Rewiring the System

from an extrop email list: i am the venus of Willendorf

Posted in Uncategorized by rewiringangel on December 22, 2008

Playboy’s economic indicator: The Playmate Index

Recently, various writers have been alluding to Terry Pettijohn’s now-mythical survey of the relationship between Playboy Playmates and the economy. Pettijohn’s argument is that, as times get tougher, male concepts of beauty shift toward more mature, stable-looking women who are older, taller, and less curvy. Conversely, in boom times, the woman of choice would be shorter, younger, and more hourglass-shaped.

While my knowledge of Playboy Playmates was once disturbingly encyclopedic, I have to admit that I have been out of the game for quite some time now. That said, I’d have to question Professor Pettijohn’s methodology, if only for the fact that the Playboy ideal has shown far less fluctuation over the years than society at large. To put it bluntly, many of the heroin addict-thin models that grace the pages of women’s fashion magazines would never be allowed within arm’s length of a Playboy pictorial. Like the Rockettes, Playmates have traditionally remained within a comfortably healthy median, neither ballerina scrawny nor fully zaftig.

Now, arguably, there could be some comparisons drawn between economic boom/bust cycles and the shapes of women’s bodies. Certainly, the androgynous flapper look of the 1920’s, the Twiggy look of the 1960’s, and the starvation victim/heroin addict look of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s are somewhat comparable. Similarly, the hourglass 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1980’s have similar style cues. While it would be silly to take these comparisons to extremes, fashion goes in cycles, and those cycles overlap somewhat with the economy. However, this is far from a direct confluence; the 1930’s look, for example, was still boyish, and our current ultra-thin look has been developing for quite some time.

Professor Pettijohn doesn’t seem to offer a compelling reason for this change, beyond a vague notion that mature women are more comforting. It’s interesting, however, to contemplate why this trend would occur. On the one hand, strong secondary-sexual characteristics convey stability, health, and the ability to reproduce; it’s hardly coincidental that the Venus of Willendorf, one of the first depictions of the female form, has pendulous breasts, broad hips, and a large belly. The full-figured woman appears self-sufficient, powerful, and supportive, traits that might be highly prized when the world seems unstable.

On the other hand, the frail, ultra-thin look, especially when enhanced with surgical implants, suggests a trophy. The heroin-chic woman seems unlikely to survive a walk to the bathroom, much less a major economic depression. However, in boom times, the ability to count on easily-available food, plastic surgery, and cocaine makes this model more sustainable. In other words, while Kate Moss might not be able to help till the fields, she can comfortably fit into a size zero cocktail dress.

It is odd to reduce fashions (not to mention economic indicators) to basic Darwinist tendencies. However, there does indeed seem to be some compelling evidence to support the idea. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if the next few months bring healthy, generously-sized women back into vogue or if America’s impressive ability for self delusion manifests as a continued fascination with starvation chic. Regardless, if you want a good idea of what the next few months hold, you could probably do a lot worse than checking out Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and all the other fashion mags!


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