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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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social 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. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on April 25, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, sexism, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. This is an exciting topic. It is a reality that many women live in. However, I believe that everything has to do with insecurity. We feel insecure about our physique all the time, most slim women want to have a little more curves, and curvy women want to have more petite curves. In most cases, public figures and women impose this influences beauty standards. For example, Kim Kardashian set a curvy body and cosmetic surgeries. Many women save up to the last dollar to have surgery and look like Kim. However, after surgery, these same women regret it and then feel that they must continue to change their physique. Everything is due to insecurity, and I think that as a society, we should talk more about accepting ourselves and trying to be thin for health reasons, not for aesthetics.

    • Well, Western women are taught to be insecure because that’s how you sell product. You convince someone that they are too fat or something and then sell them weight loss diets, gym memberships, low calorie food, clothing that will make them feel thinner… In fact women’s magazines are tied in with advertisers who actually request that they do certain media to tie in with whatever they are selling.

      If you go someplace like indigenous societies that haven’t been affected by Western media you don’t that. Like the Kong as recently as the late 1970s. Same with Tongans before they were exposed to our television.

      In addition, women are taught to harm themselves for love. It’s a way of supporting patriarchy — women being submissive. So in societies where there is abundant food women are taught to starve themselves to be loved. In places where there’s hardly any food women are taught to gorge themselves even to the point of their skin splitting. If they don’t do it, their mothers squeeze their toes so hard that they can’t stand the pain and they will eat.

      Mind you, patriarchy and men are two different things. Many men are against patriarchy — a system that privileges and values men over women.

      Hmmm, I feel a future blog post coming on. Maybe two. Thank you.

  2. I think this article is really interesting because it shows how beauty standards change over time. Right now the beauty standard is to have thin and toned everything. Even though some celebrities have thin waists and big chests and hips, models at the moment are still all thin all around, no curves at all. I think it would be interesting to see how society reacts is a Victoria’s Secret model had curves and actually resembled an average female. The women in the pictures are portrayed as having many curves and this was the standard of beauty back then. This article just shows that beauty and its definition can change drastically over time. In addition, I think the standard of beauty now is starting to change a bit too. Not too drastically, but as more “plus-sized” models enter mainstream modeling, it is important to realize that they are being more accepted every day. I think society and women, especially, would have a much better time growing up if average sized models were in magazines and clothing stores. Then, women would not feel the need to try and achieve unrealistic beauty standards.

  3. One of the hardest parts about being female is the societal pressures. I was aware that thin was not always beautiful. I am aware that even now in many South American cultures, the bigger one is the prettier one is considered. However, I think the hardest and saddest part is even though I know that trends are changing, slightly I still strive to be that image of perfection, as society would call it. I want to change from my size 3 to a size 1. Sometimes when I do think that I am fit enough, I run into beautiful skinnier people and wish to be like them. I know that if I moved elsewhere, my weight might be the definition of beautiful yet it would never be enough for me because American’s society of beautiful has already been so ingrained into my mind, since the time I was a little girl.

  4. 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.

  5. 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…..

  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. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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!
    Dr. Deah

  11. 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.

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