From a size 12 to a 16: How women have changed shape

The average British woman is two inches taller than she was in 1950 - and she's gained more than half a stone as well. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

The hourglass has officially run out. The most comprehensive research into the shape of the nation has revealed that women's waists are six inches (16cm) wider than they were in 1951. We are also taller but have shot up less than we have shot out.

The hourglass has officially run out. The most comprehensive research into the shape of the nation has revealed that women's waists are six inches (16cm) wider than they were in 1951. We are also taller but have shot up less than we have shot out.

SizeUK, a collaboration between the Department of Trade and Industry, retailers and academics, used hi-tech bodyscanners to take 130 measurements from 11,000 people across the country. The resulting 1,540,000 measurements revealed that 38 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men are overweight or obese.

The only previous national study - using traditional tape measures and involving only women - was conducted in 1951. While 1950s woman was just two inches (5cm) shorter at 5ft 2in (162cm), her chest and hips were 1.5in (4cm) slimmer at 37 (94cm) and 39 (99cm). But the difference in waist was four times that figure and her weight was an average of 9st 10lb (62kg) as opposed to 10st 3.5lb (65kg).

Whereas size 12 was once the average, today's female is edging towards a size 16 and the classic hourglass shape is on the decline. "We were shocked by the results," said Philip Treleaven, director of the UK National Sizing Survey. "We expected an increase, but the waistline has just exploded."

Jeni Bougourd, senior researcher at the London College of Fashion (LCF) who worked on the data, felt fashion as well as food might account for the dramatic difference. "The 1950s survey was taken immediately after the Second World War and rationing obviously had an influence. But their undergarments also make a difference. The fashion was for corsets which nipped in the waist," she explained.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that over the past 50 years we have developed a much wider girth. The average man is now 177cm, with a chest of 107, waist of 94, hips of 102 and weight of 79kg. Peter Grant-Ross, a researcher with LCF, said the increase in waist sizes had proved the greatest surprise, adding: "We discovered there are two types of men. In one group the belly tends to sag forward, possibly due to beer consumption, and the other group has a flat, trim stomach.

"Women also had two groups but with them it was divided between those where the bottom tends to sag backwards and those who have a trim shape."

Dr Ian Campbell, president of the National Obesity Forum, insisted the cause could be summed up in one word - affluence. "It is not that people are greedy or lazy. It is just the whole change in our lives. Calories have become very cheap and exercise has become expensive. We have developed a culture that encourages eating. But we are working long and irregular hours and eating processed foods. Exercise is expensive because we are short of time so it is convenient to drive or use public transport rather than walk."

Other factors have played a part. As Elizabeth Fox, of the British Clothing Industry Association, pointed out: "In the past 30 years bra sizes have changed because of the contraceptive pill which has led to larger cup sizes." Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition at King's College, London, agreed: "The shape is not just determined by food intake but by hormonal factors."

The survey showed that men in their early twenties and women in their late twenties to early thirties were the tallest while females are heaviest aged 45 to 54. Men are at their fattest in the following decade.

Professor Sanders put an increase in height, particularly dramatic in young girls in the past few years, down to better nutrition and fewer childhood illness, such as measles and whooping cough during the vital formative toddler years.

Weight he put down to a lack of exercise, adding: "The major factor is computers and television. The best predictor of whether someone is overweight is how many hours they spend in front of the television or computer. In Holland and Denmark obesity levels are low because they walk much more."

Ironically, he said, many people actually eat less than they did 30 years ago when a stodgy diet was encouraged but today's "munch culture" had led to people constantly snacking.

Professor Sanders predicted that Britons would follow the US example and continue to get taller. "It looks like we are set to get very fat but we may follow America, where the more affluent groups have reversed the trend while the poor get fatter. The gap between the thin and the fat will get wider and you will be branded by your waistline."

There is some, if small, consolation for the British women. A similar survey of American females demonstrated that while the average woman was 1.2in (3cm) shorter, she was likely to be 13lb (6kg) heavier and just under an inch (2cm) wider.

In the UK, 60,000 people volunteered for the survey conducted in 2001 and 2002. The bodyscanners used a series of white light stripes projected onto the subject from all angles. It sculpted a form which could be analysed on a computer.

SizeUK's chief aim was to offer fashion retailers a greater understanding of the body they are trying to cloth. James Wishaw, creative director at Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailors, said: "High fashion has become more mainstream which is clear from the number of different sizes that are available in different high street stores. But despite the fact that women are getting bigger, the models are getting smaller and smaller. The industry doesn't reflect normal women."

The researchers also hope their data will benefit other industries such as car and furniture manufacturers. Even crash-test dummies may have to be altered. But, more importantly, they believe their work may assist the medical profession in understanding the extent of the obesity problem. Experts have that this is causing increased instances of diabetes and heart trouble.

Andrew Crawford, of company Bodymetrics which supplies the new data, said: "With the amount of recent publicity, in particular on obesity, the interest in body mass index (a measurement based on weight and height) is huge. I believe this data will be of huge value to the health and medical sector."



The classic nipped-in waist of the 1950s, accentuated with long-line bras and girdles, was in direct contrast to the austerity of the wartime Britain. But in the 1960s, fashion evolved again, disguising any waistline change with A-line dresses and free-flowing kaftans. As women embraced a more natural look, fabrics such as Lycra heralded a new alliance: fashion and comfort.


The furniture industry has made surprisingly few concessions to our changing body shape but the bed industry is an exception. Although the standard double bed has remained the same size, the popularity of king and super king-sized beds has risen. In 1993, 20 per cent of people bought new beds that were 5ft or more wide. In 2003, sales of king and super-king-sized beds represented about 30 per cent of sales.


British Airways offers 78cm leg room, a 17cm increase on 1950, when the measurement was 61cm. Extended seat belts are on offer to those with a broader girth - but passengers who are worried about whether they will fit into a single seat are simply offered the chance to buy two. The average seat size on a British train is 50cm compared with 48cm in 1950.


The All England Tennis Club is increasing the size of centre court seats at Wimbledon to 46cms wide from 2006 after concluding that the seats installed in 1922 are now smaller than those in BA economy class. (Courts 1 and 2 seats are staying the same size: 40-42cms.) Cinema seat sizes, far more spacious since the advent of multiplexes, have not increased. "They're big enough already," says the Odeon group.


The average car seat in 2004 is 50cm wide; in 1950 it was 46cm. Seats are getting bigger in the US but the UK and Europe are lagging behind, according the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. A study last year found those weighing 100-119kg are twice as likely to die in a crash than those weighing 60kg or less. Measures to help could include redesigning seat belts to suit different weights and body shapes.

The health service

Body shape is directly related to an individual's risk of heart disease. Central adiposity - fat around the middle of the body - brings a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease. Women classically gain "pear-shaped" weight, around the buttocks and hips and have a lesser chance of heart disease. Many hospitals now provide facilities for large patients, including stronger wheelchairs and mortuaries with bigger fridges.