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Body building

The ideal shape has shifted constantly over the years. So what does fit look like now?

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By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / January 20, 2011

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Christina Hendricks, the curvaceous actress who plays bombshell-with-brains Joan Harris on the series “Mad Men,’’ went looking for red carpet dresses last year with mixed results.

“Award season is very, very tough for me,’’ Hendricks said at a New York party last fall. “There are only size zeros and size twos available. Designers are saying ‘We love you!’ but they won’t make me a dress. It doesn’t matter how many times I beg. It is frustrating for me.’’

Hendricks’s predicament shows just how dramatically the ideal body type has shifted in the past 45 years. On “Mad Men,’’ set in the early to mid 1960s, Hendricks embodies the era’s feminine ideal. Her nipped waist and hourglass figure drive men crazy — and leave other women looking boyish or frumpy in comparison. But by current Hollywood standards, Hendricks is plus size. In critiquing Hendricks’s 2010 Golden Globes gown — a peach strapless number with cascading ruffles — New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn quoted an anonymous stylist who said: “You don’t put a big girl in a big dress.’’ The shape that had once been considered perfection was now, while unquestionably beautiful, rather “big.’’

It’s clear that those flocking to gyms this month to keep their New Year’s resolutions are striving for a physique that is much different from what their parents, or their grandparents, held as the ideal.

“No one wants to look like Marilyn Monroe anymore,’’ says Jean Fain, a psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.’’ “And they haven’t for a long time. Standards have changed, and they’re always going to be changing because no one wants to look like the aging cultural ideal. They want to look like the young ones, and the young ones are slimmer and more muscled than Marilyn was.’’

Not only do they no longer want to look like Marilyn, they don’t want to look like Farrah Fawcett, Cindy Crawford, or even Linda Evangelista.

“I’m going for lean and hard,’’ says Cindy Gowan, a 26-year-old Cambridge nurse and avid gym-goer. “When I think sexy, I think Megan Fox. That’s my goal.’’

That shift is also noted by personal trainers, who say their clients come in and ask for a body like Angelina Jolie or Halle Barry. Just a few years ago, those clients were asking for Madonna’s body. Now they specify that they don’t want Madonna’s arms. They want Michelle Obama’s arms.

“The term ‘functional fitness’ is what everyone is using to describe a celebrity body like Jessica Biel,’’ says Sara Shears, a trainer in Vancouver who works with stars such as Salma Hayek and Rosario Dawson. Functional fitness refers to the idea that a workout should enhance strength and cardiovascular health, not just make legs or abs or arms look toned and muscular. “That’s a big difference from where we were five years ago. Back then it was just about looking good in clothes,’’ Shears said.

The ever-changing idea of the perfect body is not restricted to women. In the past 25 years, the muscle-bound Sylvester Stallones of the world have gone from strapping idols to fitness dinosaurs.

“We’re living in an era where the Arnold Schwarzenegger appearance is not as popular,’’ says David Harris, national director of personal training at Equinox in New York. “If you look at where we are now, we’re much more in a mode of where we were in the 1950s. The movie stars of that era were Rock Hudson in America or Alain Delon in France. These were men who had their shirts off regularly. These are not overly muscular men. They had limber, symmetrical physiques that look athletic.’’

In November, Details magazine ran an article instructing readers on “How to get the body of the moment,’’ which focused more on core strengthening exercises (think Kellan Lutz) than bulging biceps. But it is clear that the iconic body of this moment is different even from the ideal of just a few years ago. Experts agree that physical ideals change faster now than ever before, although some standards continue to resonate with fitness buffs. (Men’s Health editor Peter Moore says readers are still writing in to find out how Brad Pitt achieved his “Fight Club’’ six pack in 1999.)

“We also get requests for Jason Statham and Ryan Reynolds’s workout routines,’’ Moore says. “Currently, our guys want to look like George St. Pierre, the UFC fighter. He has a great body, but it’s not the over-inflated Arnold Schwarzenegger look. That super-jacked look is not a natural one, and it’s not even comfortable to be that guy. Look at someone like The Situation [“Jersey Shore’’ star Mike Sorrentino]. None of our readers has asked for his workout.’’

Fitness experts agree that the definition of sexy — from the Rubenesque fleshiness of Gibson Girl Camille Clifford at the turn of the 20th century to the sleek curves of Beyoncé — has changed dramatically. What they don’t agree on is why, although a few theories begin to emerge. Several fitness pros, including Shandell Raposa, group fitness manager at Equinox in the Financial District, see it as a matter of basic biology.

“It all boils down to procreating and finding a healthy mate,’’ Raposa says. “If you look at it in terms of history, fitness changes as the idea of health and wealth has changed. If you think back 100 years ago or more, women were bigger, and that was attractive. It was a sign that they were healthy and could afford food. Now when you think about it now, you don’t consider that a sign of health or wealth.’’

Similarly, men once needed to show strength in order to prove to women that they would be good providers — but that was back when brawn rather than brains equaled fuller coffers.

“For men, their bodies are the equivalent of the clashing of antlers that you see in elk,’’ Moore of Men’s Health explains. “Guys would add muscle as a way of saying ‘Don’t mess with me because I’m a capable of this amazing physical prowess.’ ’’

Another popular theory is that a fitness rebellion occurs from one generation to the next, fueled by movies, television, and advertising.

“The commercial media’s main job is to make money from selling products,’’ says Boston trainer Chris Nogiec. “The products can be actual products, or movies, or celebrities. To sell products, they need to make them desirable. The best way to do that is to sell sex. I’m not saying actual sex, but the brain doesn’t know the difference. If your brain sees a desirable person, it either wants it, or wants to be like it.’’

Over the past 60 years, most of the major changes in what is considered an ideal body has revolved around the evolution of exercise. Before Jack LaLanne brought fitness to the masses, a man could get by with a modest frame, a nice tie, and a pair of trousers pulled up to the navel. Jim Fixx further altered the ideal in the mid-1970s when he hooked Americans on running. Once America was engulfed in jogging fever, Jane Fonda slipped on a pair of legwarmers and forever altered the ideal female shape. Schwarzenegger’s frame was considered so ideal that he could portray a machine in “The Terminator.’’

“I’d say that Jim Fixx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jane Fonda are really the parents of this whole thing,’’ Equinox’s Harris says. “Until 20 years ago, most people looked down on folks who went to gyms. Most people thought that was freakish. Now it’s ubiquitous. It’s a thing that everybody does.’’

Harris points to the popularity of yoga as a sign that both men and women are ready to stop trying to achieve a popular physical ideal and be more accepting of themselves.

“People have stopped trying to conform to something and just started to do the best they can,’’ says Women’s Health Editor-in-Chief Michele Promaulayko. “I think the desirable body type in Hollywood has broadened recently.’’

But there are many who disagree with Promaulayko’s assessment. Clinical psychologist Lavinia Krufka, who has been interested in body image since a waif named Twiggy forever changed the world, says young girls still come to her trying to emulate their favorite actresses. Meanwhile, trainers such as Jen Cassetty, who trains Chloe Sevigny in New York, says that her clients are constantly trying to achieve the hot body of the moment.

“What I see is that people are less concerned with health, and more concerned about looking like the star of the moment,’’ Cassetty says. “But in a way I think people are always emulating what they see in Hollywood and in magazines, and that’s why you’ve seen these shifts in what’s considered ideal. You never know what body part a client will fixate on next.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at