Every woman experiences body image issues, Whether temporary or long term, caused by self-doubt or caused by society, I think we can all agree – being self-conscious sucks. Comparing ourselves with other women, particularly those flawless and airbrushed models seen in the media, contributes to a downward spiral of unhealthy thoughts and dissatisfaction. There’s a lot of romanticizing of other eras of body and weight ideals, such as how Marilyn Monroe’s “size 12 (or 14, or 16) body” was the “norm” and a desire to return to that, which I feel is a dangerous – and frankly, foolish – mindset to hold. The argument is that our perception of beauty as a society now prefers waif-thin girls over the hourglass shape of the 1950s, but that ignores plenty of thin, beautiful women from the years past while also turning a blind eye to the weight and diet issues that women in our target eras might have faced.
Just like today’s crash diets, complicated food systems, and diet pills, the vintage decades provided their own “instant gratification” solutions that promised to rid you of unwanted weight. And just like today, the “Golden era” was a society that relied on creating insecurities for monetary benefit. I’m sure there were plenty of women out there who desperately reached for “sanitized tape worms” or amphetamine at the urging of ads such as these. A well-known example: Judy Garland was cruelly exploited by studio executives who first-handedly caused her addiction to amphetamines, or “pep pills,” for energy and weight loss (and then, to combat their side effects, barbiturates for sleep).
Women then, like women now, came in all body shapes and sizes. Though the hourglass figure was indeed praised, I don’t feel it is any less desired in our modern times. Famously buxom stars such as Betty Brosmer and Jayne Mansfield quite clearly boasted this figure, but even before photoshop, Brosmer’s 18 inch waist, or Mansfield’s and Monroe’s slightly less drastic 22 inch waists, were quite a difference from the average 25 inch waist of the 1950s.
Marilyn herself, upheld as the ideal 1950s hourglass figure and the focus of many extreme claims, was a real woman with a fleshy stomach – I think that’s more important to remember than focusing on what dress size she may or may not have been. And like many of us, her weight clearly fluctuated, her celebrated tiny waist disappeared and reappeared, though she is considered no less beautiful by others for that.
Alongside the weight loss ads stood weight gain advertisements, which used “skinny” as an insult. These products claimed to quickly pack on ten pounds and bring along a sudden rise in popularity and sexual appeal. I’ve found evidence of the above “Wate-On” product from the 1930s through the 1970s. Existing all at once, there are images telling you to both gain weight and lose weight. So what does this suggest about a societal ideal, after all?
Contrary to what people may proclaim about the 1950s body, many models from the fifties were quite thin with a very straight figure. No less celebrated and famous than the hourglass-shaped Marilyn, Audrey Hepburn was a tall, thin actress with a small bust (she reportedly wore a 34A) and slim hips. I don’t see any negative comments about her figure from the era that apparently idolized Marilyn’s style of extreme measurements.
My point is that there were women of all shapes and sizes in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. Betty Grable’s legs were insured by her studio for $1 million. The waifish Audrey Hepburn existed alongside the buxom Marilyn Monroe. There were stunning burlesque performers boasting bodies that look like an approximation of our modern ideal, those with a slim and well-proportioned figure, as well as those with some banging hips that I could only dream of. All of these bodies existed and everything in between – and all of these bodies are equally “vintage.” Which means, so is yours.
Janie Gregg (1940s), Sherry Britton (1940s) and Ethelyn Butler (1955)
My absolute favorite images while searching for content for this post are those showing the stars with a little bit of realism and humanity. Jayne with visible flesh, Marilyn with thick thighs, a cute little belly pooch, and a large scar on her torso – if we should be claiming anything about this era of bodies, it shouldn’t be that Marilyn was one size or another, or that hers and Jayne’s figures were the only kind admired in their time. It should be that it was an era full of real women with real bodies, straight figured and hourglass shaped and everything in between. Some had more of a backside and large bust, others had little bust at all; some were admired predominantly for their legs and others for the entire package. All are beautiful.
I find myself comparing my own body to the more extreme measurements of the pinup body, when there were absolutely women like me in my favorite decades. And there were also women like you. Why pick and choose, when we all have a vintage body?
I’m leaving you with a little bit of Hilda, who was the star of a pinup series drawn by Duane Bryers from the 1950s through the 1980s, alongside a piece by Gil Elvgren. Not all pinups look the same!
How do you feel about the commonly touted “vintage/pinup body”? Do you find it to be limiting like the modern ideal?
Until next time,
Lauren || The Homemade Pinup