Women are held to nearly impossible standards these days — the goal essentially being to look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel. I’m not going to lie…those angels are stunning, and I think a large percentage of people would concur. Any one of them could probably win the Miss Universe contest. Any one of them probably possesses the “sexiest woman alive” tagline in several thousand minds throughout the globe. Actually, hasn’t the current angel Miranda Kerr been dubbed sexiest woman alive by umpteen-several magazines and cyber-fashion gurus? What’s interesting though, is that a century ago, this wouldn’t have been the case — not even close.
A friend of mine sent me an article today titled “1912’s Perfect Woman Was From Brooklyn, Weighed 171 Lbs, Had Pear-Shaped Body” posted by Gothamist. The title tells it all, doesn’t it? Exactly 100 years ago Miss Elsie Scheel of Cornell University was voted the “most nearly perfect specimen of womanhood” out of 400 co-eds. The 24-year-old was the now-average height of 5’7″, weighed 171 pounds and would be about a size 12/14 by today’s measurements. These days, she most definitely wouldn’t be selected to model lingerie alongside Cameron Russell, but back then she was the icon of beauty, of sex appeal, and as the crowning title suggests, of womanhood.
Unfortunately there’s no photo attached to the article other than the sketch depictions, the measurement image used to give a basic idea of her body type as sizing has changed since 1912. But you get the idea. She was a curvy, voluptuous woman, and she was appreciated and even awarded for it. What I find even more touching is that she seems to have been incredibly confident, saying she achieved her aesthetic perfection by “sane living… I have eaten only what I wanted and when I wanted it.” She wasn’t afraid to say that she loved indulging in hearty meats, especially beefsteak, even though it was 1912 and it wasn’t until the 1920s that women were even allowed attendance at Cornell’s famous beefsteak dinners. She knew no fear. She was never ill. She lived a long and healthy life despite fitting into 2012’s feared and shunned “overweight” category. If you ask me, she would be a hell of a role model for women today. Heck, for men too. And not simply because she was curvy.
Scheel was nicknamed the Venus of Cornell. For those of you who weren’t as into Roman mythology as I was growing up, Venus was the goddess of beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory. The common misconception is that Venus was all about the sex — but that just isn’t so. She was intelligent, poised, ambitious — as was Scheel. Miss Scheel wasn’t just beautiful, she was brilliant. Her ivy-league education cultivated her knowledge of horticulture, though she would have preferred to be a mechanical engineer had her gender been allowed to partake in such a hands-on profession. An early pioneer of women’s rights and a self-proclaimed suffragette (somewhat ironic, however, considering she was okay with being called a specimen, which I will address momentarily), she told the Sunday Morning Times, “Women should be able to exact as much from the men they marry as the men demand of them, and if they must continue to passively accept men as they are, then the race will degenerate.” Miss Scheel was undoubtedly clever, courageous in speaking her mind, bold in showcasing a uniqueness, ready to tackle anything that she didn’t deem morally correct. She could do it all. And she could do it all whilst weighing 171 pounds and wearing a size 14 — numbers that to me don’t seem that large at all, but I know for a fact many people in my immediate vicinity would cringe at.
But despite being pleased to hear that a plus-size woman used to be considered the emblem of beauty, I do have qualms with her reigning title. What is a most-nearly perfect specimen? And why should a most-nearly specimen exist? This does go to show that though the common consensus of what is beautiful and womanly changes through time, the shallowness of needing to title someone perfect in order to admire and aspire to look like someone else has always existed. Today, those Victoria’s Secret angels are what Miss Scheel was back then…supposed “perfection…” or as near to perfection as a human can possibly be, thus the “most-nearly” description. It does make me sad to think that we always seem to need this idea of perfection…as if it even exists. Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Who defines perfection? Who selected Miss Scheel as the perfect specimen? Some gray-haired, beer-bellied, septuagenarian deans probably. The fact that she is referred to as a specimen furthers my irritability regarding the matter, and though she was great because she was intelligent and brave and confident AND curvy, this idea of perfection is one I hope to see dissipate. The idea that we need to be anything other than ourselves…
All that aside, however, it’s fascinating how everything changes so much over time. In 1912, the thoughts of cell phones or hybrid cars would have probably seemed outrageous and impossible. I’m betting the thought that women should be pressured to weigh teeny amounts and squeeze into a size 2 would have seemed just as absurd. But today it’s all we know. I can’t remember ever not feeling that pressure, any more than I can really remember not having a cell phone. It’s this innate part of our lives that so many people don’t bother to question because they’ve simply accepted it for what it is — a societal norm. The status quo. The way things are. But why does it have to be? Just because it is doesn’t mean it’s right. Pressuring anyone to be something they aren’t is never right. We are the way we are, in my opinion, because it’s the way we are supposed to be. If we were all supposed to be 100 lbs, we simply would be. There would be no physical differences among us. Everyone would look like Blake Lively or Naomi Campbell.
For a while now (my guess is 50 years or so) skinny has been the way to be, but that doesn’t mean it always will be. People get bored. People get bored and make new cars, new phones, new computers, new devices that can blow up the whole planet. So who’s to say people won’t get bored of trying to live up to the image of a VS angel? Who’s to say people won’t get tired of trying to be like other people. If they don’t, however, who’s to say someday women won’t want to be more like Miss Scheel? Like that size 14 gal who learned all she could, stood up for what she thought was right and did it all while eating a whole lot of beef — and aspire to be like her not just because of her body or hair or clothes, but because of her mind.