Anyone who follows fashion knows how specifically things like clothing, hair or even make-up change over time. When a model was shot in the 1980s or 1960s, for example, you can often tell so at a glance. And that becomes even more evident when you are dealing with the 30s, the 20s or even earlier.
What is true of fashion, is also true of the body itself. Bodies change over time because of the influence of diet, culture and lifestyle. But they are change because different looks are chosen as being a la mode by cultures in different periods. Certainly, women tended to be heavier in the time of Peter Paul Rubens – an era in which being fatter was associated with economic success and sensuality. But he himself executed a selection process in which he chose the best models of this type to include in his paintings.
Once we get into the age of photography we have a clear record of the change in what is fashionable in body types over time. After decades in which saftig female bodies were celebrated, fashioned changed in the 1920s toward a more boyish physique – slender, youthful and flat chested. In the 1930s the trend was toward more glamor, somebody like Jean Harlow – plunging necklines (without push up bras), flowing fabric, very sexy. The 40s brought in the sweater girl and bathing beauty, Jane Russell and her cantilevered bra (supposedly designed by Howard Hughes). This style continued to involve into the 50s with every more curvaceous bodies – Marilyn Monroe, Jane Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and the the like. The sex kitten followed in the 1960s, exemplified by Bridget Bardot – although there were plenty of examples of more buxom and shapely females as well.
There have sometimes been some more athletic women in the public eye. Swimmer/actress, with a gorgeous and very athletic body, made her screen debut in 1944 in a movie called Bathing Beauty. Norwegian skater Sona Hennie (three-time Olympic Champion, ten time World Champion and six-time European Champion) was one of the highest paid actresses in the movies. But neither of these women had a great deal of visible muscularity or definition.
But when women with muscles came along in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was little precedent for this kind of body. Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines called this kind of physique “a new archetype,” and pointed out there were no examples of this kind of body in any country at any time in all of history. Of course, being so new and revolutionary these women have encountered a lot of resistance from the culture. And this is still going on, with the physique federations gradually trying to replace the extreme sport of bodybuilding for women with various kinds of beauty contests for athletic women.
But this new archetype has had an effect. Just as there are almost no action heroes in the movies without outstanding physiques since the public got to see Arnold, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme the example of super fit women has filled the gyms of the world with aspiring actresses, models and beauty contestants. Big muscles are not the trend, but defined abs and legs and cute little biceps are.
Of course, the story is different women in comes to women athletes. Both male and female athletes nowadays know that being stronger and in better condition improves performance. Women sprinters look like bodybuilders. Serena Williams is huge and tends to overpower her opponents with 125 mph serves. A bigger, stronger athlete is a better one, all things considered.
Nowadays we see a lot of older actresses continuing their careers as leading ladies long past the age women would have switched to character roles. Many supermodels have maintained their looks and appeal into their 30s and beyond. The reason is largely lifestyle – attention to diet, avoiding substance abuse and spending time working out with weights in the gym. In so far as women being youthful and physically attractive, 40 really is the new 25. There is a reason that the term “cougar” has come into popular use.
It is also no coincidence that the shift in fashion toward “hardbodies” happened when it did. There have been people doing weight training throughout history and the idea of dieting to lose body fat is certainly not new. But the modern approach to exercise and diet started to develop in the 1970s and has continued to evolve every since. Nowadays it is possible to use the most effective and efficient means ever devised to shape and develop the body, to get lean and hard and to achieve outstanding muscle definition. This information has trickled down from pro bodybuilders to become available to just about anyone – just as elite racing teams invent technology that ends up in the family car (disk brakes, the rear view mirror).
So a lot of people, female and male, have developed outstanding athletic physiques for the major reason that they now know how to do this. There are photos of celebrities exercising with gym equipment going back decades. Working out with Indian clubs. Marilyn Monroe doing dumbbell flyes. Weights and pulleys. Given what we know today, this all looks kind of quaint. And inefficient. We know know how training the muscles and controlling body fat is one in the most effective and efficient way possible. The prevalence of really great bodies – even in the age of obesity – is proof that this is true.
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY & MOTION