The Effects of Changing Beauty Ideals in America

By
More by this author
The perception of beauty is an idea that is constantly shifting as a result of the changing popular beauty icons. Each decade throughout time has an icon that emulates the beauty ideals of that time period. These icons may not change drastically from one decade to the next, but the difference in the beauty ideals of the 1950s in contrast with the ideals through the present is drastic. The reasoning for these changes varies based on the happenings during that decade. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe became the image of beauty for women and girls all over the nation. She had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 19.1, which is a much higher number than one of today’s popular beauty icons, Heidi Klum, who has a BMI of 17.7. Body Mass Index is a way to measure whether a person is underweight, overweight, or in a healthy weight range using a calculation involving their height and weight. A normal BMI is considered to be between 18.5 and 24.9 (“Healthy Weight”). As time goes on, the BMI of the famous women considered to be beautiful takes an overall downward shift. Using Marilyn Monroe as the basis for the original idea of beauty, the perception of beauty has undergone many changes from the original curvaceous figure of Monroe, which rose along with television in the 50s, to Twiggy’s nearly emaciated figure, popularized as runway modeling became more common, and returning to a more sexualized, yet still thin, body type with the increase in Farrah Fawcett’s popularity.
The 1950s: Marilyn Monroe

In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe, whose birth name was Norma Jean, became Playboy Magazine’s first cover model and centerfold, which resulted in Monroe becoming the sex symbol of the decade. In addition to modeling, Monroe gained popularity through her roles in films like Some Like It Hot. In the 1950s television and other forms of moving film were becoming more and more popular. People all over America were buying televisions to put in their homes, which caused moving film to play a much larger role in society than in previous decades (Boyd). This shift in entertainment created an industry in which physical beauty became vital to have a career. Monroe’s signature curly blonde hair and blue eyes helped her to stand out among the other popular actresses and models of the time. Marilyn Monroe was five feet, five inches tall and weighed between 115 and 120 pounds, giving her a BMI of 19.1 (“Marilyn Monroe’s Official Website”). In relation to present times, the current average BMI for a teenage girl is 23.7 and for women aged 20 and older it is 28.2 (Ogden). With a BMI of 19.1, Monroe was much thinner than today’s average woman. A BMI of 19.1 is considered to be a healthy weight, but it is at the lower end of the range of healthy weights (“Healthy Weight”).
Monroe’s image was that of sexuality, beauty, and youth. The hourglass shape of her body was considered to be very dramatic even without a corset to enhance her shape. Her waist size was a mere twenty-three inches compared to the measurement of her bust and hips, which were both measured at thirty-six inches (“Marilyn Monroe’s Official Website”). A waist of such a low measurement is not a normal occurrence, making her shape incredibly rare and difficult for others to emulate, not that this kept other women during this time from trying. Many others, one being Jayne Mansfield, tried their hardest to create an image like Monroe’s. Mansfield could not achieve Monroe’s success level, and she became known as the “poor man’s Monroe” (“Jane Mansfield”). Despite her incredibly tiny waist, Monroe looked as though she was a healthy woman, especially when compared to the beauty icons of later decades like Twiggy and Kate Moss. Transitioning from this healthy image of Marilyn Monroe, the models of the next decade were much thinner and had lower BMIs due to the popularity of the model Twiggy.
The 1960s: Twiggy

