The Plump Beauty Ideal: 1890s Exotic Dancers

Exotic dancer from the 1890s.

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. You might also be interested in When Whiteness is the Standard of Beauty at their site.

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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 November 30, 2021, in body image and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. I really enjoyed being able to see the pictures of the dancers. The photographers choice to use these pictures to highlight the year that he saw as the shift to more thinner body shape standards is very impressive because he captures an interesting look into the women who might be seen as the most attractive that time. I would love to read his book because I have wondered how we got to the point of idealizing thinness in the mainstream media and the beauty industry.

  2. Oftentimes the beauty standard of today is masked by the idea of health. Women who are skinny are meant to be healthier than the heavier women. And yet in some cases the two women are of equal health. It’s also masked by the class system. Before, when the beauty standard was the plump ideal, the wealthy showed their influence by eating all the food that was available to them, whilst the lower classes had whatever they could find and oftentimes remained skinny. Nowadays the rich can afford exercising classes and often eat less and more expensive foods, while the cheaper foods are created to be unhealthy and cost less than other substitutes. The ideal body type is ever changing and as we’ve seen it always promotes one body type no matter what it is. It’s a frustrating dynamic.

    • I find it fascinating that evolutionarily psychology says that men, in particular, or looking for markers of health indicated by what we consider to be attractive. And yet Victoria’s Secret models are so skinny that they can’t menstruate and reproduce. Whereas in some places in west Africa women are encouraged to be obese. Not healthy either. I think the health argument is a very poor one used to mask the shame that many men feel about their desire. And evolutionarily psychology is heavily influenced by its society.

  3. Reblogged this on sketchuniverse and commented:

  4. Being able to have photographic evidence of this period in time in which natural curves were a beauty standard. Being able to see the evolution of beauty standards and the trends throughout the years is incredibly remarkable. Beauty standards and trends are a part of society that can create toxic mindsets and environments for those who don’t fit or want to fall into the norm at the time. Therefore having evidence of all the different body times that at some point in history was a trend or the idle is encouraging to see that all is beautiful.

  5. It is crazy how much beauty standards have changed over the years. And I am glad being more curvy is not a problem so much anymore because I believe no women should be looked down upon. I think every women is equally beautiful just the way they are. I’m glad we are moving in that direction where plus size women are not looked down upon as much and every women is being good looked upon.

  6. I think that ever-changing body trends are the bane of my existence. I feel like they exist as a way to control and police the female body–I can’t stop thinking about the ways diet culture targets young women at especially early ages. I also feel like body trends also exist as an expression of power: when food is scarce, it seems that heavier bodies are more trendy, but in today’s day in age, where healthy food is more expensive and low-income areas are targetted as food deserts (places where only fast food is available) thinness can be more than a small body. All of this is also wholly unfair based on how natural metabolism affects every individual’s body.

  7. It’s very crazy to see how much the beauty standards has changed over the years because beforehand as shown in this post, curves were so much more valued. However, during the past few years being petite has been the “norm.” I do think though that more recently, lots more people think of having a flat stomach with curves and a bigger breast/butt to be the beauty standard which is very hard to perfect. Some people get work and surgery done to achieve this which some are trying to normalize more as of recently. And I think I have mixed emotions with this.

  8. It is interesting to see how society changes the norms for how individuals should look. From the blog there was a picture of an exotic dancer back in 1890 who is labeled as being “plump”, but back then that was seen as attractive and normal for women to be “plump”. In a lot of sculptures and art pieces on women, they are often portrayed as being a little overweight, but this was because it signified fertility and that the women was in good health and could have children. It did not take long for society to change its views on what size women’s body’s should look like. Nowadays it is the norm to have a cinched small waist, with a curvy lower body and plump breasts. The norm also includes getting plastic surgery, Botox, fillers, and corsets to get fast results to achieve this standard that society sees as normal.

  9. It’s insane to think about how drastically beauty standards change so quickly especially for women, and how it’s been happening since 1890. We see it still to this day. In the early 2000’s when Britney and Christina Aguilera were at their prime, it was in to be skinny. Then came the Kardashian era and how curvier girls were “in”. Fat shaming still happens to this day. I know some countries it’s a sign of wealth to be on the heavier side, but it is less common than before.

