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Beauty Through the Ages: Exploring Historical Beauty Standards
Hold onto your time machines because we’re about to embark on an exhilarating journey throughout history, exploring the ever-changing world of beauty standards among women! Beauty is a concept that has evolved significantly throughout human history. What’s considered beautiful today might have raised a few eyebrows in the past.
Historical beauty standards are like a time capsule of cultural values, and they also offer a quirky peek into how humans have always had a love affair with attractiveness.
So, don your virtual goggles, and let’s explore the wild ride of beauty ideals for women across various historical periods!
What Were Ancient Women’s Beauty Standards?
Throughout history, the evolution of standards for women’s beauty and body types is ever-changing, with the first record even dating back to 3,100 BCE.
3100 BCE: Ancient Egypt
In Ancient Egypt, beauty was all about symmetry and balance. Many women were obsessed with making sure their faces were as perfect as the Great Sphinx itself. Almond-shaped eyes? Check. Smooth skin? Check. Features in perfect alignment? Absolutely!
Pharaohs and elite Egyptians were the Kardashians of their time, setting the beauty standards for the masses. Plus, kohl eyeliner, henna for hair, and sweet-smelling oils made grooming a delightful experience. Talk about Sphinx-tertainment!
3300 BCE: Indus Valley Civilization (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan)
In the Indus Valley Civilization context, feminine beauty was characterized by specific attributes. Women’s bodies must have ample bosoms, broad hips, gracefully tapering legs, and eyes reminiscent of lotus petals, all considered symbolic of beauty in this ancient culture.
2000 BCE: Ancient China
A preference for fair and porcelain-like skin, long, lustrous black hair, red lips, white teeth, and almond-shaped eyes characterized the ancient Chinese beauty standards. There was also an extreme practice among noble ladies, commencing at a young age, known as foot binding, aimed at achieving small and delicate feet.
Elegance, grace, and proper manners were highly valued among women in this era, in alignment with the Chinese culture. Women adorned themselves with ornate hair accessories and jewelry, often crafted from materials like jade and gold, to accentuate their beauty.
1500 BCE: The Mayan Civilization
Within the Mayan civilization, Yum Kaax was venerated, and it was to this deity that they turned to their perception of the ideal woman. The Mayans preferred a body type with an elongated head and a slightly cross-eyed appearance as attractive features. To them, a perfect nose was characterized by its substantial and prominent proboscis.
600 AD: Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece celebrated inner and outer perfection. Forget about gym memberships; these folks believed muscular physical appearance, intellectual prowess, and perfect proportions were the real deal.
Imagine trying to fit into a society where being tall, slender, and athletic was the golden ticket. Sculptures like the Venus de Milo were the Instagram influencers of the time, showcasing these ethereal beauty ideals: a straight nose, a chiseled jaw, and a slender yet muscular physique. Talk about a Greek tragedy for anyone who enjoyed a few extra baklava!
475 AD: Medieval Europe
Time-travel to the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), where fair and light skin was all the rage among women. Want to be considered beautiful? Be pale as a ghost!
Tanned skin among young women was a big no-no because it was associated with outdoor labor and lower social status. Having rosy cheeks, light hair, and behaving modestly was the name of the game. Even a single freckle could ruin your chances of being the belle of the ball. This obsession with purity was a real medieval soap opera.
14th Century: Italian Renaissance
Fast forward again to the Italian Renaissance period (14th to 17th centuries), where beauty was celebrated like a Renaissance art masterpiece. The ideal figure was round and curvy, with more Rubens than a runway model.
Think Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” and you have the idea. Paleness was still prized, but now it was achieved with lead-based cosmetics – not the healthiest choice. A curvaceous figure was the epitome of beauty, and you couldn’t turn a corner without running into a corset.
A woman’s body must gain weight and must not have large breasts, and to be considered beautiful, a woman must have a high forehead and thin eyebrows.
What Were the Beauty Standards in the 1700s?
