WOMEN’S BEAUTY YESTERDAY AND TODAY
1. THE CONCEPT OF FEMALE BEAUTY
1.1 The mystery of beauty
There is not one, unequivocal definition of beauty: it is something that attracts, that strikes, compelling the eyes of the beholder to gaze unrestrained in wonder, or even in ecstasy.
It is difficult to establish what beauty really is: it could be described as “a bodily characteristic”, studied since the beginning of time, and yet still not fully understood or clearly definable.
Charles Baudelaire wrote: “There are as many kinds of beauty as there are habitual ways of seeking happiness”, focusing on the subjective nature of beauty. Opinion shared by the philosopher Davide Hume: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”.
Since time immemorial philosophers, writers and artists have questioned the concept of female beauty and have coined many aphorisms.
For the Latin writer Seneca, real beauty lies in harmony and proportion:
“A beautiful woman is not one with wonderful arms or legs, but one who as a whole is so beautiful that it is impossible to admire each single part”.
The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope agrees with Seneca:“Tis not the lip, or eye, we beauty call. But the joint force and full result of all”.
The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, however, emphasizes the relativity of female beauty”: “But what is beauty? A mere convention, a coin made current by time and place”.
Other thinkers stress its fleeting, ephemeral nature:
“Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you see both their beauty and their death” (M. Barbery);
“Beauty is a visitor, coming without warning, transforming for an hour, a day sometimes for longer; crumbling at a breath, vanished again” (R. Lehmann);
“When we can see beauty, it is forever lost”(M. Soldati);
“Beauty passes like perfume in the air, its only reminder a regret”
The Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde had a completely different view:“Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies fall away like sand, and creeds follow one another like the withered leaves of Autumn; but what is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity”.
Many, however, agree on an irrefutable truth: beauty is of the body but is not just confined to its exterior. On this point we can quote Mahatma Gandhi: “True beauty lies in purity of the heart”, or Audrey Hepburn’s words: “The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. […] The beauty of a woman only grows with passing years”.
Describing beauty with its many facets is almost impossible, but one factor is certain: beauty is something that generates pleasure both in those who possess it as well as in those who observe it.
Women have always striven to be beautiful, but certainly never as much as today. In modern society the cult of body grooming has grown to such an extent that it seems to have become even more important than morals or intellect: a real obsession, a goal to reach at any cost, using if necessary lifting and tucking techniques, and even plastic surgery to reduce some parts or enhance others.
But certainly beauty is not an exclusive prerogative of our era as more than a hundred and fifty years ago the French philosopher Paul Valery said: “Defining beauty is easy: it is what leads you to desperation”.
Reaching and maintaining this coveted beauty is in fact often a desperate struggle and for this reason sometimes being beautiful means being in despair.
The perfect body is often unnatural, hence, difficult to achieve and over the course of history women have had to make huge sacrifices and suffer physical pain to reach their goal. Women have always used methods, sometimes violent on their bodies, verging on torture, to achieve the perfect body in keeping with the fashion of the day: from whalebone corsets used by women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, squeezing the body to such an extent that ribs were often broken in order to have a wasp waist, to breakneck stiletto heels in more recent times worn to make legs look longer and more slender.
According to an ancient Chinese tradition, a lady with a small foot is very beautiful: this prompted millions of Chinese parents to actually break the arch of their daughters’ feet and bind them with a tight bandage to restrict growth in order to obtain this unusually “graceful gait”.
Whilst Chinese women bound their feet to impede their growth, Japanese women artificially whitened their faces with rice powder to make them whiter than white, and eighteenth century ladies coloured their cheek bones red in order to accentuate their beauty.
Given the great difficulty in describing beauty, a concept not absolute and extremely volatile, it is opportune to conclude with an affirmation by the celebrated artist and designer Munari: “If you want to know something else about beauty, what really it is, then look at a history of art. You will see that every age has had its ideal Venus (or Apollo), and that all these Venuses or Apollos put together and compared out of the context of their periods are nothing less than a family of monsters.
It’s not what’s beautiful that’s beautiful, said the male toad to the female toad, but it’s what you like that’s beautiful”.
Whilst all things change, only one remains the same: beauty, as interpreted in the many faces of a woman, has always been and will continue to be the concern and weapon of seduction of the female sex.
1.2. Standards of female beauty
Ever since ancient times female beauty has been evaluated and measured by using an aesthetic role-model, recognized by society in a particular historical, economic and social context. From this ideal role-model the perception of beauty is derived, that is, the typical characteristics of beauty: the closer a woman gets to these parameters, the more she is considered beautiful.
Every race, over the course of history, has defined beauty according to its own culture and has also claimed to set a standard of beauty acknowledged on a universal level, but inevitably this has always changed over the centuries.
The ideal beauty standard is the fruit of a socio-cultural concept because it is modelled and moulded by the society and culture of the period and is subject to mutation in line with any changes in trends, fashion and customs.
Every era has had its role-model of ideal beauty, documented in literary and iconographic sources, which have always drawn inspiration from the female figure. The way in which it has been represented and its symbolic role have changed over the course of the centuries hand in hand with changes in tastes and in the many different ways of perceiving the role of a woman in society.
That the female body, an anatomical and biological reality, is also a culturally developed entity, determined by the social group of its origin is testified by the fact that it has always been associated throughout the ages with different socio-cultural interpretations. Each of these correspond to specific standards of beauty: from the fertility of the prehistoric Venus with her generous shapes to the chastity of the medieval madonna with her slight adolescent body; from the opulence of the Roman matron to the sensuality of the Baroque woman with her sexy, provocative curves.
Over the time in Europe, and still today in many developing countries, the voluptuous, curvy figure of a woman was synonymous with wealth: only rich women could afford the luxury of avoiding physical activity, being ladies of leisure with a good diet. The lower classes and peasants were undernourished as they worked hard and ate little. For this same reason, muscles were banned from the list of requisites, being considered masculine and confined to women involved in manual labour. Today, on the contrary, a woman is considered attractive if her body is slim and toned by physical activity.
