My big sis and I have a longstanding tradition where we cuddle up with chocolate cookies and select a film that typically 3 – 5 year olds enjoy. Our most recent pick was one of my personal favorites: Thumbelina.
For those of you who had a childhood and have beheld this masterpiece, you might remember the terrifying scene where a lost Thumbelina gets swooped on by the rude and obnoxious: “Mr. Beetle.” He tells her that she is beautiful and forces her to sing and dance at the Beetle ball.
But while Thumbelina is performing, the large crowd of beetles begins to shout out in disgust for her appearance.
“Would you look at that, she ain’t got no wings!
Good gracious me, where are those things?
She’s got scrawny legs and knobby knees.
For all we know, that girl’s got fleas.
She can’t even fly no, that won’t do.
So, say goodbye she’s not for you.
MR. BEETLE: I’m sorry, toots! I guess you’re too… Uuuuuuugly!”
This scene is meant to be frustrating and ironic, for we perceive that Thumbelina is very beautiful, while the beetles, we interpret as “ugly." We can also notice that Mr. Beetle had decided she was beautiful, before his beetle comrades convinced him that she was ugly.
At one time or another, we’ve all been to the beetle ball. We put ourselves out there, and are sent back with a list of things we must change. I directly relate to this, being in the entertainment industry. I remember a few years back scrolling through pictures from a recent photo shoot. Our producer at the time looked over my shoulder and exclaimed, "Damn! Can we Photoshop a tan on those legs?"
*cue: teenager crawls into a hole*
When did "tan legs" become such a requirement, anyway? I recently came across an article entitled: “See How Much the ‘Perfect’ Female Body Has Changed in 100 Years (It's Crazy!)” (If you want a full 500 years of analysis, this article is amusing as well.) They both take you through decades of evolving beauty ideals. Interestingly, as fashion has changed, so has the body type that "best" presents it to the American culture. We know that fashion is art, and art by nature, evolves. Still, should we insist in making a Picasso wish it were an Andy Warhol?
Actress Melissa McCarthy says, “Pretty much everyone I know, no matter what size, is trying some system. Even when someone gets to looking like she should be so proud of herself, instead she’s like, ‘I could be another three pounds less; I could be a little taller and have bigger lips.’ Where does it end?"
What's so amusing is what happens when we realize: body trends have been as fickle as fashion. They change in tandem along with it.
And we are all chasing after them.
At the turn of the century, women were still binding themselves into corsets. Young children would start their “training” as they began morphing their bodies for the exaggerated – and by no means natural, “TINY WAIST” It got gross: punctured lungs, damaged liver… in extreme cases, the distortion is said to have been fatal.
Enter: Sister Suffragette and “rational dress movement.” By 1920, women wanted to vote. And breathe. A new silhouette was introduced – that of the fashion forward flapper. We see the first nod to tomboy fashion, and women are literally wrapping their chests in order to flatten their two friends. Ouch.
1950: boobs, boobs, BOOBS. Weight gaining supplements were being advertised everywhere, targeting skinny girls. “Skinny” was an abomination, and a big bust was everything. See where I'm going with this? I'll continue...
In the 1960's, there was another complete turn - around. Model “Twiggy,” embodied the new ideal for Mod Fashion. Petite and rail THIN was the new ass-piration. (Or not.) Enter: Weight Watchers, 1963.
In the 70's & 80's, we see muscle tone being portrayed as “sexy,” for the first time, (on females that is.) By the 1980's, fitness exploded, (embarrassing aerobics videos exist to prove this.) We also notice a new demand for tan skin. (Cue the invention of the tanning bed, 1979.)
This brings us to the 90’s, where Sir Mix-a-Lot was clearly; “tired of magazines, sayin’ ‘flat buts are the thing.’” But how did we get here? Baggy clothes of the decade were displayed in media by the stick thin, representing the sunken look of “Heroin Chic.” The muscular, fitness queen of the 80’s took a back seat to what used to be repulsive in the '40's & ‘50’s: SKINNY.
