To a lesser degree, there seems to have been a similar shift among men in general. The feminine ideal became that of the ‘flapper’ or garçonne: a woman with long legs, a flat chest, narrow hips, large shoulders, and tanned skin, like a young boy on the brink of puberty (Bard, 1998; Marchand, 1997, 1988). This look is described in a history of British fashion:
The Masculine Silhouette of 1920's Females
After the first world war (1914-18) when women's dress became more mannish, … [f]emale clothes became looser and more shapeless in fit. The bust was suppressed, the waist disappeared, the shoulders became broader and hair shorter and shorter. Narrow boyish hips were preferred. The silhouette emphasised a flattened chest and womanly curves were eliminated as the line became more simplified.
The Flat Chest of the Twenties
The slender flat-chested tanned body and face of a 15 year old became the desired silhouette of the bright young things of the 1920s. Health and beauty clubs helped women refine their silhouettes whilst getting fitter and healthier. It was a difficult time for the former matrons of Edwardian society, the previous leaders of fashion whose style of dressing became as passé as their rounded figures and older faces. More youthful women who could party all night and carry the boyish fashions well were all the rage.
Such androgyny is sometimes put down to the social impacts of World War I, either the wartime entry of women into previously male jobs or the postwar shortage of men. Yet the ‘boyish look’ was being mentioned as early as 1914, in the United States, three years before that country entered the war:
The new ideal in feminine figure, dress, and hair styles was all semi-masculine. The “1914 Girl” with her “slim hips and boy-carriage” was a “slim, boylike creature”. The “new figure is Amazonian, rather than Miloan. It is boyish rather than womanly. It is strong rather than soft.” Her dress styles, meanwhile, de-emphasized both hips and bust while they permitted the large waist. (McGovern, 1968)
It looks as though the male search image had been developing imperfectly, with some algorithms receiving the wrong parameters. Was the cause something new in the environment? And could this something have been estrogen-rich wastewater from modern sewer systems—then scarcely a generation old?
Well, there were a lot of other new things at the turn of the 20th century. Can we look elsewhere in history for cases that link environmental estrogens to a change in the male search image? One might be Japan from the 17th century onward, specifically the effects of increased soybean consumption.
Soybeans are rich in isoflavones, which have estrogenic effects. Such ‘phytoestrogens’ exist in many plant species and may have evolved as a form of biological warfare to prevent overgrazing. Indeed, they have been shown to cause infertility in herbivores (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998; Hughes, 1988; Hughes & Tansey, 1998). In humans, research has focused on the beneficial effects of isoflavones, notably their usefulness in preventing heart disease in both sexes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and menopausal symptoms in women, and prostate cancer in men (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998; Knight & Eden, 1996).
Much less is known about their effects on male sexual development. On average, Japanese men ingest 20 mg of isoflavones per day, an amount that seems too low to have acute hormonal effects (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998). Nonetheless, when infants ingest the same amount through soy formula, they attain plasma isoflavone concentrations that are ten times those of Japanese adults (Cassidy & Setchell, 1998). The effects on children remain uncertain but have raised much concern (Santti et al., 1998).
In Japan, high soy consumption began during the Tokugawa period (1603-1867, also called the Edo period). This period saw a sharp rise in population that reduced meat consumption per capita. In coastal areas, people had to obtain protein mainly from seafood. Elsewhere, they turned to soy products:
Inland, the main source of protein was the soy bean, which has a much higher calorie output per acre than animal flesh, an inefficient source of protein in terms of the amount of land and grain needed to produce it. Thus tofu and other soybean products became a major source of both protein and calcium during the Tokugawa period. (Hanley, 1997, pp. 67-68).
This period also saw a shift in male aesthetic preferences:
Gen Itasaka has described the change in taste during the Edo period as the transition between the styles of woodblock print artists Moronobu and Harunobu. Moronobu’s women are pleasantly plump, Marilyn Monroe-type beauties with round faces, ample bosoms and hips. Harunobu’s women are less sensual, androgynous beauties with slender faces and delicate, willowy figures. (Kurokawa, 1994)
Changes occurred in the ideals of feminine beauty during this period of continuing peace. Gradually, slim and fragile women with slender faces and up-turned eyes began to be preferred to the plump, pear-shaped ideal that remained dominant until the middle of the eighteenth century. (Wagatsuma, 1967)
The shift in search image thus seems to resemble what occurred in the Western world at the turn of the 20th century. Are we looking at the same underlying phenomenon?
Bard, C. (1998). Les garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles. Paris: Flammarion.
Cassidy, A., & Setchell, K.D.R. (1998). Clinical experiences in assessing dietary effects of phytoestrogens on the human endocrine system, in: Dunaif, G., Olin, S., Scimeca, J., & Thomas, J. (eds.) Human Diet and Endocrine Modulation, Washington, DC: ILSI Press, pp. 155-165.
Hanley, S.B. (1997). Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hughes, C.L. Jr. (1988). Phytochemical mimicry of reproductive hormones and modulation of herbivore fertility by phytoestrogens, Environmental Health Perspectives, 78, 171-175.
Hughes, C.L. Jr, & Tansey, G. (1998). Phytoestrogens and reproductive medicine, in: Korach, K. (ed.) Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology, New York: Marcel Dekker Inc., pp. 277-298.
Knight, D.C., & Eden, J.A. (1996). A review of the clinical effects of phytoestrogens, Obstetrics & Gynecology, 87, 897-904.
Kurokawa, K. (1994). Rikyu grey and the art of ambiguity (chap. 6), in The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Academy Ed. http://www.kisho.co.jp/011.htm
Marchand, S. (1997). Rouge à lèvres et pantalon. Des pratiques esthétiques féminines controversées au Québec 1920-1939, Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise HMH.
Marchand, S. (1988). La « Garçonne », un nouveau modèle féminin (1920-1929), Cap-aux-Diamants, 4, 19-20.
McGovern, J.R. (1968). The American woman's pre-World War I freedom in manners and morals, Journal of American History, 55, 315-333.
Santti, R., Makela, S., Strauss, L., Korkman, J., & Kostian, M-L. (1998). Phytoestrogens: potential endocrine disruptors in males, Toxicology and Industrial Health, 14, 223-237.
Wagatsuma, H. (1967). The social perception of skin color in Japan, Daedalus, 96, 407-443.