1940s and 1950s
World War II impacted the lives of tens of thousands of military personnel and their families and created significant economic changes for the lower working classes. Women were part of the military endeavor as WACs, WAVES, and medical corps and were actively and intentionally mobilized for war (Rupp, 1978). The war also generated full employment, and a propaganda machine of the War Department focused on convincing women that Rosie the Riveter was a heroine (Honey, 1984). For many women, work as welders and ship fitters resulted in dramatically higher and more consistent income, although women continued to be paid less than men, and Black women were paid less than White women. The end of World War II also produced long-term economic benefits through various provisions of the GI (Government Issue) Bill, which included underwriting college education and home loans. The 1940s was an era of national optimism, upward mobility, and consumer products in a kind and number never before experienced.
After the war, defense industry jobs dried up and Rosie the Riveters were sent home to make room for returning veterans in the workplace. Instead of being encouraged to continue working outside the home, women were encouraged to make comfortable homes and have babies. Progress was measured by one’s modern, labor-saving appliances, automobiles, and new homes (i. e., keeping up with the Jones’s). It was a time when people’s identity was linked to their houses, cars, and landscaped lawns, as well as their personal style.
During this time, there were two competing ideals of beauty: the slender and sophisticated woman, and the pinup girl with ample bust and hips (Banner, 1983; Mazur 1986). Both ideals were difficult to attain. Marilyn Monroe, who wore a size 12, represented the ideal body image of the general times. As the first woman to pose nude for Playboy magazine, she epitomized an opulent physique associated with femininity and sex appeal. During this time, breasts were in. Although the ideal breast size had been steadily increasing since the 1920s, it was not until after the end of World War II that “bosom mania” set in (Mazur, 1986). The culture became so focused on the size of women’s breasts that Howard Hughes designed an entire film around Jane Russell’s cantilevered bosom.
As the war ended, happiness for women was socially constructed in the role of wife and mother. The key mechanism for such happiness and true fulfillment was a husband who was a good provider and kind to his children, a concept explored by Jesse Bernard (1972). But first, the prospective wife had to be attractive and sexually appealing to men. Thus, sexual attractiveness and availability to men served a gatekeeping function for women’s access to the roles (wife and mother) women believed most important to their personal identity and happiness. These decades were tailor-made for a conflation of beauty and sexiness and for the internalization of these standards by women. Self-worth was again linked to the capacity to be attractive to others.