Wednesday 17 December 2014

The shape of things to come

Published 10/09/2013 | 15:34

Kim Kardashian showing off her world famous beach body
Kim Kardashian showing off her world famous beach body
Jessica Biel is the poster girl for 'strong is the new skinny'
Kate Moss' epitomised heroin chic in the 1990s
Sophia Loren is one of Hollywood's original bombshells

Women's bodies are under greater trend scrutiny than clothes, says Suzanne Harrington

Like hemlines, hip widths and bosom sizes are subject to trends. If you are a woman, that is. Men get caught up in different trends -- muscle size, to wax or not to wax -- but when it comes to intense scrutiny of body shape and our corresponding efforts to conform to whatever shape we are told we should be this week, it seems that women in fashion and the media are the primary perpetrators. We can't really blame men for this.

And the rest of us seem to have collective Stockholm Syndrome, colluding with our body-shape dictators via magazines, television programmes and websites dedicated to telling us what is wrong with the look of our bodies, and undermining us in the name of self-improvement.

Because self-acceptance doesn't sell stuff, and there are entire industries wholly reliant upon our insecurities. Cosmetic surgeons, fad diets, shapewear companies -- where would they be if women were at ease with their bodies?

Think about body shape for a moment, and what the words we use to describe shapes mean. When we read dating adverts -- which we all do, because they are fascinating -- slim is the most requested shape. Slim means acceptable. Curvy is code for fat, and athletic is the holy grail because so few of us are. The 'Daily Mail's' stock description of women in minimal clothing is that they are 'flaunting their curves'. Even if they are asleep at the time, they're still 'flaunting' their 'curves'.

And when women in the entertainment industry over-conform to the pressure to take up as little physical space as possible, they are photographed under headlines screaming about their 'worrying' skinniness. But if they gain weight, they are ridiculed.

Burqa, anyone?

If you are a woman, the conformation of your body shape with whichever trend we are currently deemed to be in -- curvy, skinny, athletic -- is easily as important as your achievements, your talents, your character. If not more so. And this is almost half a century after the second wave of feminism.

Ladies, why are we still doing this to ourselves? Isn't strong and healthy enough? Strong and healthy is gorgeous. Strong, healthy, loved and cherished -- what could be sexier? Well, underweight as it turns out. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. Hang on. Are we sure about that?

Once upon a time, women's bodies were appreciated in their natural state -- that is, home to a third more fat storage facilities than men. Eating made you sexy. Not in a pervy feeder, Channel-5-documentary kind of way, but universally desirable. This was during the Renaissance, where skinny meant starving.

Rubens epitomised this lush, fleshy look with his fat female nudes; pale skin, pale hair, red lips and creamy abundance. In late 20th-century India, when movie billboards were still individually hand painted, rather than printed, female Western film stars would routinely be fattened up by the copy artist. Sharon Stone with a round face, and hints of a double chin. Skinny still meant hungry and poor. Or, as Sophia Loren said of her voluptuous gorgeousness, "Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti".

Victorians were horribly conscious of women's bodies, despite being terrified of female sexuality. They may have put skirts on their furniture and denied the existence of lesbians, but Victorians fetishised the female waist. Curvy wasn't enough -- it had to be waspy. Corsets deformed their wearers, but if you had a 12-inch waist you were the Victorian equivalent of Angelina Jolie.

(Come to think of it, Angelina Jolie probably has a 12-inch waist anyway, as she feeds our modern skinny fetish.)

The bustle accentuated the Victorian rear, as the corset constricted female ribs and organs in the name of beauty. Today, corsets are strictly fetishwear, or for people like Mr Pearl, the Parisian corset maker who makes them for Dita Von Teese, and who himself has an 18-inch waist.

You can see, then, where the Flapper came from. In 1928, women finally got the vote. The body trend of the 1920s reflected this liberation, by not just being uncorseted, but by embracing flat and boyish -- short hair and strapped-down bosoms, for free and easy bounce-free dancing while fired up on cocaine and Champagne before the Wall Street Crash.

These days, we pay surgeons thousands to slash our breasts open and insert packets of silicon into the tissue, but a century ago we apparently didn't want breasts at all. Crikey. Paging Dr Freud.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, Hollywood's Golden Age celebrated women with pointy bosoms, cinched-in waists and fabulous hips. In other words, curvy. Not fat, but following the natural female shape, epitomised by Chanel's Little Black Dress and the designs of Dior and Elsa Schiaparelli. Marilyn Monroe is always held as the perfect example of this curviness, but in reality she was tiny -- if you have seen her dresses and movie costumes in the flesh, there was very little flesh at all.

Jayne Mansfield was a better example, and Bettie Page, although Page was more toned and athletic, as she was a swimmer.

