Female body shape

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Female body shape or female figure is the cumulative product of a woman's skeletal structure and the quantity and distribution of muscle and fat on the body. As with most physical traits, there is a wide range of normality of female body shapes.

Attention has been focused on the female body as a source of aesthetic pleasure, sexual attraction, fertility, and reproduction in most human societies. There are, and have been, wide differences in what should be considered an ideal or preferred body shape, both for attractiveness and for health reasons.

Women's bodies occur in a range of shapes. Female figures are typically narrower at the waist than at the bust and hips. The bust, waist, and hips are called inflection points, and the ratios of their circumferences are used to define basic body shapes.

Impact of estrogens[edit]

Estrogens have a significant impact on a female's body shape. They are produced in both men and women, but their levels are significantly higher in women, especially in those of reproductive age. Besides other functions, estrogens promote the development of female secondary sexual characteristics, such as breasts and hips.[1][2][3] As a result of estrogens, during puberty, girls develop breasts and their hips widen. However, the presence of testosterone in a pubescent female inhibits breast development and promotes muscle development; while estrogens act in the other direction.

Estrogen levels also rise significantly during pregnancy. A number of other changes typically occur during pregnancy, including enlargement and increased firmness of the breasts, mainly due to hypertrophy of the mammary gland in response to the hormone prolactin. The size of the nipples may increase noticeably. These changes may continue during breastfeeding. Breasts generally revert to approximately their previous size after pregnancy, although there may be some increased sagging.

Breasts can decrease in size at menopause if estrogen levels decline.

Fat distribution[edit]

Estrogen causes fat to be stored on a young woman's buttocks, hips and thighs, but not her waist

Estrogens can also affect the female body shape in a number of other ways, including increasing fat stores, accelerating metabolism, reducing muscle mass, and increasing bone formation.

Estrogens cause higher levels of fat to be stored in a female body than in a male body.[4][5] They also affect body fat distribution,[6] causing fat to be stored in the buttocks, thighs, and hips in women,[7][8] but generally not around their waists, which will remain about the same size as they were before puberty. The hormones produced by the thyroid gland regulate the rate of metabolism, controlling how quickly the body uses energy, and controls how sensitive the body should be to other hormones. Body fat distribution may change from time to time, depending on food habits, activity levels and hormone levels.

When women reach menopause and the estrogen produced by ovaries declines, fat migrates from their buttocks, hips and thighs to their waists;[9] later fat is stored at the abdomen.[10]

Body fat percentage recommendations are higher for females, as this fat may serve as an energy reserve for pregnancy. Males have less subcutaneous fat in their faces due to the effects of testosterone;[11] testosterone also reduces fat by aiding fast metabolism. The lack of estrogen in males generally results in more fat deposit around waists and abdomens (producing an "apple shape").

Muscles[edit]

Testosterone is a steroid hormone which helps build and maintain muscles with physical activity, such as exercise.[12] The amount of testosterone produced varies from one individual to another, but, on average, an adult female produces around one-tenth of the testosterone of an adult male, but females are more sensitive to the hormone.[13] The muscles most likely to be affected are the pectoral muscles, biceps and the triceps in the arms and quadriceps in the thighs.

On the other hand, estrogens reduce muscle mass. Muscle mass changes over time as a result of changes in testosterone and estrogen levels and exercise, besides other factors.

Changes to body shape[edit]

The aging process has an inevitable impact on a person's body shape. A woman's sex hormone levels will affect the fat distribution on her body. According to Dr. Devendra Singh, "Body shape is determined by the nature of body fat distribution that, in turn, is significantly correlated with women's sex hormone profile, risk for disease, and reproductive capability."[14] Concentrations of estrogen will influence where body fat is stored.[15]

Before puberty both males and females have a similar waist–hip ratio.[14] At puberty, a girl's sex hormones, mainly estrogen, will promote breast development and a wider pelvis tilted forward for child bearing, and until menopause a woman's estrogen levels will cause her body to store excess fat in the buttocks, hips and thighs,[15][16] but generally not around her waist, which will remain about the same size as it was before puberty. These factors result in women's waist–hip ratio (WHR) being lower than for males, although males tend to have a greater upper-body to waist-hip ratio (WHR) giving them a V shape look because of their greater muscle mass e.g. they generally have much larger, more muscular & broader shoulders, pectoral muscles, teres major muscles & latissimus dorsi muscles.

