Retrospection of Feminine beauty; a Study on Evolution of Women beauty standards in History

Oxford dictionary defines “beauty” as a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour,
or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.

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Oxford dictionary defines “beauty” as a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour,
or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. Apart from all these definitions, the very term “beauty” is still an enigma. Our approach surrounding beauty not only varies by different culture but has greatly evolved over the span of time. Still, we can not determine what makes a person beautiful? Though it is a myth that the beauty standards that we have today must be ancient or historical, really the contrary is true. It is said that theory according to which women are meant to be beautiful and men should be powerful, is the result of several centuries of evolution. Even though the substratum of the concept of “beauty” is the female form, which stayed at the same for centuries, the “perfect” body concept has changed over the years. This article intends to examine the evolution of women beauty over the centuries and to analyze how women’s ‘Ideal’ body types or beauty standards are broken down by a course of time.

Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, but the same eyes can see things very differently depending on the place and course of time. The “beauty perfection” is an ephemeral ideal, bound to change and transform and looking gorgeous or stunning may differ from one generation to the next. While we retrospect into the history of feminine beauty, the Paleolithic era came to be the first and one of the earliest examples of art that is ever been detected is also a primitive symbol of an idealized woman. She doesn’t look at all like the models of today. The statue called “Venus of Willendorf” was crafted somewhere 24000-22000 BCE – is an epitome of potency.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf

The girl features large breasts, large hips and a healthy stomach, it is clear that a good body equalled one that could bear many offspring. From the statue, we can also note down one thing that pretty eyes, long hair, bright lips and other facial features were not a priority at that time. And a “voluptuous and well nourished” was the ideal 25000 years ago.

In Ancient Egypt, the era between 1292 BC and 1069 BC described women as slender with narrow shoulders, high waist and symmetrical face. And that society encouraged women’s independence and beauty where they can even engage with pre-marital sex and they can divorce their husbands if they want.

ancient egypt women
Painting; Ancient Egypt women

Ancient Greeks (c 500-300 BC) featured women as plump, full-bodied and light skin. And they worshipped the male form, going so far as to proclaim that women’s bodies were the disfigured versions of men. Aristotle is the one who called female form “a deformed male”. The Greeks were defining literally, Hesiod, who simply described the first woman as Kalon Kakon, which means ‘the beautiful-evil thing’. She was evil because she was beautiful and beautiful because she was evil. And nudity was a common part of ancient sculptures and paintings of nude of women were often covered. But the Greeks were defining more than just “beauty” – they were nailing down the math of attractiveness. That was the period, were men faced a much higher standard of beauty and perfection than women.

ancient greek mythology women
Painting; Portrayal of women in ancient Greek mythology

During the regime of the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD women were expected to have pale skin, long black hair, red lips, and white teeth. Small feet were another aspect of Chinese beauty that would continue for years. In those times, the society has been very patriarchal, which resulted in the minimized roles and rights of women. The century between 1400 to 1700 was the era of Italian renaissance and this period described a perfect woman as a rounded stomach, full hips with fair skin. The artists of the Renaissance wanted to move away from the decorum and strict religious values of middle ages. So from 1300-1500, they started painting naked breasts that exemplified a mixture of fertility and eroticism. With the Renaissance began a transition – from simply considering women o be objects of fertility, to objects of lust and beauty. Also during that period, a typical wife’s duty was to reflect her husband’s status, both in behavior and outward appearance.

Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1558, preceding in the era of makeup. And this tending makeup routine quickly became a symbol of class at that time. The paler you look, the higher your status. But after the French rebelled against the peerage during the French Revolution in 1789, the people began to show up their disgrace towards royalty. Makeup became much simpler. But as memories of the revolution began to fade, and the country entered the 19th century, makeup for women in court gained popularity again.

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I

By the time Queen Victoria earned her crown in 1837 makeup of women was incredibly dangerous. Lead, ammonia, mercury and nightshades were common ingredients. And women were simply ready to poison themselves in order to look more beautiful. Victorian England believed in the hourglass figure of women with cinched-waist, full figured and desirably plump. In this time period, women cinched their waist with tight-fitting undergarment to attain the hourglass figure.

The 1890’s brought about the Gibson girl, an illustration by Charles Gibson that defined a beautiful woman of the age. She was pale, though not as powdered as previous years wore a tight corset, but reveals her real figure. The Gibson girl wasn’t actually a real person, but it was a case of yet another standard of beauty invented by a man’s imagination, rather than inspired by any existing woman. A bit contrary, in roaring twenties, the ideal woman was featured as boyish figured with a flat chest and short bob hairstyle. A downplayed waist was also their trend. But suddenly after that era, between the 1930’s and 50’s were considered as the golden age of Hollywood and that time described feminine beauty again as an hourglass figure with curves and large breasts. The boyish figure trend didn’t last for long.

The Gibson Girl illustrated by Charles Gibson

The sixties were a bit swinging which adorned thin women with the long and slim leg with an adolescent physique whereas eighties were the supermodel era. They celebrated the athletic body types of women who are curvy, tall with toned arms. This period also saw an upswing in anorexia, thought by some experts to be caused by a compulsory obsession with exercise. After that, the 1990s evolved with women beauty concept as thin, frail and neglected. But the current feminine beauty standards include flat stomach, healthy skin and large breasts. Now women are expected to be skinny, but healthy. For attaining the ideal look, now women are increasingly seeking plastic surgeries. But as a relief, we are luckily stepping into an age where the media is beginning to celebrate the diversity of race and body type. And the main thing to bear in mind is most of the historical standards of beauty were purely based on a drawing or sculpture of a man’s fantasy!

Nowadays the same effects are created in Photoshop. We cannot fully believe a fictional piece of art or masterfully altered photograph. Since standards have changed so much overtime period, what it proves is that all these standards are really momentary.

Work cited:
Hernandez, Gabriela. Classic Beauty: The History of Make-up. Schiffer Publishing. 2017
Riordan, Teresa. Inventing Beauty: A History of the innovations that have made us Beautiful.
Broadway. 2004

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