Men, in combination with economics, have been the two biggest factors in determining what was and is ideal. In terms of the posh male body, not very much has changed for centuries. The idealised man had a large upper body, pronounced pectorals, lats, biceps and triceps and a flat stomach. Statues of the Greek male beauty Kouros that date back to the 7th century BC could easily appear on the cover of today’s Men’s Health. This is not so with women. There was a time when fat was in and thin was out. Obesity was the privilege of wealth and being thin meant being poor. In simpler societies, before slumming became a romantic pose, there was nothing attractive about not having enough to eat.
The ideal Renaissance woman, for instance, was more voluptuous than at any other time in history. Paintings from this era depict women who likely would be considered overweight by today’s standard, but at that time these full-figured ladies were the epitome of posh and sexy. The expression “blondes have more fun” is believed to stem from the Renaissance, because the Italians believed that the lighter the hair colour, the better, more beautiful and more virtuous the person. (The fascination with Lucretia Borgia was in large part down to the fact that she was a blonde poisoner). As for make-up, pale ivory skin was considered sexy, and vermilion was used to tint the lips to a deep red colour. All this made for a look that suggested abundant leisure time. Toiling in the fields would have meant olive or red skin, and a thinness that went with a life of impecunious hard work. To be fat was to be part of the leisure class. Thin indicated you were on the road to the poorhouse or to consumption, which meant your body was being consumed, not that you were the one doing the consuming.
Then agriculture was revolutionised and the values began to be flipped. By the Victorian era, large bottoms and tiny waists were all the rage. Sexy meant having the smallest waistline humanly possible, and to achieve this women wore corsets wound so tight they could hardly breathe. Some women would even deliberately break ribs trying to get their waistlines down to an inconceivable 12 inches. However, it was also important to show you had plenty to eat, so layered petticoats, hoops, and bustles became popular, all of which magnified the woman’s bottom.
By the 1950s no one in the West was starving to death and the poorest person could now grow fat. Weight no longer meant leisure. The ideal woman began, decade by decade, to get thinner. In the 1970s this movement towards super skinny was at least accompanied by an emphasis on health. The aerobics exercise craze of the 1980s further emphasized fitness for women. Women were expected to maintain a certain weight, but still appear toned, albeit without being overly muscular. With all these body stipulations, it’s no wonder that the prevalence of eating disorders skyrocketed throughout the decade.
By the 1990s models like Kate Moss further perpetuated standards of extreme thinness. It was in the Nineties that a strung-out and emaciated appearance became the posh body look. We had turned around entirely, from obesity to emaciation. That the heroin chic look had about as much to do with being healthy as the heroin habit it was named after did not stop it being posh.
We are now, mercifully, in a much better place, at least as regards health. Toned bodies like that of the beautiful young athlete Jessica Ennis are all the rage. However the politics of weight are still very much with us. The hard-working poor used to be thin. Now with ready meals widely available and jobs shifting from the factory to the desk, it is entirely possible to work hard and get fat. Exercise – i.e., gym memberships and weekends spent at expensive Swiss boot-camps – means leisure time.
So how to navigate this political minefield? Well firstly even the fittest, strongest and most toned of us should acknowledge the unpleasant truth that in the West, weight stands in for class, at a time when explicit classism has become a political faux pas. When Europeans sneer at how fat Americans are, and American coastal elites sneer at the rest of the country for being fat, it is a class put-down. Obesity is one of the few remaining class signifiers, aside from cigarettes, that it’s safe to hold a moral crusade over.
The War on Fat, as it has been called both here and in the US, echoes the old obsessions of 1920s Prohibitionism, a paranoid concern about the inability of the lower classes to care for themselves; one that verges on and often spills over into bigotry.
A posh body today means a healthy body. But the very first thing we should do is stop calling it a posh body.