What are Body Proportions?

L.R. Ferguson

Body proportions define the shape and size of the human body. Although proportions are completely individualistic and vary in each person, there are common structures that are distinctly male or female. Although there are no body proportions that are inherently better than others, many people have an ideal body shape or size that they try to obtain or that they admire in another person. Furthermore, body proportions have been commonly used in fields such as art and medicine to better understand the human form and bodily health.

Body proportions are the size and shape of the different parts of the body.
Body proportions are the size and shape of the different parts of the body.

Female body proportions vary greatly among women, and the ideal female body type differs among cultures. For instance, Western society typically prefers a thin or slender female body shape as opposed to a frame that is larger or bulkier. By contrast, in historic cultures, a full female figure is considered very attractive, because it is believed to indicate good health and fertility. Despite the many cultural variations that exist, the female body is most often described as resembling an hourglass, with the narrowest part of a woman being her waist, and the hips and bust being the fullest. Regardless, every woman’s body depends on her skeletal build as well as her fat and muscle distribution.

Leonardo da Vinci, who often conducted research on human anatomy, used his thoughts on the ideal male body to create images such as the "Vitruvian Man".
Leonardo da Vinci, who often conducted research on human anatomy, used his thoughts on the ideal male body to create images such as the "Vitruvian Man".

Though the male body is not typically described as resembling a specific shape like that of the female figure, men also have general body proportions. The male body is typically much broader than the female body at the chest and is narrow throughout the waist and hips. In general, men also tend to be larger and taller than women. Like women, however, a man’s body shape is entirely based upon his skeletal frame and muscle and fat distribution.

A girdle may be worn by women to give the appearance of a flat tummy.
A girdle may be worn by women to give the appearance of a flat tummy.

With the many variations of the male and female bodies, the human figure has been celebrated for centuries in art. Throughout history, the body proportions of men and women have been depicted in various art forms, such as painting and sculpture. For instance, several paintings by 17th-century painter Peter Paul Rubens depict the nude female body, which eventually led to the coining of the phrase “Rubenesque” to describe full-figured women. Additionally, the drawing “The Vitruvian Man” by artist Leonardo da Vinci represents one depiction of the ideal male body.

The study of body proportions is used in medicine to understand bodily health.
The study of body proportions is used in medicine to understand bodily health.

Furthermore, although human body proportions vary considerably in both men and women, the size of the waist can define a person’s overall health. Men and women both tend to gain weight around their midsections as they age, which can lead to a number of obesity-related complications, heart problems and cancer. Thus, many medical professionals encourage men and women to maintain a smaller waist as they age to avoid developing conditions associated with having a large midsection.

Regardless of one’s natural shape, it is possible for a man or woman to alter his or her body proportions. For instance, women can wear body-shapers and girdles to give the illusion of an hourglass shape. Plastic surgery is another more permanent option that is frequently used to augment specific features of the female body, such as the waist, breasts and buttocks. Men can also elect to undergo a surgical procedure to enhance a specific part of the body or might even exercise or lift weights to naturally build muscle definition or add girth to a certain area of the body.

Women's body shapes are dependent on their skeletal build.
Women's body shapes are dependent on their skeletal build.

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