Shrink And Disappear: The Victorian Origins Of Modern Body Image Ideals

The Western cultural emphasis on female thinness has some roots in the Victorian era.

Whitney Thompson

It’s never been easy to be female in general, but especially when it comes to body image. Many of us millennials, I suspect, grew up amidst not just Barbies but Kate Moss pictures and heroin chic. Nowadays Kim Kardashian is our Venus de Milo, but the principle of the thing is still the same: only your breasts and hips can take up space, and if you can’t pull that off, just shrink and disappear.

But it wasn’t always like this. Rubens painted many full-figured women. Marilyn Monroe wasn’t a size zero. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is most well-known today as a suffragist, but in her time she was “praised for her ‘mature figure,’” says historian Peter Stearns. So what happened? When did thin become in?

According to Stearns, a powerful shift happened around the end of the Victorian era. Previously, food scarcity had disproportionately affected the poor, and what we would now consider obesity was a sign of affluence–taking Thorstein Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption quite literally. But sometime in the 1890s, overconsumption of food became a symptom of serious moral failings. Stearns claims it was a large-scale guilty reaction to the sudden comparative abundance of food, but this alone doesn’t explain how obesity and thinness became so gendered. Annemarie Jutel sheds some light on the gender connection; she links demonization of food to concerns about sexual purity. Christian preacher Sylvester Graham and MD John Kellogg (of graham crackers and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes fame, respectively) both posited a link between rich, “unhealthy” foods and acts they perceived as sexually deviant, such as masturbation.

The Victorian era, particularly in its later decades, was marked by profound anxieties regarding many subjects, especially female agency and women’s sexuality. The popular stereotype for a while was that women had no sense of their own sexuality–indeed, as late as the 1920s, the British House of Lords shot down an attempt to criminalize female homosexuality, claiming such a law would put ideas in the heads of oblivious women. However, Victorian society wasn’t universally repressive. The emergence of the “New Woman” in literature of the 1890s destabilized the notion of women as bland, sexless creatures. A crucial character trait of the New Woman in works by authors like Sarah Grand was her interest in sex. The New Woman had an all-too-brief fictional life, thanks to the giant scandal caused by Oscar Wilde’s trial and an increasing scrutiny of Victorian cultural decadence, but her work was already done by the time she fell out of favor. Stearns also notes the growing visibility of women’s sexuality in this decade, along with a waning emphasis on motherhood as an ideal.

It makes sense, then, that an emphasis on (white) women’s thinness in this era should spring from a fear of female sexuality, a desire to police women’s pleasure. Lilka Woodward Areton points out that Lillian Russell, a famed late Victorian beauty, would be considered obese by modern standards, but Russell is arguably much less famous than the girl known as the world’s first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit was a prototypical “Gibson Girl,” a turn-of-the-century ideal of female beauty–coiffed hair, clear skin, but most of all slender and young. Nesbit’s biographer Paula Uruburu characterizes her thusly: “at times she seemed a picture of Victorian sentimentality, but her bewitching… smile promised something forbidden.” She was the era’s perfect poster girl: her extreme youth rendered her not necessarily non-sexual, but sexually nonthreatening, and her thinness spoke to her feminine virtue.

Virginia Woolf writes in “A Room of One’s Own” about the many little ways in which sexism plagues women who want to be artists. Such a woman was “snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted,” Woolf says. “Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that.” Though Woolf spoke of a specific type of woman, her words ring true in this context as well. The pressure to be thin is one of the many, many ways in which Western society aims to distract women, to keep them from realizing their full potential.

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