Sexy Now, Sexy Then

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

It may sound like a cliche, but it’s true in more ways than one; though it may be hard for residents of the 21st century to believe, once upon a time – and not even so long ago – thin was definitely not in.

In fact, through much of human history, a slender body was considered quite undesirable, as it wasn’t an indication of good health or fertility.

Instead, a more natural, womanly figure was the ideal, as represented by both anthropological evidence and hundreds of years of artwork featuring voluptuous, curvy women, all of whom boasted those childbearin’ hips!

Today, trends lean in a new direction that we can all appreciate: Strength. For the modern woman, sexy is way more about feeling strong, confident, fit, independent and body-aware, and way less about struggling to reach an unrealistic, unattainable – and often unhealthy – body type that some fashion designer decided was the definition of sexy way-back-when.

That designer has a lot to answer for, but a look at sexy trends over time illustrate what a long way we’ve come.


Until the Victorian Era, which began in the mid-19th century, the ideal female form was curvy, voluptuous and downright bodacious. Famous artists such as Renoir and Rubens – whose beautiful, usually red-headed ladies originated the term “Rubanesque” – represented the pinnacle of female sexuality at that time. Think Christina Hendricks – pretty hot, right?

All that began to change, albeit slowly, when the Victorian Era began in 1837. Named after, you guessed it, Queen Victoria – a lady who wasn’t exactly known for her progressive views on sexuality – styles reflected a straight-laced, puritanical P.O.V. that – literally – caused women to lace themselves up.

Corsets became all the rage and while busty, curvy ladies were still considered attractive, the ideal body shape depended on having the smallest waist ever. The goal? An unbelievable – and extremely unhealthy – 12 inches, or a waist so unnaturally, inhumanly tiny that it puts even Barbie to shame.

Not surprisingly, many women were harmed while lacing into and wearing these corsets, breaking ribs and suffering from dizziness and fainting, all of which added to the whole “demure, passive female who needs a man to protect her” ideal that grew ever more popular over the years.


By the 1920s, women were done with the whole tiny-waist, big-boobs look. They pushed back in the roaring 20s, trying to make their bodies look as boyish, slender and sleek as possible. Corsets and hoop skirts were replaced by girdles that created flat hips and stomach; some women even bound their breasts to flatten them. The look emphasized strong legs, a trend that continued over the next few decades even as styles changed.

Over the next 20 years, curves came back in style, but now these curves were fit and muscular. Hollywood glam as represented by starts like Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow was the idea. Through the conservative 1950s, women were supposed to cultivate an hourglass figure – think Marilyn Monroe – and attention moved from the legs to the bustline.

Once again, women were forced into girdles in order to create that teeny, tiny waistline, a trend that continued well into the 1960s, when the style again turned toward slender, waif-like bodies, a’la Twiggy.

1970s through 2000s

The trend toward uber-thin continued through the 1970s, with stars like Farah Fawcett and Karen Carpenter garnering headlines for their bodies, albeit for very different reasons.

In the 1980s, a new craze for aerobics hit the nation, and an emphasis on fitness and physical strength emerged. Perhaps best exemplified by Madonna and Jane Fonda, the new sexy was slender and toned, yet still feminine and a bit curvy.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of even skinner models and actresses – such as Kate Moss, Lara Flynn Boyle and Calista Flockhart – taking the waif look well into heroin-chic territory. Some credit this unhealthy look for surging numbers of both eating disorders and elective plastic surgeries.


Though fashion mags still tend to glamorize the walking coat-hanger look that’s been so popular over the past four decades, many women – and men – have wised up. Feeling healthy, fit and confident is just so much more sexy than simply being thin.

And a legion of female athletes prove it – from Gabriel Reece to Gretchen Bleiler and Serena Williams – as well as strong, fit women like Angela Bassett, Pink, Jessica Biel, and, again, Christina Hendricks. Strong is truly the new sexy, and it’s all about how you feel about yourself!

Diana Renee

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