The Ever-Changing Image by Sheryle Cruse
The saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
But what if the beholder’s eye keeps seeing something different?
Like many other girls, I grew up believing beauty was achieved only by being thin. This notion contributed to my experiences with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and self-loathing. Since that time, I have learned that beauty has many definitions. Beauty, body and image standards have changed, sometimes drastically, from era to era. The “must have” look is in one day, and out the next. Realizing this constant shift was liberating.
Take for instance the 17th century artist, Sir Peter Paul Rubens; he was obsessed with the voluptuous female figure. His “Rubenesque” women possessed rounded backsides, breasts and abdomens, all of which symbolized prosperity. These women could afford to eat well. Wealth has always been attractive, right?
What about the 19th century corset trend? The tiny waist was in demand; it exemplified well-bred beauty – aka the rich crowd. So, the “Tight Lacers” were born. In her book Courtesan, Amy Broatch includes this quote: “In my hourglass corset I’m laced every day. My little wasp waist is shrinking away. The stays squeeze me inwards so small and so nice, in a pattern of lacing that grips like a vice.” These Tight Lacers often fainted while pursuing this beauty aesthetic. Some suffered serious harm to their internal organs, as the whalebone corsets reshaped their bodies to the rigid form of the undergarment.
The moving pictures of the early 1900s gave us our first film star, Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart.” With a head full of ringlets and no hint of sexuality or womanly curves, Pickford was reassuringly girlish and embodied the easily-controlled female.
When the Roaring Twenties arrived with its “flappers,” all trace of the virginal ingénue was gone. In her place was the rebellious, sexually-free party girl. She smoked cigarettes and drank booze; her hair was bobbed short; her silhouette was small-busted and her flapper dress exposed a lot of leg.
With the 1930s came the screen siren, Marlene Dietrich. Often dressed in tailored men’s suits, she took the flapper image one step further; Dietrich flirted with her sexual identity. Hollywood was clueless about what to do with her bisexuality. Everything was up for grabs.
The 1940s wartime era returned women to the conventional safety of the curvy female form. Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth were its notable pinups, their likenesses often decorating fighter planes. Though Rosie the Riveter challenged gender roles in the workplace, beauty needed to be traditional. Female curves exemplified a safe image and a soothing perpetuation of “the status quo.”
As the American family came into focus in the post war 1950s, a curvy figure continued to be popular. Women were required to abandon the call to join the job force and instead become wives and mothers. The 1950s promoted a more reasonable vision of beauty. Our best-known sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, was celebrated as the ideal of womanhood, sexually appealing with her size 14 hourglass figure.
But female curves had a limited shelf life. The 1960s brought the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy, and a streamlining of the female appearance. As the decade continued, Great Britain’s fashion model, Twiggy, arrived with her short hair, painted-on eyelashes and gamine form. This turbulent decade with the Vietnam War, civil rights movement and a strong baby boomer presence, began to view feminine curves as antiquated.
In the 1970s, we see the rise of the “natural girl” with such models as Lauren Hutton and Cheryl Tiegs. The beauty standard emphasized healthy eating, less makeup and athletic bodies. Perhaps disillusionment arising from the Vietnam War and Watergate encouraged a belief in less artifice.
In contrast to the natural authenticity of the 1970s woman, the 1980s roared in with fashion, images and lifestyles that were larger than life. “Supermodels” like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell drove the frenzy for women to be “model thin.” The decade’s fitness explosion did nothing to discourage that sentiment. Jane Fonda’s aerobic workout tapes fed a lucrative diet and fitness industry, which validated the following doctrines: “You can never be too rich or too thin,” “Feel the burn,” and “No pain, no gain.”
The 1990s arrived with yet another significant shift. Seattle’s music scene brought grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam who displayed a disinterest in beauty and glamour. Instead they wore the grunge clothing that gave the scene its name: flannel shirts, t-shirts and ripped jeans. Was this to be an era unaffected by physical appearance? Would that it were so.
Sadly, this decade also brought with it the notion of “heroin chic.” This look was embraced on fashion pages and runways through its muse, Kate Moss. Designer Calvin Klein and others courted controversy for using Moss and other waif-like models. Ads were filled with provocative imagery, often suggesting drug use and child pornography.
With the exception of Jennifer Lopez, Kate Winslet and Beyoncé, who embodied more voluptuous womanly figures, the new millennium maintained an emphasis on a svelte figure.
This preoccupation with “thin” has continued, ushering in another troubling movement known as “Scary Skinny,” which has “size 0” for its goal, and even goes to the extreme of encouraging women to fit into negative sizes. Frail frames, prominently jutting shoulder blades and the now disturbingly coveted “thigh gaps” have begun making their appearances. This image dominates many “thinsperation,” or “thinspo,” pro-eating disorder websites. Photos of emaciated women and advice on how to achieve and effectively maintain a full-blown eating disorder are the staple for these sites.
As if there weren’t enough, another weird trend has emerged from China: the A4 tiny waist challenge. Young women are instructed to take an 8 x 10 piece of paper and hold it vertically against their midriff; if the woman’s waist size is larger than the width of the paper, she is considered fat.
Sigh . . .
Society just keeps rolling out these harmful messages. When will it stop? It can be exhausting, debilitating and life threatening to keep up with the beauty du jour.
The importance affixed to image is especially timely during the winter holiday season. The approaching New Year and its accompanying resolutions beckon women to manipulate their bodies through often-extreme attempts at weight loss. I’m sure more than one of you is considering a weight-loss resolution such as these: “This will be my year! This will be my new start! This year will be the new me!”
Days, hours, sometimes, honestly, within minutes after the New Year begins, our pursuit is unsuccessful. The desire for the ideal body was not fulfilled; the perfect image was not attained. Not seeing immediate results often leads to a feeling of failure for women. It is the curse of the unattainable New Year’s resolution.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one definition of a resolution is “the ability of a device to show an image clearly and with a lot of detail.” How fitting. Whether it’s the pressure of a New Year’s resolution or the all-year demand of an unrealistic aesthetic, it would be helpful and healthy to “show an image clearly and with a lot of detail,” to show the beauty/body/image icon for what it really is – an ever-changing fashion. This is the ultimate challenge for each of us.
If we are daring enough to believe and accept our inherent value, trends can be disempowered by one constant truth: we are already spectacular as we are despite any image trend. Embrace that truth and embrace healing.
Here’s to a Happy New Year and a happier, healthier life!
Copyright © 2016 by Sheryle Cruse
Sheryle Cruse has a passion for encouraging and empowering young girls and women to live their lives free from the damage of their life experiences. No matter what disorder, obstacle or argument, Cruse’s message declares relationship with God, vibrant health and a prosperous life are possible. Sheryle lives in Minnesota with her husband, Russell, writing articles for faith-based and recovery magazines, and speaking on disordered eating/image issues.