The 1700s ushered in a distinct era of beauty standards, particularly in Europe, characterized by artistic extravagance and evolving ideals.
In France’s Rococo era (early 17th century), enchantment reigned, with extravagant hairstyles bedecked with feathers, jewels, and lace taking center stage. The pursuit of a porcelain-like complexion persisted, with lead-based cosmetics employed.
A more natural look emerged as we crossed the Channel to England during the Georgian era (mid-17th century). Powdered wigs and pastel makeup defined the “Georgian face,” characterized by a delicate, powdered complexion, rosy cheeks, and full lips.
The iconic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, made a remarkable impact on beauty trends. Her signature “pouf” hairstyle featured towering arrangements of curls, ribbons, and even miniature ships. Here are some of the other notable standards:
- Pale complexion – Most women in the period preferred a fair and nearly translucent complexion, symbolizing wealth.
- Elaborate hairstyles – At the time, many women began using intricate hairstyles as a hallmark of beauty.
- Rouged cheeks and lips – The fashion of the time dictated rosy, flushed cheeks and red lips as highly desirable. Women turned to rouge, typically made from crushed cochineal insects, to attain this sought-after flush.
- Moles and Beauty Marks – Beautiful women adorned themselves with small, decorative moles known as “beauty marks.”
- Corsets and Slim Waists – An ideal woman at the time must have a cinched and tiny waist using a corset. The ideal body shape was voluptuous, with a well-defined bust and hips.
In the same era, blackened teeth symbolized beauty in some cultures, such as Japan and Southeast Asia. Special dyes were used to color the teeth, as white teeth were perceived as a sign of poor health or lower social status.
These beauty standards primarily prevailed among the upper classes and could vary across regions and social strata.
What Were the Beauty Standards in the Past?
There were several beauty standards from 1800 to 2010, but we’ll narrow our focus to Victorian and Western culture below.
1800: Victorian Era
The standards for women in Victorian England were characterized by a preference for pale skin, an hourglass figure with a thin waist, and long, natural hair adorned with modest accessories. Makeup was subtle, featuring light rouge applications and a focus on natural features like small noses and expressive eyes.
Elegance and proper manners were highly valued, extending beauty to graceful demeanor. Victorian women wore conservative, high-necked dresses with full skirts, and accessories such as gloves, fans, and parasols were fashionable and functional.
1900: Gibson Girls
Throughout history, the Victorian era thoroughly influenced the physical beauty standards for American women. The Gibson Girl was held up as the epitome. Women were encouraged to embody a voluptuous figure characterized by a slender waist, shapely legs, and curvaceous hips, with their figures often resembling the number “8” to accentuate their curves.
To achieve this look, they utilized tightly cinched corsets, which sometimes created an S-shaped curve, emphasizing their curves in a graceful and elegant manner.
1920: Flapper Dress and Boyish Figure
In the 1920s, women flipped the script on beauty standards and embraced an androgynous look. They rocked bras that flattened their chests and slipped into clothing for a curve-less appearance, bidding farewell to the long-held belief that beauty equated with long locks.
The ideal beauty featured a flat chest and straight hips.
Thanks to trusty Kohl, their eyes were on point with dark, dramatic makeup. And let’s not forget the trademark red lips with an exaggerated cupid’s bow. The ’20s were all about flapper dresses – straight, sleeveless, and often daringly low-cut, landing fashionably around knee-length.
1930: Great Depression Era
Curves made a comeback, with women in the 1930s favoring a more slender and subtly hourglass figure, a shift from the rectangular shapes of the 1920s. This era began women’s fascination with achieving a curvier body, characterized by a small waist, ample bust, and slender legs.
1940: Kitty Foyle Dress and Pin-Up Girls
The 1940s embraced red lips, well-defined eyebrows, and wavy and curly hairstyles. While conservative in many aspects, this era also witnessed the rise of shorter skirts, often ending above the knee. Women in this period also favored a more tailored and structured look, embracing military-style shoulders and often incorporating shoulder pads into their fashion.
