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The curvaceousness of fashion models, Miss Americas and PMOYs over time in the twentieth century
Models trends in the twentieth century have been extensively addressed within this site. Nevertheless, here is another study(1; zip) that documents model trends in the twentieth century, and some comments on it are pertinent.
The authors addressed time trends in the anthropometric measurements of high-fashion models, Miss Americas, Playboy Playmates of the Year (PMOYs) and young adult American women from the general population during the period 1920-1999. Note that Playboy magazine was established in 1953.
The closest index of femininity calculated in this study was the curvaceousness index, adapted from the work of Agras and Kirkley:
The bust, hip and waist measurements are circumferential measurements, and can be entered in centimeters or inches, but the same unit has to be used throughout. The height is entered in inches. As can be seen from the above formula, if the waist becomes smaller, the curvaceousness index increases, and for a given bust-waist-hip measure, if the woman becomes taller, she becomes less curvaceous.
The changes in the curvaceousness indices are shown below. The 2007 data for high-fashion models are my addition, which will be explained shortly. The differences between the four groups should not be assumed to be large or small by looking at the graph because of limitations of the curvaceousness index (addressed shortly) and also the fact that the scale on the vertical axis can easily be changed to make the group differences appear larger or smaller.
The curvaceousness index data should be interpreted with caution. In the 1920s, young adult women were the most curvaceous, and back then overweight/obesity was uncommon, i.e., young adult women in the general population were more feminine, on average, than both high-fashion models and Miss Americas, which should be noted. It should not be concluded that young adult women in general were more curvaceous from 1940-1969 compared to 1920-1939 because the same populations were not used for all decades. The 1920s data were from college students, the 1930s data were from women measured in seven states for the purposes of generating standardized clothing sizes, and the 1940s-1980s data were from U.S. military personnel.
From the end of the 1920s to the mid-twentieth century, high-fashion models and Miss Americas became more curvaceous and also more feminine. The authors’ data appear to suggest no change in curvaceousness from the 1920s to the 1930s in high-fashion models, but this appears to be a sampling issue since high-fashion models were indeed more feminine in the 1930s than in the 1920s. In the 1950s, high-fashion models, Miss Americas and Playboy Playmates of the Year were more curvaceous than young adult women in general, among whom overweight/obesity was still uncommon, and this is the scenario that one would expect if women in the limelight reflected the preferences of the general public, namely one of above average femininity in the looks of women.
In the second half of the twentieth century, all four groups diminished in curvaceousness. As young adult women in the general population gained more weight, noticeable from the 1970s onward, they became the least curvaceous of all groups because of an increase in waist circumference, but now the femininity comparison becomes less straightforward. The authors’ data appears to suggest no change in curvaceousness among high-fashion models from the 1970s to the 1990s, but this is another sampling issue. Curvaceousness did indeed diminish among high-fashion models from 1967-1987, as previously documented in a study published in 1989, and beyond. Toward the later part of the twentieth century, skinny high-fashion models would maintain a low waist circumference whereas young adult women would have a significantly higher waist circumference because of weight gain. In addition, the statistics do not take into account breast size. A D-cup vs. an A-cup would present a striking contrast with respect to femininity for the same bust circumference. Therefore, the data surely do not suggest that high-fashion models were more feminine than young adult women in general from the 1970s to 1999, which can be easily confirmed by looking at high-fashion models in the 1980s and 1990s.
The 2007 data for high-fashion models, which I added in the graph, were those of the top 50 high-fashion models as of March 30, 2007; the list was taken from www.models.com. Pictures of these top 50 high-fashion models are shown within this site, and the corresponding curvaciousness indices can be obtained here. Note that even the most curvaceous 18+ high-fashion models in this list, who happen to be in the neighborhood of a 4.2 curvaceousness index, still look less feminine that non-overweight young adult women in general and undoubtedly the young adult female population of the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s (averaged a curvaceousness index of 4.2). This should help emphasize the limitations of the curvaceousness index in assessing femininity.
The curvaceousness trends do not reflect a shift in the preferences of the general public with respect to “ideal” women, which here would be high-fashion models, Miss Americas and top-ranked Playboy centerfolds. This is because these three groups haven’t been more masculine than they have been from the 1990s onward, during which controlled laboratory studies have repeatedly shown a strong and overwhelming aesthetic public preference for above average femininity in the looks of women, as previously addressed (e.g., faces, waist-hip proportions). In addition, above average femininity as in large breasts and a small waist or feminine faces tends to correspond to good fertility and fecundity, which implies that a preference for above average femininity in women should be a long-term stable central tendency among heterosexual men.
The curvaceousness or masculinity-femininity trend has been previously explained. In brief, the decreasing curvaceousness of Playboy models is best understood in terms of the nonheterosexual founder of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, bringing the centerfolds in line with his preference for masculinized women; more on this here. The trend among Miss Americas reflects the trickle-down effect of the trend among high-fashion models given that high-fashion models have the highest status among female models and in recent years especially, a number of beauty pageant contestants have come from fashion modeling backgrounds. The trend among high-fashion models corresponds to a shift in the strength of the influence of gay fashion designers: notable in the 1920s; then diminishing due to conservative shifts in society during the depression era, World War II and also anti-gay persecution in the 1940s and 1950s; and finally increasing from the 1960s onward because of improving public tolerance of homosexuality; more on the “eating disorders” page.
The authors are clueless about the above explanation. They blame the media for promoting skinny women, forgetting that people are behind the media, and the precise identity of the culprits will likely not be appreciated by the authors since they may all be feminists. Besides, the reported weight data for Playboy models is useless; there is no way these women are as light, on average, as they are reported to be, which the authors would have realized had they bothered to look at the Playboy models; more in this regard on the “eating disorders” page.
- Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Jessica Murray, Yvette R. Schlussel. Temporal changes in anthropometric measurements of idealized females and young women in general. Women Health 2005;41(2):13-30.