Miss Tina Fey puts it brilliantly, in Bossypants:
“Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits.”
As I studied each of the decades, I started cracking up inside. Hollywood is in a competition with herself to trump the previous decade in sexualized images, (and their consequential profit.)
Fashion designers caught on to the concept that a rail thin body is less distracting from the clothes they want to sell you. Not only are we being convinced we need their product to be "beautiful," we are also convinced that we need to look like the women modeling them to be "beautiful."
The evolving standards are hilariously impossible and absurd. It’s as if we’re being distracted on purpose. (Check out this theory.)
Men are by no means exempt.
I defer to Agent 007. To examine the metamorphosis of society’s standard on males, just take a look at how James Bond has changed over the decades. James used to have hair on his chest. He was more effortless, more natural. Watch how he morphs from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. The same goes for Captain Kirk. Chris Pine has a much stricter regiment than William Shatner ever did. Still, I could promise that any woman growing up in the 70's would pick Shatner over Pine, as he was the ideal that that generation fell in love with.
When we look at male sex symbols in the 1940’s & 50’s like Clarke Gable and Elvis Presley, we can see that they weren’t “toned” at all. These were tuxedo wearing times when "ripped," wasn't a deciding factor in matters of "sexy."
The shift from structured suits to clinging fabrics in the 1970’s left grace for no one. The desire for a lean body increased. Our icons in the next couple of decades became more toned in response to the fashion industry and the shifting standard.
From the 80’s to the new millennium, the standard has become more and more complex as culture tries to out – sexualize itself. In media: chest waxing, tanning, dieting, and strength building are the bare minimum to “sexy.” To ad to 007, we now have werewolves, vampires, superheroes, and all kinds of mystical male representation – all of which are strictly regulated by a personal trainer, and getting bigger by the blockbuster.
Society has presented quite a paradox for our men. While excess body fat is considered “unhealthy and unattractive;” the skinny man is shamed for being “unmasculine.” Men that are built to be bigger are “too big,” and desire the leanness represented in pop culture. Men that are born on the leaner side are, “too small,” and resent their struggle to gain weight.
Women struggle with a similar paradox. Girls born with bigger curves are targeted in the landslide of “waist slimming” advertisements. Girls that are born thin may as well start a donation fund for breast implants while they plan their daily squats routine. Athletic girls are afraid to appear “too masculine.” Unathletic girls envy their muscle tone.
In the middle of this chaos, where are the advocates for true health? Some of these body trends point society towards a lifestyle of fitness and empowerment, and that is very positive; exercise and a healthy diet are an important facet of body positivity.
Other trends, however, have inspired destructive, reconstructive and sometimes fatal behaviors, from anorexia to untested supplements, (in recent decades we can ad plastic surgery, the increase in skin cancer,) and God knows what else. We have gone crazy trying to morph our bodies where they will not go naturally without artificial aid. Where does it stop? When do we wake up and get off the hamster wheel?
Hollywood has idolized a new body trend every ten years, sending everyone off to the races. It’s actually comical to watch from afar. What’s sad is that we often react like our antagonist, Mr. Beetle and decide what is “ugly” based off of media images, and not what we perceive for ourselves, or feel naturally.
A glimmer of light: and out the rabbit hole we climb. When we remove the microscope and pull our vision out to a greater perspective of Hollywood, we see how fickle that tramp really is…
She is a fickle tramp.
JACQUIMO: Why… What is the matter, Thumbelina?
THUMBELINA: I’m cold. I’m lost. And I’m hungry. And the beetle says I’m ugly.
JACQUIMO: The beetle? You love the beetle?
JACQUIMO: Then never mind the beetle. Good riddance to the beetle… Does Prince Cornelius think you’re ugly?
THUMBELINA: No. He thinks I’m beautiful.
JACQUIMO: And so you are, mon amie. Look.