October 4, 2011

Ideal female body shape during safer vs. more dangerous times

One of the biggest changes I've noticed in my own lifetime is the shift away from more slender females and toward more fleshy ones. We see this at the level of the average girl, celebrity sex symbols, porno chicks, phrases that guys use to describe what they like, and so on.

Now I don't mean BMI, waist-to-hip ratio, etc. No existing measurement captures the intuitive sense of whether a girl has a small or large amount of fat primarily on her boobs, ass, and thighs. BMI only tells you how fat or skinny she is, ignoring body shape. Waist-to-hip ratio only tells you how hourglass-shaped she is, ignoring how much meat she's got on her bones. I'm talking what distinguishes Marilyn Monroe from Paulina Porizkova, both of whom are a healthy BMI and with hourglass figures, but where one is clearly more buxom and bootylicious than the other.

The first in-your-face signal for me was in 1992, when Sir Mix-a-Lot released "Baby Got Back". The video was in frequent enough rotation on MTV, it hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and even us fifth-graders were buying the single on tape. Since then the popularity of big ol' booties and fake tits has only skyrocketed. Later in the '90s there was J.Lo, then Beyonce in the mid-2000s, and now... I don't know, who's the reigning booty queen these days? Lady Gaga or Shakira, I guess. Or Kim Kardashian?

I'm aware that certain female celebrities have been going in a more 12 year-old boy direction, like fashion models and butt-kicking babe characters in movies. But when it comes to who the average guy is thinking of or looking at while he jerks off, it's more likely Nelly Furtado than Uma Thurman.

Was there another time when fleshy girls were in high demand? Yep: the heyday of pin-up girls from the later 1930s, '40s, and '50s. What does that period have in common with the present age of curvy-mindedness, which began around 1992 with "Baby Got Back"? Falling violence rates.

Is the other correlation there, between rising violence rates and desire for slender girls? Looks like it. As crime rose during the '60s, the fleshy girls began to give way to the more waifish ones like Audrey Hepburn and Jean Shrimpton. They were basically gone by the '70s, when Farah Fawcett and the chicks from ABBA got the most attention. I can't think of a single '80s sex symbol who was fleshy... unless you count Jessica Rabbit, but she was a conscious throwback to the '40s. Even during the first couple years of the '90s, the parade of babes on Twin Peaks were all slender.

Going back to the previous rising-crime period, ca. 1900 to 1933, I'm not sure about the first half of that period, but my impression is that they were slender too. During the Jazz Age, though, the demand was definitely for slender girls, including the original "It Girl" Clara Bow. Lithe flappers who taped down their breasts probably were an extreme form, but still their popularity shows that what men wanted was more in the slender direction. That lasted at least through 1933, when Fay Wray represented beauty in King Kong.

While acknowledging the variation we see in any slice of time, the swing of the fleshy-or-slender pendulum over time does appear to track the cycle of violence rates. Most of this evidence is from male preferences, but there could be a female supply-side effect too -- maybe women's bodies respond to their perception of whether the world is getting safer or more dangerous. That would require a large representative sample of women throughout the past 100 years, though, so I'm restricting things to the demand-side of male preferences.

My interpretation of this pattern is that a fleshier woman is seen as an investment into the far and stable future. Those fat reserves are a kind of energetic savings account, and why would you bother saving unless you believed the far future would be reachable? Men planning their family formation on the assumption of a safer future will want a woman with extra flesh just in case something goes wrong now and then.

But when the world is getting more dangerous, you don't care what extra value she might have into the far future -- you just want her to be able to pump out some kids now and hope they make it, perhaps on their own. You also might count it against her if her body shape suits her to hanging around the house mothering her children, when she may have to be on-the-go -- not in the sense of being a careerist or breadwinner, but simply not being able to stand still while so much commotion is going on in her environment.

If they don't look so maternal, the rising-crime-era chicks do look much more adorable. You see it in still pictures, movies, and books. Fitzgerald is always going on about how expressive, soulful, and hypnotic the girls' eyes were in the Jazz Age, and it was no different from the '60s through the '80s, from Audrey Hepburn to Kelly Kapowski.