For centuries the whiteness of the skin was also considered an important reattribute: the whiter the skin, the more beautiful the woman; fair skin was a sign of class distinction. A suntan, conversely, was completely unacceptable as it demonstrated long exposure to the sun associated with hard, outdoor, manual labour. Today, almost every woman’s ambition is to have a suntanned body all the year round.
2. THE METAMORPHOSIS OF BEAUTY AND THE PERCEPTION OF FEMALE BEAUTY IN HISTORY
II.1. The prosperity of the primitive Venus
From the beginning of time the female figure, symbol of the principle of life and fertility, has dominated human history.
In the earliest recorded times a curvaceous figure was an important beauty standard. The most ancient records can be found in prehistoric iconography, especially in examples of the so called Palaeolithic Venus: anthropomorphic sculptures, carved in bone, stone or ivory, displaying the female figure in an extremely voluptuous form. These represent prehistoric man’s ideal of beauty: the face, arms and legs of the woman are very slightly drafted, whereas the female parts of the body are highlighted, particularly the breasts, hips and abdomen, underlining women’s fertility and the importance of the survival of the species.
The perception of feminine beauty was obviously strongly connected to fertility: a woman was first and foremost considered as a procreator.
These small statues are called “venus” for their sexual connotation: for this reason they are associated to Venus, the goddess of love, fertility and beauty.
All of these characteristics are particularly evident in the Willendorf Venus, a small, limestone statuette dating from the Upper Palaeolithic Era (30,000-25,000 B.C.) and considered to be one of the earliest representations of a female.
This image of a full-figured woman, closely related with procreation, perpetuated over the course of the centuries and is conspicuous in all pre-Hellenistic civilizations.
2. 2. Female beauty in Ancient Egypt
It is in the Egyptian civilization that the beauty and harmony of the female figure is discovered. The ancient Egyptians were renowned for their elegance and attractiveness, as demonstrated in their splendid sculptures, paintings and gold masterpieces which have survived to this day. Egyptian women were dedicated to beauty: they placed great importance on the care of their bodies using cosmetics to embellish them. Make up was used to outline the eyes, the veins on the temple and breasts, making the female image sensual, graceful, charming and alluring, all characteristics of female beauty in Ancient Egypt.
Nevertheless, the standards of beauty relating to physical shape were not rigid, since on surviving examples the figure is slim with small limbs, but not emaciated, with female curves well defined: it is not by chance that we are still in a society where the most important role of a woman was considered to be that of procreation.
2.3. The Perfection of Ancient Greece
It was only from the beginning of the Classical Greek Period (5th century B.C.) that a truly recognized perception of beauty was established. Regarding the previous period we can only notice through documentary sources how women from ancient civilizations endeavoured to enhance their physical appearance.
The concept of beauty in Ancient Greece was associated with grace, dimension and above all proportion: a body was beautiful when there was equilibrium and harmony among all its parts and between each of them and the figure as a whole. Given that the majority of works of art surviving from Ancient Greece translated in a concrete form their ideal of great beauty, by studying these works it is possible to understand the perception of beauty in the period. This is particularly true in works portraying Venus which enable us to understand the standard of beauty at that time. Venus is the goddess of love, and when artists create an image of this divinity they are inspired by those women who are considered to be the most beautiful and fascinating.
The female body, as depicted in Greek art, is of great beauty and harmony and is still considered today to be the ideal of perfect proportion. The female physique most admired is soft and curvaceous with wide hips, breasts and buttocks not over-sized, but rounded and toned.
The perfect female form was studied and immortalized by the sculptor Praxiteles (active between 370-330 B.C.) in his celebrated statue of Aphrodite of Cnidus, a work of great beauty which has unfortunately not survived, and today can only be admired in the replicas of the Roman era. The supple body of the goddess portrays all the attributes of femininity.
But the perfect ideal of female beauty is considered to be that of the statue of Venus de Milo, (created towards the end of the II century B.C.), a masterpiece of worldwide fame. The female form is still depicted as supple and curvaceous, endowed with marked sensuousness. The beauty of the goddess’ body, still acknowledged today more than 2000 years later, demonstrates how the Ancient Greeks had actually wrought out the perception of perfect beauty.
2. 3. The woman of Imperial Rome
The stereotype of female beauty in Ancient Rome was that of the matron of the Junoesque body, that is shapely, of the patron goddess of Rome, Juno.
The matron of the Roman Empire was not only generous in shape but also heavily adorned with make up and jewellery and dressed in richly embellished clothing, mirroring the wealth, opulence and luxury of Imperial Rome.
The Roman women of the period took great care of themselves using creams and cosmetics to improve their appearance, even to the extent of thickening their hair with the use of pieces of Indian origin, for dark hair, and Germanic for blonde or red tones, sometimes in direct contrast with their own natural colour: the first examples of extensions and highlights.
For the Roman nobleman, his wife with her shapely figure, heavy make up, jewellery and rich clothes served to represent the wealth and generosity of her husband.
2. 4. The Medieval Madonna
In the Middle Ages the process of Christianization brought about radical changes in the perception of the female form: the body of a woman bore the sin of Eve and was considered the source of perdition. Hence, physical attraction was the root of all evil and the woman was considered beautiful only during adolescence because already at 20 years old and heavily pregnant, she was regarded as a ‘desert of love’. The austere morals of the medieval period imposed a new beauty standard: a woman’s body must be thin and immature showing chastity and purity, with narrow thighs, barely visible breasts, and prominent stomach, which anticipated her future as a mother; the complexion must be pale, akin to a lily or the driven snow, to underline virginity.
In medieval iconography, the mystic and hieratic representation of the female form prevailed: the woman was stripped of any sensual connotation and exclusively portrayed in a sacred form, to the point that she is frequently represented as a Madonna or one of the saints always linked to the sacrificial roles they played.
