I love this question, it’s just such a huge one because it encompasses so many different elements. There’s been a lot of research that looks into the historical trends of the “ideal” female body shape, because this hourglass figure hasn’t always reigned supreme, but it’s tough to nail down specific reasons for why our society currently values the small-waist-big-butt shape. If I were to narrow it down a little:
1. It’s a sign of youth, wealth and privilege. Only a small portion of the population is going to have this sort of figure, thus making it a status symbol. It shows that you can afford a healthy and balanced diet, you have enough spare time to exercise regularly, you can afford medical treatment and supervision, and (if you aren’t naturally prone to the hourglass shape), you can afford professional intervention in the form of surgery or fitness products. Not everyone can look like this, and that’s exactly what makes it so desirable.
2. It’s therefore a sign of Bootstraps. Women are supposed to work hard to maintain their bodies and appearance. Since the hourglass figure is commonly associated with a strict diet and exercise routine, we therefore believe that the only people who look like this are the people who “deserve” it because of their hard work and dedication. This belief lets the people on top of the hierarchy feel smug and satisfied with their position while looking down on all the undesirables below them, while the masses are told that their inferior social position is their own fault.
3. It’s uses strength as an excuse to exert control over a woman’s body. Notice how most #fitspo is framed in a way that encourages women to exercise solely so that they can become more attractive. Squat rhetoric isnotorious for this. Women are constantly told to get active, but only if we don’t get bulky. If you dare to get too strong, you no longer represent the ideal #fitspo image. You become too masculine/muscled/big to represent the sort of dainty and sexually available aesthetic that appeals to straight men. So therefore, the small-waist-big-butt image is presented as the ideal strong woman, the one who lifts weights without ever intimidating the men around her. Gee, isn’t she sexy?
But as you said, it’s not just the fitness community that’s in on this. The hourglass figure pops up throughout the plus size community as well:
4. The hourglass shape is often thought of as the Acceptable Fatty. It’s the Fat Person that is still seen as attractive (gasp!) in mainstream media, which puts her in direct competition with other fat people. She has curves in all the ~proper~ areas and isn’t carrying around a big belly like those other fat women. Here, the hourglass body represents an ideal that can still be interpreted as fat while getting many of the social advantages of thin privilege. A lot of commercial plus size models will fit into this category. You’ll often see people reference the health of these hourglass women - When bigots try to prove that they’re not fatphobic, they’ll hold up photos of an Acceptable Fatty: She might be big, but it’s okay because she’s active and eats well and isn’t 300 pounds! See, I don’t hate all fat people!
And it’s worth mentioning:
5. It’s the result of racism and fetishization. White people want the black booty without the stigma that’s attached to it. Features like a big, round ass are associated with the hyper-sexuality and exoticism of Black and Latina women. It’s a way of commodifying WOC, segmenting their bodies and turning them into objects: “You’ve got a black girl booty!” “Tiny waist like a China doll!” There is absolutely a degree of racism in the way that the hourglass figure has been promoted recently.
So in the end, perhaps the biggest explanation is:
6. The hourglass silhouette is the female shape that’s most fetishized by straight men right now. It’s painted as the feminine ideal because it emphasizes both highly sexualized regions (big tits and a big ass) while still placing value on the woman’s continued obedience (in the form of a thin waist). We as a culture value this body above all others because straight white men lust after it above all others.
——> Because I know this will be brought up - None of this means that it’s bad if you have an hourglass-shaped body, or that you’re a bad person because you’re attracted to that shape. However, you are a jerk if you think this body shape should be considered more valuable and worthwhile than any other body. The problem isn’t that people occasionally look a certain way, the problem is that one body shape is being held up as superior to others. This is a cultural problem that the fitness community tends to feed into all. the. time.
The solution here isn’t to start insulting hourglass women - It’s to demonstrate that any body is valuable and worthwhile regardless of what it may look like. We need to stop believing that one shape is inherently better than another. The Body Positive community is wonderful in this sense, since it shows that all bodies have worth. And in terms of fitness, my Reclaiming Fitspo series has attempted to show that we can still venerate athletes while placing value on their accomplishments instead of their appearance. The more we think of women as people instead of as bodies, the better.