It's not primarily a neotenous thing. It's more the look of an abandoned puppy who's trying to win over a prospective owner with its cuteness. The pin-up dolls didn't look like that, and neither have girls of the past 20 years. The connection to rising vs. falling violence rates is straightforward: when times are more dangerous, you need to rely on others more, especially male protectors, so girls have to put on a sweeter face. When they're getting safer, girls don't need to recruit as many male protectors into their social circle, and so don't have to crank up the wattage in their eyes.

18 comments:

  1. Dahlia9:54 AM

    "Going back to the previous rising-crime period, ca. 1900 to 1933, I'm not sure about the first half of that period, but my impression is that they were slender too."

    Edwardian fashion (and decorative arts) was light, airy, delicate, and feminine. That period was similar to the Jazz age in that way, but more adult, responsible, and less cutesy. For example, ribbonwork of the Edwardian period was usually made of silk and delicately colored. During the flapper era, it was much bolder, made of rayon, included more novel types, but was also of lesser quality weaving. The fad of ribbonwork ended by the 40s.

    In 1900, women were still wearing their hair up ala the Victorians, but this gave way to their hair being worn down and long.
    At the same time, there was a move into the ethereal and other worldly direction: Fairies, anthropomorphic animals, and water babies were everywhere. Check out artists like Margaret Tarrant, Cicely Mary Barker, Beatrix Potter, and Daisy Makeig-Jones (off the top of my head and they all happen to be women, hmmm...). I have a rough idea that this ended some time during the thirties or more likely by WWII.

    I have a collection of real photo actresses et al. The earlier ones (c.1900-1910) are fleshier, corseted, and have their hair up.

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  2. Dahlia10:08 AM

    I can't believe I wrote all of that and did not mention Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist credited for Art Nouveau. He precedes the others and one can really see the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian in his work.

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  3. Anonymous4:28 PM

    I'm glad you mentioned a possible "supply side" effect, because I think that deserves serious consideration. Women don't just adjust their looks to "what men want." I say that because pxxnography shows us at least some of what men want, and even during "slender woman" eras men find images of well-padded women sexually attractive.

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  4. Anonymous4:39 PM

    I suggest that in rising crime eras women themselves want to look less sexy, because (a) they will catch the eye of fewer rapists,* (b) slender bodies are better suited to fleeing attackers or at least offer attackers less to grab hold of or bruise. Apart from rape situations, women choose men and men are notoriously unpicky, so women don't strictly need sexy bodies-- they're more of a luxury to be enjoyed in safer times, when speedy getaways seem unnecessary, even though better-padded female bodies do promote healthy childbearing.

    *Evading rapists may be a sort of arms-race, in the sense that there are always rapists and some women will be raped, but the less voluptuous ones may be victimized less often. So in safe times women may compete to attract "desirable" men, and in dangerous times they may compete to evade "undesirable" men.

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  5. Dahlia5:57 PM

    More:
    The feminine ideal for the turn of the century was the "Gibson Girl", a buxom, corseted, slender and statuesque beauty with her hair piled high.
    The "Gibson Girl" gave way to Mary Pickford (and see Lillian Gish) during the Edwardian era and the '20s gave us Clara Bow.

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  6. "I suggest that in rising crime eras women themselves want to look less sexy"

    I doubt that because rising-crime times see women using a lot more make-up, figure-accentuating clothes, and eye-catching hairstyles.

    Dahlia's mentioned some of that already, and at some point when I have time I'll go over the whole history from the late Middle Age through today. Mostly focusing on make-up, but there's a good deal of info about hair too.

    As a quick reality check, though, which decade's women played down their sexiness, and which glammed it up -- the '50s or the '80s?

    "I say that because pxxnography shows us at least some of what men want, and even during "slender woman" eras men find images of well-padded women sexually attractive."

    Still if you look at '80s porno chicks compared to today's, they all have much smaller asses and less meaty thighs. There were some naturally large-breasted girls, but not as common as today's ubiquitous fake tits.

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  7. Anonymous3:06 PM

    Agnostic, I get that synchronic trends are not really your thing, but how well does this reconcile with preferences in more violent (and less violent) subcultures within the culture at a given timepoint?

    Do the more violent subcultures (for instance, ethnic subcultures like Black, but I'm really thinking any kind of subculture) within a society at any given stage have a more slenderly built and vulnerable faced look? My impression is that Black guys are big into the big booty look, more than other groups of men, while slenderness is popular in low violence groups like East Asians (even accounting for build differences). It also seems a big deal in the high violence societies of Latin America.