On the other hand, the “pin-up girl” style, which often featured images of glamorous women with stockings, was celebrated and popularized during the same period. These pin-up images were used to boost morale among soldiers during the war.
The 1940s were a time of fashion contradictions! There was the conservative and practical Kitty Foyle dress, while on the other, we had the sassy and glamorous pin-up girl look with those fabulous stockings.
These differing fashion standards reflect the time’s social and cultural dynamics, where traditional values and wartime necessities coexisted with the desire for escapism and entertainment.
1950: Hourglass Figure and Marilyn Monroe
In the 1950s, the hourglass figure was revived, with women encouraged to embrace a busty and curvaceous appearance. Some advertisements even promoted weight gain to help women achieve this ideal silhouette.
Fashion during this era underlined the stark contrast between men’s and women’s styles. Women’s fashion was distinctly feminine, featuring wide skirts, cinched waists, and an expectation that women would wear hats and gloves, especially on special occasions. Around this time, black women started bleaching their skin due to the privilege of being white.
The 1950s, known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, also catapulted Marilyn Monroe into the spotlight as a sex symbol, celebrating sex appeal and femininity. However, she was often portrayed in a stereotypical manner as a blonde-hair bombshell, which didn’t capture the full complexity of her talent and personality.
The 1960s promoted a shift from curves to a more youthful and adolescent-like figure, reminiscent of the 1920s. This era celebrated small shoulders, straight figures, and long, lean legs. Twiggy, an iconic figure of the time, epitomized this slender, twig-like aesthetic.
The fashion industry became culture-obsessed with a thin figure, relating beauty with thinness. Slim fashion models became the standard, showcasing an ultra-slender body ideal characterized by minimal waist definition, extremely thin thighs, flat stomachs, and slender arms. This abrupt change in the desired body type led to the rise of diets and weight loss regimens, gaining significant momentum in the ’60s.
Around this time, the feminist movement brought about a significant shift in beauty standards by encouraging women to embrace natural beauty, promoting body positivity irrespective of size or shape, and advocating for diverse representation in media and fashion. The era emphasized self-expression and individuality, challenging traditional gender roles in fashion and fostering confidence and self-esteem beyond external appearance.
1970: Androgenous Look
Women continued to embrace the androgynous look while modifying their style. Popular fashion trends included bell-bottom pants, frayed jeans, midi skirts, maxi dresses, tie-dye patterns, peasant blouses, and ponchos.
The 1970s makeup embraced bold and expressive styles, influenced by the counterculture and disco movements. It featured heavy and colorful eyeshadow, pronounced eyeliner creating a “cat-eye” effect, full and dark eyebrows, generous mascara application, rosy cheeks with blush, glossy lips often in natural or bold shades, and the introduction of glitter and shimmer for added glamor.
A sun-kissed tan was in vogue, and makeup styles evolved from bohemian and natural looks in the early ’70s to the glitzy and glamorous styles of the disco era, allowing for diverse self-expression and experimentation.
1980: Power Dressing
In the 1980s, the supermodel era defined the prevailing beauty standard, which celebrated tall, athletic figures characterized by height, slender proportions, and muscular strength. This trend towards a more muscular and fit look for women was influenced by advancements in fitness and the feminist spirit, with well-defined muscles symbolizing strength, capability, and independence.
Exercising became widespread, with women seeking a balance between slimness and physical fitness. Women were encouraged to develop muscle tone as a reflection of their overall well-being. However, this era also saw a troubling increase in anorexia and bulimia, likely attributed to some women’s excessive exercise routines, underscoring the challenges and potential pitfalls of pursuing the athletic ideal.
1990: Heroin Chic and Grunge Style
In the 1990s, two distinct fashion movements gained popularity: the “heroin chic” look and the grunge style. The “heroin chic” look earned its name from women who appeared to share characteristics associated with heroin use.