  10. I think the transition between drastically different ideal body size over time has a lot to do with changing beauty standards as well as standardized sizing. Being heavier set used to be equated to wealth and high social standing, but between 1890 and 1920 the tables turned completely and bigger people were seen as disgusting (and are arguably still fat shamed today). Once the Industrial Revolution began, standardized sizing was born. No longer were women going to tailors to be fitted and made garments that fit. Mass produced clothing became a lot more popular and women became confined to smalls, mediums, larges, and other numbered clothing. And as we confined women to just a few choices, we as a society began to subscribe to the idea of us adapting to clothing rather than having clothing adapt to us. As someone who has struggled her whole life with body dysmorphia, I appreciate where we’re heading as a society in terms of self-love regardless of size. I am noticing there are more plus-size brands and options these days but we still have a lot more to do in the name of body positivity and combating fat shaming.

  11. This topic is something I have always found interesting. At one point heavier people were seen as more attractive and wealthy because they ate well. Now these people would be labeled as “lazy, fat or unhealthy”. It’s interesting how the ideal body type has changed and it makes me wonder if it will ever change again. Another thing that many people fail to realize that you can be overweight and still be healthy. I think that we should strive to be happy and healthy without having to strive to look like the ideal women or man.

  12. I find this fascinating how what society deems sexy once is no longer ideal. I always thought woman looked healthier plump and thick but obviously, it’s however someone feels comfortable. I don’t think appeasing the male gaze is really important but I know as a society it is something women are taught to do since childhood. I find it frustrating honestly, but I love these ladies! It is interesting how the ideal body for society has changed but, it’s more important to love your body than to want to fit into the norm.

  13. This is a very interesting topic. In the past, being plump meant that you were wealthy and ate well, and it was also a sign of good health for child bearing. This was attractive to men at the time. Even after 1910, Marilyn Monroe, who was somewhere around a size 10, was wildly popular and attractive. The shift in what an ideal body shape is from plump to very thin has ultimately become a problem, leading many women to take extreme measures to achieve these ideals. Anorexia, bulimia, and substance abuse have all, in recent years, come to light as being unhealthy. We are now seeing a shift away from the unhealthy ideal of ultra thin toward a more curvy ideal of beauty.

  14. I think these images really reflect how beauty standards are unrealistic because they come and go just like trends do. During the Marilyn Monroe era, she was an icon for her pretty face, blonde hair and hourglass body. As the years went by this changed drastically and many women desired the very thin look. Diets became staple for many women and eating disorders took an all time high. Even in the 2000’s I remember watching a movie and a woman was asking a friend if her hips and behind looked too wide. It’s ironic to hear that now that the beauty standard has evolved to a more extreme take on the curvy look. Women want tiny waist big breasts and a big booty. It just goes to show that you can never win. Beauty standards will continue to change so the best thing we can do is just take care of our bodies and love it for all that it does for us.

  15. Beauty standards like any other thing changes as society does. Societal norms and standards shape the people of that time. Plump people for example were once considered higher class and prettier than skinner people. This was due to plumpness being a sign of wealth. Now as societal standards change, we can see a shift in what people see as the ideal beauty. It may have been plump people back then, but now it is clear that the societal standard of beauty is skinny. The people of that society may not feel pretty unless they meet the standard.

  16. It is so interesting to see the way they use to see women and how it has changed every new generation. We can see that in 1890 plump or thick women were seen as the perfect women. I still can’t understand why we as a society only look at how we look like. I believe that the physique changes with age you will never be that size you were at 10 or keep it the way you want your body grows or has other plans to help or protect you. And instead of looking at people or women in that way, we should focus on the dreams, wishes, or other impotent things instead of who a woman should be seen in the eyes of a man or society.

  17. Beauty standards have evolved over time. It is incredibly surprising how our society now is just learning to accept curves and shapes. In the 1900’s is when women with collar bones and jaw lines were considered “sexy” and “beautiful”. Having some fats or curves were considered “lazy” or “ugly”. However, the beauty standards of the 1800’s are coming back. I believe being plump should not be looked down upon. Women should not be forced to look a certain way. Rather should be accepted no matter what they look because they are beautiful in their own way.