2. 5. The Renaissance Woman
Whilst medieval morals had insisted upon the neglect of the female body, considered above all as a source of sin, during the Renaissance a renewed interest in the exterior beauty of the body became popular, making it the subject of reflection, theories and discussion. It was during the Renaissance that the female body was admired for its beauty and no longer considered vain and a threat to eternal salvation. In this period there was a real revolution in beauty care especially amongst women.
The perception of female beauty changed radically: from the medieval stereotype of the ‘soap and water’ image, adolescent and slim with narrow hips and breasts, there was a return to the model of beauty as portrayed in the Greek statues of Venus with a full figure, wide hips, pronounced abdomen, full breasts and pale complexion as portrayed by Titian in his Venus With A Mirror (1555).
It is symptomatic that the new 16th century ideal of a full-figured, curvaceous woman also corresponds, in the higher social classes of society, with the spread of new habits in diets and food, high in fat and sugar content, as seen in recipe books of the time.
There are numerous descriptions in this period of the ideal female beauty with a detailed analysis of each particular part of the body and a study of the most appreciated shapes and features. What can be concluded from these descriptions is that the ideal woman should be shapely with large hips, generous breasts, a white complexion, a long, slim neck and hands, small feet and a trim waist: the face must be guileless and round, the nose straight, the mouth small, the brow very high, the lips and cheeks red, the eyebrows and eyes dark.
So the female body must possess three white, three red and three black attributes: the beauty lies in the harmony between the individual parts.
The iconographic sources of the time confirm: Titian and the other renaissance artists replicate the “complete” beauty of the adult woman, intense and sensual. According to the perception of beauty of that time, their female images are florid and warm, with dark eyes and a pale complexion. They are all statuesque and fully aware of their own magnificence.
The painting which best displays renaissance feminine beauty is Venus and Mars by Botticelli. Venus, the goddess of love is found alongside her lover Mars, the god of war, who is sleeping, presumably after just making love to her.
The woman painted by Botticelli is not based on a role-model but is the personification of beauty as perceived by him. It mirrors all of the attributes required to meet the standard of renaissance beauty: a high brow, well-defined chin, pale complexion, blond hair, delicate arched eyebrows, a strong nose, straight mouth and full lips. The body is curvaceous: full breasted with rounded abdomen and wide hips.
2. 6. The Baroque Venus
The harmonious and elegant beauty of the renaissance woman became even more exaggerated into the Baroque version.
From the end of the XVI century there was a progressive change in the perception of female beauty: a woman is transformed into a seductive Venus, voluptuous with a touch of malice and eroticism in her gaze.
Face, neck, bosom and hands must be white, the colour associated with purity, distinguishing them from the peasant population of the countryside, who were exposed to the sun from morning to night.
As well as a pale complexion, the baroque woman must have thick hair, “long enough to reach their feet”, and definitely blonde, warm blonde almost brownish; other essential attributes of beauty were pale, glowing skin, large, dark, expressive eyes, a small but full mouth, a rounded, cleft chin, a long, shapely neck, soft, white tapered hands, wide shoulders, full thighs and a tiny waist, a generous bosom, long legs and small feet. Baroque beauty is mature, sensual and mischievous, not focusing on the role of wife or mother, but on that of a courted, flirtatious lady.
Iconographic sources of the time confirm this standard of beauty: the painting Danae (1612) by Artemisia Gentilischi, The Three Graces (1624) by Rubens and the Danae (1636) by Rembrandt can be considered as examples of the ideal of beauty of the period: voluptuous, full-bodied and sensual, soft skinned, pale and smooth with golden blond hair.
2. 7. The Eighteenth Century Lady
The perception of beauty in the eighteenth century was dictated by the courts, particularly the French court: the portraits of Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of France, best exemplify the female stereotype of the age: an even whiter complexion, face covered with a thick layer of white lead powder, mouth and cheeks red, eyebrows well-defined, forehead high and large and hairstyle elaborate. But the height of femininity and symbol of seduction is a wasp waist, which must not exceed 40cms, or just under 16ins.
According to the standard of beauty of the time, a beautiful woman must have a waist with a circumference that a man could measure with his two hands. For this reason, girdles and corsets were used, real instruments of torture, keeping the spinal column erect to achieve the classical “8” shape, emphasizing the bosom and hips. Garments were low-cut to maximize the bust, pushed up by the corset.
The lower half of the body, however, was strictly hidden by full skirts supported by large frames with concentric hoops around the hem which could reach a circumference of as much as between 5 and 6 meters.
To enhance their sensuality the eighteenth century ladies used false spots, considered attributes of beauty and charm. Hairstyles were very elaborate and showy, adorned with veils, flowers, bows and even bird cages; hair was high and upswept and often further heightened by using a metal mesh frame.
2. 8. The Romantic Muse
The nineteenth century was quite the opposite to the eighteenth. It was a time when women were appreciated for their gentleness, kindness and discretion and also for their appearance. Whereas in the Baroque Period magnificence was the order of the day, in the Romantic Era there was a return to natural beauty.
In the first half of the century, amongst artists and some noblewomen, there was an ideal of romantic, gothic beauty that enhances internal suffering, outbreaks of passion and tears. Diaphanous beauty triumphs, embodied in the romantic muse: pale, slim, with big, feverish eyes, a painful expression and red lips in contrast to the whiteness of the face.
This ideal of beauty can be seen in the paintings by Hayez Melancholy Thinking (1842) and The Meditation (1851).
But the nineteenth century was also that in which the bourgeoisie, or middle class, was firmly established signalling a new lifestyle and dress code; another perception of female beauty coexisted in parallel with that of the romantic muse.
The prototype rich, middle class lady was well rounded with full shoulders, a heavy back, small, chubby hands, a calm, smiling face: completely feminine, a perfect example of femininity and good health. Above all, her beauty laid in her well-rounded figure, a symbol of social status and successful procreation.
