“Beauty means feeling comfortable in your own skin and appreciating your imperfections.”
“Beauty is power.”
No matter who you are or how you feel about your body, there’s no denying the standards that society places on how we should look. Regardless of what gender you do (or don’t) identify with, body images have been an ongoing issue for years. So what is the “perfect body” for this generation? How is that different from a woman to a man? And why do people seem so desperate to have a “perfect body” that’ll likely change again in 10 years?
Women: A History of the Body
For the longest time, women have been scrutinized for their bodies. And this doesn’t even need to be because of what the television shows us. Women from all different cultures and races are expected to look a certain way to be deemed “perfect.” In this generation, the perfect body has yet again morphed into something that young women see online and feel ashamed of. Why don’t I look like that? Why can’t I have this or that or them…millions of discriminations run through the heads of little girls and teenagers who feel like they’ve been wrongly represented in their media.
As for America, it’s had an interesting turn on women and how their bodies should look. Though the United States is meant to be the land of the free, it isn’t free for the mind. For as long as television and media have been a thing, women’s bodies have been expected to look a certain way. In the 1920s – better known as the Roaring 20s – women were expected to have the flapper body. Flat-chested, a downplayed waist (not tucked in, like the effect a corset would give from the 1910s), a short bob hairstyle, and a boyish figure (no curves).
In what America typically refers to as the Golden Age of Hollywood (from the 1930s to the 1950s, though I would prefer the 70s movies), women’s body types were meant to resemble those on their screens. For this age, women were expected to be curvy with an hourglass figure, have a slim waist, and large breasts. During the 1960s – which I assume is inspired by the international supermodel Twiggy, had its own form of style. In the Swinging 60s, women’s body types were meant to have an adolescent physique, to be willowy, thin, and to have long-slim legs.
During the 1980s, or the Supermodel Era, women’s body types were supposed to be athletic; svelte, but curvy; tall; toned arms – the whole thing. I’d imagine these body types were expected from the supermodels appearing in every fashion store’s window. In the 1990s, women’s “perfect” figure changed again. Women were desired to be waifish, extremely thin and to have translucent (pale) skin and to be androgynous (partly male and partly female-looking). But this is primarily America’s standards. For Asian women during the Han Dynasty (from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), women’s desired body types were a slim waist, pale skin, large eyes, and small feet.
However, women during the Italian Renaissance were expected to have ample bosom, a rounded stomach, full hips, and fair skin. Similar to this time, women from the Ancient Greece era were to be plump, full-bodied, and to have light skin. The women at this time were considered to be disfigured versions of men.
As for race, stereotypes seem to always follow African American women, who are desired to have a curvy figure; deep, smooth skin; a slim, pinched waist; and unnatural hair – either a weave or a wig. And if their hair isn’t in this style and is natural, African American women’s natural hair is supposed to be “wild,” like afro-style hair or braids. Though it is a large part of African culture, it’s truly turned into something damaging for not only this race but every other race that has been placed into a bubble of perfection.
Men: A History of the Body
Unlike women, I’ve always felt like men have had pretty much the same body type throughout history – muscular, tanned skin, dark hair, and a strong jawline and neck. But this isn’t completely off. The Greeks always portrayed their men as strong, athletic, and figured, and many people from America tend to find men more attractive if they have just the right amount of muscular strength and a certain bone structure.
For men’s beauty standards all around the world, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is the “perfect body”. In the United States, men are pressured to have the perfect, muscular body by the media. Over the past few years, the most desired traits of American men have been a more lumber-like style: bearded, masculine, and white. If this seems like an unbelievable number, 83.3% of lead actors in films released in the year 2013 were white. Though this number is likely to have changed, it’s fair to say that it’s likely changed to maybe 74% – still an overwhelming number.
In Mexico, men are expected to have a more “macho” behavior – also known as staying incredibly masculine. I’ve also noticed that when it comes to Mexican men being deemed attractive, it’s often because they have short, dark hair, slightly thick eyebrows at an arch, and piercing eyes. As for Brazilian men, about 43.1% of them identify as mixed-race. For their standards of beauty, Germanic features with tan skin are considered to be the perfect combination. Even more shocking compared to American society, cosmetic surgery to achieve this body/face type is starting to become normalized for Brazilian men.
