Part 3: The Herstorian Does Bridgerton - On Beauty and the Female Body

For my first contribution to the Bridgerton series, I wanted to write about Penelope Featherington. Penelope is the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Featherington and secret admirer of Colin Bridgerton. Although none of her siblings are painted as particularly “beautiful” characters, Penelope is characterised as the “ugly duckling” of the family. Her weight is often the focus of their criticism.

Penelope is the only character whose weight is mentioned, and she is also one of the few characters that are completely unsuccessful in love. Her desire for Colin Bridgerton is unwelcomed, and she receives no male attention at balls or social events. The show explicitly links these romantic failures with her appearance as her own mother mocks Penelope for being “two stone heavier than she ought to be.”

There are many problems with this. I did not expect historical accuracy from an alternative-history Netflix drama, Bridgerton claimed to be “diverse” and “inclusive.” That the only plus-sized body is mocked and unsuccessful in love speaks more to a twenty-first-century standard of beauty than that of the eighteenth. As I will explain in this article, a fuller figure was desirable in the Regency era. So why did Bridgerton choose to portray Penelope in this way?

Penelope Featherington played by Nicola Coughlan

Born in 1775, Jane Austen lived through the era depicted in Bridgerton. Novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma reflect contemporary attitudes during this period, particularly in regards to women and their place in society. Her characters help us understand what was considered attractive qualities in women and the beauty standards of the day.

Austen wrote of all bodies relatively democratically, with women of smaller and larger sizes deemed beautiful in their own ways. As Elinor says in Sense and Sensibility, attractive bodies can come in “every possible variation of form.” From the “plump” Harriet Smith in Emma to Elizabeth Bennet’s “light, pleasing figure”, the beauty of these characters does not depend entirely on weight. That being said, this description of Elizabeth Bennet is relative. What was considered “light” by Jane Austen, may not be the same image you have in your mind right now.

Societal norms change over time, and each generation has a different point of reference. For example, an Instagram model could be used as a benchmark for the current beauty standard. She is likely to be white, slim, and perfectly contoured. Our Regency equivalent could be Emma, Lady Hamilton, a model and actress, the muse of Portrait artist George Romney and mistress of Lord Nelson. In 1792, Romney painted seventeen-year-old Emma as the sorceress Circe. She is young (the preference then as it is now), exposed and highly sexualised. Over nine years, Romney painted her as other characters from ancient myth and literature

'Emma Hart as Circe' by George Romney (1782)

Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton (c 1765-1815), as Circe by George Romney (1782)

This sexualisation of Emma as a mythological character represents the revival of “Classical beauty” in the Regency era. For many men of the era, Venus represented the perfect woman. In The Dictionary of Love, objective points of beauty are written in a bizarrely detailed thirty-point list. The author contends that a beautiful woman should have “youth,” a “stature neither too high nor too low,” and be “neither too fat nor too lean.” And the list goes on. “The chin rather round, plump, and ending with a dimple,” “a breast of alabaster,” and (I am cringing as I type this) “two balls of snow, firm, self-sustained, and deliciously distanced.” As gross as this intensely specific objectification is, it speaks to how societal preferences shift between the generations. I doubt that anyone today would write “A white hand, plump and long” on a list of aesthetic preferences, but such things were genuinely considered important in this era.

In the nineteenth century, men went to a lot of effort to dissect the anatomy of beauty. Literally. In 1821, Surgeon-anatomist Thomas Bell published The Laws of Female Beauty. Not only does this speak to a tradition of men writing long lists about the female body, but it also explains the fascination with the figure of Venus, whom Bell describes as “an object finer, Alas! than nature seems even capable of producing.” John Knox agreed with this sentiment, stating that Venus was the “perfect human figure” because “not a trace of anatomy, of muscle, tendon, or vein is to be seen.” Knox associated beauty with health in a manner reminiscent of Jane Austen, though he did so with a harsher, more critical male gaze. He believed that the frail bodies of the old and infirm were less attractive than rounded, “juicy,” well-fleshed ones because they represented “that dreaded interior, sure emblem of dissolution and death." [2] (If you are interested to know more about this, I recommend this article by Alan W. Bates). In Emma, Jane Fairfax is “a most becoming medium, between fat and thin,” and this seems to reflect a commonly held opinion of the period. To be on either end of the weight spectrum, emaciated or obese, was not ideal.

Regarding Penelope, it is important to note that she is not on the extreme end of this spectrum. If she is “two stone heavier” than the competition, it would keep her well within this “becoming medium” described by Austen. Penelope is not obese, nor is she characterised as greedy or gluttonous. She is simply slightly larger than her co-stars, the majority of whom would be considered thin during this period.

This revival of classical beauty influenced the fashion of the Regency era. There was a movement away from the heavy hooped skirts that were popular in the eighteenth century to styles that flattered the natural body. As we see in Bridgerton and the Jane Austen adaptations, A-line dresses and flowy skirts were popular amongst young women during this time. Low necklines and corsets emphasised the breasts and helped women achieve the physique described in The Dictionary of Love. Fashion was less restrictive, designed to celebrate the female figure.

Essentially, a fuller figure indicated health and wealth. Curves suggested that a person was well-fed and could afford to eat, which was an achievement that the elite was keen to boast about. The female body physicalised the wealth and status of the men who “kept” her. Hence, men had a vested interest in the appearance of their wives, sisters, and lovers. Rich women did not have to exert themselves physically, unlike poor women who worked manual labour jobs. Thus, the weight of a woman could reflect the social status of a family. The more curves, the richer and therefore, the more attractive in a capitalist society.

As is the same today, the capitalist economy is inextricably linked with the patriarchal gaze. In the Regency era, the consumer bought food to achieve a “beautiful” appearance. Today, we are sold skinny tea and cosmetic surgeries to achieve such a standard. What links both of these things is that they are unattainable for the majority. Under capitalism, beauty is a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Since antiquity, since the days of Venus, men have set a beauty standard that can only be achieved by those with money.

Bridgerton is a product of our modern society. For better or worse, the show rewrote history to include demographics that have never been allowed to see themselves in the Austen-esque world of romance and drama. But I think it missed an opportunity to celebrate the bodies that our media marginalises. Despite the sexualisation of fuller figures in the Regency era, Bridgerton chose to cast actors and actresses who align with our modern beauty standard. The majority of the cast is thin, and Penelope is the only character whose weight is ridiculed.

My main issue with all of this is that it implies that beauty is objective, that it is a fact rather than a concept. But beauty is entirely subjective (despite what eighteenth-century surgeon-anatomists say). What our ancestors considered beautiful was not necessarily the slim women who star in Bridgerton. The very woman who may have been considered particularly attractive is pushed aside in the TV show. Penelope has no romantic prospects, and she clearly believes that this is because of her appearance.

To summarise, I think Bridgerton could have done far more than simply show a plus-sized body. They could have celebrated her, as our ancestors would have done. Perhaps if programs showed the beauty standard of the time, viewers could have been reminded that beauty standards are trends. And like all trends, they are transient. The modern fixation on thinness and whiteness is not definitive of beauty. Rather, beauty is a concept that has changed through the ages and changes from person to person.

Bridgerton was watched by 82 million households. To me, it presented the perfect opportunity to show viewers that the modern media's obsession with thinness does not reflect an objective truth about beauty. Beauty standards are man-made (literally, man-made) and entirely subjective.

By Georgia Britton

[1] The full quote can be found in Beauty: Illustrated by an Analysis and Classification of Beauty in Woman by Alexander Walker (1852), p.346.

[2] The full quote by Robert Knox in The Races of Men (1850), p.278.

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