Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Unfashionable Body

When I was in junior high school I started to feel fat.  I had been an average-sized child but my body matured early. By the time I was in the sixth grade my physical self was pretty much what it is now. I was 5'51/2" tall, as I am now, and weighed about 135, an OK weight for my muscular frame.  

So why did I feel fat? I think part of it had to do with the normal physical changes that happen to girls at that age, changes that can make the body seem awkward and alien.  My podiatrist explained to me once that, because of the way a woman’s pelvic structure changes in adolescence, she basically has to learn how to walk all over again.  Part of it was that I probably had put on a few pounds because I was eating more, and probably less healthy, foods and leading a more sedentary life.  But an even more important factor – and one that I didn’t understand until years later – was being born at the wrong time.

In the 1950’s and early 1960’s the ideal young woman (they were always called “girls” then) was short, petite, and cute, think Sandra Dee.  At the time I believed that things had always been this way.  In fact, it turns out that there are fashions in bodies just as there are in clothing.  About ten years ago I read Alison Lurie’s book, The Language of Clothes, a wonderfully rich and insightful survey of personal attire and its meanings in various historical periods and regions of the US. 

According to Lurie, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, women with larger bodies were considered the ideal.  “… late Victorian and Edwardian woman was an impressive creature physically.  Height and weight above the average had...become an asset.  Authors compared their heroines to goddesses, praising their classic proportions, or described them as regal and queenly – whatever their social origins.”  The clothing of the period was designed to enhance the curves and broad shoulders of these statuesque women but did not flatter smaller or slimmer builds.  In photographs of the period larger women can look “glorious,” while the petite beauty may seem “awkward and cluttered with decoration” or even “reduced to an untidy bundle of expensive washing.”  My grandmother, who grew up during this period, could never see why anyone thought I looked fat; she and I had about the same build.  The photo above on the left shows me in 2010 when I was 63.  The one on the right shows my grandmother, Jane Miller Stotsenburg (soon to be Kromer) in 1907 at the time of her wedding; she was 19.

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