This incredible short film explores how the ‘ideal body’ has changed over time

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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From fertility goddesses to Nineties supermodels, Anna Ginsburg’s short film is a must-see.

Anna Ginsburg’s What Is Beauty is a labour of love. Clocking in at nearly three minutes, the animated short film – commissioned by CNN for International’s Women Day – is entirely hand-drawn, with 12.5 drawings making up each second. 

Each frame shows dusky blue bodies in constant motion, capturing over 30,000 years of changing beauty standards. Mayan fertility goddesses morph into reclining Renaissance women with thick thighs and dimpled stomachs; the recognisable hourglass silhouette of Marilyn Monroe mutates into to the familiar big-boobs-and-bum look that’s currently in vogue. The pressure to look a certain way never ends, Ginsburg’s mutating figures silently say: it only changes shape. 

It’s that perpetually raised bar that inspired the 28-year-old animation director to make the visuals in the first place.

“My little sister has really extreme anorexia,” Ginsburg tells “It made me think about her perception of the ultimate beautiful woman when she was 12, which is when she started suffering. Yet my other sister is now looking at what [body image] she wants and her ideals are totally different, only [eight] years later. She wants a big bum and boobs and a non-existent waist, whereas her older sister wanted to be skeletal. 

“It gave me a newfound love and appreciation for my relationship with my own body but it also made me feel incredibly protective, especially over young women. I wanted to communicate something about how quickly this ideal [of female beauty] is changing and how trying to keep up can have devastating consequences.”

Watch: What Is Beauty by Anna Ginsburg 

She’s succeeded. The short is beautiful but it also hits like a quiet punch to the stomach. It’s one thing to be vaguely be aware how fickle and fleeting our appreciation of different types of women is; it’s another to see the evidence laid swirling in front of you.

Ginsburg is keen to emphasise she’s not trying to point the finger at any of the bodies referenced in the video (among others, there are clear references to notables like Grace Jones, Kim Kardashian and Twiggy). The women are not to blame; it’s the society that puts them on a pedestal that’s at fault.

“I was very aware that throughout history, the ideals changed but within those changes, the ideal is still unattainable,” she explains. “I remember an image of a Renaissance woman from when I was young. The boobs were perfectly pert circles that were really far apart and even though looking back we celebrate the curves [in those images], the pear shape looked physically impossible. It really stuck with me.”

When asked if she picked up on any patterns in the evolution of beauty during her arduous creation process, Ginsburg pauses.

“I think the main thing I could draw from [the project] is the power of imagery,” she says slowly. “What you consume every day is what you are told to believe is beautiful. In Ancient Greece, the male image was the pinnacle of beauty – sculptures were men and male athletes were put on a pedestal. So if you were a women with small breasts and large hips and shoulders, that was the body type ideal. Women were binding their boobs and trying to make themselves have V-shaped bodies.”

“There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s beautiful”: What is Beauty creator Anna Ginsburg

Beauty, Ginsburg believes, doesn’t really exist. “It’s a set of [selected images]. It’s not that one thing is beautiful and another isn’t –  there’s not much rhyme or reason to [what’s considered beautiful]. It just seems to be influenced by the loudest voice in the culture at the time. As human beings, we like to copy. It’s about being aware that the images we’re consuming are not reality.”

“Maybe there could be a self-imposed diet of images where you feed yourself diversity to keep yourself healthy or realistic,” she wonders. “You can find imagery all over the internet of people with different body types looking beautiful – they’re just not necessarily the people with 100 million followers.”

As for the film itself, Ginsburg says the weight of the subject matter makes it unlike her previous work, which includes shorts like Private Parts – a talking heads documentary made for Channel 4 and fronted by animated genitals. 

“I do tend to make joyful, funny things,” she observes. “This is a lot more serious, it feels more like a piece of art, so it’s quite new. It was a really emotional process because I feel so protective of young women at the moment. It’s basically for my sister who’s ill – it’s her birthday today. I’m going to call her and show her.”

Ultimately, she says, What Is Beauty is “a love letter to female bodies”.

“The main thing I want is to provide context to the bigger picture of objectification. I’m not saying ‘love yourself’ because society makes that almost impossible as a woman. I’m [saying] remember how fast the definition of beauty evolves. At one point your body was the pièce de résistance.”

Images: Anna Ginsburg