During and after pregnancy, a woman experiences body shape changes. After menopause, with the reduced production of estrogen by the ovaries, there is a tendency for fat to redistribute from a female's buttocks, hips and thighs to her waist or abdomen.[17]

The breasts of girls and women in early stages of development commonly are "high" and rounded, dome- or cone-shaped, and protrude almost horizontally from a female's chest wall. Over time, the sag on breasts tends to increase due to their natural weight, the relaxation of support structures, and aging. Breasts sag if the ligaments become elongated, a natural process that can occur over time and is also influenced by the breast bouncing during physical activity (see Sports bra).

Measurements[edit]

The circumferences of a woman's bust, waist, and hips, and their ratios, were widely used to define her basic shape in Western cultures for several decades after World War II, and are still used in some North American subcultures for this purpose.[citation needed] These are sometimes described as banana, pear, apple, or hourglass shapes,[18] though other shortcut terms are also used. The measurements are generally described using three numbers to expressing a woman's dimensions.

The band measurement is usually measured around the women's torso, immediately below her breasts at the inframammary fold, parallel to the floor.[19][20] The cup size is determined by measuring across the crest of the breast and calculating the difference between that measurement and the band measurement.[21][22] The waist is measured at the midpoint between the lower margin of the last palpable rib and the top of the iliac crest. The hips are measured at the largest circumference of the hips and buttocks.[23]

The waist is typically smaller than the bust and hips, unless there is a high proportion of body fat distributed around it. How much the bust or hips inflect inward, towards the waist, determines a woman's structural shape. The hourglass shape is present in only about 8% of women.[18]

Female shapes[edit]

The four most common female body shapes: banana, apple, pear, and hourglass

Independent of fat percentage, weight or width, female body shapes are categorised in some Western cultures into one of four elementary geometric shapes,[18] though there are very wide ranges of actual sizes within each shape:

  • Banana, straight, or I shape (rectangular): The waist measurement is less than 9 inches smaller than the hips and bust measurement.[18] Body fat is distributed predominantly in the abdomen, buttocks, chest, and face. This overall fat distribution creates the typical ruler (straight) shape.
  • Apple or V shape (triangle downward): Apple shaped women have broad(er) shoulders compared to their (narrower) hips.[18] Apple shaped women tend to have slim legs/thighs, while the abdomen and chest look larger compared to the rest of the body. Fat is mainly distributed in the abdomen, chest, and face.
  • Pear, spoon, bell, or A shape (triangle upward): The hip measurement is greater than the bust measurement.[18] The distribution of fat varies, with fat tending to deposit first in the buttocks, hips, and thighs. As body fat percentage increases, an increasing proportion of body fat is distributed around the waist and upper abdomen. The women of this body type tend to have a (relatively) larger rear, thicker thighs, and a small(er) bosom.
  • Hourglass or X shape (triangles opposing, facing in): The hip and bust are almost of equal size with a narrow waist.[18] Body fat distribution tends to be around both the upper body and lower body. This body type enlarges the arms, chest, hips, and rear before other parts, such as the waist and upper abdomen.

A study of the shapes of over 6,000 women, carried out by researchers at the North Carolina State University circa 2005, found that 46% were banana (rectangular), just over 20% pear, just under 14% apple, and 8% hourglass.[18] Another study has found "that the average woman's waistline had expanded by six inches since the 1950s" and that women in 2004 were taller and had bigger busts and hips than those of the 1950s.[18]

"Dimensions"[edit]

A woman's "dimensions" are often expressed by the circumference around the three inflection points. For example, "36-29-38" in imperial units would mean a 36″ bust, 29″ waist and 38″ hips.

A woman's bust measure is a combination of her rib cage and breast size. For convenience, a woman's bra measurements are used. For example, though the measurements are not consistently applied, a woman with a bra size of 36B has a rib cage of 32 inches in circumference and a bust measure of 38 inches; a woman with a bra size 34C has a rib cage of 30 inches around, but a smaller bust measure of 37 inches. However, the woman with a 34C breast size will appear "bustier" because of the apparent difference in bust to ribcage ratio.

