The Average Woman – 1908

The Average American Woman Is…Ungainly, Has An Appalling Lack of Symmetry, Is Inactive and Badly In Need Of Exercise

Ungainly FigureCharles Merriles penned a three part article for Physical Culture Magazine entitled The Average Woman which ran from the July – September 1908 issues. He offers a scathing indictment against the average woman as being generally disproportioned, out of shape and defective.

Today an article like the one Charles Merriles wrote would be savagely attacked and he would probably be apologizing on social media. But this was 1908 and it was a very much a man’s world.

Physical Culture Magazine described itself as “devoted to health, strength, vitality, muscular development, and care of the body”

The publisher of Physical Culture, Bernarr MacFadden, was a man driven by perfection, physical fitness and fame. His belief of natural cures and strength training was forward looking. but his many detractors considered him to be an obscene, health-nut.

Later in the 1920s MacFadden founded the New York Graphic newspaper which was ahead of its time for its use of composite photographs called composographs featuring “photoshopped” scenes that did not exist. The New York Graphic also presaged the National Enquirer and other publications of that ilk by its use of lurid and sleazy stories thus earning the nickname “the New York Pornographic.”

Merriles’ article was one of the surefire ways MacFadden’s Physical Culture liked to attract readers with scantily dressed women. To illustrate his article, Merriles advertised for regular looking women that he could photograph in athletic garb that would display their figure.

The photo captions alone are cringe worthy. To say Merriles was critical in his assessment of his models and the state of womanhood would be an understatement.

Chest Too FlatHere are some excerpts and photographs from Merriles’ article:

The average woman of today has nothing to boast of from the standpoint of mere physical attraction. When stripped of her furbelows and fancy frills we usually find a startling contrast. In but few cases has she anything to be proud of under such instances. Between the corset, false hips, busts, padding here and there to fill out, even the leanest woman is at times able to make what might be termed a fair appearance. And a woman who is suffering from too much avoirdupois can pull in the waist line to an extraordinary degree and thus add to her attractions, so she thinks.

The body to be beautiful must be strong. No unsightly angles should be apparent, all its outlines should be made up of curves. For instance, from the neck to the shoulder, there should be a gradual sloping away until one part merges into the other. There should be an appearance of symmetry, harmony, one part with another, which is the one necessary
characteristic of a beautifully formed body. There should be no large, prominent muscles, there should be no bulging bust, or large, massive hips.

Figure Fair Hips too largeThey are so ugly that they might almost be called vulgar. Then again, there is an entirely false conception of the form of women that has been produced largely by the habit of corset wearing. 

Though every woman cannot possess features that might be termed beautiful, I believe that my opinion is borne out by the facts when I state that practically every woman can have a finely-developed body. This means, in conventional parlance, a superb form.

Entire Body Too Thin

Figure Too SlightNow, I was anxious to know just what might be the appearance of, say, the average woman entirely from a physical standpoint. I thought it would make an interesting article for this magazine. At first I was rather doubtful as to how I could secure the photographs that
would be necessary to illustrate what I might have to say. I finally concluded that the best method would be to advertise in a daily paper for models who would be willing to pose in athletic costumes. An advertisement was inserted accordingly. There was no scarcity of
applicants. Of course the object in nearly every case was the moderate fee that was offered, though from the pretentious apparel of some, one would hardly think that the sum offered would have been attractive to them.

Hips and Legs too fatEach one of the applicants was supposed to have been a model. I hardly think many of them had ever posed before. They were probably looking for a new experience, or they needed the

The very moderate fee that was offered would hardly be an inducement of importance. The surprising part of my experiences was the fact that most of the applicants seemed to believe they had a very symmetrical figure. Of course, my readers must well understand that a photograph does not by any means show up all the defects in a figure, and a reproduction, if anything, also hides many angular outlines.

Poorly Developed Chest

Body Well formed

Strong Well made womanThis inclination to deposit fatty tissue with the average woman is often one of the means of making the form ungainly and sometimes actually ugly. An exaggerated specimen of ugliness that comes from an excessive accumulation of fat is found in the woman whose walk resembles a waddle. This excessive accumulation of fat is brought about entirely by inactive habits, and it is actually impossible for a woman to acquire such enormous amount of flesh, if at regular intervals with sufficient vigor to accelerate the activities of the functional processes.

Finely Built Young Woman front view

Finely Built Young Woman side viewThe manner in which the average woman neglects her physical condition is indeed shameful. When I realize what they might be and what they are, I am appalled by the waste of womanly beauty that I find everywhere.

All of the other reproductions (photographs of women) show figures that very badly need physical improvement. Half an hour’s daily attention to maintaining the general physical vigor would make a wonderful change in each of these women. Their best friend would hardly know them if they were to make the change that is easily possible and suddenly appear before them thus transformed.

Physical deficiency

Entire body miserable condition

I know that the average reader will unquestionably be able to call to mind women friends or acquaintances whom they consider possessors of a beautiful form, but in many cases they are mistaken. The figure, as far as can be seen from the ordinary clothing that is worn
by the young woman, might appear beautiful in outline, but when these garments are removed and the figure is seen just as it is, there are nearly always serious defects.

The truth of this statement, perhaps, can be proved nowhere more than at the seashore. Here the average woman appears just as she is. She is shorn of all the frills that she finds so useful in her ordinary apparel, and if you want to find out just what your lady-love looks like, take her to the seashore, and if you do not see an amazing change in her appearance, you will indeed be a lucky man. When the salt water takes all the curl out of her hair, and the wet bathing suit clings to her real figure you can, in most cases, then depend upon receiving a startling surprise. You will then very fully realize that not “all things are just what they seem.”

Fairly strong figureIf every woman could be compelled to wear a bathing suit, or a costume like those worn by the young women whose photographs have been reproduced in this article, we would soon have a supply of finely developed women. There would be less attention to external ornamentation, and more attention to developing and perfecting the body, for then the real shape of the body would be seen.

I believe it is really the duty of every woman to be as beautiful as she can, because that means that she will be as strong and as wholesome and as fine a specimen of womanhood as it is possible for her to make herself. Beauty of the right kind means the highest degree of
strength. It means the possession of the instincts of superior womanhood. It means that a woman will be capable of being that kind of a wife and a mother that is so much needed in our homes.

I find it ironic that the women who are slim as typified by many of the women are considered by Merriles to be “physically deficient”.  One of the last photographs showing the attractive lady Merriles labels as in miserable condition, has a figure many women of today would be striving towards.

A few issues later Merriles did do a series of articles on The Average Man. You’d think he would have had the same results as he did with the women. But lo and behold Merriles reports:

I was simply amazed. I had no idea that you could pick up men in the careless manner that I did and still secure such fine specimens. In general physical appearance, and from a standpoint of actual manhood, they far excelled the young women whose photographs were reproduced in my previous articles.

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