An article from The Economist published in June this year found that ‘for an obese woman, losing weight could boost her salary by as much as obtaining a master’s degree’. Such a correlation between thinness and wealth only applies to the ‘fairer’ sex. Although beauty standards and views on a woman’s purpose within society have shifted throughout history, the value placed on women deemed more attractive has not. The significance of our bodies as a source of power and means of social and economic elevation finds its roots in the West tens of thousands of years ago.
“Venus of Willendorf”, aptly named for its discovery in the Austrian town in 1908, is one of numerous figurines dating back to the Palaeolithic period, between 25-30,000 years ago. Nude depictions of women such as Venus, who possess exaggerated features relating to child-bearing and nursing represent an early deity of fertility. Idols such as this one provide an insight into how Paleolithic Europe worshipped an ideal of the female body in terms of its supposed suitability to a woman’s purpose within society: to be fertile and raise children.
This in itself is no proof of power, nor of social and economic standing, but demonstrates that early civilisations also praised a certain type of female body because of its value in a wider patriarchal societal context. Praising a certain bodily ideal has since been used as a means to control the appearance of women, and in turn our designated purpose within society.
Fast forward a few thousand years to Ancient Greece and we have the goddess Aphrodite, who still remains the ultimate symbol of love, sex and beauty in the West. Like Venus, Aphrodite possesses fuller features – large breasts, a pear-shaped body – equally pertaining to her status as a symbol of fertility. From the sculptures of the ancient world came the great Renaissance painters, the likes of Botticelli and Raphael, then the ‘rubenesque’ style of the seventeenth century, which continued to idealise a curvaceous body type. In the same way that every law student is familiar with Plato’s Republic, Aphrodite is widely known as the precedent of beauty: but is this still true in our contemporary society? Do we, consciously or not, continue to adhere to the principle that a woman’s purpose is ultimately to raise a family, and is this largely dependent upon her perceived attractiveness?
For thousands of years, the archetype of beauty has been intrinsically linked with fertility: this, and her ability to raise a family, has been a woman’s mark of success. For a woman to succeed, she would rely upon being viewed as attractive by a man, who would become her husband, through whom she could then fulfil her purpose. Generally speaking, in coincidence with social standing, the wealthier the suitor, the more attractive a woman he would marry. Capitalism dictates that success is intrinsically linked to wealth: the more attractive you are, the more wealth you acquire; the more you succeed.
What it means to ‘succeed’ as a woman in our society has changed, but a fundamental principle still remains: those deemed more attractive are presented with more opportunities to succeed. For many in our society, this definition of success now extends to having a career, alongside the established expectation of raising a family. The majority of Western women’s opportunities have undoubtedly increased. But our education, careers, and legal rights, such as to vote or to have a bank account, are not synonymous with autonomy. Autonomy will only occur following a breakdown in this correlation between beauty, wealth and success.
The correlation between beauty, wealth and success has not been eradicated, only nuanced.
Most likely a case of correlation rather than causation, the ideal body type for women has changed over the last hundred years.The rise of the flappers in the 1920s popularised a slimmer figure: for the first time, a more androgynous look became á la mode. This ideal bodily aesthetic has come in and out of fashion in the decades since, from the hourglass figure brought into vogue by Marilyn Monroe to the ‘heroin-chic’ look of the ’90s. These and every trend in between have overshadowed the long-standing ideal of a ‘feminine’ female body. As a result, the notion of a feminine bodily ideal equating to a woman’s suitability in the role of home-maker has been brought into question.
The ideal beauty standard may have changed, but the fact remains that those in power, specifically of the male sex, elevate those they deem more attractive, historically predominantly of the female sex. We still contend with the view of women as objects – accessories expected to perform their role for the function of patriarchy.
Our expected roles may have changed, but we continue to be objectified and fail to be viewed as autonomous beings in our own right, regardless of appearance. The same expectation that has existed for millennia remains: the female body exists in a social sense as well as in its physical state.
Standards of the ideal body type for women have shifted to favour ‘thinness’. Expectations of the successful modern woman now include a flourishing career, as well as raising a family. What persists is a deep-rooted bias, which socially and economically elevates women deemed more attractive.
‘Success’ is not synonymous with our autonomy. This cannot be achieved so long as the appearance of our bodies plays a role in why, and the extent to which, we succeed.