The ever-addictive Buzzfeed recently published a video documenting beauty standards over the last 3,000 years. They didn’t hit every era in every culture, but they did touch on some of the most notable historical visuals in the retrospective: Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, Victorian England, and 1990s Heroin Chic, to name a few.
While our current decade’s ideal is pretty cringeworthy in that it requires plastic surgery to pull it off, I have to applaud the Buzzfeed staff for the idea behind this. The video is thought-provoking and causes us to reflect on our own experiences. For a three-minute piece, it certainly got me thinking.
As a woman coming of age in the 1990s and then the early 2000s—what Buzzfeed dubs the Era of Heroin Chic followed by Socialite Heiress—my 6’0,” size 14/16 body never ever saw a fitting counterpart in media or in stores. In my nevervending teen struggle to find clothing to complement my body shape, I felt my options were pretty much the gothic styles at Hot Topic or the painfully nebulous Lane Bryant. I didn’t like the stories the clothing told (or didn’t tell, in the case of Lane Bryant), and if I did find something that covered everything properly, it wasn’t long enough or flattering enough or anything enough. I took to wearing men’s Levi's until I was a sophomore in college because no stores made junior’s jeans long enough for my 36-inch inseam.
It was hard to stay gracious with my girlfriends during those Mean Girls after-school whine fests in front of the mirrors. You know, the ones where we complain about various unfortunate aspects of our young and healthy bodies like total idiots. From where I was sitting, these girls had no idea how lucky they were. To be able to go into any store in any mall and fit neatly into those small, single-digit sizes? Shame on them for complaining ever, I thought.
Luckily, I had a good mother who would always look at me like I had lost my mind when I’d express insecurity about my size and shape. “But sweetheart,” she’d say, “the classical masters would’ve died to have painted you!” Then she’d hand me one the of the many coffee table books she had that were filled with Renaissance paintings; sure enough, there were women with curvy bodies, long hair, and expressive eyes just like mine—looking fabulous.
So am I living in the wrong century? Because up until now I have been having trouble finding clothing to fit my Renaissance shape. Fast fashion like Forever 21 and H&M wasn’t something that was any kind of accessible for me up until very recently. None of them had any clothing over a size 12 to speak of until about five years ago, just as I was exiting my 20s. Now, things do seem to be changing. Somewhere along the way, retailers realized that a larger girl has money to spend just like a petite or thin one, and that they could get in on that. I went into a Forever 21 last week and carried out a few pieces of affordable clothing—my inner 16-year-old was vindicated at last. While it is wonderful to see the bottom rung of fashion progressing as steadily as it has for the last several years, when it comes to high fashion, things have generally remained as one-note as ever. We’ve gotten so used to the impact of this visual message that if a plus-size model appears in Sports Illustrated or signs to a management company, it actually makes news—national news.
Then along came skinny jeans, and all my frustrations with fashion came to a head.
The fretful high schooler in me would like to go on record and say that I was seriously furious when this trend emerged. I wanted to stay current, but how was I supposed to wear something “skinny” when I was anything but? I called a friend of mine, a very gifted stylist, with this dilemma. She explained that it wasn’t the body I was trying to emulate, it was the silhouette the clothing could create that I was looking for. So, rather than trying to wear these insane skinny things with a tight T-shirt and flats, she wisely advised that I throw on a top that had more volume—something flowy or even a jacket—and a pair of heels, and suddenly I’ve achieved a streamlined silhouette—but tailored to me.
What matters, my stylist friend lovingly explained, is what you emphasize and what you balance. These weren’t hard and fast rules about horizontal stripes and pencil skirts; this was an idea I could employ to boost my confidence in my beautiful Renaissance figure. Take away the prints and colors and think of a backlit silhouette and you see things differently. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t subject to all these arbitrary trends or retailers—I could really look the way I wanted to look and feel amazing doing it. I wasn’t fighting my body, I was fighting fashion. It turns out the two are totally different.
As the Buzzfeed video shows us, our ideals change. It is exciting to think that with the expansion of accessible fashion, we’re actually watching the parameters of beauty standards shift right in front of us. I would say we’re entering a new era—one that might not fit neatly into a Buzzfeed list—an era to end one-size-fits-all prescriptions.
Because if we’re honest, right now our culture’s beauty standards are all over the place. I’ve seen lots of hurtful comments in many forums from people trumpeting how non-skinny women who accept their bodies or are not actively seeking to change them is glorifying the unhealthy. No one wants to endorse something which is unhealthy here, but we’ve accepted unhealthy standards of perfection from the first time a woman laced up a corset, and the first time a teenager skipped lunch to look more like Twiggy. We forget that every bodily ideal of the decade is propped up with piles of money (our money!), advertisements, and marketing schemes selling the same images of perfection for us to buy into.
The truth is, no body type is perfect or should be held above another. Every body is individual.
This became an ideal that I've really clung to ever since I saw a news special where Cindy Crawford, queen of all the supermodels, commented on body image. On the subject of whether she ever felt bitter or competitive toward thinner models like Kate Moss, or pressured to lose weight to keep up with “heroin chic” look, she replied, point blank, no. Her reasoning? Because, well, Kate Moss has a different body than her. Moss has the body of an ethereal waif and Crawford has the body of a tall Amazon princess. That’s when I realized: If Cindy Crawford can have a realistic view on different types of beauty and different bodies used in advertising and media, then I think it’s a good indication we might want to seriously lighten up on the judgement, too.
I saw a body like my own in that video—you probably did, too. That doesn’t mean that you were once considered beautiful or that your worth was left somewhere in a lost decade. You’re beautiful right now. Let’s forget about narrow ideals and gratuitous plastic surgeries to focus on the beauty we all inherently have. Let’s think about what our daughters or our sister might see on the sequel to that video 20 years from now. What I would like to see is a number of different women who look nothing like each other—constrained by no single defining “ideal” because, I would hope, our next generation figures out that all bodies are beautiful and everyone deserves to able to be fashionable and feel current and relevant in their clothing. Let’s start today to get there. Let’s create our own standard unique to us as individuals. And let’s honor others as they do so as well.