Height will also affect the appearance of the figure. A woman who is 36-24-36 at 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m) height will look different from a woman who is 36-24-36 at 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) height. Since the taller woman's figure has greater distance between measuring points, she will likely appear thinner or less curvaceous than her shorter counterpart, again, even though they both have the same BWH ratio. This is because the taller woman is actually thinner as expressed by her lower BMI, or body mass index, used to measure body weight in relation to height.

The use of BWH measurements for anything other than garment fitting is thus misleading. BWH is an indicator of fat distribution, not fat percentage.

The British Association of Model Agents (AMA) says that female models should be around 34-24-34 (86-61-86 cm) and at least 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) tall.[24]

History and Fashion[edit]

Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck depicts a fashionable man and woman in the 15th century.
Vienna Diptych, Hugo van der Goes
Adam and Eve from the Vienna Diptych by Hugo van der Goes. Eve's protruding stomach is typical of nudes in the 15th century.

The thin hourglass figure, seen as the bodily ideal of today, has not always been the desired body shape. The ideal body type as envisioned by members of society has changed throughout history. Stone age venus figurines show the earliest body type preference: dramatic steatopygia. The emphasis on protruding belly, breasts, and buttocks is likely a result of both the aesthetic of being well fed and aesthetic of being fertile, traits that were more difficult to achieve at the time. In the sculpture from Classical Greece and Ancient Rome the female bodies are more tubular and regularly proportioned[25]:5. There is essentially no emphasis given to any particular body part, not the breasts, buttocks, or belly. Part of this may be due simply to the fact that the artistic technique developed enough that naturalistic humans could be represented.

Moving forward there is more evidence that fashion somewhat dictated what people believed were the proper female body proportions. This is the case because the body is primarily seen through clothing, which always changes the way the underlying structures are conceived[26]:xii-xiii. The first representations of truly fashionable women appear in the 14th century[26]:90. Between the 14th and 16th centuries in northern Europe, bulging bellies were again desirable, however the stature of the rest of the figure was generally thin. This is most easily visible in paintings of nudes from the time. When looking at clothed images, the belly is often visible through a mass of otherwise concealing, billowing, loose robes. Since the stomach was the only visible anatomical feature, it became exaggerated in nude depictions while the rest of the body remained minimal[26]:96–100, 106. In southern Europe, around the time of the renaissance, this was also true. Though the classical aesthetic was being revived and very closely studied, the art produced in the time period was influenced by both factors. This resulted in a beauty standard that reconciled the two aesthetics by using classically proportioned figures who had non-classical amounts of flesh and soft, padded skin[26]:96–98,104.

Portrait by Caspar Netscher
This portrait by Caspar Netscher is an example of 17th century women's fashion.
Three Graces, Rubems
The Three Graces is a typical Rubens nude depicting 3 women that appear fleshy yet not particularly fat.

In the nude paintings of the 17th century, such as those by Rubens, the naked women appear quite fat. Upon closer inspection however, most of the women have fairly normal statures, Rubens has simply painted their flesh with rolls and ripples that otherwise would not be there. This is likely a reflection of the female style of the day: a long, cylindrical, corseted gown with, rippling satin accents. Thus Rubens' women have a tubular body with rippling embellishments[26]:106,316 . While the corset continued to be fashionable into the 18th century, it shortened, became more conical, and consequently began to emphasize the waist. It also lifted and separated the breasts as opposed to the 17th century corsets which compressed and minimized the breasts. Consequently, depictions of nude women in the 18th century tend to have a very narrow waist and high, distinct breasts, almost as if they were wearing an invisible corset[26]:91, 112–116. La maja desnuda is a clear example of this aesthetic. The 19th century maintained the general figure of the 18th century. Examples can be seen in the works of many contemporary artists, both academic artists, such as Cabanel, Ingres, and Bouguereau, and impressionists, such as Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec. As the 20th century began, the rise of athletics resulted in a drastic slimming of the female figure. This culminated in the 1920s flapper look, which has informed modern fashion ever since[25]:4 [26]:152.