  18. I believe beauty standards change and have changed over the years. As stated, the plumpiness of the girls/ women at the time was what made them desirable and they were thought to be beautiful. The shift to thinness as a beauty standard doesn’t sit well with me as I believe that a little fat or healthy fats is okay. Being plump doesn’t degrade ones beauty and as long as the fat doesn’t affect the health of the individual, it’s perfectly fine if the person is okay with the way the person looks. However, society today has influenced even the way we view our selves and not meeting the standard society has set.

  19. I really enjoyed reading this post. It seems as if our society continues to give in and believe what appearance is socially “normal” and “accepted” in today’s society. These beliefs have caused unfortunate problems and issues with health due to women constantly attempting to feel accepted, and to fit in so they go on these unhealthy rigorous diets causing more damage to themselves. Normalizing that being “fat” is just as beautiful as being “skinny” with a woman’s body. As mentioned in the book, the body structure of being “plump” was exactly necessary. As a community, we can come together to make this shift in these normal impressions and normalize accepting the image of any and every body.

  20. A wonderful post, Georgia. It is always amazing to see how ideals evolve over time and to have someone analyze it more closely would make for a great read. Love the photos you in this post ~ a but of nostalgia. It seems there is a larger variety of ideal body types these days versus a couple decades ago, so slowly I would guess we are seeing more acceptance but then again it may be just a swing back to the other extreme and we’re just around the middle right now 🙂

  21. Thank you for this (and the pictures). I’ve heard about this book and how it examines the significance of obesity in Western society (showing how progressive trends, such as the expansion of consumer culture, rising equality for women, and the refocusing of women’s sexual and parental duties) have created this fixation on fat. I remember the days of Marilyn Monroe — the plump and curvy look was deemed attractive. I want to say we’re moving towards more healthy ideals of weight and (with strong bodies being key), however, remembering the 90’s (and being traumatized, truthfully) — the image of their Calvin Klein models still pop in my head from time to time (causing me to judge myself and my own weight). Happy to be reminded that we need to focus on what’s good for ourselves, as relying on our culture’s trends would only be foolish…

  22. Fascinating blog post on what was considered the American standard for beauty back in the 1800s and how over time what those standards would eventually evolve to today. Think some potential major factors in the shift from “plump” to “thin” are corporate advertisements bombarding people with the idea that thin is the standard for beauty and lack of accessibility to view different forms of beauty. What I mean by this is that corporations had the money to push their products through magazines, news articles, eventually radio, and television. So, this slow transition standards from “plump” too thin “thin.” Today, I believe standards are slowly becoming more diverse and that’s because of accessibility due to the internet and allowing people to realize that corporate standards are not everyone’s, which was easier to convince people since they can manipulate all forms of advertisement. Now, even when you go to your local target you can find models, female, or male, of all body types. Of course, there is a multitude of factors to why thin because a new standard in America and I am not limiting it the two previously mentioned, I just believe that those are some of the biggest factors.

    • Yeah, I think that there is more diversity to do which is really good. I think it might have to do with people be coming more educated. Years ago was valued and I think it’s largely because you can sell so much product with an impossible ideal. Diet plans, two memberships, clothing to make you look thinner, etc. so I agree with you there.

  23. Anyone who ever looked at ancient Greek statues or baroque paintings knows that more ample physiques were appreciated more before the 20th century, but I’d beware of saying anything was ever “the ideal”. Exotic dancers were probably kind of a niche.

    Theda Bara, Clara Bow, and Lilian Gish all coexisted as admired appearances, though they were typecast in different roles. (fleshy, sexy, “vamp” — fun, active “boyish” — innocent girl, respectively) These types have all persisted ever since, in some way. The Theda Bara physique is more in the margins now, but still could be found in “exotic” dancers of the 1950s and 60s.

    I’d be interested in seeing an analysis of Male physiques, and how they interact with character types in the female gaze. Do these three types have something comparable for men? What other types exist?

    • I am not aware of a lot of research on the male body. Other than that one study found that most men thought that women preferred a more muscular type whereas women actually preferred less muscle but definitely liked toned. More Cosmopolitan, less Men’s Health.

