How Female Body Shape Changed in the 20th Century (Gallery)

By Jim F

How has body shape changed during the last century? What were the popular and glamorized body shapes of the day?

For centuries it seemed that women with curves were celebrated.

Early 1900s


Camille Clifford

Actress – the quintessential “Gibson girl”.



Louise Brooks

Dancer, showgirl, and actress.
BMI: 19.9



Lisa Fonssagrives

Fashion model, dancer. Referred to as the first supermodel. This picture is from Vogue 1939.

Also: Greta Garbo



Betty Grable

The pin-up girl of the 1940s: “The girl with the Million Dollar Legs”



Marilyn Monroe

Actress, model.
BMI: 20

Also: Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly





Twiggy’s BMI: 15.
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 24.9

Actresses of the time were in stark contrast to Twiggy:
Jane Fonda (the movie Barbarella, 1968)
Sophia Loren (the “perfect” hourglass – 38C-24-38)
Catherine Deneuve (measurements 33½-24-35)
Ursula Andress



Farrah Fawcett


BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 25.3

Also: Jacqueline Bisset, Bo Derek, Brooke Shields.



Cindy Crawford
Model – the late 1980s marked the beginning of the age of the supermodel.

Cindy’s BMI: 19
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 26.6

Also: Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Madonna



Kate Moss

Model – marked the beginning of the ‘waif’ look.

Kate’s BMI: 16
BMI of US women (aged 20-74): 28.1

Models Thinner While the Rest of Us Get Fatter?

It is tempting to find a correlation between the BMI of models and celebrities against that of the general population. It seems that as we got fatter, the people we idolized became thinner.

However it is not quite that simple.

Many fashion models have been thin over time. Lisa Fonssagrives (above) described herself as a “good clothes hanger”. Did she starve herself to get that way? Probably not.

The 1920s and 1960s Also Had Thin Models…

The 1920s and 1960s both bucked the trend of the curvaceous woman. Anthropologist Ann Bolin says that “during periods of liberation, like the 1920s, when women had just gotten the vote, and the 1960s, when the Pill became available, the ideal shape for women de-emphasized their reproductive characteristics–the nourishing breasts, the wide, childbearing hips.”

…But From the 80s Beauty Pageants Got Thinner

  • Waist measurements of winners of the Miss America pageant went from just under 26 inches (1920) to around 24 inches (1980s).
  • During the period from 1979 to 1988, 69% of Playboy models and 60% of Miss America contestants weighed 15% or more below the expected weight for their age and height category.

Don’t Confuse High Fashion With Mainstream Media

Some countries have attempted to “ban” fashion models of a certain size – but how much impact will this have on body shape ideals of popular culture? The real mind games don’t come from the subculture of high fashion – but from the insidious influence of popular mass media.

Catwalk Models – Representative of a very small body type.

Remember Ally McBeal?

The TV show of the late 1990s portrayed women as being very thin. At a time when average female BMI hovered around 28 – actress Calista Flockhart had a BMI of 15.6.

The trend continues today – much of the entertainment industry is fixated with thinness – in spite of a viewing public that keeps on getting heavier.

We See a Lot More Pictures Than We Used To

The last 40 years has seen explosive growth in the accessibility of visual media. Portrayal of full bodies rather than just faces has also been a trend (source). Modern channels of media allows a level of scrutiny undreamed of 40 years ago. Idols are rapidly created and discarded – leaving behind impressionable masses endlessly pursuing impossible goals.

And Don’t Forget: EVERYTHING is Retouched

See some samples here of how every image is photoshopped.

Today’s Ideal Body Shape Is…

A bizarre combination of male desire and waifish androgyny; thin, no hips, big bust.

For most this is only possible with a genetically-blessed bone structure along with surgery – something which America is pursuing with a vengeance. Couple this with the “toned” look, where muscular (but not overly-so) women play lead roles in Hollywood, and champion the fitness industry.

Sophia Loren (1955)
The quintessential hourglass

The much admired “Hour-glass figure” is disappearing: Only 8% of women have an hourglass shape.

How willingly do we subscribe to a cult of perceived beauty that is attainable by so few?

Could it be that after all these years, women are still judged (by themselves and others) on the basis of body shape and little else?

We are a two-body society: one body is an advertising medium, the other body is what you see on the street.

I think it would be nice if hating the way you look weren’t so good for the economy. […] We know, too, that women in ads, knockouts to start with, are artificially perfected beyond human emulation. We know, but we forget. – Anne Bolin

Changes in Waist-to-Hip ratio of Miss America Pageant winners From 1920s to 1980s (PDF).
Influence of fashion magazines on body image satisfaction (link).
Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index, United States 1960-2002 (PDF).
Body shape ideals in magazines (1997) (link)


  1. andrea

    How can Cindy Crawford’s BMI be 19 and Marilyn Monroe’s be 20? Monroe’s must be much higher.

