Still, in recent years the forces shaping ideals of feminine physical beauty have shifted markedly. The most notable of them is that, as part of a more general democratization of image consumption and production, women themselves began redefining the ideals to which they aspire. This means that many more notions of beauty are now available. Consider, for instance, the ways that figure shaping has altered over the centuries. Some 150 years ago, women in Europe began wearing bustles beneath their dresses that greatly enlarged the profile of their buttocks. The bustle had replaced hoop stays, which had produced an inverted-goblet figure.
More recently, the notion of sculpting has been applied directly to the body. In the 1960s, it took the form of dieting, which produced the sort of extremely skinny figure we associate with such models as Twiggy
. Her thinness connoted vitality, an escape from the matronhood idealized by earlier generations, as well as an innocent, insouciant sexuality that was not dissimilar to a Roman-era depiction of the Three Graces
. Consumerism, of which diet fads are certainly a part, has significantly expanded the range of off-the-shelf options for bodily enhancement. In the 1980s and ’90s, women frequently turned to surgery—breast or buttocks augmentation, nose jobs—and other non-surgical interventions (Botox, tanning).
It bears noting that if art holds a mirror up to culture, it has with rare exception failed to reflect a manifestation of female beauty of the last decade, one imagined into being by women themselves: the high-performance, muscled athlete. Popular magazines like ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” have made gestures in this direction, by putting women like Serena Williams on the cover. But, in large part, art seems not to have taken account of the fact that the athlete has become a figure of everyday life, not just a pro.
However, if the following tour tells us anything it is that resistance is futile: we as a society, be it global or national, will always concoct versions of perfection—and aspire to remake ourselves in their image.