Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

This is the last installment of my pieces on the history of fashion and physical attraction. If you don’t remember the previous, you can find them here and here.

Shortly after my visit to the MFA, I had an assignment for school. When I found the book Dressed for the Occasion: What Americans wore 1620-1970 by Brandon Marie Miller, I knew it was the book for me and my assignment. Don’t judge this book by its call number. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it has a lot of great information. Not only about general trends, but also about society.

Just looking at these gives me a headache.

In the chapter on early 18th century fashion, Miller includes a quote from Dr. Benjamin Rush* who said, “I…ascribe the invention of ridiculous and expensive fashions in female dress entirely to the gentlemen…to divert the ladies from improving their minds…and to secure more arbitrary and unlimited authority over them”. Later, the text includes quote from a magazine writer: “we can expect but small achievement from women, so long as it is the labor of their lives to carry about their own clothing” (Miller 30). I would also include keeping their heads up to that sentence. Just look at those ‘dos!

While I sometimes complain about the tightness of clothing or the highness of my heels, at least I don’t have to wear a corset. I also don’t have to wear a twenty pounds worth of crinolines and petticoats, not to mention bustles or panniers (depending on your era), which basically restricts all forms of movement, as a sign of wealth. Before the invention of the spring bustle, women could not sit down comfortably. Sometimes they couldn’t even fit through doors because their panniers were so wide. And remember how Jo March had to stand against the wall because she scorched the back of her dress? Well she was lucky, some woman actually burned to death when their dresses caught on fire.

While I admit, I love the look of bustles and corsets (I did not want to get out of the Southern Belle costume at a Dollywood old-time photograph booth), I had never really thought of the consequences. Not only are there physical problems with corsets (organs getting all smushed around or ribs curving in and puncturing lungs*), but the inability to move or do anything must have been excruciating. No wonder women in the past had hysterics or constantly complained of their nerves. Boredom, continual conversations about delicate natures and daintiness, combined with the lack (or inability) of exercise would convince anyone to take to their beds.

Will we eventually move past the double standard? Will there eventually be a Spanx for men? A regular addition to the male wardrobe? There are support briefs, but I highly doubt they will catch on. At one point in time men stuffed their calves to “make a leg” but as far as I’m aware, that kind of universal self-consciousness has disappeared, at least in men’s fashion.

I leave you with this quote from Godey’s*, “in skirts only can they maintain… in the eyes of men their womanliness.”

*I will admit this is not great academic writing. Honestly, while I appreciate good nonfiction writing, I don’t have the time to find the sources from which these quotes come. For my purposes, these quotes within a quote will suffice. If you are interested, I will give you further reading.

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The other day, I was dawdling in the locker room after swim practice because I didn’t want to go outside into the freezing cold.  While dragging out my changing process for as long as possible, I couldn’t help noticing the variety of body types around me.  Nobody in the dingy and slightly moldy locker room was perfect.  I spotted cellulite, stretch marks, acne, scars and all sorts of other minor imperfections, but that’s not what I was thinking about.  Instead, I was marveling at how these different types of bodies—short and tall, small and large, muscular and wiry—had all completed the same practice.  And many are competing in a few days.  Sure, some are faster and some may have skipped out on a few sets, but every woman there was healthy.

Cornflower brought up an excellent point a while back, about the changing face of physical beauty.  But I have to wonder, why “skinny” has prevailed for so long (check out this post on historic weight loss methods (tape worms, eww!)).  Right now, I believe we are moving away from the super skinny ideal promoted by Calista Flockhart and Courteney Cox in the 1990s and instead focusing on fit and athletic bodies.  Still a regular person probably won’t look like Jessica Biel (even if I wanted to do thousands of squats and lunges, I couldn’t get her rump), but at least this standard implies healthy living.  Hopefully with the plethora of healthy living blogs and magazines in addition to healthy(er) celebrities, this outlook will become the norm.

I remember reading Eight Cousins as a girl and getting excited when Uncle Alec tells Rose that she shouldn’t wear her corset, that it’s unhealthy to be so thin and puts her on an exercise program (check out this little article about late 19th c exercise).  At the time Rose was proud of her waistline and would rather die than be pudgier like one of her classmates, but soon she starts exercising and filling out and becoming a healthy little girl.  Finally, here was a girl I could relate to!  I will never be supermodel thin and I knew that, even as a middle schooler.  I knew that I had inherited my mother’s family’s unhealthy (and often considered unattractive) tendency to gain weight in my stomach.  I also knew that I was bigger than most of my friends, even the ones who were taller than me.  So, when I finally read about a girl who was athletic, like me, I latched on to her.  Rose and that scene with Uncle Alec stayed in my mind, even though I haven’t read the book since.

Alcott published Eight Cousins in 1875 and there were other books around that time which espoused these ideals.  Obviously, Alcott’s most famous characters, the March family (Little Women 1868), preached similar virtues while Mary in The Secret Garden (1911) became a healthy and active girl.  Yet the need to be skinny prevailed in society.  Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t as new as people think.  There are records of Victorian women refusing to eat, although these women were often seen as miracle girls*, fed by God’s faith.  References to anorexia (although this term wasn’t coined until the late 1800s) are found as far back as the 1300s.

So, why did this need for thinness have this hold over women?  Why does it still?  Even after all the documentation on the horrors of eating disorders and the benefits of healthy living?  I know I’m not perfect and have days where I think I could stand to lose a few pounds.  Overall I’m proud of my muscles and what they can do, even if it means my thighs are bigger than the girl’s next to me on the bus.  I think our perception is getting better, but we’re still far away from completely healthy and attainable norms.  At least, I saw fewer ribs poking out of gowns at the Oscars.