These tall and slender supermodels typically exhibited unique facial features and pale skin due to lack of sunlight. They were exceptionally thin from undereating, had dark eye circles resulting from a party-centric lifestyle, and embraced an unkempt appearance, which is now closely associated with the grunge style popularized by Kate Moss.
At the time, thin women and fit female celebrities were the standard among people. An eating disorder was so common at this time as the lack of a positive body image among other women forced them to conform to social ideals.
2000: Thin Yet Volouptous
In the 2000s, beauty standards took on a new dimension, emphasizing a thin yet voluptuous look popularized by Victoria’s Secret Angels.
The era marked a departure from the obsession with extremely slender bodies. Women now aspired to be long and lean, with visible muscles and airbrushed tans. The desired features included flat, well-defined stomachs and thigh gaps.
However, this period subjected women to many conflicting ideals of attractiveness. The ideal woman was expected to be skinny and healthy, possessing large breasts and a prominent derriere while maintaining a flat stomach.
These contrasting expectations created a complex beauty landscape. Additionally, the 2000s witnessed a significant surge in plastic surgery, with procedures increasing tenfold compared to the 1990s
2010: Kim Kardashian and Bootylicious
While the 2010s maintained a focus on a slender aesthetic, exemplified by Kate Moss’s infamous statement in 2007, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” the era also saw the meteoric rise of Kim Kardashian, who championed a different ideal: the slim hourglass figure.
Thanks to mass media, the Kardashians popularized large, curvaceous bottoms, tanned skin, full eyebrows, and the pursuit of highly airbrushed, flawless skin, marking a shift in beauty standards.
Concurrently, the era witnessed a notable increase in plastic surgery procedures, with the Brazilian butt lift and lip fillers gaining prominence, reflecting changing preferences and the influence of popular culture on body image.
What’s the Difference Between the Past and Present Female Beauty Standards?
The female beauty standards of the past and present have evolved significantly due to changing cultural, societal, and historical factors. Here are some key differences between past and present beauty standards:
Historical Beauty Standards
Historical beauty standards are rooted in societal values, often linked to wealth and class distinctions, revealing rigid gender roles and expectations.
Often, Eurocentric standards promoted homogeneity and were arduous to attain, such as extremely fair skin, Victorian corsets, and foot binding.
They frequently excluded diverse ethnicities (like African women), body types, and gender expressions (like trans women). Conformity to these standards was enforced through social norms and even legal measures, like sumptuary laws.
Present Beauty Standards
Beauty standards for a modern woman have evolved to become more diverse and inclusive, reflecting a multicultural and interconnected world.
They emphasize individuality and self-expression, mirroring a society that values personal freedom and respects various gender expressions, thanks to advancements in gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights.
The current focus on health and wellness also underscores a holistic approach to beauty that extends beyond aesthetics, signifying a growing awareness of physical and mental well-being.
The impact of technology, particularly social media and digital platforms, plays a pivotal role in shaping modern beauty standards, highlighting the influence of these online spaces on self-presentation and image cultivation.
The emergence of the body positivity movement and a heightened emphasis on mental health in beauty standards demonstrate a heightened awareness of self-acceptance, self-esteem, and mental well-being.
This shift in beauty standards reveals our evolving values, but it also underscores the ongoing influence of media, advertising, and technology on our perception of beauty, offering insights into our cultural and social progress.
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Beauty standards have always been subject to change, influenced by culture, societal expectations, and historical context.
Understanding the beauty ideals of the past, including those of ancient civilizations, and the unique beauty standards of the 1700s provides insight into the rich tapestry of human perceptions of beauty.
As we appreciate the diverse beauty standards of history, we can also reflect on the evolving nature of beauty in our own time and the importance of embracing individuality and diversity.
Meet Alex, a finance grad with a makeup palette as diverse as her investment portfolio. When she’s not crunching financial data, you’ll find Alex reading about beauty and makeup, proving that numbers and glamour can coexist in one fabulous package.