      The male body is ignored much more than the female body is. Maybe that’s because men have been in power for most of history and have focused on what they found appealing, which for most men is women.

      But it’s an interesting question. Definitely something to think about.

  24. silviadeangelis40d

    Remarkable images, which I very much appreciated.
    Best wishes, silvia

  25. From what I understand, the shift on how women were perceived and the societal standard changed from the acceptance and even glorification of women deemed as “plump” to the new perception of beauty which was very slim. I think that this changes every few decades to keep the “beauty” industry and fashion industry a float. By changing from one standard to the other, women who have followed the trends and change their look to fit in or be desirable by society’s standards spend thousands of dollars on dieting, fitness fads and operations to give them the look that is being sold to them. It is a cruel and unethical practice and all the large companies and funders backing the industry should be fined a large sum to compensate for the mental and physical damage they induced by spreading and pushing made up standards for beauty.

    • Yes, a lot of the reason for the slim a deal is you can sell a lot of product: diet, exercise equipment, gym membership, clothing that looks slimming, both in clothing style and undergarments, etc.

  26. The topic that was most intriguing to me was the photos in the middle of the blog. From these images, they remind me of the conversations that have been brought up now. The reason why I see this is due to the most recent trend of getting Brazillian Butt Lifts. These cosmetic surgeys have created the hour glass figure with a tiny waist. I bring this up because in the photos, you can see the hourglass figure from these women from the 1800’s. Women during this time began to recieve some backlash for their figure because “Middle class America began its on going battle against body fat…public concern, dieting, or guilt about not dieting became an increasing staple of private life” (Peter Sterns). The reason why I include this it to show that there was a rise in making public comments regarding someone’s private life. In recent times, however, there has been an increase in body positivity. I personally agree with the uprise of body positivity because I am a medium sized individual and I have always fluxuated with my weight. With seeing women of different sizes come together and show themselves in these ranges has created a love affair of gaining these positive thoughts about myself.

  27. I liked this article and I feel that this should be the way now. It should not matter whether you are skinny or curvy. Nowadays, I feel like eating disorder is becoming a trend or women need to be skinny, it is crazy how many young girls we see every day at the pediatric office regarding the eating disorder, it is crazy! they are so beautiful just the way they are, but I guess is hard for them to see that. I also thought that our “beauty standards” were specifically from 1800-1900, but I was wrong. it seemed that they saw women in a different way.

    • Yes there are actually quite a few variations in theory ideals in the US. Early on a strong sturdy woman who had plenty of meat on her bones was valued because she look like she could handle farm work. And then you get the corset look which was meant to brag that your husband/family had enough resources that you didn’t have to work. Around the 1960s a super skinny look was valued and then in the 1980s a more muscled and toned look. With the advent of breast implants the preference was large breasts and skinny otherwise. And then J Lo and the Kardashians popularized a thicker look.

      And that’s just the US. Go outside of the US and you will find that pretty much every body type has been valued by some culture.

  28. It’s interesting that between the years 1890 through 1910 how the preferred body shape for women greatly changed. This is similar to the contemporary example of how just a few years ago if somebody said somebody had a “big butt” it was considered an insult, and there were all those special exercises and seen-on-tv products that would make your butt smaller, while today a large butt is popular and brazilian butt lift ( a procedure that makes your butt larger) is super popular right now! There’s probably many examples of beauty standards changing within a short period of time. It makes one wonder what will be the next “beautiful” trend, maybe in 30 years big ears will be popular or maybe super small feet will make a comeback.

  29. Just like many other topics, people are bound to have varying viewpoints on this subject. I have read comments on this post of people being proud that there is now an awareness to the downside of being “stocky” or “thick”. Other comments express how they are happy that there is not one national ideal body image. I found it interesting to read that many people enjoyed watching these exotic dancers due to their body figures, yet after this time period, is when women pursued a slimmer body shape. This could of possibly had to do with the fact that these exotic dancers were receiving attention due to their body figures, other women not wanting to have that type of spotlight maybe though dieting would keep them away from the eyes and pressures from others. Yet, it worked the opposite, when women become more mentally hyper-focused of themselves. I think people’s opinions will always vary due to family background illness, stereotypes, eating disorders and/or personal preference. I believe as long as a whole we can understand that our health and body image do have factors that go hand in hand but not always, we will be able to find a middle ground to accepting ourselves more while keeping our health in mind. Balance.

