Writer: Sara Cornish
Editors: Jenny Poole, Jackie Zimmermann
Women’s bodies are full of exciting undulations that defy the sweep of the designer’s pencil. In trying to impose clean minimalist forms onto wobbly eclectic bodies, we wonder, “Am I a rectangle? An hourglass? A triangle?” Sara Cornish examines the history of this absurdly reductive tradition.
On a tip from my busty mom a few years ago, I paid a visit to a new bra store in New York. Despite the hefty price tags, these bras are designed with full-busted women in mind, to celebrate our voluminous boobs and support our backs.
I wasn’t totally sure how their measuring would work. Would the saleswoman have one of those flat metal rulers the Nordstrom shoe clerks carried around, where I’d squish my boob on a tray and she’d slide the instrument to measure its length and width?
In the changing room, a woman with wild red hair thrown up in a butterfly clip burst through the fabric curtain, cocked her head and without lifting a finger exclaimed my (absolutely accurate) bra size. Impressive.
Where there’s no direct visual reference, the sales assistants ask baffled boyfriends to compare their girlfriends’ boobs to fruit—a lemon is a 34A, apple is 34B, and so forth. I tried this on my boyfriend and he replied, “An orange and an ever-so-slightly smaller orange.”
But for all the sales clerk hacks, the female shape defies easy categorization. We come in many different lengths, widths and volumes, further complicated by exciting undulations—of boobs, bellies, butts, handles, hips.
Despite this glorious variety, women have been represented by minimalistic geometric shapes since humans first scribbled on cave walls.
Spheres are used to symbolize the roundness of pregnancy and circuity of life. The triangle has long stood for the Woman and Goddess, a symbol for water and intuition—see Judy Chicago’s triangular ceremonial banquet installation from 1939, The Dinner Party, at the Brooklyn Museum.
More recently, some of our bodies have been called pear and apple-shaped by doctors describing rotund tummies in order to convey health risks or benefits to patients, and by the health industry urging women to streamline their shapes—and pay for it with specialized workouts, weight loss regimens or clothing.
Geometric classification is common in the fashion industry to design clothing for women of a variety of shapes. Sizes are based on the bust-hip-waist (BHW) ratio and shapes are based on studies of our proportions.
A 2005 study by North Carolina State University surveyed 6,318 women over two years and found that only eight percent of women have the classic “hourglass” figure. 46 percent were described in the study as “rectangular,” 20 percent were rounder on the bottom while 14 percent were shaped like “inverted triangles.” The research was commissioned by a mannequin manufacturer in an effort to encourage clothing designers to address the variety in women’s forms. (Amazingly, this trend in body-food metaphors is spreading over to men. U.K. clothing retailer Debenhams even provides an illustrated guide in their stores that tells men if they’re a parsnip, beetroot, leek or eggplant.)
I looked in the mirror, attempting to fit myself into one of these categories and mentally sorting my friends into shapes. It was tricky, as none of us fit neatly into any one category. What about my willowy friend blessed with ample breasts? Another with knobby knees and an exorbitant behind?
They weren’t perfect pears or triangles, but more of a mash-up of shapes—a fruit salad.
Of course there is always the shape that the media thinks “ideal.” In the Western world, fashionable form has morphed throughout history from fertile to famished. A geometric timeline of ideal bodies would feature apples, pears, triangles, rectangles, lines and hourglasses. In ancient Greece and Rome, artistic renderings of women were tubular and voluptuous. In the 1990s, androgenous rectangles popped those hip-bones, while the busty inverted triangle rang in the 2000s. J-Lo and Shakira brought back bottom-heavy, and now in 2015, we’re in hourglass mode, breaking the internet with thick, curvy bodies (and they’re finally not all white women, either).
It seems like we’ve come almost full-circle, so will the apple-shape finally come into vogue? The excited chatter about Tess Munster seems to point to that possibility. With her #effyourbeautystandards campaign and professional modelling agency contract, Munster is setting records for being shorter and wider than is usually celebrated in even the plus-size modeling world. Predictably, some people are quite angry about this. As Naomi Wolf says, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” It’s not so much being characterized as apple, pear or banana that is pernicious, as much as the idea that we must obediently mold ourselves into one shape or the other.