In 1938 (that’s 77 years ago, for those of you keeping score at home), Life magazine did a feature on 20-year-old June Cox. Time recently unearthed a-three-quarters-of-a-century old article that did the rundown on Ms. Cox’s measurements, showed the model in a floor-length dress and then again in her underthings, and proceeded to praise Cox for possessing the “ideal figure.”
Life is VERY specific about what a “perfect figure” should be in 1938. A bust should be 34 inches, a waist should be 24 inches, hips should be 34 inches, thighs should be 19.5 inches. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the circumference of your wrists “should” be if you live in 1938, that would be 6 inches. Cox meets all those requisites, though the publication does acknowledge that their model is 5’6 and weights 124 pounds, while life insurance stats would recommend she weigh 135 pounds.
Not only does Life get hyper-specific about “ideal beauty,” they also make sure to throw shade at the ideal standards of the past, by taking us through the previous 40 years of beauty history.
“The perfect 1938 figure must have curves but it differs from the perfect figure of past decades in relationship of curves to straight lines. In the 1890’s women had full bosoms, round hips. In actual measurements they were probably no rounder than Miss Cox but they seemed so because they were shorter, tightened their waists into an hour-glass effect … Now, though, the ideal figure must have a round, high bosom, a slim but not wasp-like waist, and gently rounded hips.
As the American girl stressed sports, she grew taller and flatter. The boyish form became the vogue. With the recent return of the romantic influence in clothes, the soft, feminine figure is again back in style. Now, though, the ideal figure must have a round, high bosom, a slim, but not too wasp-like waist, and gently rounded hips.”
So basically, what this piece is saying is that a body is a thing that goes in and out of style. If you have a “taller and flatter” figure in the roaring 20’s great for you, your measurements are trendy! But if it’s 1938, your chest, hips, waist, everything about you needs to be different or you won’t be “ideal.” Because, you know, clothing is “romantic” now, so you basically need to change your entire body because the fashion industry said so.
Also, the piece gets a little mean at the end re: women who don’t fit into the crazy-narrow parameters of the “ideal woman”:
“Because U.S. women sit down so much—in autos, at bridge tables, at desks and in the mirror—big hips are their most serious problem. On the whole, though, they have the kind of figures that prompted dumpy Elsa Maxwell to say ‘No French woman should be seen on the beach by her lover—all American women should.'”
Being a woman in 1938 sounds EXHAUSTING. Your wrists have to be THIS many inches AND magazines are allowed to call you “dumpy” and get away with it? Geez Louise. As exhausting as it sounds like it was to be a woman almost 80 years ago, it’s honestly basically just as exhausting being a woman today and dealing with a judgmental and unforgiving image-obsessed media. It sounds like our grandmothers went through the same body image BS we do. The standards they were pressured to adhere to were different, but what remains the same is the pressure itself.
Let’s do everything we can to turn beauty from an exclusive to an inclusive concept so that in 77 years OUR granddaughters can look back at today and go “It sounds like it was EXHAUSTING to be a woman in 2015, I’m so glad times have changed and things aren’t like that today.”