18 May, 2010

A Brief History Of The Hourglass (Or 'Work Will Make You Fat')

Did you know that the hourglass shape is under threat (despite being a figure possessed naturally by only around 8% of women?)

There's a problem with the fetishism of the hourglass figure, and it's that so much of it is based around this mythological assumption that women pre-20th century were all possessed of 36-24-36 figures, with bountiful bosoms and waists you could wrap a hamster round. The Fail, perhaps due to its obsession with women of 'a certain era' (i.e, pre Women's Lib, when good little women were seen and not heard and spent their days making their husbands dinner and not enjoying sex) is particularly fond of flying the hourglass flag. The article linked to bemoans the impending doom of this body type, despite the fact that very few women are fortunate enough to be blessed naturally with this Holy Grail of shapes.

You don't have to be a historian to know that women have always come in a wide variety of shapes, and these shapes have all been immortalised, at some time or another, by painters and sculptors - from the abundant curves of Ruben's women to the full busts of Amadeo Modigliani's nudes and everything in between, women have always been varied. It's not a modern phenomenon - Boticelli's Venus has little waist definition in comparison to Velazquez's depiction: the beauty ideal has changed with the centuries.

The hourglass figure was particularly coveted during the Edwardian period. Much is made nowadays of the detrimental effect the modelling industry has on young girls; how the 'thin is in' ideal has provoked anorexia among so many, and how celebrating the hourglass, as the Mail article seems to suggest, is somehow a remedy to the crushing self-doubt perpetuated by the unrealistic ideals of 'size zero'. And yet the hourglass figure has proven itself to be terribly oppressive.

You see, the hourglass is determined by a woman's genetics. Being a size 10 does not guarantee you hourglass credentials; your hips and bust must be proportionate, your waist markedly slimmer. It's a matter of shape, not of size, and of fat distribution rather than content. I'm a classic pear shape (slim ribcage, small waist, large hips and bottom) and have been despite ranging from a size 6 to a size 10; as my weight has changed, my shape has not. My bone structure is such that I will always have proportionally larger hips than waist. And breasts? Fuhgeddaboudit. (As my dear mother once told me, "From the back, you're like Lara Croft. Then you turn around...")

The hourglass shape, for those women not born to it, was obtained through punishing, restrictive corsets; the damage to bones and bodily organs was torturous. Some women became unable to support their own upper bodies without the corset as their ribs and spine had become so distorted. The desire for a body shape that was not their own so damaged some women that their bodily organs became permanently displaced.

These days, we have our own instruments of torture; the push-up bra, squashing breasts into a shape nature clearly did not intend. The magic knickers, sucking us in. They may be more subtle, but the point clearly remains; if the hourglass shape is so healthy and natural, how come we're going to increasing lengths to fake it? Liposuction, breast and bum implants, all creating the illusion of a shape fetishised despite its rarity. The Mail article suggests the hourglass is worshipped now precisely due to its rarity but let's face it; it's always been rare. We have just forsaken the painful, restrictive methods favoured by our forebears to create it. And rightly so.

The article ought to be take with a pinch of salt, as always; it can't be a coincidence that in a survey sponsored by Triumph (an underwear company whose sizes start at B cup) has the hourglass figure projected as the ideal. But if the Mail thinks the hourglass figure is somehow a healthier, more attainable ideal, it's just kidding itself - only through the luck of genetics or surgery can a woman become a hourglass. Body facism comes in all shapes and sizes, and writing disparaging remarks about Agyness Deyn in a bikini is just plain nasty (and the writer dares to call herself a feminist!) "I'm rather enjoying sitting back and watching other women struggle to attain the shape I've had since my teen years" she writes, perhaps missing the point so many feminists have been trying to hammer home for so long; championing one shape over another is inherently oppressive and exclusive. Since art across the centuries has celebrated a vast variety of female shapes, perhaps we modern, enlightened types might think to do the same....?

(Oh, and as an infuriating post-script: the article actually suggests that women's waists are becoming fatter in countries where 'women are more economically independant' - Work will make you fat! You heard it here first)


  1. Insecurity sells. How else do you shift so many beauty products? Give people a comparator by which to feel like utter shit. Christ, I look at male models and I keep getting anxieties about being too fat. Advertising is nothing better than the ruthless exploitation of people's insecurities.

  2. I agree that the hourglass is just as unachievable as aiming to look like Kate Moss. I have an hourglass figure and it doesn't matter how much I weigh I still am an hourglass which does suggest it's genetic.

    The stupid thing is that our culture venerates the hour glass figure, yet doesn't provide any clothes for us to wear! I find it virtually impossible to find clothes so am learning to make my own.

  3. Ditto with the pear shape. I can't wear dresses, as they all gape around the bust and barely squeeze over my arse. Jeans are another nightmare - all cuts seem to expect me to have a waist the same size as my hips. Erm, no.

  4. Actually there's probably some truth to the statement that women's waists are getting fatter in places where women have economic independence. Places where women gain economic independence are virtually always developed areas with a fairly high amount of technology. Technology generally causes people to do far less physical labor. So in countries where women are economically independent, I'd imagine that both the men and the women would be getting fatter.

  5. Interesting - i notice it's always the hourglass which is the only 'acceptable' body type for a celebrity woman to have if she is slightly bigger than your average celebrity. When magazines and newspapers tell us that we don't have to worry because 'size 0 is out!' what they actually mean is 'don't worry ladies, it's now acceptable for you to be a size 8-10 hourglass as well!' Then on the next page they will of course report that women's waists are getting bigger...

  6. Sigh. How ridiculous. (Good post!)

    This is why I'm so torn on the fact that "curves" have come back in style. On the one hand, women above a size 2 are now celebrated as sexy and beautiful in a way they never would have been 10-20 years ago. Which is great! But then the narrative turns into "bigger women are sexy! Look at Christina Hendricks!" when, of course, her body shape is even MORE unrealistic than the boyish beanpole look, because it can't be achieved through diet and hard work alone. It's genetically either-you-have-it-or-you-don't. And I'd bet money that the same people who talk about how sexy and healthy Christina Hendricks looks (and she does look sexy, although I can't comment on someone's health just by looking at them) wouldn't say the same about a woman with the exact same height and weight but with a different shape/distribution of body fat.

    Not to mention how must nastier this will make things for naturally thin women...I mean, they already get accused of being anorexic (even when they're not), and now it's turning into "size 0 isn't healthy! Size 0 isn't sexy!" when size 0 could well be healthy on certain women. And size 0 is certainly sexy to some people (I mean, it's all about personal preference anyway), and I think that shaming naturally thin women for not having been endowed with T&A is just going to make everything worse.

  7. I agree with a previous poster... womens' waists are larger not due to them being more economically independent. Instead it's the fact that in these societies (where women are more economically independent) women are more stationary and not physically as active as societies where women will walk for miles just for a small jug of rice or water. It has to do more with being dependent on technology, such as taking an elevator, typing files to organize them, etc that causes people to be larger/fatter. Men are also fatter/bigger in these technological societies than those societies that people are more physically active. :)


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