In the 1990s, the curvy supermodel was embodied by Cindy Crawford and Elle 'The Body' Macpherson; curved and sleek, the opposite of angular. This shape -- hips, lips, bosoms -- has been echoed in the recent re-emergence of burlesque, where gorgeous women glory in their tassled assets, rather than looking pale, bored and in desperate need of a sandwich.

The hungry waif look, a sort of exaggerated, lifeless Flapper, started with Twiggy in the 1960s. Big eyes, tiny body, perpetual huff. Skinny to the point of asexuality; the Pill had come along and sex became casual. You didn't have to marry the first one you slept with. Pregnancy was postponed, thinness prolonged.

Of course, for modelling, skinny has always been deemed essential, so that the female body for which the clothing is designed does not get in the way of the designs. Skinny is a hard look to maintain, and therefore restricted to those with eating disorders or for whom skinny is their full-time job -- Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and endless models make it their business to be thin.

In Hollywood, the skinny trend produced a phenomenon in the 1990s known as the Lollipop Lady -- women with a seemingly massive head perched on a famished body. The Olsen twins, Calista Flockhart, Rachel Zoe, Nicole Richie -- and currently Angelina Jolie -- all had teeny weeny bodies balancing big hungry heads. Skinny is not just about how clothes hang, it is about control, kudos and wealth, denoting how you can afford to hire a chef to make your seaweed smoothies. At its most ridiculous, women were told to aspire to being size zero. Nada. Nothing. 'Not there at all' in size equals huge in status. These days, it's the poor who are fat, from cheap sugar-adulterated foods.

However, after the slow and painful success of the civil rights movement in 1960s America, skinny white hippies and waifs blossomed into 1970s multi-culti disco divas as the black influence finally came through.

And here's the thing: black women appear joyfully immune to the skinny virus. When it comes to black body shapes, there are two, not three -- curvy or athletic, with lashings of self-acceptance and body pride. From the goddess strength of Venus and Serena and the right to bare arms of Michelle Obama to the glorious contours of Beyonce, black chicks don't do skinny.

Anyone who has been to Carnaval in Brazil will tell you that, there, the female arse is celebrated above all. The bigger the better. Forget your Barbie-doll legs-and-boobs look so agonisingly and expensively sought after by white women; in black culture, it's all about the bum. I see you baby -- shakin' that ass. Skinny is for losers.

Nor do you have to be black to have a venerated backside: Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian, both partnered by massively successful African-American men (Sean Combs et al for Lopez, and Kanye West for Kardashian) have bums as famous as their heads. There is no white equivalent.

But this is not just about individual body parts, which would be creepy, like 'Nuts' magazine. Around the same time as 1970s disco thrust itself upon us, there came the swimsuit blonde. Farrah Fawcett of 'Charlie's Angels' embodied the golden-limbed California girl, setting the 1980s stage first for the beautiful, powerful bodies of Bo Derek (most iconically in the film '10') and later Pamela Anderson and her famous red swimming costume, along with catwalk glamazons such as Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.

Even the body shape of Princess Diana was athletic and powerful, despite her victimy media image.

Tall, broad and present, there was nothing waif-like about the models who epitomised the loadsamoney era of 1980s capitalism. With designers such as Versace at their peak, more was more, statuesque rocked and bling was in. Lately emerging from the yo-yo trends of skinny-curvy-skinny-curvy has come something altogether more sustainable, more appealing, more attainable and healthier. Strong. Female athletes at last summer's Olympics, in between winning gold medals, did much to lift the rest of us out of self-criticism and towards the free weights. Madonna is the queen of strong, a one-woman show of muscle and sinew. The model Gisele Bundchen, in her late 1990s heyday, was all about strength and tone.

Muscle tone, strength, fitness: forget your Marlboro-sucking waif, your born-tall super-model -- the only body-shape trend worth aspiring to for every woman and every man is strength, and health. Endurance, fitness, ability. You couldn't imagine a skinny model running a marathon, or anyone doing yoga in a corset.

No. Instead, in a trend that includes everyone from Olivia Newton-John to Jessica Biel and Michelle Obama, strong is where it's going. Strong and skinny, strong and curvy -- whatever you are, strong is positive, healthy and achievable.

However, when Voltaire said that "it is fancy rather than taste which produces so many new fashions", he might have been talking about the faddy, gimmicky high street. And given that the merry-go-round of curvy-skinny-strong has been revolving in ever-faster cycles in recent years -- just as fashion is constantly recycled faster and faster in a whirl of disposable clothes and throwaway trends -- it would seem that we are due a curvy cycle next.

Nipped-in wartime waists are in vogue for this winter, just as swimwear this summer was also all about the waist (so I'm told -- I was just wearing my usual black 1950s one piece, given my 'curves' are really 'rolls', making 'curvy' my all-time favourite euphemism).

And if curvy is the next trend of the curvy-skinny-strong troika, then the one after it will be skinny. Which, if you have any sense, you'll ignore.

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