For men in South Africa, a 2011 census found that 79.6% Black African and only 8.9% white men. However…an overwhelming 77% of magazines in South Africa in 2014 featured white models all over the pages. Something that America also faces, it seems like regardless of what’s in the general population, the media always seems to be such a lack of what individuals truly see in their day-to-day lives. It possibly makes them feel ashamed. There’s no doubt that it’s extremely aggravating and hard on the mind to look at a magazine and see no one that looks like you – even harder for men who only see themselves represented with only six-packs and sharp jawlines. It’s said that in South Africa, western body ideals are becoming much more accepted for their race.
Disregarding even more countries around the world that idolize masculinity and muscles, Italy also has a beauty standard for their men. Considered the pinnacle of men’s fashion, Italian culture is pretty different from what Americans commonly see in men.
Italian men commonly wear well-made clothing, not afraid of wearing brighter colors that would be traditionally feminine. For their level of attractiveness, this involves a term called “sprezzatura,” meaning “to have an air of studied nonchalance.” In the United Kingdom, professional athletes are extreme beauty idols. And of course, not everyone is going to look like David Beckham, but tattoos are also incredibly popular for British adults (about 1 in 5 of men). And like Brazilian men, facial hair, grooming, and “manscaping” have had an increasing number of British men.
As for one of the most popular things in American culture, K-Pop stars have played a large influence on the Asian community and what they consider attractive. Pale skin, deep brown eyes, a lean but muscular body, almost doll-like features, and styled black hair are common standards of beauty for men. Influenced highly by the uprise in K-Pop stars and their music, it’s common for Asian men to go under cosmetic surgery to achieve this desired look of beauty.
What Do Students Think?
I interviewed teenagers around my age and asked them two simple questions: what is the ideal body type for a woman, and what’s the ideals for a man? Although all of the answers differed, it’s incredibly interesting to learn how society’s consideration of what is beautiful comes into play for what teenagers consider attractive.
When asking young women how they felt about what would be considered an attractive man, there were numerous amounts of replies. An anonymous source told me that to them, the “perfect” man is tall, a brunette, and athletic. They stated that they didn’t care about body size, and that personality was a key component to attractiveness. Another off-the-record source tells me that for a man to be considered attractive, they’d need to be tall, blonde, and muscular (but not exactly abs). Another teenager explained to me that the perfect body type for a man to them was brunette hair, tall, brown eyes, curly or straight hair, muscle, and athletic. So what is the common thread?
As for women telling me what they think a woman’s “perfect” body is, the answer was slightly different. One source explained to me that the perfect body type for a girl was long (blonde) hair, short, small feet, slim, and also full-figured. An anonymous source informed me that to them, a woman’s perfect body can be any hair color, eye color, and body type. Another unclaimed source tells me the perfect body for a woman was blonde hair, blue eyes, an athletic figure, tall, tan, a slim waist, and a thigh gap. Something I find so surprising about these responses is one thing: more detail. Whenever I’ve asked women to describe what the perfect body is for their gender, they give a much more detailed and thought out response, as if they tend to be much more critical of themselves than their partners.
I interviewed young men about what they felt would be the ideal man. Unsurprisingly, many of them told things along the lines of an athletic figure and muscles. One anonymous source told me, “Low body fat,” when explaining the perfect body type. One person even told me a more detailed response, saying they think a man’s perfect body type would weigh about 130-150 pounds. However, about every guy I interviewed for this question almost always had the same answer: fit, muscular, either tall or medium-height, and athletic. Though there is nothing wrong with wanting to be in good shape, there is a lot of similarity to American standards of a man’s beauty and what these young men told me. There are hundreds of different ways to be fit, and as one source told me, “It differs for every body type.” Yet not everyone viewed a perfect man’s body as this incredible athlete. One source told me, “I don’t think there’s really one. As long as you feel comfortable and happy.”
And finally, when asking men how they felt about a woman’s “perfect” body, the response varied. One off-the-record person told me they thought a woman’s perfect body type was an hourglass figure (similar to a body type that many social media influencers have). About 50% of the young men I asked this question also almost always said fit as well. One source explained that they think a girl’s perfect body type would be around 100-120 pounds since they are unable to gain as much weight as men can. Though many began to specify about athletic women, this something I find very interesting. As someone who plays sports and knows many people who do as well, everyone’s body will be different depending on the sport they play. One anonymous source did point this out, saying a woman’s body would differ depending on what they were doing. For instance, people in a sport like gymnastics, dance, or volleyball are more likely to have larger thighs due to the amount of leg work that goes into playing that sport. Young girls who play a sport like soccer or track would possibly have a more lean figure, considering the amount of running they do in that sport. As most of the people I interviewed stated a more fit figure was the “perfect” body type, some also specified heights – somewhere in the middle, as one source told me.
