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What Is an Hourglass Figure?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An hourglass figure is a very specific physical form exhibited by some women. Women with this type of figure have wide hips and busts that contrast starkly with a very narrow waist, creating a silhouette that resembles an old-fashioned hourglass. This figure is often considered to be an epitome of female beauty, with some scientific studies suggesting that the form has a distinct evolutionary advantage in addition to a social one. Certainly narrow waists have been prized for centuries, as can be seen in many works of art.

In a woman with a true hourglass figure, the measurements of her hips and bust are essentially the same, and the waist measurement is equal to less than 75% of either the hip or bust measurement. The result is a very curvy figure that emphasizes broad hips and large breasts, two traits that have been prized historically in many cultures. In cultures where the figure is considered a beauty ideal, the narrow waist is considered a sign of femininity.

During the 1800s, some women went to extraordinary means to achieve the desired figure, using corsets and other garments to actually change their body shapes. Depending on how a corset is worn, it can take the role of a foundation garment, or it can more actively reshape the body of the wearer. When combined with bustles and breast-enhancing bras, a corset can create the desired hourglass look, sometimes with considerable discomfort on the part of the wearer.

The hourglass figure was known as a “wasp waist” during the Victorian era, and all fashionable women strived to achieve the desired look. Studies on long-term corset use have shown that some women in this era probably suffered from a variety of serious health problems as a result of the displacement of various organs caused by pressure from the corset. Extensive wearing of corsets can also cause deformed ribs, as the corset pulls the lower ribs out of alignment.

Many classic movie stars, such as Sophia Lauren, have fine examples of this figure. The measurements of such movie stars are often highly publicized, and changes in these measurements have historically been a topic of widespread discussion, especially in the tabloids. Other women with well-known hourglass figures include Marilyn Monroe, Scarlet Johansson and Rita Hayworth.

Evolutionary Advantage of the Hourglass Figure

Every male and female has body shapes they find more appealing than others. Some prefer curves, while others might like narrow hips or a slight build. However, the hourglass shape has cultural appeal dating back to ancient times. Surprisingly, evidence shows that the hourglass shape is not only held in high regard by society but also has evolutionary advantages.

Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists have studied the appeal of the hourglass shape for decades. Most studies have found that the hourglass shape translates into an indication of fertility. On the surface, that might seem odd. But evolutionary psychology focuses on the knee-jerk reactions of the brain and how those reactions got us where we are today. 

So, why does an hourglass shape indicate fertility? It’s pretty simple. When it comes to evolution, reproduction is everything. Evolutionary studies show that larger hips indicate a better ability to bear children, while large breasts signify the ability to nourish a child.

Biology tells us neither of these things is true, of course. Women with narrow hips and a small chest are just as equipped to birth and feed children as their curvier counterparts. Nonetheless, the evolutionary studies still ring true.

Evolutionary psychologist, Robert P. Burriss Ph.D., suggests this may be in part because women with the sought-after hourglass figure are most often past puberty but still young enough to take advantage of their reproductive years. Men pair up with these women because they are attracted to their figure and subconsciously motivated by the desire to have a lifelong relationship.

Hourglass Corset Related Health Problems

If you’ve ever worn a corset, you likely know how uncomfortable it can be. Poorly-made corsets, in particular, can cause significant pain and discomfort around your ribs, stomach, and hips. Discomfort isn’t the only negative side-effect of wearing a corset, though. 

Compressed Ribs

A changing rib cage is one of the most apparent signs of overly tightened corsets. Tight corsets are known to constrict the ribcage so severely that it can distort its shape. The floating ribs at the bottom can and will bend in so far that they’d nearly touch. In other words, when a corset forces a woman’s body into an hourglass shape, it does so by bending her bones. 

Breathing Problems

A side effect of rib compression is difficulty breathing. As the ribs constricted into an hourglass shape, they put more pressure on the lungs. When a woman’s lungs can’t expand fully, she quickly finds herself out of breath. A corset worn consistently could cause permanent lung damage to the wearer.

Organ Displacement

The organs inside a human body are meant to shift as a body changes, such as with pregnancy. However, corsets cause organs to shift in dangerous ways when forcing your body into a curvier shape. As organs move beneath a corset, they are compressed inside a narrower rib cage. As a result, the kidneys, stomach, and digestive tract all press against each other, inhibiting digestion and other bodily processes.

Muscular Atrophy

Over time, a corset can have detrimental effects on your core and back muscles. The muscles will weaken and, in some cases, atrophy. In addition, wearing a corset daily can cause you to fatigue quickly due to the amount of work your body has to do to simply breathe. 

How To Get an Hourglass Shape 

As you can see, using a corset daily to achieve an hourglass figure might not be the best option. Wearing one now and then won’t cause harm, but consistent use can lead to severe health issues. 

Fortunately, there are ways to achieve an hourglass shape without using boning or laces.


A strict exercise regimen is the most effective way to achieve that hourglass shape. Routines that focus on your glutes, hips, and thighs will add inches to your lower half. Likewise, specific upper body workouts can expand your chest and shoulders. Also, if you tend to carry weight on your stomach, focus on exercises to help burn fat off. 


Since the goal of an hourglass is a slim waist, avoiding weight in your midsection is crucial. Change your diet to eliminate processed foods, sodas, and sugars. Opt for healthy fats and limit your portion sizes. Don’t starve yourself, of course. But make sure the portions you choose will satisfy your appetite without overdoing it. 

Dress the Part 

Diet and exercise are the healthiest way to gain that coveted hourglass figure. However, toning your body and losing weight in a healthy way takes time. So, in the meantime, you can dress your shape to offer the illusion of an hourglass figure. For example, a wide belt, cinching at the waist, and form-fitting dresses can all give the illusion of curves.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1000848 — On Jan 11, 2019

The woman in the picture provided has hips that are much larger than her bust - this would make her a pear shape, not an hourglass. If you look at a classic hourglass (i.e. the instrument that measures time), the top and bottom globes are the same size. So for an hourglass shape, the waist measurement would be at least 75% (or less) of both the bust and hip measurements, because they should be the same (or very close). For example, the classic hourglass shape in the modeling world used to be 34-24-34, so both the bust and hip measurements are 34, and the waist measurement is actually 70% of both the hip/bust measurement. Just FYI.

By anon336440 — On May 28, 2013

I'm kind of young, but I have a hourglass figure and a lot of girls get jealous. But I think it's nice to have such a good body shape. Embrace it!

By anon113519 — On Sep 24, 2010

I used to hate my figure for the longest time because I didn't look like my friends or class mates. they were almost exclusively pear or ruler shaped. now that I have gotten older I realized that there was nothing wrong with my belly; it was my body shape. big relief. nobody taught me about body shape and I thought I was a freak! --Bonnie

By leilani — On Jun 02, 2010

I think in the past more importance was given to the hourglass shape of women than it is today. But whether it is currently popular or not, women with hourglass figures are stunning.

Very pleasing to the eye.

By going2 — On Mar 23, 2008

The exercises here will also help shape and tone your figure into an hourglass shape:

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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