Sensuality is strictly controlled by long clothes and layers of underwear to conceal the body. Women suffered much by wearing a girdle and corset to ensure a wasp waist. Face make-up was abolished as it was associated with prostitutes and actresses. The skin had to be young and supple and strictly white and was protected from sun damage by veils and parasols. The middle class lady was positive, practical and efficient, the pivot of the family and her duty was to be beautiful. She displayed the economic success of her husband.
The female, as portrayed by the Impressionists incarnates the ideal of the rich, middle class lady. There are examples in paintings by Monet, Women in the garden (1866) and Woman with a parasol (1886).
3. THE TWENTIETH CENTURY NEW AESTHETICS
3. 1. The twentieth century: an age of changes
The twentieth century was marked by monumentally important historical events. It was the century of the two great world wars, but also of female emancipation, the entrance of women into the world of work and great feminists campaigns. All of this political, economic and social upheaval had profound repercussions on the world of women: the condition and role of women in society changed and consequently so did their perception of themselves.
With the advent of the new century many of the old taboos and sense of modesty, which until that time had required the female body to be hidden from view, disappeared liberating it from all the constrictions by which it had always been trapped and allowing it to emerge. It was the era of victory of the body.
During the course of the twentieth century paintings and sculptures, which until that time had been the main reference point of female beauty, were replaced first by cinema and then television as main models for beauty.
It is last century, that saw the greatest number and most rapid changes in standards of beauty; it has been observed that there was a revolution in the perception of beauty more or less every 10-15 years that brought about new role-models of female beauty, new fashion and new lifestyles.
It is, therefore, interesting to observe each of these stages that have marked the evolution of aesthetics from the end of the nineteenth century.
3. 2. The Woman of the Belle Epoque
The Belle Epoque years coincided with the birth of cinema, radio and the automobile. It was a period of great wealth, light-heartedness and optimism, even though the world was preparing for the great war. Theatre, cinema and photography became more and more influential on fashion as well as on all forms of culture by revealing new lifestyles, new aesthetic and behavioural role models, status symbols and trends that spread rapidly, quickly becoming famous.
The woman of the Belle Epoquehad a sinuous, slender ‘S’-shaped figure, small waist, breasts thrust unnaturally forward thanks to the new corset that flattened the tummy, highlighted the hips, enlarged the back and pushed back the pelvis, creating an arched posterior posture and giving a woman a rigid, curvaceous silhouette.
Clothes contributed to accentuating the ‘S’-shaped figure with dresses that wrapped around the hips, clung tightly to the waist and filled out into full skirts, whilst the bodice with its daring, plunging neckline accentuated the cleavage paying homage to the femininity of a woman.
Advertising, with its first posters and commercial imagery, was widely responsible for the spread of the new beauty standard. Famous examples are the dancers, prostitutes and ladies immortalized in the posters of Toulouse Lautrec and Leonetto Cappiello, icons of typical female beauty in the Belle Epoque period.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the cultural climate of Decadentism, the fascinating, haughty, sensual femme fatale emerged, whose characteristics were not rigidly defined but normally would have had very dark hair and eyes, lithe body, full lips and a magnetic gaze; primary characteristics are great flamboyance, aggressive beauty and seductive powers. The femme fatale is seductive, perverse, cruel and unscrupulous, the personification of sensuality, the emblem of carnal love, passion and instinct. To describe this type of fascinating woman, enchanter, unscrupulous, predator, American cinema coined the termvamp. The first femme fatale stereotype was the Hollywood actress of silent movies, Theda Bara.
The femme fatale was the star of iconography in the Era of Decadentism.
The Austrian artist Klimt paid homage to this ideal of a woman, sensual and destructive, in his masterpieces Judith I (1901) and Judith II (1909): both femme fatale charged with eroticism, an enigmatic face, frightened expression, whiter than white skin and long, raven hair.
3. 3. The Woman of the Great War
The optimistic atmosphere at the beginning of the century was quickly swept away by the outbreak of the First World War that brought death and destruction to the greater part of Europe and marked a temporary decline in the ideal of beauty based on extreme femininity and elegance prevalent at the start of the twentieth century. Attention to the body was completely abandoned and women were not concerned with their appearance which assumed an androgynous character.
3. 4. The Flapper of the 1920’s
After a period of privation during the war, the 1920s began as a new era of wealth and optimism. Society was aware of a new sense of freedom and hope resulting in these ten years being nicknamed “The Roaring Twenties”.
The perception of female beauty changed radically. The legendary femme fatale fell from favour and was replaced by the so called flapper with bobbed hair, cut short for the first time in history, in tomboy fashion. Women, like eternal adolescents, needed non-existent breasts and waist and narrow hips.
The stereotype of female beauty is a tabular silhouette and stylized shape, aspiring bi-dimensionality and essentiality. And a toned, thin, androgynous, asexual body. Women began to lead a more dynamic lifestyle and take part in sport both to improve their physical fitness as well as their appearance. Until that time the ideal of beauty precluded muscles, a sign of masculinity and manual labour, and women’s body had to be rounded and curvaceous. Now, the athletic physique of a woman was appreciated.
The new icon of beauty, with no shapely curves, thin and masculine, symbolized the aspiration for equality and parity between the sexes.
At the end of the twenties, suntan became fashionable and far from being reserved to the lower classes it became a sign of good health and wealth.
Coco Chanel encouraged women to abandon the parasol they used to protect their skin from the rays of the sun, eliminate gloves and shorten their skirts.
No longer the rules of beauty were dictated by painters and sculptors, but by the rising stars of the silent screen.
The icon of the 1920’s was surely the beautiful, legendary actress Louise Brooks, sleek and slender, whose beauty is still recognized by today’s standards, the perfect prototype of the flapper distinguished by her independence, anti-conformity, fickleness and slender almost boyish figure, emphasized by her short bobbed haircut. The flapper was jovial, transgressive, loved smoking cigarettes, jazz, Coco Chanel and was almost masculine in shape with no bust or hips, unpredictable and nervy.