*for more information check out Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg

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We started off this blog with New Year’s resolutions. In response to Cornflower’s post, I’ve decided to make public one of my resolutions in hopes that it will have a positive affect on my progress this year. In other words, I am publishing my resolution so that it will force me to follow through with it, knowing that you, readers, are holding me accountable.

This year, my resolution is to lose 30 pounds. Losing weight is a common resolution, and the back-to-back diet, gym, and meal plan commercials during the first week of January will attest to the popularity of this New Year’s objective. Why am I different then? Well, I’m not, but I am hoping that sharing my ambitions and (hopefully by next January) my success will be both entertaining and inspiring.

I’m not new to this kind of goal for myself, and in the past I’ve been successful. During my senior year of high school and the summer before I started college, I managed to loose about 30 pounds and have kept almost all of it off since then, but I think I still have a long way to go. Without getting too heavy (pun intended) for this blog, I’ll just say that I didn’t have the best school experiences because of my weight, among other things. I was bookish, friends with more teachers than students, and completely incapable of talking to boys. It didn’t help that I had been overweight since middle school. It wasn’t until college that I finally came out of my shell with friends who liked me, quirks and all, and the confidence that had come with feeling better about my physical appearence after losing a few pounds.

What I’m hoping for now is that I can recreate that transformation with my older, wiser self. Admittedly, I’m still the same girl who’d feel more comfortable chatting with her friends than walking up to a guy at a bar and striking up a conversation, but I’m pretty sure that my lack of confidence is linked inexorably to my body image. I won’t even pretend to be high and mighty and claim that I’m doing this to be healthier; heck, I never met a vegetable I didn’t like and my cholesterol is under 100. I’m totally doing this because I want to feel better about myself because I’ll look better. There are already some adorable dresses at the back of my ridiculously small closet bought in anticipation of losing a dress size one day (we’ll tackle the shopping problem later).

If I’m going to be honest with you, I really do feel out of place sometimes when I go out with my lovely friends because of how I look, and I’m tired of constantly comparing myself to my imagined perfect shape. I know I’ll never be a size four, but I can certainly improve on what God gave me. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’ve got junk in the trunk; “My Humps,” they are a-plentiful. For once though, I’d like to feel like I am in control of how I look and maybe learn to love leaner curves. I know I’ve got the family hips (there’s a family nose too which I thankfully didn’t get), and from previous experience, I’ll have to outwit genetics yet again. I know in the end the payoff will be worth it and maybe the new me won’t be so shy anymore.

It is going to be a rough ride, and I’ll need you to be cheering for me! I’m certainly not one of those people who enjoys exercise. It’s so terribly, horribly boring and there are many more interesting things I could be doing with my time, like reading. And since I can’t afford to join a gym, I’ll be struggling to do adequate workouts in my home with some hand-me-down fitness DVDs and a Wii Active game. I’ll be grumpy, I’ll be miserable, and I’ll definitely think of quitting before I even start, but, I’m going to do it. I’ve typed it and put it out there in the world for you to see, so it is real now.

Maybe I’ll inspire some of you to get in shape too, or to do something else to boost your confidence this year. Do you have suggestions for fun workouts? Words of encouragement? Care to join me in my quest? Comment below and keep your fingers crossed!

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Historical Beauty

Once again, I’m going to branch off just a tad. (Sorry, this might become a common occurrence, so be prepared.) I wanted to write about something I read in a non-fiction history book: feminine beauty.

The book: The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks. New York, NY: Theia (2002) ISBN – 0-7868-8451-7

The passage: “The pirate dream girl of the 1690s looks so different from today’s model, circa 2002, that it bears pointing out. While individual preferences, of course, varied from dreamer to dreamer, the desired type as featured in novels such as Moll Flanders and erotic engravings of the time period, were not skinny girls, but women full in the hips, thighs, and buttocks, with firm abundant flesh and medium to smallish, half-cantaloupe breasts. (Large breasts–highly impractical before the invention of the brassiere around 1915–suited peasant wet nurses.)”

Zacks was right about the dream girl being different. I am often astonished by the how variant beauty has been throughout history. For example, take the Miss America winners. (And, yes, I recognize that this isn’t the best judge of beauty, but it’s got a long history, and it’s not too bad for an example either.)

Here is a picture of the current reigning Miss America, Caressa Cameron:

Miss America 2010




And here is the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman:

Miss America 1921










Both women are quite pretty, but Ms. Gorman would probably not even place in today’s contest because tastes have changed so much. This makes me a bit sad for all of the women who are surgically altering their bodies to attain today’s ideals and standards. And, perhaps worse, the females who are endangering their health by not eating, or vomiting, or over-exercising in order to become more “beautiful.”

Since we women are so interested in physical beauty*, is it possible – through a look at history – to show how inconsistent beauty is? Not that it will cause women to spend less, (I don’t want to think about how much I’ve spent on cosmetic products this year!) but hopefully, they may think twice before doing permanent damage.

This also made me think about which time period I would be considered “most beautiful.” (Because, despite being a feminist, I’m vain like that.) I think I would have blown men away in the mid-nineteenth century. Give me a painful corset and a big, awkward hoop skirt, and, if I could stay standing and walking, I would knock men dead!



*YWCA reported women in America spend an overwhelming $7 billion a year on cosmetics!

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