12 thoughts on “Female bodies in 1939

  1. Wow.

    When I was a teenager, my neighbor (who was in her 70s at the time) used to tell me about how her friends would take her to the local diner to drink a malt milkshake every afternoon in an effort to make her “less skin and bones” and “put some hips on”. Then she’d just laugh and say “I was young in the wrong decade – I guess they like them skinny now!”

  2. My grandmother (born 1920) used to be thin when she was a young woman (now she’s a tough plump old lady)
    She was very much concerned about her weight (the fact that world war II just started, food was rationed etc. when women her age started looking for prospective marriage partners was not helping either). She lied about her weight and added a full 10 pounds. She would stuff herself with whatever she could find before going to the doctor, because he weighed her and the look on the scale would make her feel depressed and insecure about her body. Then, times changed. The mid 1960s definitely brought new skinnier body image into favor. Unfortunately, by that time menopause and having had 5 children was taking its toll on her previously slight figure. All of a sudden thin was the norm.

  3. I’m proposing this idea without much research, but I’d be interested in investigating how much “class” plays a part in this as well. This was still knee deep in the Great Depression, so if you looked skinny, I wonder if that was a sign that you didn’t have enough to eat? It’s interesting how skinny people are advertised as being “tired, cranky and washed out.” When you haven’t had enough to eat how do you feel? Tired? A bit cranky maybe? So if you’re round you look as though you eat “well”. Yet it’s interesting how much that dialogue has changed. Now the idea is that if you’re round, you eat poorly, you don’t get proper nutrition because you’re eating all the wrong foods which are, at times, attributed to poverty (and in cases of obesity, very valid especially in neighborhoods where there are food deserts) or you lack control. Yet you constantly hear how the wealthy are said to live healthier lifestyles, which again is possible when you can pay for gym memberships, buy organic food, and have the luxury of disposable income to make certain wellness choices. I may be off, but just thinking through an idea.

  4. Not sure how much “thin” is the norm nowadays (not including the fashion runway). Despite the kerfuffle about the Vogue cover, there’s quite a bit more emphasis on strength and fitness – where strength=muscle and not simply weight, and thin=low body fat not simply low weight. Doesn’t seem that that long ago that the women in a gym would exclusively populate the treadmill area. Now, things like crossfit are at least as popular among women as men.

    Not that there aren’t still body image issues involved, but all in all a decided change for the better.

  5. ajkrider, But wait, we’re not supposed to have low body fat everywhere. We’re suppose to have low body fat in most places, and then huge mounds of body fat on our chests and some on our butts and in our lips as well. It’s cool we’re allowed to go to the gym now, but not so cool there are these tricky expectations about fat distribution.

  6. There used to be a Charles Atlas program for scrawny men who apparently got sand kicked at them on beaches.

  7. I was so struck by that cartoon, as a kid, because the girl on the beach, whom, presumably, he likes, is so mean to him *after* the poor kid gets sand kicked in his face, and tells him, “Go away, little boy.” And after the sand-victim buffed out, the girl told him, as I well remember, “You are a real man after all!” But I remember staring at the last panel and wondering, why would this guy care what the mean girl thinks about whether or not he’s a real man?

    On the other hand, the girl in the cartoon was built a lot like the ’39 beauty ideal above! So there, relevance. :-)

  8. I guess I hesitate to place any real meaning on the difference between this ad and the way female body images are evaluated today. Sure, the ideal has changed. But the message is still the same: women have some kind of obligation to look a certain way, and you should do whatever you can do fulfill that obligation. Including, of course, feeling bad about it if you fail to compare adequately to whatever the ideal of the day.

    I am intrigued by Kristin’s proposal that what the ideal consists in probably has a lot to do with class and the affordability of living healthy. Even if that is not what informs the ideal, the impact of poverty on healthy bodies (whatever they look like) is clearly something we should be concerned with.

  9. @Dani: I think it is important to keep track of these sorts of shifts in the ideal, because of the preposterous evopsych arguments that get trotted out to defend the reigning ideal as some sort of instinctual (and supposedly unalterable) mating preference. The point of the post, I assume, wasn’t so much to applaud the “1939” ideal, as to reinforce the idea that the ideals are socially constructed in a way that gets used to impose norms on women, in the manner you suggest.

  10. @Dani and anonymous.
    I agree with you. This shows both that body-shape preference is a social construct of any given time and that the pressure to look a certain way is nothing new although, like Dani says, the ideal has changed over time. It also shows that, no matter what the ideal is, it will always be used to instill insecurities and feelings of inadequacy in order to sell crap that is supposed to make you more acceptable. I found that to be the saddest part of this revelation.

  11. Lets think for a moment… What for the 30s known for? The depression. So of course beauty meant looking bigger because that meant you were healthier. Today being fat is a serious problem in our country. So get on a treadmill!

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