3. 5. The refined and elegant women of the 1930’s
In a society seriously affected by the repercussions of the Wall Street Crash in America in 1929, the tomboy of the twenties with her short hair and one-sized off the peg clothes was considered outdated. There was a return to the sensual, feminine, elegant woman. Women felt the need to relaunch and emphasize their figures.
The feminine, Mediterranean, busty woman was back in vogue incarnated in the great Hollywood stars such as the sex bombshell Jean Harlow and the divine Greta Garbo.
Another icon of the era was Marlene Dietrich in her role of beautiful, sensual femme fatale in spite of frequently being dressed as a man and always with a cigarette in her mouth.
In the 1930’s a pale complexion was fashionable; the face had a sculptured effect with prominent, high cheekbones; lips, always red, were designed in a cupid’s bow with the top lip fuller and larger than the bottom lip. Hair was dyed almost always platinum blonde.
3. 6. The woman of the fascist period
The fascist regime dedicated precise and systematic attention to the body of a woman, so much so that it could be called true politics of the body.
Mussolini was concerned with ensuring that Italy had a new, robust, healthy, strong kind of individuals. This prompted him to promote a health-hygiene programme prevalently aimed at women, particularly mothers who were primarily responsible for the improvement of the race. The regime imposed the approval of a female model: an Italian woman had to have a full figure with ample hips and be strong and sturdy; only in this way she could be a real mother and good wife, thus, being able to take care of her home and family.
The campaign against the thin, pale, sterile woman was officially opened in 1931 when the chief of Mussolini’s press office ordered newspapers to eliminate all images that showed the female figure as slim and masculine looking.
The slim female became the central point in discussions regarding beauty to such an extent that Mussolini requested doctors to intervene in the defence of “fatness” in opposition to the fashion for thinness.
3. 6. The woman of the 1940’s
The 1940’s was a period of crisis and constraints, surviving the Great Depression and then entering into the Second World War, thus the climate, also in the field of beauty, was extremely austere. The female stereotype was a buxom woman, clear reaction to the chronic food shortage characterizing this period.
During the war the first pin ups, that is to say provocative and alluring girls, began to appear in magazines in the United States. And it was actually during the forties that women reached the peak of femininity and sensuality.
The icon in this decade was Rita Hayworth, nicknamed The Love Goddess for her curvaceous body. This actress, with her thick wavy hair, seductive and sensual, was the desire of millions of men.
3. 7. The ‘plus-sized’ woman of the 1950’s
From the end of the war there was an almost predictable return to the explicitly provocative, sensual woman in the search to escape from austerity.
The ideal woman had rounded hips, an explosive bust and well toned legs. She was a woman of the flesh, unconcerned with dieting or cellulite and representing hope in the future after the food rationing of the war years. It was the age of the “plus-sized” woman whose body was a metaphor of the dream of opulence in Europe and the resulting economic boom.
The bust, waist, hip measurements of 36-24-36 inches represented the ideal, beautiful figure in the fifties: long legs, beautiful hips and narrow waist were the model that every girl strove toward. From the end of the Second World War, it is cinema, particularly the American version, that promoted the new perception of beauty: the platinum blonde vamp, extremely well endowed, inspiring fashion, trends and the lifestyles of women of every social class.
Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe were undoubtedly the icons of femininity and sensuality of the 1950’s with their provocative curves and famous hourglass shape.
3. 8. The stick-like woman of the 1960’s and 1970’s
The most significant generational upheaval of the twentieth century happened in the 1960’s, the period of the Dolce vita, social revolution, youth unrest and feminism. In those years there was another massive aesthetic revolution with effects right through to the seventies. A completely new female emerged, replacing that of the previous period considered outdated and constricted.
The culture of sport spread and the female figure changed from soft and rounded to toned and agile. The modern woman was young, an eternal adolescent, jolly, carefree and no longer wanted to appear perfectly groomed in society. On the contrary, she wanted to be at pace with the changing times and the new art forms, dynamic and waif-like: a return to the image of a flapper of the 1920’s.
In the 1960’s the figure was lean, legs were on show, hair dyed light blonde and eyes extenuated with false eyelashes and heavy eye liner. The success of the English model Twiggy, thin, almost anorexic, was the epitome of this extreme waif like perception of beauty. With her, the stick-like woman was born.
The 1960’s brought about great change in dress and fashion with blue jeans popular amongst the young generation, and the mini-skirt, created by the brilliant designer Mary Quant.
Another icon of the time was Audrey Hepburn, the model of good taste, with her classical elegance and long, lean figure incorporating all the beauty and fashion requirements of the sixties, always interpreted with a personal touch.
3. 9. The woman in the last decade of the twentieth century
The 1980’s saw a renewed affection for curves: the measurements 36-24-36 boomed again along with generous busts and provocative curves, once again together with a thin waist. All the stars of TV and cinema resemble a Barbie doll with a big bust, long legs, wasp waist, flat stomach and bewitching look.
The undisputed symbol of the revival of the rounded figure was Cindy Crawford, who modelled for the most important designers in the world.
After the 1980’s, when the rounded lady had been reinstated, this pin up image was again archived and the nineties provided a new trend rapidly overshadowing this beauty standard and remains in vogue to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
In 1990 Kate Moss was offered her first modelling assignment and once again the female figure is long and lean in the swings and roundabouts of the female shape throughout history. With her pale complexion and wide eyes, Kate Moss symbolizes the minimalistic beauty of the nineties, indisputably still in vogue.
This image of thinness in a female shows both beauty and character such as a slender, agile body denotes ambition, organization, power and social assertiveness.
4. THE WOMAN OF THE THIRD MILLENNIUM
4.1. The cult of the body
From the beginning of the third millennium beauty became synonymous with thinness and women aspired to be more and more slender and androgynous.
The change in the female stereotype arrived along with the new role of women in society, from wife and mother to career woman, competing with men in the workplace, in the search for power and success.