In the following decade, the ‘60s, Twiggy, born as Lesley Hornby, was given her nickname due to her extremely thin arms and legs. She became hugely popular after a photo shoot with photographer Barry Lategan, and she is known for creating and popularizing the mod fashion trend. The ‘60s was the decade in which runway modeling became very important to high fashion. The models of this decade were much less womanly with their boy-like figures than models of the previous decade who had shapely curves, and these new models’ bodies were bony and hanger-like (“The Rise and Fall”). In addition to the growing importance of runway modeling, the ‘60s was also a period in which American society pushed back against traditional values of the previous decade. The counterculture of the ‘60s was characterized by “long hair, rock music…tye-dye, free sex, drugs, and riots” (“The Counterculture”). Twiggy’s striking and unusual look brought her popularity in this counterculture.
Weighing only ninety pounds and standing at five feet, six and a half inches, Twiggy was an incredibly thin, bony girl, making her perfect for this new trend in modeling. Twiggy’s BMI was astonishingly low at only 14.3. The lowest healthy BMI is 18.5, so her low weight may have been a danger to her health depending on her eating habits (“Healthy Weight”). This is a drastic change from the healthy image of an hourglass shape Marilyn Monroe conveyed during the ‘50s. The only similarities between Twiggy and Marilyn Monroe are their blonde hair, although they had different hair styles, blue eyes, and, surprisingly, the measurements of their waists. Twiggy’s blonde hair was usually cropped short in a pixie cut, and it was generally styled to be sleek and straight. Monroe’s hair was generally curled in what are called pin curls, which are easily recognized as an iconic ‘50s trend. Another similarity between Twiggy and Monroe is that Twiggy’s waist size of twenty-two inches is only one inch smaller than Marilyn Monroe’s waist, but when looking at images of Twiggy and Monroe next to each other, Twiggy looks much thinner. This is due to the huge weight difference between the two of them and Twiggy’s small hip and bust measurements. Twiggy weighed thirty pounds less than Monroe, and her hips and bust measured four inches smaller than Monroe’s with a measurement of thirty-two inches (“Twiggy Biography”). These differences create the illusion that Twiggy is smaller overall, rather than only being slimmer in her hips and bust. Twiggy’s body was known for its boyish shape and bony limbs while Monroe was known for her curves and cleavage.
The 1970s: Farrah Fawcett

During the 1970s, Farrah Fawcett caused the image of beauty to revert back to an image that was relatively healthy compared to the trends set by Twiggy and other future beauty icons. Fawcett became a symbol of beauty in the 1970s as one of the three original angels in the popular television show, Charlie’s Angels. Fawcett returned beauty ideals to a more womanly shape. She was not quite as curvaceous as Monroe, but in comparison to Twiggy, Fawcett was very shapely. The women’s liberation movement largely took place in the ‘70s, and this movement seems to be a huge reason that this shift in the perception of beauty occurred. American society pushed back against the beauty ideals put in place by Twiggy in the previous decade largely to create a more powerful idea of what a beautiful woman is. Rather than idolizing Twiggy, whose thinness caused her to look weak and somewhat childish, American women began to idolize Fawcett who represented a womanly type of beauty rather than a childish beauty.
Fawcett was five feet, six and a half inches tall and weighed 123 pounds (“Farrah Fawcett”). Like Twiggy and Monroe, Fawcett continued the trend of blonde hair and blue eyes into the ‘70s. Unlike Twiggy, Fawcett’s hairstyle was anything but short and sleek. Fawcett kept her blonde hair long, and her hairstyle of feathered bangs became a huge trend during the ‘70s. Another similarity between Fawcett and Twiggy was height. Fawcett was the exact same height as Twiggy, but she weighed thirty-three pounds more. Despite this difference, Fawcett does not look strikingly larger than Twiggy due to the distribution of her weight. There are two differences between Fawcett and Twiggy that are significant. First, Twiggy’s chest measurement was only 32A, and Fawcett’s was 34C (“Twiggy at 60;” “Farrah Fawcett”). This is two full cup sizes larger and two more inches around. Second, Twiggy was representative of the mod look popular in the ‘60s, and Fawcett’s image was more sexual like Monroe’s.
Fawcett could be seen as the middle ground between Twiggy and Monroe. Fawcett had the same hourglass shape that Monroe had, but her waist curved in much less dramatically Monroe’s. Fawcett’s waist measured at twenty-four inches, and her hips measured at thirty-five inches. The difference between Fawcett’s waist measurement and hip measurement was only eleven inches compared to Monroe’s thirteen inch difference, and the difference between Fawcett’s chest measurement and her waist measurement was ten inches compared to Monroe’s thirteen inch difference. Although these two and three inch differences do not seem like much, when looking at pictures of Monroe and Fawcett side by side, it is clear that Monroe’s hips and bust were more outwardly curved than Fawcett’s. Fawcett’s BMI was 19.6, so she was considered to be a healthy weight, but the distribution of her weight needs to be looked at as well (“Healthy Weight”). The astonishing ten inch difference between her bust and her waist could account for the uneven weight distribution. Like Marilyn Monroe, Fawcett was at the lower end of the range of healthy weights.
The 1980s and 90s: Cindy Crawford