    • MimiR

      Monroe’s BMI was under 19. You don’y have a 22″ waist when you’re that big, for heaven’s sake–and she did. It got up to 20 when she was pregnant.

      The Cindy Crawford BMI is a recent one. In her heyday it was near 18.

      I’ve looked into this extensively. The BMIs of supermodels aren’t actually much different from the 1940s to now. They’re almost always in the 17.5-20 range. The BMIs of actresses have been, since then 1920s, in the 18 to 21 range, with an occasional outlier as low as 17 or as high as 23…if her boobs are big enough. That actually includes Mae West, too, believe it or not, while she was young! One of her costumers said that they padded all her clothes heavily. I didn’t believe it until I saw some photos that showed her in several outfits, one of which was NOT padded, within a very short timespan, and her reported measurements were right, at least while she was young. Her boobs and bust were mostly padding, and her BMI was about 22, IIR.

  2. Brianna

    i have an elongated hourglass figure. i’m 18 and i weight about 108lbs. my body is strange in the fact that if i’m not exercising i start to lose weight (cuz muscle weighs more than fat.. blah blah). when i was buying jeans with my mom before i went to college i had to go down to a size 0. most girls would be thrilled to wear that size. i was shocked and slightly bothered becuz i usually wear a size 3. still small yes but i have small body frame. however i know that’s not my more normal size for my body type. its foolish how girls feel the need to starve themselves to be a size 0 when for most of them its extremely unhealthy for their personal body frame. so many girls dont realize that there isn’t much you can do to change how your body looks on the whole. you can exercise and say healthy and whatever weight you’re at then is YOUR healthy weight for YOUR body. we shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to each others bodies and let alone models. girls should be more confident in how they look. look at the women in your family, that’s approximately what your body type will be like. body types r genetic so you get what you get and you should love it no matter what you get. love what you have before its gone.

    • Jewel

      I definitely agree with your sentiment that women shouldn’t compare themselves to anyone, but body type is actually only about 10% genetics and 10% exercise, the other 80% is largely based on your diet. this doesn’t mean you should starve yourself to get in shape though, all it means is that to get your ideal healthy figure you should just eat more cleanly, NOT dieting, just eating healthy, so having less processed foods and eating more fresh vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. If they just did this and then the recommended amount of exercise, they would never need to diet!

    • MimiR

      Pffffth. You’re down to a 0 because vanity sizing is out of control. I’m in 2s and 0s in most places, and no one–absolutely no one who wasn’t delusional–would call me “thin”. I’ve actually sized OUT of some lines. It’s ridiculous because I still have a couple of size 4 and 6 clothes from the early 2000s, and I can’t wear ANY of them. At that time, everyone carried size 2s. So I was 1 to 2 sizes larger than the smallest size that everyone carries. But now I’m too big for the old 4s and 6s. I have another size 8 pencil skirt from the 1980s. Too big for that, too. I can’t wear 12s from the 1950s.

      Don’t get caught up on a number. If you stay the same weight, you’ll be a 000000 in ten years, at the rate things are going.

  3. Vsell

    How much you weigh doesnt matter at ALL you could be 5’3 140 and a size 2 because muscle weighs more than fat. And all these young girls wanting to be thin need to remember some of us arent built to be thin *shrugs* maybe your ribs cage is wider, or your hips are naturaly further apart. AND your all should ask if men like skinny chicks or chicks with meat on yahoo answers youll be surprised, women are skinny for other women, men are biologicaly wired to prefer a mate with meat on her, how is that skinny b***h going to carry a baby for him, or run from the dinosaurs, or help him? Shes not : p

  4. Hallie

    I am 13, a size 0-1 in jeans and i am probably less than 100 pounds, and i am 5’2. I am a gymnast, and also quite muscular. the perfect body in my mind is marilyn monroe’s! I WANT curves, and i really do not understand why models have to be stick thin, or why people want to be that thin. . .

  5. LB25

    im15, a girl. im 5’3 and i weigh 141.5 pounds. i have D cup breats and i wear a size 5 in jeans, i hate my body type i feel fat. i want B cups size 1 jeans and to be 6 foot. i have a really pretty face and smile but the first thing people notice are my huge boobs and butt. people say i have the perfect body “hourglass” but i hate when guys talk about it. its so disrespectful in my opinion. im very insecure because their are so many skinny girls at my shcool and i wish i looked like them. i also worry about me being to heavy for my boyfriend to carry that’s so embarrassing! i constantly worry about what i eat because i gain weight so fast. i played volleyball basketball and ran track for most of my life and im really good at basketball and track, but for my sophomore year im trying out of the dance team. hopefully it will make me gain back some self-esteem. if anyone has any tips about loosing weight or anything, please respond i’d apreciate it a lot.

    • Corey Williams

      It’s more about your health. Don’t compare yourself to others, just be work on making the best of what has been given to you, it’s excess stress when you are comparing yourself to others.Focus on being healthy,loving yourself,and making the best of what you been given, everybody is not made the same.