What I also found incredibly interesting about interviewing young men about their opinion of a perfect body woman was two things: a reluctance to answer, and no specification on hair color, eye color, etc. Unlike the young women I asked about how they viewed the “perfect” body type, men didn’t seem as focused on those traits. What seemed to be a more definite thing for them was what the body looked like.
However, not every source I had seemed to think beauty (for men and women) could not be described in a few traits. One person told me, “My idea for a perfect body type for a woman/man is someone who’s comfortable in his/her own body, gets plenty of nutrition, and always has a full stomach.” Another anonymous source told me how she viewed men and women’s “perfect body types,” telling me “Well in today’s society many stereotypes are forced on men to feel like they should be…built, big muscles, tall, and athletic.” This source also stated, “Sadly in today’s society many girls pressure girls into having the ‘perfect body’ which might be a slim waist, long legs, long hair, clear skin, and a full figure.”
So what’s the issue? Why are such common beauty standards from society displayed in what a teenager finds attractive? There’s one answer: the media. As great as things like social media, movies, magazines, and televisions are, they often give off a wrong representation of how women or men should look. When it comes to Hollywood, it has always been criticized for failing to represent the community that watches their movies correctly. Statistically, 77% of women in movies are white. Though it isn’t far off from the United States population, it’s harder for women and men of color to go to the movies and see an entire cast of thin, or hourglass figured white women controlling the screen.
What teenagers see in movies and television series has always had some level of misleading information. Shows that do demonstrate a more accurate look on women and their bodies always label them as the fat, funny girl. And shows or movies that don’t consist of the main character with a six-pack on their stomach are often not as liked by viewers. Teenagers are so used to seeing tall, tan, muscular men on their TV’s that it’s off-putting to watch a show with a character who has stretch marks. Things like extra fat on the stomach, no thigh gap, and a chubbier face are often deemed as something unattractive or disgusting.
But how do you change something that has been thriving for years? You don’t take it away, and you can’t simply ban teenagers from going on Instagram. Change what they see. To any huge company that produces television shows and movies, don’t provide a “fat” character in your content to add to the stereotype. Don’t label them as “fat.” Or don’t include an African American or Hispanic person in the show just because it’ll add to the plot. They’re a person, just like the thin cheerleader people so commonly see in high school-inspired movies. Normalize a group of African American, Asian, white, and Hispanic women like it’s normal because it is. Normalize men who don’t have a thin stomach and who are less muscle and strong features. It should be something so common for teenagers to see – something I think could create healthier minds.
However, this isn’t something that can be always placed on the media. Over the years, television has really progressed. There are more characters who aren’t incredibly thin and there are guys featured in movies who don’t have six-packs. Many shows that teenagers often watch have even broken those barriers of the “fat girl” or the popular guy in school with this incredible athletic figure. The media has become much more open-minded than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. There is a lot more room that everyone has to take to normalize the human body and all its different forms. And there is a lot more than we as people can do in order to accept that not everyone is going to be skinny, and not everyone will be blonde…but that’s perfectly fine.
It isn’t just television/movies, everything needs to be changed in order for a generation to grow up with a healthier mindset. Everybody type should be considered beautiful, regardless of what the number, hair color, or height shows. People – especially social media influencers – should not feel ashamed at all if they aren’t skinny, or if they aren’t muscular. They should bring confidence to their content so those viewers can see that and understand their body is beautiful too.
From everyone I had interviewed, one person told me something that I really found an interest in. They said, “I feel like no one in the world is ‘perfect.’ Everyone is different in many ways and although some people may think someone is perfect, they aren’t. It doesn’t matter if you are slim, athletic, tall, have abs, etc.” I agree with this person. No one is perfect, and the “perfect” body of this generation or era will likely not be the same in the next one. Things change, but people need to understand that just society’s standards of a man and a woman’s beauty will always transform, that does not mean a single person is less beautiful.
BuzzFeed Videos: Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History
BuzzFeed Videos: Men’s Standards of Beauty Around the World
Young Men and Women
South Africa Deluxe
Elefv – YouTuber
South China Morning Post
Jean Louis David