The last 100 years envelop the time period in which that overall body type has been seen as attractive, though there have been small changes within the period as well. The 1920s was the time in which the overall silhouette of the ideal body slimmed down. There was dramatic flattening of the entire body resulting in a more youthful aesthetic[26]:150–153. As the century progressed, the ideal size of both the breasts and buttocks increased. From the 1950s to 1960 that trend continued with the interesting twist of cone shaped breasts as result of the popularity of the bullet bra. In the 1960s, the invention of the miniskirt as well as the increased acceptability of pants for women, prompted the idealization of the long leg that has lasted until today[26]:93–95. Following the invention of the push-up bra in the 1970s the ideal breast has been a rounded, fuller, and larger breast. In the past 20 years the average American bra size has increased from 34B to 34DD.[27] Additionally, the ideal figure has favored an ever lower waist-hip ratio, especially with the advent and progression of digital editing software such as Adobe Photoshop[25]:4, 6–7.

Social and health issues[edit]

Venus at a Mirror, Rubens, c. 1615
Women, Rubens, c. 1625

Each society develops a general perception of what an ideal female body shape would be like. These ideals are generally reflected in the art and literature produced by or for a society, as well as in popular media such as films and magazines. The ideal or preferred female body size and shape has varied over time and continues to vary among cultures;[28][29] but a preference for a small waist has remained fairly constant throughout history.[30] A low waist-hip ratio has often been seen as a sign of good health and reproductive potential.[31]

A low waist–hip ratio has also often been regarded as an indicator of attractiveness of a woman, but recent research suggests that attractiveness is more correlated to body mass index than waist–hip ratio, contrary to previous belief.[32][33] Historically, according to Devendra Singh,[34] there was a trend for slightly larger women in the 17th and 18th centuries, as typified by the paintings of Rubens, but that in general there has been a preference for a slimmer waist in Western culture. He notes that "The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests instead that this body part – a known marker of health and fertility – is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic differences and cultures."[30]

New research suggests that apple-shaped women have the highest risk of developing heart disease, while hourglass-shaped women have the lowest.[35] Diabetes professionals advise that a waist measurement for a woman of over 80 cm (31 in) increases the risk of heart disease, but that ethnic background also plays a factor. This is because body fat buildup around the waist (the apple shape) poses a higher health risk than a fat buildup at the hips (the pear shape).[36]

Waist–hip ratio[edit]

Main article: Waist–hip ratio

Compared to males, females generally have relatively narrow waists and large buttocks,[37] and this along with wide hips make for a wider hip section and a lower waist–hip ratio.[38] Research shows that a waist–hip ratio (WHR) for a female very strongly correlates to the perception of attractiveness.[39] Women with a 0.7 WHR (waist circumference that is 70% of the hip circumference) are rated more attractive by men in various cultures.[14] Such diverse beauty icons as Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and the Venus de Milo all have ratios around 0.7.[better source needed][40] In other cultures, preferences vary,[41] ranging from 0.6 in China,[42] to 0.8 or 0.9 in parts of South America and Africa,[43][44][45] and divergent preferences based on ethnicity, rather than nationality, have also been noted.[46][47]

The WHR is also shown to have a very high correlation to female fertility, thereby unknowingly guiding men's evolutionary choices.[48]

WHR has been found to be a more efficient predictor of mortality in older people than waist circumference or body mass index (BMI).[49]

Bodies as identity[edit]

Over the past several hundred years, there has been a shift towards viewing the body as part of one’s identity – not in a purely physical way, but as a means of deeper self-expression. David Gauntlett recognizes the importance of malleability in physical identity, stating, “the body is the outer expression of our self, to be improved and worked upon”.[50] One of the more key factors in creating the desire for a particular body shape – most notably for females – is the media, which has promoted a number of so-called “ideal” body shapes.[51] Fashionable figures are often unattainable for the majority of the population, and their popularity tends to be short-lived due to their arbitrary nature.

