The Perfect Boob Throughout History, From Big Ol' Things To Bee Stings

From the way that large breasts are portrayed in the media — extolled in movies, worshiped on TV shows, put on display in lingerie ads, and generally fetishized as a crucial part of any "desirable" woman's body — you'd think that finding C-cups attractive was encoded into human DNA. But if you take a look at art history, you'll discover a very different story. The concept of the ideal boob — and all of its variables, from nipple size to breast curvature to depth of cleavage — has been all over the map throughout the ages, with trends favoring everything from miniature mammaries to gargantuan gazungas, and all sizes in between.

Every society throughout history has had its own unique interpretation of The Perfect Bosom, each of which reflected their individual concerns, values, obsessions, hang-ups, and ideas about the role of women in society. And contrary to what some folks would like you to believe, bigger hasn't always been considered better — throughout history, small breasts have more often been considered ideal than larger ones.

Want to learn more about the boob's journey through the ages? Read on, and discover the real, historic truth about our cultural obsession with the perfect pair.

Prehistoric Period: Size Matters

During the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, the idealized female body type was all about opulence, which included expansive breasts. The Venus of Willendorf, a statue from about 27,000 BC (which might depict a fertility goddess) shows this pretty clearly: huge pendulous boobs were in.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Egypt: Basically Boobless

The Ancient Egyptians sincerely didn’t seem to care if their womenfolk had breasts. Even though breasts were considered important for religious symbolic purposes — the pharaoh was sometimes depicted as suckling from a female goddess’s boobs — looking at the erotic graffiti of the time (and yes, there was lots), one can see that the ideal breast shape was, well, no shape at all.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hellenistic Greece: Strictly In Proportion

Aphrodite and her ancient Greek goddess ilk were often depicted as bare-breasted, but they didn’t flash very much to write home about. They were examples of the Greek ideal of breast proportion — one on either side of the chest with minimal sag, each measuring almost exactly a handful. The Greeks, it seems, didn’t care for cleavage.

Image: Metropolitan Museum.

Ancient Rome: Treading The Line

Ancient Romans, like our modern society, had a few contradictory ideas about breasts. Big breasts were seen as sexually attractive — but breasts that were considered “too big” were mocked by poets like Martial, who told the story of a big-breasted woman who had to pay for three tickets to the baths. Above all, the ideal Roman breast was perky, so that it could be pert without a breast-band (the Roman equivalent of a bra).

Image: Metropolitan Museum.

T'Ang Dynasty China: The Fat Ladies

I’m not being rude with the title of this section: statues of women from this period in Chinese history (AD 816- 907) are genuinely known as Fat Ladies, because of their round faces and tiny features. The great beauty of the age — and one of the legendary Four Beauties of China — was Yang Kuei-fei, the emperor’s favorite concubine, who was notably luscious, with huge breasts.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Chola Dynasty India: Perfect Spheres

The Chola dynasty ruled the south of India from the 9th to the 13th centuries, and their art — particularly Cholas statues of the goddess Parvati — show that a certain kind of female body was considered the cultural ideal throughout the dynasty’s entire reign. The best breasts during the Chola era were fairly pneumatic, almost sphere-like, with nipples pointing straight forwards.

Image: Metropolitan Museum

Middle Ages: Tightly Bound

What did the ideal woman have on her chest in Europe during the Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries)? Nearly invisible boobs. The ascetic nuns, who often fasted for ages to prove their piety, were considered the ideal of beauty in this era. This pious Christian ideal of beauty also meant that large breasts were widely seen as sinful and something to be “fixed:” a Middle Ages book discusses breast-binding, boob reduction surgery and medicines to make bosoms smaller as if they were all completely normal, everyday occurrences.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

1400s-1500s Europe: A Bare Cupful

The lavish, lush European ladies we know from the era’s paintings were not actually drawn from the era’s beauty ideals. Lucas Cranach the Elder and others working in this time period actually drew their inspiration from the nudes of Greece and Rome: nudes which included very small, widely spaced breasts, with miniature nipples.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Edo Japan: Big, White, and Barely Nippled

During the Edo period in Japan, which ran from 1630 to 1868, a particular kind of Japanese erotic art called shunga flowered. Sunga shows in (very graphic) detail what kind of breasts were viewed as sexually desirable at the time. The key? Breasts that were large enough to sag slightly, with a pure white skin tone, and virtually non-existent nipples that could be signified by a tiny circle of the brush.

