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. 33 Comments.

  1. 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.

  2. silviadeangelis40d

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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: http://www.domesticviolencearoundus.com My Blog: http://www.davidwolanski.com My Instagram(s) https://www.instagram.com/dave.wolanski/ https://www.instagram.com/dave_wolanski/

    • 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.

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

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