But what most characterizes our era is the almost pathological attention to the body: the body is the centre of attention and not the individual; what you are counts much less than how you appear to be, appearance substitutes essence, self-control spontaneity. Today, it is imperative to be in good shape as a long slender body not only gives the impression of ideal beauty but also of good health.
As in the past, the image of beauty continues to be conditioned by the social context. And because today lifestyles require efficiency, dynamism, productivity and hyperactivity so to mirror this image the female form must respond to the rules of slimness and height to the point of excessive thinness. Thus, women, instead of capitalizing on their own individualism increasingly tend to passively adhere to a globalized standard, focused on a homogeneous physical appearance, without realizing they are victims of a collective identification syndrome, or of a form of approved, socially compatible, aesthetic mimicry.
4. 2. Bombing by the media
In the current globalized society, success is strongly associated with the images continually proposed by the mass media, deeply rooted in collectiveness and adopted as a social standard.
Mass communication has for some time dictated the ideals regarding the body and beauty contributing to the creation and spread of well known stereotypes.
The messages are indirect, but quite clear: “If you are thin, you will be happy, popular, successful in every walk of life, from love to work”. Therefore, the ideal of thinness does not just assume an aesthetic significance, but is associated with deeper values such as being appreciated and socially accepted.
The formula: “You can’t be too rich, or too thin” has become a real threat to the mental health of many people. First and foremost, therefore, to be beautiful means to be thin and waif-like.
All the media attention, mainly aimed at women, does nothing else but promoting seductive, reconstructed, perfect bodies. The image of a woman as spread by the mass-media does not portray the real picture but a symbolic representation of the ideal model of collective aspirations, impossible to replicate.
It is, therefore, this misleading perception propagated by the media, that has brought about the pathological obsession for the perfect body. But society as a whole must also be held responsible, a society with the tendency to standardize and discourage individualism, the uniqueness and beauty of diversity.
4. 3. The stereotype of fashion models
Today it is, above all, the consumerism of fashion that dictates, through the use of fashion models, the stereotype of female beauty. Top models are the new stars who, just like the great actresses of Hollywood in the past, detached from the public and unreachable, are known, admired and imitated by everyone.
From the turn of the century onwards fashion has spread the ideal of a woman ever more slender and lean, probably due to the need to emphasize the garment rather than the model. Supermodels today are much thinner than the top models of the eighties with few exceptions, and are becoming more and more anonymous, true “coat hangers” able to wear any garment.
Tall, slender, elegant, models are the idols of the majority of young girls today, and this is the image that women’s glossy magazines provide as symbols of women who have achieved success in life.
This strong cultural input, together with many others promoting the same message with which we are bombed daily results in the idea that what counts in life is to be perfect, beautiful and successful.
Only the stereotyped slim and toned body shown in fashion magazines mirrors today’s perception of beauty. The pictures are often airbrushed to render them more beautiful to conform with the ideal of the absolute perfection of today.
It is an irrefutable fact that designers are responsible for the undeniable involution of the perception of female beauty. Undoubtedly, they, the “masters of good taste”, together with new fashions, fabrics and colours, promote thoughtlessly and sometimes irresponsibly the idea of a woman whose beauty is synonymous with extreme thinness and perfect body proportions.
Already, forty years ago the unforgettable Brigitte Bardot addressed a strong warning to women: “Beware of designers. They hate the female body and want to make it look like the young boys desired by them”.
And from this abuse of power a model of pseudo-beauty was established downgrading women and throwing them into a perpetual, impossible war with their own bodies.
4. 4. Thin-beauty at all costs
“Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”(Naomi Wolf)
Western society today, more than ever focused on outward appearance, consistently exposes its population to an ideal of thinness and the illusion that this can be easily achieved. Thinness as displayed in photographs and photoshops has become an ethical imperative. Globalization promotes the idealized western model of the thin woman as the objective to replicate. To be thin, toned and in good shape is the ambition of all women, young and not so young: all strive for the perfect body in line with fashion of the day. The ideal of standardized beauty is unrealistic, enhancing perfection and demonizing fatness, forcing women to continuously self-monitor their bodies and to search for the ways to keep in shape.
The so called “dysmorphic disorder” is the perceived defect of one’s body image and the inability to objectively evaluate the physique. This pushes women in search of a drastic solution to an often non-existent problem, but very real to them in the way that they perceive themselves. Thus, dieting seems to be the solution to every problem, the promise of happiness and success, but this soon turns out to be ineffective as the weight level required is unrealistic, but above all because the real problems are not related to weight.
This aesthetic model, today considered ideal, is also known to little girls resulting in a stereotype to be followed conforming with the times and society in general. From a very young age little girls are confronted with the image of a female with unrealistic proportions presented as the ideal of beauty beginning with the famous Winks and Barbie dolls.
The very young is the bracket of society most affected by this widespread obsession for thinness with the continuous bombardment of the images of “beauty at all costs” that modern society excessively promotes.
The ever present provocative TV presenters’ assistants, showgirls and actresses with their perfect bodies may have a profound effect on the mind of a young girl in phase of development frequently resulting in insecurity, self-doubt and a low self-esteem. She could consider herself inadequate and imperfect.
If an adolescent is already fragile and insecure, then this insecurity will be compounded in the face of such a high standard of beauty, and so in an effort to feel beautiful, desirable and appreciated will begin to eat less and less to the point where no food is eaten in order to transform the body into that ideal image and gain that which is urgently required: acknowledgement, appreciation, attention, affection and love.
Dissatisfaction with one’s body and the mania for dieting have increased in an alarming manner in recent years. Young girls are those most seriously affected, but in reality no women is immune to the ‘thin is beautiful” philosophy.
The new phenomenon of eternal dieting, or slimming regime, brings about an unhealthy, conflictive relationship with food and the body: it is a serious addiction from which there is no escape. The obsession encourages the research for quick, easy answers to reach the objective without taking into consideration the possible devastating consequences of bad, daily habits in the medium or long term.
