The Plump Beauty Ideal: Exotic Dancers in 1890

Once upon a time “plump” was the beauty ideal.

Check out this post by Lisa Wade @ Sociological Images

I recently had the pleasure of reading Peter Stearns’ Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.  The book chronicles the shift in American history from a plump to a thin ideal. The beauty of Stearns’ book is his resistance to reducing the shift in norms to a simple cause. Instead, he traces the changes to conflicts between capitalism and religion, the backlash against women’s equality, industrialization and the devaluation of maternal roles, fashion trends, the professionalization of medicine, our cultural relationship to food, and more.

Stearns is quite specific in timing the change, however, pointing to the years between 1890 and 1910.  In these 20 years, he writes:

…middle-class America began its ongoing battle aginst body fat.  Never previously an item of systemic public concern, dieting or guilt about not dieting became an increasing staple of private life, along with a surprisingly strong current of disgust directed against people labeled obese.

I thought of Stearns’ book when I came across a delightful collection of photographs of exotic dancers taken in 1890, the year he pinpoints as the beginning of the shift to thinness.  From a contemporary perspective, they would likely be judged as “too fat,” but their plumpness was exactly what made these dancers so desirable at the time.

This piece was originally posted @ Sociological Images

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I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on April 25, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, sexism, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. However, what made plump appealing in 1890 is the corset, which created that hip/waist ratio. If you’re among hobbyists like those in the SCA, the plump women seem to be the most appealing in those corseted clothes.

  2. While I still hate the objectification of women and the amount of importance that our society has always and still does place on beauty…(and the corset factor aside)…it is refreshing to see images of women who have bodies like mine…and that are not airbrushed!
    Warmly,
    Dr. Deah

  3. I will say that was a little surprised when I read this article because, being a white male at age twenty, i have been raised with the ideal that thin is better, and larger is worse (as far as body weight goes). It cuaght me off guard when I had read that there in fact was a time in which larger females were considered to be more attractive than those with no body fat whatsoever. But I say that this time period is good, why not appreciate women all around? Imagine a world without judging…ha. That’ll be the day! We are all taught what is “good” and what is “bad,” but what about what is “normal?” I wish we could feel free to live without any form of judgement.

  4. Interesting, I think the evolution of the ‘ideal’ body type is fascinating. I think in an ideal world a “healthy” body type being the most attractive would be great! Too skinny is unhealthy and dangerous just as being overweight is. I personally like Doves “real beauty” campaign and I while I haven’t noticed other campaigns similar to it, I would hope that this sort of acceptance of all types of beauty will be more common. Also, from a non-random and very limited selection of men, majority of guys whom I’ve spoken too about body types find “model skinny” to be off putting and a bit frightening. If a woman is happy and healthy, she will exude confidence which to me (and many men, I’m sure) find sexiest.

  5. The amount of pressure for young women to be dangerously and unanaturally thin to be deemed attractive is detrimental to women and our society in general. Eating disorders are becoming all the more common in our culture and the war against fat and obesity is plain cruel. Everyone is born with a different body type, and the majority of the models we see today are either naturally skinny or have eating disorders themselves. The idea that women need to model themeselves after these impossible figures is unfair and unachievable and only creates body image issues and lack of self confidence for women. In the past, women were celebrated for being soft and plump and the beauty ideal was much more relaxed then it was today. We need to go back to celebrating women’s bodies as they are and encourage healthy body image in all people.

  6. It used to be that, for white women, the paler the skin the more attractive as it indicated the woman was well-off and did not need to work outside the home. Even Queen Elizabeth I would apply lead to her face in order to whiten it! Now a tan is seen as highly attractive – a woman who can afford the luxury of sunnier climes and indulges herself, be it lazing on the beach or by keeping fit outdoors. I think as social conditions change, what is deemed attractive, and therefore the fashions that evolve in order to attain those standards change with it. It is a pity that many, both men and especially women, do not realise that many of these fads, be it lead make-up or being a size 0, are merely arbitrary notions of attraction and that trying to meet them is often detrimental to both one’s physical and mental health.

  7. I enjoyed seeing these images of women, who have real figures. My boyfriend glanced over and he said ooh I like that one (the last image on the bottom) he said he can tell she has a big butt by her hips. While it’s true that being too overweight is as unhealthy as being underweight, it is nice to see imaged in magazines that look more like your everyday kind of women. Nowadays, even “thicker” women have teeny tiny waists; I don’t understand how they can have such big butts and large breasts with flat little tummies. Back when these photos were taken, I know that wearing a corset helped, but nowadays, the women are wearing practically nothing. I know that many images are photo shopped though, which cause women to feel inferior, because they don’t live up to the images they see in the media. I used to like reading Cosmo magazine, but now I prefer to read Glamour. Glamour magazine has featured quite a few “plus size” models in their fashion spreads, but they do not mention that the models are plus size. Some people complained, but most women were happy to see these images in their favorite magazine. I actually cute some pictures out and made a collage of “real women”, not fake computer images. While most photos feature tall, skinny, unhappy looking models, it gives me hope that things can change in our society, where we can learn to see the beauty in every human being…..

  8. Unfortunately I think it’s more common than we think: a lot of girls have unhealthy relationships with food. And suffer from some form of bodydysmorfic insanity. The media compartmentalizes beauty into a very narrow (no pun intended) and rigid definition. From the 80’s-90’s the very deer in the headlights strung-out-on-cocaine look was very in. Amongst my friends I am seeing a shift back towards fuller women. I beleive the term we use nowadays is “thick”. Curves are soultry, sexy. Historically the ancient fertility figure Venus of Villendorf was very thick and plump an ideal body for bearing children. However the ancient Greeks and Romans were obsessed with a perfected body image but not to the extremes we see today. Dieting and excersize is definately a modern day phenomenon. In order to have free time on your hands and enough resources to pick, choose, and even limit your calorie (energy) intake is a luxury of upper middle class. If you’re living in poverty you’re just worried about your next meal to get by not looking like a Victorias Secret model.

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