Like Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Crawford continued the healthier image of beauty as she became one of the more popular beauty icons of the 1980s. As a supermodel in the 1980s, Cindy Crawford was known for the trademark mole above her lip and her sexual image. Crawford was five feet, nine inches tall, and she weighed 130 pounds (“Cindy Crawford”). Previous icons who conveyed a sexual image as Crawford does were all actresses like Monroe and Fawcett, but Crawford breaks this trend. She was a supermodel, not an actress. This illustrates a huge shift in the perceptions of beauty in the modeling world. Typically, models are thought of as being thin with small features like chests, waists, and hips. Crawford changed this idea by becoming one of the earliest supermodels with a chest size of 34B (“Cindy Crawford (I)”).Compared to Twiggy’s bust size of 32A, this is quite a large jump up, although it is not quite up to Monroe’s 36D measurement. When comparing a picture of Monroe to one of Crawford, it may not be easy to tell just by looking that Crawford had a larger waist by three inches. This could be caused by the editing done on pictures at this time. During the ‘50s, in Monroe’s time, the technology involved in editing photos was not as readily available. The difference in bust sizes illustrates that although the image of a model had become more sexual than it was previously, it did not quite reach the level of Monroe or Fawcett’s sexual images as they were both known for their sex appeal throughout their careers.
Not only did Crawford cause a change in the idea of what a model should look like, she also caused a shift in what hair and eye colors were considered to be beautiful. Unlike the blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty icons of the previous three decades, Crawford’s hair and eyes were both brown. Compared directly to Farrah Fawcett of the ‘70s, Crawford’s hair was about equal in length to Fawcett’s, but Crawford’s hair was darker and more sleek and shiny than Fawcett’s. In addition to these interesting changes, Crawford’s BMI of 19.8 is the highest of all the beauty icons, yet she remains in the lower end of the healthy weight range (“Healthy Weight”). Making a dramatic shift in the perception of beauty, the idea of beauty in the new millennium again drifted away from the healthier image of Cindy Crawford to the thin, but still very busty, image Heidi Klum creates in.
The 2000s: Heidi Klum

Heidi Klum, a designer and model for Victoria’s Secret, is among the world’s highest paid supermodels. In addition to modeling, she hosts the television shows “Project Runway” and “Germany’s Next Top Model.” At a height of five feet, nine inches and weighing 120 pounds, Klum is much taller and thinner than the average woman. With a chest measurement of 36D, Klum is also much bustier than Kate Moss in the ‘90s (“Heidi Klum – Biography”). She has a BMI of 17.7. Her BMI is closer to a healthy weight than some of the icons in past decades, but it still places her in the underweight range (“Healthy Weight”). In comparison to Marilyn Monroe, Klum is more similar than different. The main difference though, is that Klum is a full four inches taller than Monroe, but their weight is exactly the same. Klum has two physical features that connect her to Monroe: her hair color and her bust size. Unlike Cindy Crawford, Klum has very light blonde hair like Monroe. Her blonde hair is different from Monroe’s in that it is longer and styled in a more current way, which is to be expected. Klum wears her blonde hair long and smooth. Second, Monroe and Klum have the largest chest sizes of all the icons. They both measured at a size 36D. This marks a slight shift into a more sexual image than the beauty icons of previous decades. American society has grown more sexual as time has continued on, and Klum becoming an image of beauty illustrates this. Klum is mainly known for her work with Victoria’s Secret as an underwear model, so Klum gained popularity mainly through her sex appeal. Many American women idolize the powerful and sexual image that Klum has used to further her career. Although there have been many fluctuations in the perception of beauty, Heidi Klum has continued the idea from previous decades that being tall and thin is a necessity in order to be beautiful, but she has furthered the sexuality in the ideal image of beauty.
Conclusion

Over time, the image of beauty has gone through many changes. In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe gave off a sexual image paired with a healthy, shapely body. Twiggy’s stick thin figure quickly changed the perception that curves were beautiful in the ‘60s with her unbelievably skinny limbs and unhealthy look. Farrah Fawcett and Cindy Crawford started the trend of small waists and large chests in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which continued through to the new millennium. Finally, Heidi Klum has continued the idea that tall and thin is beautiful, and she has caused American beauty values to once again be very sexual. As in the past, American society will continue to define beauty as a result of popular trends and movements that change the standards of society as time goes on.





Join the Discussion

This article has 1 comment. Post your own now!

Lina P. said...
Apr. 10, 2013 at 8:31 am
Hi, i'm Lina Pham and i'm currently doing a project at school which is VERY similar to your article. This article really heped me out alot. If you can, could you reffer anyone who can provide me with similar infomation as your article? Thank you :)
 
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback