At the turn of the twentieth century, Gibson Girls represented youth, beauty, and feminine mischievous. Basically, these illustrated women (by Charles Dana Gibson) were trendsetters.
Gibson Girls were alluring because they represented a new kind of womanhood, albeit a sanitized version. “The New Woman” was going to college and demanding the vote, whereas Gibson’s girls cared more about fashion than revolution. They rode bikes and read books, but weren’t on the front lines of feminism. In other words, they were a fictional compromise between traditional womanhood and the New Woman.
They were also fashion plates, characterized by their big hair, rounded bottoms, large bosoms, and teeny tiny waists — an early 20th century Barbie, but way cooler. Like most unrealistic bodies, they got some help from corsets and inserts.
Eventually, the short hair and flat frames of the flappers replaced the Gibson Girl silhouette. But the hourglass figure’s cultural prominence always finds its way back, as it did mid-century. The post-war ‘50s saw the return of big hair, rounded bottoms, large bosoms, and teeny tiny waists. Think Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.
In the 1960s and 70s, thin was in (has it really ever been out?), whereas the 80s saw the emergence of a muscular, yet still fat free, form. Although the 90s flirted with heroin chic, the allure of the Gibson Girls has lingered. It is even experiencing another re-emergence.
Media and body trends of the early 1900s, the 50s, the 80s, and the early aughts all promoted the same feminine ideal: a tiny waist. These eras weren’t the first to prize a microscopic belly, but they are the most recent and therefore the most enduring.
The respective cultural prominence of the boobs and butt has shifted throughout time, sometimes veering towards Pamela Anderson’s assets and sometimes swerving towards Sir Mix-A-Lot’s terrain. Indeed, we often hear of men being “boob” guys or “butt” guys, maybe even “leg” guys, but “belly” guys? That’s not really a thing, nor ever was, at least not in the last 100 years. How does this translate for women? Big butt, big boobs, big thighs? No problem. Big belly? Buy some spanks.
I love a compression garment as much as the next gal, and I don’t think culture has engaged in a nefarious plot to undermine feminism with small waists. It’s not like we are stuck back in the corsets or pointy bras of the previous century. I love looking at pictures of the Gibson Girls, but I wouldn’t want to live that form day in day out. No one would seriously want to be them, right?
Oh wait, never mind. Apparently waist training is a thing. Just ask the Kardashians. Waist training is very retro. A “waist trainer” is just another word for corset. Women have been wearing those for centuries — upper class women anyway. The average folk were too busy doing manual labor to bother with them.
But what is truly insane about modern day waist trainers is that many women, Kardashians included, wear them while working out. Even the term “trainer” combines the dual female obsessions for a muscular thin physique and a curvy feminine figure. What better way to get the best of both worlds than by wearing a corset while lifting weights?
Clearly, this trend is absurd, but it’s not historically unusual. If women are told they need 18 inch waists, they will do anything to get one…even in 2015.
Why do we need teeny tiny waists from which our voluminous curves can radiate? Why are some curves okay and others not? Why are we stuck in a historical body loop?
Waist training has nothing to do with health. Indeed, it is a really bad idea for your health. Remember, the belly is a closed system. What goes in, must go down (to your pelvic floor).
What bothers me most about this trend is not the obvious health problems, but that it makes the century old Gibson Girls look downright feminist. At least the Gibson Girls were sanitized versions of the truly revolutionary women trying to change their roles in society, trying to get the vote and access to education.
But the Kardashians and their ilk? They are simulacrum. They are an imitation of culturally interesting fashion trends. They stand in for nothing.
I suppose we’ll have to wait longer for the day when a woman is allowed to have her own non-molded body, when she doesn’t feel compelled to squeeze it or train it, when she’ll allow herself to take selfies training her mind rather than her waist.
Perhaps we should start a “selfies with books” movement. Too obvious?
(Addendum: I googled “selfies with books,” and to my chagrin the very first entry was an article from the L.A. Times called “Kim Kardashian to publish a book of selfies.” I literally belly laughed, which fortunately I was able to do because my waist was unencumbered).