According to a study conducted by Harrison in 2003, exposure to ideal-body images on television made college-aged men and women believe that a smaller waist and hips, and either a larger bust or a smaller bust were the ideal female body type. Despite the outcome of this study, there has been much research done that has looked at how the ideal female body has changed over time through a more historical lens.

Some of the earliest known representations of the female body are the ‘Venus figurines’, which were small statues dated back around 25,000 years ago in Europe. These figurines portray women’s bodies as pear-shaped with large breasts and a large stomach. This larger female figure was idealized because it was seen as a symbol of fertility. In Ancient Greece, many of the same standards of having a rounder female body still remained but there was more of an emphasis on the face as being the main source of beauty which led to symmetrical faces becoming the new major beauty standard of the time. During the Renaissance period, a curvy female body with round and flushed cheeks was the ideal and was constantly portrayed by famous male artists of the time. Many of these artists did not actually use real female models as inspiration and instead perpetuated these beauty standards throughout their art (The List 2017).

The image of the ideal woman continued to be portrayed artistically as curvy and voluptuous up through the 17th and 18th centuries. This emphasis on curviness ended up becoming so profound that corsets were designed to accentuate a woman’s curves by holding in their waist while enhancing and supporting her breasts (Howard 2018). The corset was originally introduced in the early 1500s and quickly became popular among the French court. Makeup was also introduced around the same time when Queen Elizabeth I came into power and there was a trend towards donning paler skin with a dramatic red lip in order to convey a wealthier status. The Victorian Era, which ran from 1837 to 1901, made it so that women were expected to dress more modestly and they were considered beautiful if they were pale, weak, and aligning with traditional gender norms (The List 2017).

In the 19th century, the idealized female body was much more curvaceous and voluptuous than in present times, but then in the 20th century, there was a great shift away from curviness and towards thinness. The 1920s came with the rise of the flappers, who were often depicted as slender and slim and this coincided with a rise in reported prevalence in disordered eating. Flappers often had short, boyish hair as well. This dramatic shift from the Victorian Era in women’s fashion was due to women gaining more rights in the United States and elsewhere, including gaining the right to vote in the US in 1920. The 1930s saw the Great Depression and women were held to much less of a beauty standard during this period since the US was in economic turmoil. The ideal body type became more round since it was a sign of wealth and nobody wanted to look like they were starving (The List 2017).

In the 1940s and 1950s, a slender curviness was the ideal female body type and this coincided with the rise in popularity of pinup models and actresses like Marilyn Monroe as well as the start of the Playboy magazine. The 1960s and 1970s saw a shift back to the thin ideal female body due to the rise of British fashion model Twiggy and other slender models. There was also a rise in disordered eating patterns during the 1960s and 1970s which likely coincided with the notion that being thin was the most attractive (Howard 2018).

In the 1980s, there was much more of an emphasis on lean but athletic bodies and women were expected to fit into extremely narrow beauty standards. Then in the 1990s, skinny body types were back in fashion and were considered to be ‘heroin chic’, which again coincided with a dramatic rise in restrictive eating disorders. Despite this, the prevalence of obesity increased greatly in the 1990s and media focused on obesity tended to be negative and described these bodies as ‘unhealthy’ while skinny bodies in the media were applauded and celebrated (Howard 2018). 

The 2000s had many people with body-image and self-esteem issues that largely believed that to be skinny or thin was to be attractive. With the rise in technology and media in the 2000s, people started to become inundated with coded or even explicit messages about the ideal female body type and for those who did not fit into this ideal, the media created much anxiety and self-esteem issues. In the 2010s, there was a shift towards celebrating more diverse body types and greater body positivity. This was likely due to the rise of social media where people were constantly exposed to more diverse body types than they were in the past. The Kardashians were a large part of this shift towards more diverse body types. Social media, despite its ability to depict diverse body types, has been found to instill negative self-image in many people. As it stands now, the current female body ideal is curvaceous and there is growing acceptance of people in many different types of bodies (Howard 2018).