Ideal Bodies and Time

The ideal body changes as time & fashion evolve—and different cultures prize specific looks above all others. It’s easy to look back centuries and laugh at the variety of body shapes and sizes that where considered in a positive light, but some of it’s not so funny and, in my humble opinion, some of the criteria of 21st century America could use some tweaking.

Think about a middle aged man, comfortable with his big belly, as evidence of his prosperity in a time & place of food insecurity; the sensuous flesh of a curvy, Peter Paul Rubens model; the slender, straight lines of a flapper in a fringed dress; the cinched 17-inch waist of a antebellum debutant; the six pack abs and hairless chest of a contemporary leading man; and the un-sculpted frame of a 1930s matinee idol.

When I read novels in historical settings and vintage literature, I’m always aware of the shifting concepts of beauty of characters. The ripped arms and abs of contemporary films and television were only for extreme athletes and body builders as recently as the 1970s. Check out the skinny arms of women in TV shows from the 1960s and 70s—they were thin and as free of obvious muscles as the men and women of 1930s detective stories. Today, many actors playing doctors, lawyers, and businessmen have underwear model bodies in bed and beach scenes.

Breasts, augmented or lifted, are bigger and on smaller frames than would be dreamt of in earlier ideals. Figures enhanced with implants alter our concept of what looks “right” as they become more accessible to women dissatisfied with their bodies.

Roman noses, large doughy noses, long thin noses, and noses with hooks, bumps, or sharp edges, are replaced with “perfect” noses that would have featured in Cyrano de Bergerac’s daydreams. The wrinkles of age and facial expressions are “fixed” with injections, and thin lips are plumped up.

Don’t get me wrong, if fixing your nose, lifting your breasts, undergoing gastric bypass surgery, getting your lips enhanced, or any other procedure will make you happier, less self-conscious, or feel more beautiful, then who am I to begrudge you your wishes? I color my hair, slather on moisturizing creams, and get my eyebrows shaped.

No, it’s not that at all, I’m just fascinated by how quickly concepts of perfect bodies change, and I’m aware of how they could alter again. Thick beards were IN when I was in college and now they are back. I’ve survived my curly hair going in and out and in and out and in and out… of fashion at a relatively head-spinning rate. When I read—and write—stories set in the past, these ideals are something that I keep in mind.

Do you find the PERFECT people of the past to be more beautiful than the PERFECT people of today?

A Rubens nude…


  1. Interesting point, Candy. You made me realise that in my sci-fi stories I’ve guestimated what the tech will be like in the future without even once giving any thought to more subtle things like ‘beauty’. Actually, that’s not completely true – I simply assumed that current versions of beauty would apply 80 years from now. 🙁

    Thank you. I’m tucking this one away for future reference.

    • Candy Korman

      I’m curious about what kind of future beauty concept you’ll create for a new science fiction story!

      What will we find attractive in 25, 50 or 100 years? Will our eyes become so comfortable with “enhanced” appearances that a “natural” look will be unappealing? Or will changes in our lives—and our planet—make us reconsider extreme ideals in favor of another esthetic entirely?

  2. My boyfriend has a book he’s been tinkering with for a decade or so and a main component of the story explores identity and the characters can pick a new one whenever they feel like it. It only changing our looks really could be as easy as pushing a button 😉

    • Candy Korman

      What a great concept! Changelings for real…
      Adopting new identities in our world comes with serious loss and disruption, like witness protection a major psychological break. I wonder what the world would be like if we could just slip into a new identity.