During the 1950s, the fashion model and celebrity were two separate entities, allowing the body image of the time to be shaped more by television and film rather than high fashion advertisements. While the fashion model of the 1950s, such as Jean Patchett and Dovima, were very thin, the ideal image of beauty was still a larger one. As the fashion houses in the early 50’s still catered to a specific, elite cliental, the image of the fashion model at that time was not as sought after or looked up to as was the image of the celebrity. While the models that graced the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1950s were in line with the thin ideal of the day, the most prominent female icon was Marilyn Monroe. Monroe, who was more curvaceous, fell on the opposite end of the feminine ideal spectrum in comparison to high fashion models. Regardless of their sizes, however, both fashion of the time and depictions of Monroe emphasize a smaller waist and fuller bottom half. The late 1950s, however, brought about the rise of ready-to-wear fashion, which implemented a standardized sizing system for all mass-produced clothing. While fashion houses, such as Dior and Chanel, remained true to their couture, tailor-made garments, the rise of these rapidly produced, standardized garments lead to a shift in location from Europe to America as the epicenter of fashion. Along with that shift came the standardization of sizes, in which garments weren’t made to fit the body anymore, but instead the body must be altered to fit the garment.[52]

During the 1960s, the popularity of the model Twiggy meant that women favoured a thinner body, with long, slender limbs.[53] This was a drastic change from the former decade’s ideal, which saw curvier icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, to be considered the epitome of beautiful. These shifts in what was seen to be the “fashionable body” at the time followed no logical pattern, and the changes occurred so quickly that one shape was never in vogue for more than a decade. As is the case with fashion itself in the post-modern world, the premise of the ever-evolving “ideal” shape relies on the fact that it will soon become obsolete, and thus must continue changing to prevent itself from becoming uninteresting.[54]

An early example of the body used as an identity marker occurred in the Victorian era, when women wore corsets to help themselves attain the body they wished to possess.[55] Having a tiny waist was a sign of social status, as the wealthier women could afford to dress more extravagantly and sport items such as corsets to increase their physical attractiveness.[56] By the 1920s, the cultural ideal had changed significantly as a result of the suffrage movement, and “the fashion was for cropped hair, flat (bound) breasts and a slim androgynous shape”.[57]

More recently, magazines have been criticized for promoting an unrealistic trend of thinness. David Gauntlett states that the media’s “repetitive celebration of a beauty ‘ideal’ which most women will not be able to match … will eat up readers’ time and money—and perhaps good health—if they try”.[58] Additionally, the impact that this has on women and their self-esteem is often a very negative one,[59] and resulted in the diet industry taking off in the 1960s – something that would not have occurred “had bodily appearance not been so closely associated with identity for women”.[60]

The importance of, as Myra MacDonald asserts, “the body as a work zone” further perpetuates the link between fashion and identity, with the body being used as a means of creating a visible and unavoidable image for oneself.[61] The tools with which to create the final copy of such a project range from the extreme—plastic surgery—to the more tame, such as diet and exercise, which virtually every Westernized woman has used to gain control over her shape.[62]

Alteration of body shape[edit]

See also: Body image

A study at Brigham Young University using MRI technology suggested that women experience more anxiety about weight gain than do men,[63] while aggregated research has been used to claim that images of thin women in popular media may induce psychological stress.[64] A study of 52 older adults found that females may think more about their body shape and endorse thinner figures than men even into old age.[65] Commentators[who?] note that people who have a low body image will try to alter their body in some way, such as by dieting, or undertaking cosmetic surgery.[citation needed]

Various strategies are sometimes employed to temporarily or permanently alter the shape of a body. The most common include dieting and exercise.

At times artificial devices are used or surgery is employed. Breast size can be artificially increased or decreased. Falsies, breast prostheses or padded bras may be used to increase the apparent size of a woman's breasts, while minimiser bras may be used to reduce the apparent size. Breasts can be surgically enlarged using breast implants or reduced by the systematic removal of parts of the breasts.

Historically, boned corsets have been used to reduce waist sizes. The corset reached its climax during the Victorian era. In twentieth century these corsets were mostly replaced with more flexible/comfortable foundation garments. Where corsets are used for waist reduction, it may be temporary reduction by occasional use or permanent reduction by people who are often referred to as tightlacers[clarification needed]. Liposuction and liposculpture are common surgical methods for reducing the waist line.

Padded control briefs or hip and buttock padding may be used to increase the apparent size of hips and buttocks. Buttock augmentation surgery may be used to increase the size of hips and buttocks to make them look more rounded.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

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  7. ^ Estrogen causes fat to be stored around the pelvic region, hips, butt and thighs Reduce abdominal fat; Anne Collins
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