    • It seems that the reason the ideal change to being thin is because food became more abundant. The ideal is often to be tied to what’s difficult for women to do. In poor countries obesity is valued and thought beautiful.

      Other beauty ideals seem to be tied to this empowering women and hence highlighting the wealth of her husband. Foot binding crippled women so they couldn’t do any work and needed servants. Unfortunately the lower classes copied the beauty ideal and crippled women were out in the fields. Of course it is similar. Take a corset and a huge hoop skirt and women couldn’t do much.

  30. As time goes on, the ideas about medicine and many other revelations about the ideals of social change the way women are viewed by each other and by men. This book is an excellent example of bringing to light the timeline in which weight, a heavier weight, was desirable because of wealth and other factors and then seen as something not desirable. New advances in practices like medicine show obesity as something undesirable. Trends throughout history show all forms of how women view their bodies and want to be seen by others. It’s interesting to see how people from the past would view our ideal body type, which is moving towards all bodies despite differences would be madly different than the women in the photos that were ideal for the thickness of their body types and the profession they were in during the 1890s.

  31. Of course as society became more scientific our standard of beauty became more scientific. Standards of beauty founded on science and reason produce more pleasurable outcomes than standards of beauty founded on religion and Abrahamic influence.

    • Where do you get this idea? I’m not aware of the Bible talking about any particular body type being preferable. And anorexic Victoria’s Secret angels are not scientifically healthy.

  32. Women were once fancied to be plus sized in European and other various countries during B.C. eras. This displayed a sign of fertility and health. Today there are a few countries who continue to value the shape of a full-figured woman. In areas of Africa, it is believed that a robust woman denotes wealth. A quote from Peter Stearns ‘Fat History: Bodies and Beauties In The Modern West’ reads, “… America began it’s ongoing battle against body fat. Never previously an item of systemic public concern..” The author suggested that the new trend of staying thin was beginning to take a bigger effect and implied vast recognition from the fact that obesity was beginning to be viewed as an attack on the human population. It became a cause for concern and the words disgust were used to specify these “plump” women. My thoughts are, that there are women from all cultures and genetic backgrounds. We are all meant to be shaped and built differently. That is what makes a woman truly beautiful and unique.

  33. Although the reasoning behind the ideal body type changing to one that is more slim is something I do not stand by (i.e to appease men’s desires) I am some one who appreciates the fact that we became more aware that we aren’t at our best health when obese. I grew up obese like many Americans, was pre diabetic, had terrible eating habits, and had many family members pass away due to weight related illnesses. I wish my family and I learned healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices growing up over struggling to learn now. People are beautiful regardless of size or shape and we shouldn’t feel pressured to fit anyones “ideal” body type. We should just strive to stay happy, healthy, and be the best selves we can be.

    It’s very interesting how things have changed so much since then. It’s nice knowing that plus sized women were appreciated. The only thing is women were still facing body discrimination like we do today but for different body types unfortunately. It seems like we’re moving in the direction where we appreciate all bodies and not only are seen as beautiful but people allow themselves to feel beautiful too.

  34. Interesting! I would fit in quite nicely among those 1890s beauties 😀

  35. I like that they were not so thin and having good dancing legs/thighs. The waist however was definitely to small. They are all Hour glass figures.

  36. Nice blog post. I love the work you’re doing.

    The link at the end that is supposed to go to the 1890s collection goes to other sites for xrated dating or ED pills…

    Dave Website for the most important photo work I’ve ever done: My Blog: My Instagram(s)

    • Ha ha, must be a magical link. When I went there it took me to clothing for women. I took the link out but now I’m curious to see what kinds of sites other people would have landed on.

      Each December I do a re-post (as a Christmas present to myself) and this is from 2012 so I guess the link shifted in the meantime.

      Looks like you have a cool blog. Thanks for chiming in.

  37. So, this period was a period of flattening of curves!

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