feels healthy and is free of disease. Gaesser notes that some people are naturally thinner, while others are naturally heavier. You can still be fit and healthy with a few extra pounds. The key is to maintain a physically active lifestyle and to choose a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, whole grains and fruits, and a moderate intake of high fat and high calorie foods.

As the millennium approaches, no one is sure who or what the new female ideal might be. But you can choose to make health your new ideal. It's a much more realistic and attainable goal.

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