Here's How Western Male Beauty Standards Evolved Throughout The 20th Century

Ideal body types are a lot like fashion trends: they change with almost every passing decade. Although the media usually seems to focus on female bodies, male beauty standards have changed a great deal over the course of the 20th century as well. It's common knowledge that girls and women face pressure to have an "ideal body," but how much does society think about the pressure faced by men? Throughout the 20th century, men have also dealt with beauty standards that were difficult to attain. Everything from current events, Hollywood movies, war, and what was considered an ideal job influenced how men were supposed to look.

Lammily, makers of a redesigned Barbie doll with realistic—and, more importantly, attainable—proportions, have created a compendium of images of ideal male bodies from different decades in the 20th century.  Using the company's recreations, this roundup of men's body types throughout history highlights the most desired features of different decades as well as the reasoning behind those desires. At the end of the day, however, one thing is clear: beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. To that end, the images here represent the broad trends in male beauty ideals; naturally, not every identity or sought-after look is represented.

Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

  • 1870s: Heavyset Bodies Signified Wealth

    Being heavy in the late 1800s and early 1900s meant something quite different than it does today. In an era where food was not always easy to access, food with a higher fat content was more expensive. In addition to flaunting that a man had the means to eat well, girth also indicated that a fella didn't need to do physical work—he either had a cushy white-collar job or was wealthy enough to not work at all. 

    Being "fat" wasn't just a sign of wealth; it gave men a sense of pride. True to the self-congratulatory air of the era, men of this class might belong to actual "Fat Men Clubs" that held meetings and even competitions to see who weighed the most. Although the trend lasted for several decades, it was the last time in recent history when heavy men were widely considered to be attractive. 

  • 1920s: Hollywood's Dashing Movie Star Started A Slim Trend

    1920s: Hollywood's Dashing Movie Star Started A Slim Trend
    Photo: Brewster Publications / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the 1920s, the burgeoning film industry demanded of male movie stars. Hollywood decided that cameras added weight to the stars, and since it was no longer fashionable to be heavy, both male and female actors were asked to slim down. Men performed a lot of their own stunts, and that wasn't always easy. They needed to be physically prepared for grueling days of work, so they were very often lean yet strong, packed with what one might call functional muscle. It was around this time that Hollywood began setting the tone for beauty ideals, and "a slim, dashing figure" quickly became very stylish for men.

  • 1930s And '40s: The Strong Hero With The Body Builder Chest

    Once the 1930s came around, Hollywood was all about "the v-shaped muscular mesomorph." Men like Clark Gable (pictured on the right) and Charles Atlas were seen as the ideal, with strong upper bodies, but not too much bulky muscle. 

    Charles Atlas was the first "bodybuilder," creating new and innovative methods of developing muscle. He inspired many during the tough years of the Great Depression and WWII, times when people needed a hero to look up to. 

  • 1950s: The Sleek Executive

    The ideal body type in the 1950s was all about power, and tall men with broad shoulders ruled the decade. The idea became that taller men possessed a more imposing presence than short men, and a stately, commanding figure went a long way towards getting ahead in the cutthroat world of corporate executives. 

    There wasn't as big a push to be muscular, and trim waists were seen as ideal. The broad shoulders were the main goal besides height, and, at the time, suits were actually cut to be boxier and looser fitting to keep with that big image. Think Don Draper from Mad Men.

  • 1960s And '70s: The Slender Rocker

    In the late '60s and early '70s, many young people began to fight back against "the man," and the machismo of the '50s went out of fashion. The Vietnam War and rise of the comfortable yet dull middle-class standard led many young men (and some older ones) to radically move away from traditional body ideals.

    Body image became much less about shape and more about how men could use their bodies to express their own ideals and beliefs. They did so through clothing and hairstyles more so than through muscles, often taking after many of the expressive and opinionated rock stars of the era. 

  • 1980s: Big Muscles Were Essential

    The ideal body type in the 1980s likely came as a response to both hard economic times and President Ronald Reagan's "return to values." Men with muscles were all the rage, and not just smooth muscular bodies, but massive muscles with clear definition, bulky and veiny. Bodybuilding became a popular activity with men like Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming the all-stars in the sport. 

    Schwarzenegger and other actors like Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme played characters that were larger than life, "real" superheroes who could take on any physical challenge. For those who were struggling in the '80s, these men provided an escape by physically conquering all the world's obstacles. 

    Ironically, this time saw another look become in vogue at the other end of the masculinity spectrum, wholly different from the bodies of these manly men. Inspired by the glam rockers and hair metal gurus of the era—think David Bowie, Bret Michaels, and Axl Rose—the long-haired, lean, glamorous look also saw its heyday in the '80s.