Image: Brooklyn Museum

1600s Europe: Rubenesque But Still Small

You’ll notice something odd about this painting by Peter Paul Rubens, the so-called king of pictures of fleshy ladies. The breasts on display are still hovering at around a B-cup. Despite the new fashion for flesh, breasts were still meant to stay small and humble.

Image: The Louvre

19th Century France: Nipples Ahoy

The dawn of the 19th century in France saw a lot of emphasis on “realistic” (but still small) breasts in art. The ideal boob? Small, but with a slightly sagging shape that came to a point with pronounced nipples. No more firm, circular domes; this time, art was was all about keeping it real.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Victorian England: Smooth All The Way

Women in Victorian England were supposed to have a slight swell in their chests to indicate the possible presence of breasts — usually to contrast with their obscenely small corseted waists — but, if you look at fashion plates from the period, the ideal bosom was practically non-existent. Breasts worked as a suggestion of womanhood, but anything more than teeny-tiny pinpricks were considered vulgar.

Image: Godey’s

Early 20th Century America: The Gibson Curve

If you wanted to look sexy in the 1900s and 1910s, you’d have better had a serious set of breasts (at least compared to your tiny head and even tinier waist). Illustrator Charles Gibson’s “Gibson Girls” set the beauty (and boob) ideals for the time, and women of the period were supposed to sail around in pinched corsets, with their breast hanging over the top like the prows of enormous ships.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The 1920s & 30s: Flappers Keep It Flatter

The 1920s flapper-style dresses left absolutely no room for any boobs at all: washboard-flat chests were in style. This sad lack of breasts remained fashionable into the 1930s, a time period which permitted slightly more curves, but still preferred its fashion plates to be A-cups.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The 1950s: Over-The-Shoulder Boulder Holders

The 1950s was the age of the Maidenform bra, the girdle, and breasts that looked like zeppelins. Tight sweaters and huge skirts were all the rage (blame Dior’s New Look), but the boobs underneath were supposed to be perkier than perky, held in place with lingerie meant to rig, truss, and separate them, and make them look as pointed as possible.

Image: Maidenform

The 1960s: Mini Skirt and Minuscule Boobs

The female beauty icons of the ’60s were lithe rather than traditionally sexual, and their breasts were saggy (as bras were skipped) and small (to fit into shift dresses). The biggest model of the era, Twiggy, had an angular body and small breasts.

Image: Vogue

The 1980s: Big And Bouncy

What we think of as the “ideal” modern breast really came into fashion in the 1980s. Huge breasts on tiny frames were the mainstay of ’80s media, from films to TV, and became so universally accepted as attractive that many of us have found it difficult to believe that things were ever different.

Image: Getty

Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

The 1990s: Supermodels, Average Bosoms

The breasts of ’90s beauty icons came in two very different sizes: the larger breasts of supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Cindy Crawford, all of whom seemed to be packing at least B-cups; and the tiny tatas of Kate Moss, who based her career on her absence of cleavage. It was the Breast Wars, and the argument raged all through the decade.

Image: Getty


Today: Cleavage Reigns

These days, bigger still seems to be better. Kim Kardashian’s pushed-together cleavage gets more column inches than global warming, and the Victoria’s Secret girls stud all of the Hottest 100 lists. But if history is any indication, any second now, the pendulum (or giant boob) may well swing back the other way entirely.

Image: Getty