Top 10 Thursday: The Evolution Of The Ideal Female Body Image Over the Past 10 Decades

“Spurred by feminism’s promise of physical, domestic and economic freedom, you have done what few generations of women have dared or chosen to do. You have made muscles – a body of them – and it shows. And you look great.”

I plucked this out of an article published in Time Magazine on Aug. 30, 1982. The article, entitled “The New Ideal Body” hones in on the fact that women’s fitness is changing, their ideal body is changing.

The 80s kick started what we know of fitness today… workouts designed to form the body into a goal image. With Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and Kathy Smith leading the way.

I came across this article by accident. Dan was researching something and happened to find this magazine cover:


We were intrigued to say the least! So much so that I decided to pay a visit to the library to track the actual article down. Yup, I got a library card and all to show for it! But the real golden nugget was being able to read the piece.

In it they describe women as working to lose their feminine features and embrace a body that is toned and strong.

I get a kick out of it, because if the writers compared today’s “fit figures” to those of the 80s, I’m pretty sure those “toned” bodies would be soft… todays women are the ones that are strong, with muscles and bronze.

From there, I started to think more about the ideal body image of women. How has it changed over time? It’s changed so much just over the past 30 years!

And that brings me to this…

Top 10 Thursday:
The Evolution Of The Ideal Women’s Figure Over The Past 10 Decades

1910s: Built Strong For Survival.



This wasn’t exactly a relaxed time for Americans. These ladies really did have to walk up a hill both ways to and from school/work. Okay, maybe not but life was stressful (A world war!) and living day to day required a lot of action.

Women were strong, broad and didn’t focus much on their figures. To them, it was about survival of the fittest.

1920s: The Feminist Movement



The 20s brought a huge change to the way women wanted to be percieved. They didn’t want to flaunt their feminine figures, they wanted to be considered equals among men so instead they aimed for a “boyish” figure.

I know it’s hard to believe, but during the 20s women would tape their chests down to flatten their breasts. Funny, that’s the last thing I want to do.

It was also during this time that women sported short hair and baggy clothes.

1930s: A Woman Can Be Sexy And Strong



God bless the 30s! We realized that being an independent woman didn’t mean we had to look like school boys. We began showing off our natural waists once more (yay for hips) and even began sporting padded bras (Best. Invention. Ever.). Actresses like the gorgeous Bettie Davis (above) was the icon of the time.

What I found most interesting in my research is that the 30s also marked when women began to think about food choices. This time could be considered the start of the diet craze. We wanted to look slender and long while maintaining our feminine curves.

Exercising to achieve the ideal figure wasn’t quite the norm yet though some women did experiment with light weights!

1940s: The Sexual Revolution



The 40s women were greatly impacted by WWII. They began to gain more strength among men in the work force (having to work while men were away) and used it to their advantage.

They bodies became even more curvy, and hemlines began to creep up higher (because of saving material for war). Women felt more confident flaunting their bodies which of course would only lead to also becoming more self conscious about their figures simultaneously.

1950s: The Bombshells



I feel like this is the time we all long for. If only having the Marilyn Monroe size 12 hourglass shape was still popular.

The women of the 50s embraced the natural female body perhaps more than any other era. Hips and breasts were expected and not only sexy but a sign of fertility and health.

Because they were focused on landing a man, women of the 50s were always put together. There were no weekends in sweatpants. Even a trip to the drug store meant primping.

The 1960s: The Beginning



I call it the beginning, because huge changes took place that continue to impact our figure today. Twiggy became popular as a model and with her so did her figure. Women longed to be skinny, even rail thin. They didn’t want body fat, muscles or a figure. There was no such thing as “too skinny” and the boyish body was back.

The 1970s: The Zeros



The thin-craze was in full force. Women began to feel the pressure to be thinner than their friends. During this time, there was an increase in the number of eating disorders as women wanted to do whatever it took to “be sexy”… or a size 0.

On a happy note, Farrah Faucet did have some fabulous hair!

The 1980s: The Fitness Craze



And so we complete the circle of when this story began.

The 80s brought upon aerobics thanks to Jane Fonda (did you know the popularity of her DVD actually increased sales of VHS players which were still new at the time?), strength training thanks to Jake Steinfield, and the crazy dance moves of Richard Simmons.

The 80s marked the start of the fitness revolution for women. Toned muscles started to become popular, yet strength training wasn’t the focus. Women focused on aerobic exercise to decrease their waist size but wanted a “tone” that still looked feminine.

Eating disorders continued to increase during this time as well.

The 1990s: Heroin Chic



Everyone wanted to be a runway model and it wasn’t helped by women like Kate Moss. We wanted to be skinnier, we wanted to look like the actresses in magazines.

From the 60s to the 90s, it was all about how thin could we get?

The 2000s: The Airbrush



Personally, I think the 2000s were the worst for women. Airbrushing was/is able to transform people into being what the media wants. And then of course we want what the media tells us looks good.

Women of the 2000s aimed for the unabtainable body. The Barbie.

At the same time, gym memberships increased as did women’s aweness for strength training. Figures are lean but more muscular than prior.