    Agree with the gestalt impression you get though. I was watching Streets of Fire a week back and I was kind of shocked at the kind of build Marine Jahan had in her dance scene. I can't help feeling she'd definitely never be that androgynous and small and slender in a contemporary flick.

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  8. Anonymous3:30 PM

    Also :

    http://www.femininebeauty.info/f/pettijohn.playboy.pdf

    Might be interesting for your purposes, in terms of the measurement of "eye area". And general data.

    Interestingly (?) seems like the "General Hard Times Measure" in that paper tracks your violence rate, with a rise over the same peak and a decline and fall at the same time...

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  9. I approve of the change. The boyish look is appealing to gays in the fashion industry, but not to men writ large. The 50s still seemed a lot classier though.

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  10. "how well does this reconcile with preferences in more violent (and less violent) subcultures within the culture at a given timepoint?"

    Not too sure about that, although your impression seems right. I don't think that's cause and effect, though, just a correlation.

    Otherwise, whites should've shown more black-typical tastes as violence rates rose, but they went toward less fleshy girls.

    Re: that Playboy paper, I'll have to read it in more detail, but one thing that seemed off is that they're using the playmate of the year, when they should've taken the 12 playmates of the month and averaged them. But maybe there's something still there.

    "The boyish look"...

    Not boyish: hourglass figure, feminine bone structure, large eyes and lips, Big Hair, etc. It's less vs. more fat in T&A.

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  11. Dahlia10:23 PM

    The problem with that feminine beauty website is that the author seems to have two objectives, one stated and the other not with the latter undermining the former.
    He wants to expose and demote the mannish-woman/adolescent boy stand-in phenomenon. Great. On the other hand, he wants to promote to their place his "girlfriends". How shall I put who the girlfriends are? As Satoshi Kanazawa might say, "his brain has tricked him (worse than most men probably) because his computer monitor didn't exist in the ancestral environment and whatever woman he "saw" was available, or in our dear author's case "saw" and..."

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  12. Dahlia10:38 PM

    BTW, Mucha painted his women much freer and girly than they actually were. Just look at Sarah Bernhardt's real pictures where she is put together as a Victorian woman as fitting the era compared to Mucha's fantasy of Bernhardt.
    Going back to that feminine beauty site, years ago I asked the author why he didn't use artist renditions of women since there is utterly no limitation on an artist in presenting his ideal woman: straight from the imagination onto the canvas.
    I don't remember his response, but it was dumb.

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  13. Anonymous1:35 AM

    The boyish look is appealing to gays in the fashion industry

    He wants to expose and demote the mannish-woman/adolescent boy stand-in phenomenon. Great.

    Not to go on a tangent on a post about a whole nother thing, but main problem he has for me, is that the teen models he talks about, I don't really see much evidence that they are, other than the ones he cherry picks, much more masculinsed that the average female, as opposed to the random female picked as beautiful by straights.

    My theory is that models picked by gay men seem more like they're sort of randomly selected with regard to the masculinity/femininity of their faces and bodies, with a tendency towards the mean (well, at least the mean for tall, thin women). This still results in a more masculine female "beauty" than straight men, straight women and even lesbians like, but I think it's more driven by gay male lack of interest in female masculinity or femininity, combined with a focus on thinness and height, than by a desire to see boyish women specifically. They don't care, so femininity regresses to the mean.

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  14. Anonymous8:08 AM

    1950's: Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow.

    1970's: Ali MacGraw, Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett.

    etc, etc

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  15. Anonymous8:15 AM

    There's something going on with rising BMI's for American women on average as well. Food is cheap, fewer people have physical-labor jobs, and both men and women are eating more and carrying more weight. I suspect there is a trend toward fleshier women in recent years which is additive with any trend driven by the violence rate.

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  16. Perhaps the reason is that 70/80 was an age where women were portraid in the movies as doing the same thing as men, and having the same social networks. This created in the popular culture a preference for the "girl-next-door" type instead of the flessy type.

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  17. What about the dance crazes of the 20s and 60s-80s?

    Dancers tend to be lithe, not fleshy.

    What if men liked women who liked dancing?

    ---

    Did women of the 20s tape down their breasts so that they could do the Charleston properly? Is that one reason?

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  18. I approve of the change. The boyish look is appealing to gays in the fashion industry, but not to men writ large. The 50s still seemed a lot classier though.

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