Content warning: this article discusses topics such as ED, objectification, drug use, and body image. Those subjects might be distressing for certain readers
According to the fashion industry, the ideal women's body changes every decade. Recently a wave of self-love and emotional sexuality is challenging decades of pre-conception. A short contemporary history of the "perfect" sex-worthy body.
Women's body representation in fashion imagery has been ever-changing, no matter the century. Bodies have been modelled, edited, cinched, elongated, and pushed to fit the ideal silhouette of the time. Similar to clothing trend, the industry is constantly modelling women's bodies to a new ideal sex-worthy figure. Over the past 50 years, the gap between each decade's ideal is wider and wider, making it nearly impossible for women to fill it healthily. From the 80s to now, the ideal sexy figure has evolved from unicity to individuality.
The 1980s: The Power Woman
Picture it; we're in 1980-something, you take a walk in the street. Curly perms are bouncing, moustaches are proudly worn, Spandex is on the edge of glory and Diana Ross is blasting on someone's radio.
The Power Women trend is everywhere. In fashion boutique window editorial shoots are glorifying shoulder pads and tiny waists. The latest Jane Fonda workout VHS is beatings records (1982 top selling!). Speaking of whom, Jane Fonda could be described as the 80s perfect body muse. The "ideal" sexy body should be athletic, muscular, fresh and well-nourished. Part of the aesthetic is for women to own their sexuality, and to be bold about it.
The 1990s: Heroin Chic
About 10 years after, the change is drastic. Exit toned bodies and healthy eating, Heroin Chic is everywhere. The aesthetic name comes from where it sounds: the direct effects of the drug on your body. Faces are pale (very few non-white representations if not none), and bodies are emaciated and almost sickly looking. Think "coat hanger". Hot bodies are curveless and bony, with an almost "trashy" look to them. The trend has been massively popularised by the Super Models of the time, most specifically Kate Moss. Reaching that "ideal" body was often synonymous with disordered eating and drug use. The mid-90s saw an alarming rise in anorexia cases among women, famous or not.
The 2000s: Porn Chic
It seems that the industry might be learning from the past 10 years and is willing to offer a slightly less drastic figure. Whilst the sickness look is removed and a few pounds are fleshing up the models, blatant EDs are replaced by Diet Culture. The fashion industry is not directly sexual, but its imagery often revolves around women's objectification. Part of that is imposing the image of the perfect attractive/sex-worthy body and the other part is to make it a complete part of an aesthetic. In the mid-00s the Porn Chic image is openly applying the cis-male-centred view of women in fashion ads. We all have in mind this Dolce and Gabanna ad, a perfect example. The ideal body type of the Porn Chic representation is not far from Heroin Chic. Indeed, the woman is skinny (but not too much), fresh looking, young (very) but most importantly readily available. Porn Chic aesthetic is more about the attitude than the body, more than ever, women are desired but not masters of their image. They are oiled, often in revealing postures and looks, surrounding men, provocatively still.
The 2010s: The Perfect Curves
After about 20 years of making curves disappear, it is now the pulpy era for women's bodies. Desirability is now measured in present breasts and hips, curves are enhanced by bodycon dresses and large decolletage. However, to be desirable women now have to display perfectly place curved. Small waists yet large busts and hips. Whilst healthy eating and movement are usually the "how to" it's unrealistic. Indeed, it's impossible to target weight loss/gain to specific areas of the body. Not only is the body promoted is a result of a potentially harmful diet it is also a result of often (hidden) surgery.
The 2020's: Body Acceptance?
Covid-19 has had disastrous consequences on people's body image. However, time allowed introspection. Towards the lockdown's end, a wave of body acceptance took over social media and is still carried today. From body neutrality influencers to inclusive fashion campaigns, the sexy body is now the individual body. Whilst there is still a part of the industry that carries on creating new moulds for women, the celebration of the individual is taking its share. Women's diversity is now more represented, and even better: celebrated. Alongside the rise of mindful sexuality, women's bodies are now sexy because of their flaws and differences. Being unapologetic is finally widely embraced, making it a bit easier for women to reclaim their sexuality.
What to take away from this article:
During most of fashion history, women were removed from their sexual narrative. Modelled to fit into a specific image or removed from the narrative to the status of simple props. Besides the obvious harmful physical impact on bodies, the industry took away the singularity of individuality. How can we learn to put our bodies in the centre of our sexuality when every decade we are bombarded with images of the "new perfect sexy body"? Making the previous silhouette redundant and not worthy of desire anymore at the same time.
The body-positive movement reached the fashion industry, saying "Women's Bodies are not Trend", and people all around the globe are ready to fight to make it last. You do you, and that's sexy.
Disclaimer: This article doesn't assume women's passiveness in front of diktats but tries to highlight the variety of faced challenges to own their sexuality and image.