The 2010s: Strong Is The New Skinny


Source (My personal girl crush)

I am not a fan of that saying but I think it sums up our period of body image pretty solidly.

Women today are aware of the unobtainable body, though we still aim for it. We understand that while aerobics is important, strength training is too.

Even more, we love muscles. We love features that show strength, not weakness. It’s no longer about being “skinny” but about being fit. I feel we’re back to showing of our feminine independence by aiming for a more solid figure.

I might be completely wrong about our outlook on our figures today and in 10 more years we’ll likely look back and critique this time. However, living in the present (because that’s all you can do), I feel as if we’re moving in the right direction from the past 20 years…

What do you think? 

Question: If you could visit any era in history for 24 hours, when would you go back to?

I’ve always been interested by the 20s (prior to the depression), I would have loved to have partied with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and danced the night away doing the Charleston in Charleston!



  • MIZ

    ahhhh there is nothing I like LESS than the STRONG IS THE NEW SKINNY movement of the damn 2010 🙂
    Id stay here.
    Id work to make change.

    • I agree! It’s rather annoying!

  • It certainly is amazing to see how he female body image has changed over the years. It’s certainly pretty dramatic and eye opening! The 20s has been the era that I’ve been most intrigued about too!

    • Then it’s decided, a trip to the 20s is in order! Might be my halloween costume this year at least.

  • Great post! I love seeing this evolution. I wish I could go WAAAAY back in time. I was born in the wrong decade, that’s for sure. I hate the last few decades. Horrible.

    • Haha, I have a friend that should have been born in the 30s! There are def. pros and cons to living in the time we do, I feel we’re far to hard on ourselves and a demanding culture.

  • The “phases” of women’s bodies is fascinating to me. But the one thing that I struggle with is the “marilyn was a size 12” she was a true size 12, but we have so much vanity sizing today, that I’m pretty sure her 12 is our 8. (I’m a size 12 right now fyi) but I acknowledge that while my fitness is good, my eating is not. I eat too much just, and tend to live to eat instead of eat to live. It’s all tied together, but fun to look at the evolution of one thing at a time!

    • barbara

      The 40s

      • 40s would be fun! I always think of A League Of Their Own.

    • Very true about vanity sizing! I did do some research though and it seems that she really was a “12” and that she would actually be a 16 in today’s clothes. But there are several back and forth thoughts on her. Either way, she’s gorgeous!

  • Rebecca

    While I hate hate HATE the term “strong is the new skinny”, I do like that we are focusing more on being healthy and starting to embrace athletic body types versus only rail thin body types. Jessica Biel is definitely my ultimate celebrity girl-crush — I just love her and think she is so beautiful!

    • Exactly! I am loving the focus as well.

  • I really don’t like the strong is the new skinny saying. I mean- some people are naturally thin and will never really have lots of visible muscles, that’s just how their bodies are. We can still be strong- strong is so much more than just physical. I work with a lady who’s a cancer survivor, and she is super strong. She’s not in the weight room or on a track, but that’s strength. So’s my mother in law, she worked multiple jobs to raise my husband as a single mom until she married his stepdad. It’s almost like that saying now makes “strong” replace “skinny”. that’s not the way to go, replacing one ideal image with another- rather get rid of the so-called ideals to begin with, ya know.

    You did have a library card before you wrote this, right? ;). <— this is coming from a girl who used to work in a library and got a card within 2 weeks of moving to Charleston :).

    • Ummmm, nope. I had a card as a kid but not since I was about 16. Oops. But I’m a proud card holder now!

      • Yay! I am glad you got one at least. The libraries here are great girly, you have been missing out. I just put all my books on hold on the website, and then pick em up when I’m close to a branch. Good times.

  • we adore Jessica!!! crazy to look back in history to see how the world and fitness (and body image) has changed!!

    • I know, it’s amazing! And so is Jessica, haha.

  • Kim S

    I minored in Women Studies back in college so I LOVE this post. Spent countless hours researching this stuff! I did an entire research paper on the 1920’s flapper! It was the first time in history women had shown their ankles! GASP! I totally would have loved to have been livin in the roaring 20’s. We have dreams of one day opening a 1920’s themed restaurant/speak easy kind of establishment. It will be awesome!

    • That would be so cool! YOU guys should totally do that! I would come visit asap!

  • Without question, I would want to go back and date the women of the 1940’s! There’s something about Rosie the riveter…

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  • this is really SO interesting and it’s crazy to see how much body image and ideals have changed. it makes me wonder how different it will be in 50 years!

  • I love Jessica Biel’s body. She is so strong and lean but nothing crazy 🙂
    I think I’m perfectly happy with the era we’re in right now. Women can celebrate all things about our bodies and I am a short 5’2″ so the long lean Twiggy could never happen for me 🙂
    Great post!

    • Thanks! I guess it doesn’t really matter if we like or don’t like the era we’re in… we’re in it! Great point, I love that we can celebrate all things about our bodies!

  • Great article!

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  • PlutoSontse

    Faucet?! Seriously?!

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