      • C.W

        otherwise you be in bondage to other people perception of you, and to yourself, so be free.

    • melissa

      Honey, I have an hourglass shape. I’m 5’3″ I wear size 9 jeans and a 32DD. I weigh 134 pounds. I have been made fun of since I was 10years old. I am now 28. No one is making fun of me now. All women of every shape and size wish they had my body. I can’t go anywhere without men hitting on me. That is annoying and never gets better. But it happens just as often to my best friend that’s 5’11” a 34A Cup and size 3 pants. Guys simply like extreme figures. The worst part about having an hourglass shape is finding clothes to fit DD boobs a size 2 waist a size 9 butt and size 11 thighs. Oh, and my boyfriend can’t pick me up. He is super skinny. It doesn’t matter. We love each other.

    • MimiR

      Find out how much you burn using an online TDEE calculator. Count your calories by weighing your food. Track your progress with the scale. It’s that simple. You really don’t gain weight any faster than anyone else. You’re just eating more than you think.

      You’re right that at your age a BMI bumping up against 25 is unhealthy. The overweight cutoff is 24. But because you are only a little overweight and probably still growing, your goal should be to stay a steady weight and “grow out” of being overweight.

      When you’re 18, if your BMI isn’t down to 23, it would be a good idea to slim down a little more. For the non-elderly, risks start rising at a BMI of 23.

  6. Lidia

    Hello, im 14 and weight about 120 now and i personally hate my bodytype. Im what they call a pear shape which is relativley average/small on top, thin in the middle, and large hips and butt. I would much rather be flat out one shape like small on top, small in the middle, and small in the middle and visa versa. And the worst part is that im the only one in my family with this body shape. On my moms side, everyone is quite large except for my sister and aunt who are tiny all the way! And there is also the fact that im black, so everyone expects me to have big boobs but i dont!!

    • Corey Williams

      The best thing you can do is learn to love yourself,it is one of the most freeing things,that you can do and learning it at a early age, it’s very valuable,. that’s the body type the LORD gave you,just make the best of it, focus on the inner you,more than the outer.

      • MimiR

        You mean like this?

        1 Corinthians 6:19-20 “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

        Corinthians 9:27 “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest when I have preached to others I myself should become disqualified.”

        God gives most people pretty much the same body, with only minor variations. What you do with it is up to you.

      • Roxie

        Good response.

        Your body reflects your health. For a long time I was on that dreadful high fat low carb diet and I ended up with massive amounts of fat around my waist. I lost my waist entirely. I was so convinced that the diet was ‘healthy’ that I continued to eat fat and protein in huge amounts until one day I took a photo of me from the side and saw myself as a big round apple. I was also consistently dizzy, with heart palpitations and short of breath.

        So I started to eat healthy (low natural fat, no sat fat, whole grains and lots of vegetables, legumes, a little fruit and nuts), I walked more, slept more and reduced my portions (naturally and without hunger). After 4 years i lost a little weight BUT my waist is slowly reducing in size and has flattened out compared to the swollen obese ball it had been.

        Maybe it will never be like it was when I was 19 but it’s much better than it was 4 years ago. I would love to have the body I had in my early 20s, but like Mammy said to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind ‘you ain’t never going to be no 18.5 inches again. Never” …

  7. J

    Are you insane?

    I am 5’3 and 160. Size 8.

    I run 70+ miles a week year round. Have done very well (only age group unless the race is small) in my age group in races. Strong, too, with weights.

    You think 5’2 and 140 is fat? Geez, I got down to 140 for a while, size 2. People have such distorted views. And I have a large build – just like my whole family, born with it. but I’m not super muscular like a bodybuilder or anything. I think too many people must lie about their weight with what people say is fat verse my experience of how people describe me.

    • Nightshade

      I don’t know how anyone could be 5’3″ 140 and be a size 2???
      Maybe I just don’t have alot of density or something like that but I’m 5’8″ and 125 and am a size 4 on bottom and size 2 on top. My sister is 5’10” and 130 and about a size 4

    • MimiR

      You have a BMI of 28.3. That is high overweight. You do not have a “large build” that can account for more than a variation of 5lbs. Such things don’t exist.

      Of course you aren’t muscular. Bodybuilding women have BMIs between 21 and 23 when they step onto the stage if they aren’t using drugs. People don’t describe you as “fat” because more than two thirds of the country is overweight. Overweight is the new normal.

      If you have a waist larger than 35″ measured so that the tape is touching the top of your belly button, you’re obese by body fat percentage. More than 32″ and you’re over-fat, still at high risk but not quite as high. The Harvard Nurse’s study has found that women who kept a waist measurement less than 28″ has the best health outcomes and were the lowest mortality risk. By the way, as 28″ waist used to be an average waist measurement for a mom in her 30s.

      A “size 8” means nothing. Sizes have gone crazy over the last three decades. A “size 8” now is the same as plus sizes thirty years ago.