This mythical thin-beauty, fruit of the overlap between models of real society and those specially invented for the world of entertainment, not only causes serious physical and psychological damage, but also fails to provide happiness because to be happy means to feel well with oneself.
4. 5. Medical aesthetic beauty
“Once we had the elixir of youth, now plastic surgery. As if to say that man is always in pursuit of regular disastrous dreams”.(Paolo Manetti)
Obsession with the mirror has by now become a habit with which many young women pay the price every day. In today’s society, where appearance is ever more important and images more powerful than words, beauty is an imperative, a daily battle of enormous proportions between essence and image, real body and idealized body. It is essential to be beautiful like the stars of the small screen and fashion models, perfect and always more and more untouchable. The emulation of these beautiful bodies and faces becomes the objective of many women, especially adolescents.
We are immersed in a search for beauty that produces dissatisfaction and dislike of our own appearance becoming a theatre for thousands of obsessions: everyone wants to change oneself, nobody feels thin or perfect enough; people live with the idea that being as they are is not good enough and that what does not correspond to the model required by society must be corrected.
The only solution is to put oneself in the “reliable” hands of the plastic surgeon, capable of granting every desire for beauty. Today the use of the scalpel, the modern version of the magic wand, is the chosen method by women to realize their dreams and have the body of the model or star of the moment. Every part of the body can be changed and frequently operations are performed in the hope of improving the quality of life, given that in today’s society beauty is often associated with success both in social and sentimental field. One intervention encourages another: a vicious circle is created in which perfection is never reached.
There are a great number of operations available, ready to satisfy the most diverse desires for the perfect face or body, whilst botox and hyaluronic acid injections are the great allies for defeating signs of ageing. Recently, the latest in eyelash transplant cosmetic surgery landed in Italy from the United States.
But what is more concerning is the evolution of the type of patient, no longer the mature lady who consulted a plastic surgeon to help slow down the ageing process, but more commonly young women trying to become more beautiful, and even teenagers. Many young girls start to save money or find part-time jobs so that they can pay for a first cosmetic intervention at the age of 18. It is fashionable that young girls receive a breast enhancement operation as an 18th birthday present in the belief that more generous breasts will guarantee them a higher probability of success in their professional and love lives.
Because these breast enhancement operations at a young age are dangerous, an act was passed in Italy last May banning this operation for women under 18 years of age. It was, therefore, rendered necessary in Italy that a new law be passed to slow down this rising number of 18-year-olds who undergo breast enhancement surgery.
Then there are the extreme cases of women who undergo dozens of cosmetic surgery operations to radically change their look.
One example is Valeria Lukyanova, a 20-year-old Ukrainian model who has apparently spent $800,000 on cosmetic surgery to transform her into a Barbie doll in flesh, bone and silicone. Just like the most famous doll in the world with long, blonde hair, perfect shape, high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, generous mouth and breasts, wasp waist, narrow hips and long, slender legs.
“If perfection were not a chimera, it would not have much success”
(Honoré de Balzac)
It is not a criticism that today cosmetic surgery, from an economic point of view, is widely available. The problems arise when the standards of beauty required by women are unachievable and they become victim to the collective identification syndrome, resulting in an abandonment of individualism for the sake of ephemeral, stereotype models imposed by society.
As a result, women become fake, artificially bloated and totally unnatural.
There is nothing natural left in a homogenous beauty model: this real doll-like image not only resembles the appearance of the famous Barbie but also her manufactured and artificial nature.
4. 6. The beauty which kills
“She weighed 46 kilos and was 1m 72 tall, yet she felt fat, so she ate just a tomato, an apple and a slice of watermelon every now and then, but even with just that in her stomach after half an hour she went to the bathroom and threw up”, her flatmate told. “She was always obsessed with her weight and worried that the agency she worked for wouldn’t call her again if she gained a few kilos”.
Down to 40 kilos, the Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, died of anorexia at the age of 28: yet another victim of the catwalk, where if you do not conform to the extreme thinness required, you are out. It was 2006. Since that time the list of girls sacrificed to this ‘glossy’, albeit ephemeral world of fashion, has grown.
Anorexia was immortalized in the eyes and naked body of Isabelle Caro, the French model who died in 2010, a victim of this disease that lasted 15 years and reduced her to 31 kilos. Shortly before she died she accepted the role in a shock campaign launched by Oliviero Toscani to raise public awareness in Italy regarding the drama of anorexia. “I have hidden myself away for too long”, she said in an interview, “now I want to show myself without fear, even though I know that my body is repugnant”.
Anorexia, truly a slow form of suicide, is growing to alarming proportions all over the western world, mostly amongst adolescents. This is largely due to the overwhelming propaganda that imposes a certain standard of female beauty.
The minimum age for victims of anorexia has notably reduced over the last ten years and the cross section of society affected considerably enlarged. From the world of fashion and the severity of ballet schools anorexia has arrived in our everyday life: skeleton-like bodies are no longer confined to top models or ballerinas, or people in the spotlight, but can be seen in young girls everywhere, those we meet in the supermarket, in the gym or in the street. It is for this reason that the situation is even more dramatic and serious.
Debilitated bodies that become more and more scrawny and angular, protruding ribs, arms and legs that resemble sticks covered with skin, emaciated, sunken faces and expressionless eyes, and above all a constant state of inadequacy, laceration, obsession and an exhausting and destructive relationship with food; it is a refusal of food increasingly corresponding to a refusal of oneself. All of this to adhere to the rules of fashion.
Until recently, in the developed world, the worst threat to young people was Aids; now anorexia is an even greater, more dangerous scourge because it reacts in a subtle manner by corroding the minds of young people and is fuelled by that image created by our own society. This is a real epidemic which attacks those, who in their effort to become thin at all costs, believe they can achieve their objective to the point of damaging themselves, sometimes seriously.
Today in Italy approximately 10% of adolescents suffer from a food disorder. This is an alarming statistic. More than 300 websites lauding anorexia and bulimia exist teaching techniques to stop eating, a type of instruction manual on how to become a genuine anorexic or bulimic. These provide a tangible instigation into how to become dangerously thin, a trap into which young people easily fall, especially as search engines have no form of filter to control the content of the sites.
