Actresses Were Always Skinny, Even In 1931

jean harlow

Are you one of those people who love mentioning that Marilyn Monroe was a size 8/10/12/some other size that would be deemed overweight in Hollywood today? Get ready to be very depressed.

Our friends at our sister site Blistree found an article in a 1931 issue of Photoplay which cites the sizes of various actresses (like Marion Davies! Or Jean Harlow!). They’re all still slim by today’s standards. Blisstree notes:

The magazine lists the heights, weights and measurements of her contemporary female stars, such as Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo. It’s pretty fascinating. The average height of the 21 actresses listed is 5’4″ (only one, Kay Francis, reached 5’7″). The average weight was 112.5 pounds, which would give someone 5’4″ a (healthy) BMI of 19.2.

The heaviest of the actresses listed was Irene Rich, though at 5’5″ and 134 pounds, she falls about smack dab in the middle of the healthy BMI-range. Alice White weighed just 98 pounds, but then again, she was only 5 foot tall (which puts her in a healthy BMI range, too).

So, okay, that may not live up to the kind of dream of old Hollywood that we have where it is a place where it is okay for women to be voluptuous.

This is sad.

However, I do think it’s interesting that most of the actresses cited from that period do have healthy BMIs. That’s not necessarily the case with actresses now. For instance, Angelina Jolie, who is often held up as being an example of extreme beauty, has a BMI of 17.9, and is 5’8 and 118 pounds. It seems a bit surprising that, while the height of actresses has certainly increased from 5’7, we’ve expected them to maintain approximately the same weight.

We should probably stop doing that.

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    • Eileen

      Glad to see this article as well as the one over at Blisstree. I’m kind of tired of the assumption that professionally beautiful women’s faces and bodies were not always scrutinized and subjected to unrealistic expectations. Look, our vision of “old Hollywood” isn’t real; it’s just whistling “Dixie.”

    • Tusconian

      Very tiny waists, too, including the, uh, “plus-size” (?????) Marilyn Monroe. I can’t remember where I’ve seen it (a different list than the blisstree one, but the measurements of many of these actresses, while their BMIs might have been higher, are pretty shocking. I didn’t see a waist above 26 inches in the bunch, and most were 24 or smaller. As for why we have this notion that Marilyn was a size 14, well. Vanity sizing. If you look through old catalogues you will rarely see a size listed below a 6. Because what was a size 6 back then would be a size 2, a size 0, or maybe even relegated to the children’s section nowadays depending on the brand. A woman with a 22 or 23 inch waist nowadays would have serious issues finding any adult-sized clothes, save for European imports, today, even (actually, especially) if she had bigger hips, which they usually did.

      And honestly, I’d say beauty standards haven’t so much “not changed” as they have “actually gotten better.” The smallest size in the magazine would be six, but the largest would be what, 14? If a 1932 six is smaller than a modern day zero at Banana Republic, that means the largest easily available size is roughly what we’d consider an eight. So the only options were really “thin” and “thinner.” This is the era where for a Latina woman to have a fighting chance to have any career at all in acting, she had to change her name to something “white,” color her hair and her skin, and actually change the shape of her hairline in excruciatingly painful ways; America Ferrera would be laughed out of the audition room without even being given a chance. Black? Your only options were overweight sassy maids, or hypersexualized to the point of obscene fetishes (and natural hair? It wouldn’t even be laughed out of an audition room, because it wasn’t an option, period). Even someone seemingly born into an acceptable body, like Marilyn Monroe, was pressured to change her hair color and diet constantly. And have you seen some of the diets she went on? Some would be classified as eating disorders by modern standards. Didn’t Jean Harlow die from the beauty products she used? And this was an era where basically all women were expected to diet, and cram themselves into girdles. Sure, an extra ten pounds compared to the heroin-chic of the 90s was appreciated, but not if those pounds jiggled immodestly. The diet ads from the day were even worse than those today, usually implying a woman was a pathetic lump of uselessness if she was 10 pounds too heavy, or 10 pounds too light, compared to today where it’s at least masked as wanting to look good in swimsuits and be healthy. I suppose the beauty standards were different, in that a very slightly different body shape was popular, though it was still ridigly enforced.

      But I guess some people, in their desire to fetishize the past, condemn the present, and lament the state of the future, will paint over all of these facts in an effort to not have to change anything about the world we live in.