Because I have watched the Lemon video roughly three trillion times in the past week, I have also been doing a lot of thinking about how society defines what the ideal form for women is. Obviously, there is no one type of femme body that everyone who is attracted to women will agree upon. (Except maybe Amber Rose. Fight me.) However, there is an overall tendency of late which holds up the hourglass, in various degrees of extremis, over all other forms. The hourglass can roughly be described as an exaggerated waist to hip ratio, with roughly analogous breasts.
Submitted for your approval are these various examples:
Now, these women are Exceptionally Hot™, a fact which my in-depth historical training has allowed me to confirm. That most of us reading this blog will agree with my extremely professional view on this makes it easy to assume that interest in ladies sporting an hourglass has always been a feature of human sexual drive.
Much has been made of this interest in hourglass figures in the field (ahem) of Evolutionary Psychology. Singh, for example has written on the ‘universal and enduring appeal’ of the hourglass figure, and Lassek et al. have taken it upon themselves to inform us that the attraction of men to the hourglass figure is due to the fact that they ‘know without knowing’ that it means the women who sport them are fertile. Supposedly the idea is that if women carry fat in their hips they are more healthy, and therefore more attractive to men. The accompanying breasts that complete the look are explained in a number of ways, from a signal that women have adequate fat deposits to breed, to the idea that the mimic the fat deposits of the butt, to a symbol that they would be a proper feeding mechanism for babies.
While all of this is super cute, it is also total bullshit, and if any of these people had ever bothered to crack a book or look at a medieval painting, they would see that medieval people DGAF about hourglass figures and instead LIVED for that pear shape. WITNESS:
Now, you will note that there’s a lot of Eve going on here. Eve features prominently because a lot of the art that was commissioned in the medieval period and survives to us is expressly religious. If you wanted an excuse to draw a naked lady, therefore, you needed to be drawing Eve. Having said that – Eve is a perfect example here because as the first woman she is also the ideal woman, and as you can see from these images she defo has a hips to waist ratio that is banging. HOWEVER, she is also often sporting a sweet little pot belly, which puts paid to that whole ‘women carrying fat on their bellies is unattractive because of heart disease’ thing.
You’ll also note that Eve isn’t exactly packing in the boob department. She defo has boobs, but they are super high and round and small. Not exactly the buxom ideal that dudes are supposed to like cuz – I am not exactly sure? All the evo psych on this is just ridic.
To be clear this is also not just about Eve. Witness our friend the sexy witch who you may remember from our discussion about female desire.
She is drawn here as the absolute height of late-medieval sexy, and that is very clearly a belly, a long abdomen, and a lot of ass.
Here, a very thirsty Guinevere in Le Livre de Lancelot du Lac sports much the same physique and also manages to show us how to get that extra D.
And if you imagine a party with a bunch of sexy ladies dancing in the medieval period? This is what you get:
Why all this medieval love for the pear shape you might ask? Well, I mean first off, let people like what they like, and whatever. Secondly – we have a theory and it involves clothes.
According to dress theory, what people find to be sexy is a lot of times predicated by how clothes fit. If a particular type of clothing is the norm, the theory goes, the body that mostly closely corresponds to that fit of clothing will be what is considered sexy. Clothing then mimics that body for those who don’t necessarily already have it.
The thing is, in terms of “fashion” most medieval people didn’t have the money or time to worry about fashionable clothing. They needed to get dressed and get out in the field, and tended to wear clothing that allowed them to do that.
In contrast, medieval rich people (nobles, traders in cities, royalty) were specifically interested in signaling their societal level through dress. This a lot of the time meant using more cloth than was necessary to show that a) you could afford a lot of cloth, and b) you weren’t working in fields so you could extremely wear a lot of stuff that might slow you down. AKA fashion was a form of conspicuous consumption (like it is now), and showed your societal level. And I mean, yeah, fancy medieval dresses appeared to look like this. Check it:
In a world where most people were living hand to mouth, on a largely vegetarian diet, and doing heavy-duty field labour, it was also often sorta hard for them to carry weight in specific areas. Rich women had a more sedentary life style, so they often could look more like the “ideal”/continue to be the “ideal”/inspire the “ideal” fashion. So a very difficult to attain body that mainly rich women could have was what everyone was supposed to be aiming for. What a surprise.
Having said all of this – our best guesses as to why something is considered sexy are just that – guesses. It is most likely that whatever is held up as most attractive is continually considered that way because we are all products of the societies in which we live.
Obviously even within this there are always going to be deviations. There is someone out there who finds anything sexy, and even societal pressure cannot erase that. By and large though, people respond to what they are told to respond to.
So why is this valuable? Because BEAUTY STANDARDS ARE FUCKING DIFFICULT, YO. These medieval beauty standards were just as difficult for women who did not adhere to them at the time as our current hourglass obsession is for those deviating from that profile today. We complain about photoshop now, but what if the images that you were comparing yourself to were literal impossible drawings? Show me a chick who actually has boobs that sit by her shoulders in perfect spheres one time. (I will be super impressed by her and probably buy her a drink, but I also don’t think it’s gonna happen.)
Take this information with you and use it to remind you that shit has ALWAYS been impossible, and that it is therefore useless. You are sexy if you say you are. You don’t have to be any one thing, and the one thing that is considered sexy within a society is actually in flux. There is no one thing that has always been attractive across time even simply in the West. (I mean, for real, this whole concept completely erases concepts of beauty from non-white cultures. Surprise! White people are not LITERALLY EVERYONE IN THE WORLD!) Do you. Feel sexy. Don’t limit yourself because you are told your body doesn’t fit one particular mode.
(That chick in the Lemon video is well hot, tho.)
 Susan Crane, The Performance of Self: Ritual, Clothing, and Identity during the Hundred Years War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 8.
 Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion. (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 34.
For more on sex and women in the medieval period see:
Islam was the party religion, or why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
On women and desire
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower status women
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’