Fortunately, today campaigns and petitions are continuously launched to prevent the ANA community from proliferating online, thereby fighting this insidious and dangerous phenomena responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young people.
4. 7. The beauty business
That beauty can been translated into an economic resource had already been recognized almost two hundred years ago and immortalized by Gioacchino Belli in a sonnet in Roman dialect on this very subject.
A series of studies carried out separately by Italians, Americans and Germans have confirmed that being thin and beautiful helps in finding a job. This results in the more attractive women finding more satisfying and well paid employment.
It is well known that an attractive appearance is required for all jobs involving contact with the public, from the most high profile to a shop assistant or waitress. The most successful applicant will certainly be the most attractive. Therefore, the conclusion is obvious: beauty pays.
If beauty is valuable to those who possess it, then it is even more so to those who reap enormous rewards from capitalizing on the obsession of women for beauty. Around the world of beauty there is a huge industry of exorbitant proportions: dieting, make up, cosmetic surgery, all part of the conception of beauty, investing enormous sums in order to perpetuate this myth and reap the profits desired. The message of media is clear: “If you make the effort and spend enough, you will achieve the right look, thus you will be happy and successful”. It is in their interests to be convincing.
The slimming industry is nothing more than a marketing ploy to sell products and low fat food. This does not even take into account the millions spent in gyms, beauty farms, tanning centres, beauty and fitness centres and private clinics.
Women of all ages are in search of perfection: slimming, anti-ageing products, exercise, cosmetic surgery, tanning, series of massages, all become essential priorities.The dictatorship of beauty calls for moisturizing, slimming, exercising, smoothing, firming, liposuctioning and plumping.
There is no crisis that affects the need to stay beautiful and the industry plays on the insecurity and weakness of women. This sector is untouched by crises, and it is probably true that right during times of uncertainty people search for forms of self-gratification, not always of good quality and not always harmless, to make them feel good about themselves.
The slimming, pharmaceutical and cosmetic surgery industries as well as the obsession for thinness, prey on the frustration of women in their goal to achieve perfection as leverage, and result in a hatred of the body if it does not respond to the dictums of beauty, inducing women to resort to any method to achieve the so called canon law of approved beauty. With the promise of losing a few pounds of extra weight, telly shopping, newspapers and the Internet advertise ridiculous, useless and even dangerous new products. Of all these “miracles” there is only one certainty, that it they will empty our purses and fill the pockets of those who sell by millions, profiting from our credulity.
In a recent survey carried out by the Quality Life Institute, a research agency working with Italian and foreign universities, it was shown that the beauty industry turns over 20 billion euro, involving tens of fringe sectors and affecting more than half of the Italian population. And this industry is continually growing stimulating higher investment.
Thus, whilst women are becoming increasingly more insecure about themselves and their bodies, the companies working to “build” their beauty are becoming richer, stronger and more powerful.
4. 8. The myth of beauty: a weapon against women
I cannot conclude my investigations into female beauty without mentioning a classic reference to feminism of the nineties, The Beauty Myth: How Images Of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf, an international bestseller published in 1991
In her book, nowhere to be found in bookshops today, the author writes about “the commodification of beauty” which at the time seemed to be swimming against the tide of opinion and almost provocative, whilst today twenty years later, seems to confirm reality exactly. Wolf’s theory has never been more true than today: the ideal of beauty is not something natural and innate to women, nor it is a requirement or inclination of theirs, but it is a set of rules purposely structured and built by the market to make them feel continually inadequate and imperfect, thereby profiting from their insecurity for commercial purposes.
According to Wolf, the myth of beauty is nothing other than a huge lie invented for economic gain.
If, on the one hand the fight for female emancipation freed women in many ways, the myth of beauty has imprisoned them once again.
“As women demanded access to power, the power structure used the beauty myth materially to undermine women’s advancement.”
Society has created an ideal aesthetic, that of the perfect woman, thin and forever young, which is almost impossible to achieve. Women who attempt to get close to this standard of beauty continue to dissipate precious energy that could be used to achieve other goals instead of wasting that energy on useless frustration, anxiety, feelings of guilt and embarrassment for their physical defects. This is the reason why the myth of beauty if defined as a double-edged weapon against women, an instrument of oppression to impede them in the expression of their full potential, “a counter offensive by male society to counteract their growing power”.
“Beauty discrimination has become necessary, not from the perception that women will not be good enough, but that they will be, as they have been, twice as good.”
Because women, with all their talent, determination and staying power could easily outdo men in many different fields.
“Why does the social order feel the need to defend itself by evading the fact of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to these formulaic and endlessly reproduced beautiful images?”
 J. Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, v. 49
 kimraymond.com /Texts/Letter33.html
 The small statue was discovered in 1908 by the archaeologist Joseph Szombathy in the neighbourhood of Willendorf, Austria. It is on exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Vienna.
 The statue, dating back to 360 B.C., holds the record of representing a female body for the first time.
The painting, dating back to 1554-55, is on exhibition at the National Gallery of Washington.
 The painting, dating back to 1482-83, is on exhibition at the National Gallery of London.
 French painter, drawer and lithographer (1864-1901) who contributed to spreading Art Nouveau.
 Italian illustrator and caricaturist (1875-1942).
 A leading Art Nouveau figure.
 The subject has biblical references: in the old Testament Judith was a Jewish noble widow who succeded in rescuing her town, Betulia, from Assyrians’ siege by seducing and decapitating in his sleep their general, so saving her virtue.
 Famous French fashion designer (1883-1971) who disrupted the concept of femininity with her models becoming a leading figure of the XX century fashion design.
 N. Wolf, The Beauty Mith, William Morrow and Company, 1991, p. 108.
 N. Wolf, op. cit., p. 132.
 N. Wolf, op. cit., p. 121.