Ever since Terri the Tailor drew my attention to it, I have been wondering about the changing shape, through history, of the male physique. There are two things at stake here. Firstly there is the actual changing body shape due to changes in diet and lifestyle. Secondly there is the change in the “ideal” male body – the sort of body which is seen as desirable throughout modern culture, which to some extent men will aspire to. They may seek to change their body shape through dieting, weight lifting, surgery etc. Contemporary fashions will flatter and emphasise the contemporary, desirable shape.
Babies were born small and during this period, there was unlikely to be any ante-natal care and babies would often be fed diluted cows milk. As a consequence in the 1920s the average young woman would have measurements of 31″ bust, 20″ waist and 32″ hips, mainly due to poor nutrition. Basic food was generally prepared, and sometimes grown, at home. Certainly most people lead a much more active life in terms of their work, house work, leisure activities and getting about. PE was compulsory in the schools. Housework was gruelling – washing by hand, lighting and cleaning out fires, heating water etc – these tasks took hours of heavy physical labour.
Despite the war years the “scientific” approach to nutrition that lay behind universal rationing ensured that working class people ate butter, and the rich corned beef, for the first time. Milk was introduced in schools where all children drank it, contributing to the strengthening of the national bones and the lengthening of legs. The overall improvement in nutrition increased women’s bodies by about one inch, compared to the 1920s, with an average 33 inch bust. Due to the shortage of petrol and cars many people did lots of walking, helping everyone stay fit and relatively slim.
The very feminine shapes adopted by women after the war – the new look, delicate hosiery, “bullet” bras, – all contributed to the curvy, feminine silhouette and well-defined waist. And the ideal man had a reasonable physique, but looking at these pictures of Clark Gable, John Wayne and Gregory Peck we can see that they all have a rather natural “well-built” look.
Women and Men were still relatively slim in the 1960s, and some of the most iconic women – such as Twiggy – had an almost child like figure. The reaction against masculinity and the consumer society meant that middle class men started to adopt a more feminine look with long hair, soft and slighter figures and a somewhat “unhealthy” look from today’s standpoint. Everyone was getting taller and men were now, on average, 7″ taller than they were at the turn of the century. The average woman’s “vital statistics” were 34-24-35. Life started to become much more sedentary – car use, the TV and the explosion in the availability of convenience food – much of it sweetened and enriched with fat.
The female figure continued to expand with the average statistics now being 35-24-37. Women were becoming “bottom heavy” with the hips being, on average two inches larger than the bust.
Our life became more sedentary over the last century in terms of changes in the nature of work, and leisure time moved from children playing outdoor games to a focus on TV and computer games. During the 1980s exercise classes became fashionable and people like Jane Fonda fought ageing through vigorous exercise and men got into body-building in a big way.
By now not only had the hips expanded the average woman’s waist was 4″ bigger than it had been in the 1980s. Although we consume fewer calories than 60 years ago we lead far less active lifestyles. There is now widespread concern about childhood obesity and the impact of sedentary lifestyles of the body. Health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension all lead to premature death. Today 63 per cent of men are either overweight or obese.
While obesity and high levels of chronic ill-health conditions caused or encouraged by our unhealthy lifestyles and toxic environments are the norm, the ideal body is probably a one that is young, fit and healthy. David Beckham has nearly universal appeal as he is tall, lean, muscular and strong without being overdeveloped. His body is not intimidating, despite his sporting prowess and his image as a family man in touch with his feminine side is important. The “metro-sexual” physique is not that different from the type of body young women also aspire to today. Slim, but not anorexic, toned, healthy and fit.