One might think there is nothing more to unearth about Marilyn Monroe, so scrupulously has her brief life been examined. Yet as these pictures published on the 50th anniversary of her death reveal, the actress boasted a beguilingly relaxed attitude to her body.
Particularly when compared to the unhealthy and relentlessly negative body attitudes prevalent among female celebrities today. The images come from a book she published regarding her health and fitness regime — the first Hollywood workout guide, if you will.
An accompanying article in a 1952 issue of Pageant magazine, entitled How I Stay In Shape, shows us a confident 26-year-old woman who wears her physicality with ease.
Today’s starlets starve themselves to conform to Tinsel Town’s skeletal ideal — these are women, after all, who aspire not to be legends, but size zero or double zero.
At 5ft 5½ in, Marilyn veered from 8½ st to just under 10 st.
Today’s stars seek to remain child-sized (Victoria Beckham can famously slip into jeans designed to fit a seven-year-old, with a 23in waist).
In these pictures, Monroe glows with radiant health like a goddess, while modern pin-ups, with sharp hipbones and corrugated ribs, seem sapped of all vitality.
But, then, Marilyn was also a product of the post-war era in which she grew up. Mercifully few Westerners go hungry through poverty now, yet more of us starve ourselves to conform to some perverse bodily ideal.
Norma Jeane Baker, as she was then, grew up so impoverished that there was rarely enough food on the table, and her robust approach to eating reflected a desire never to be hungry again.
‘Frankly, I’ve never considered my figure so exceptional. My biggest single concern used to be getting enough to eat,’ she remarks in the book.
The words appear next to a photograph that shows her propped up in bed, fixing breakfast while naked between the sheets, presumably adorned in nothing more than a spritz of Chanel No 5.
Today’s warped female role models associate hunger with power rather than poverty. Kate Moss notoriously announced that her motto is ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’. And even purportedly healthy celebrities such as Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow torture themselves with maple syrup diets and punishing juice fasts.
Figures from a recent study suggest that 65 per cent of women suffer from disordered eating behaviours, with a further ten per cent reporting symptoms. A lamentable proportion of 21st-century women are prepared to sacrifice their physical and mental health in the quest to be boyishly emaciated.
The hot fudge sauce and raw carrot regime
Endearingly, Marilyn’s chief word of approval for the fare with which she starts her day is ‘nourishing’ rather than ‘slimming’. She says: ‘Before I take my morning shower, I start warming a cup of milk on the hot plate I keep in my hotel room.
When it’s hot, I break two raw eggs into the milk, whip them up with a fork, and drink them while I’m dressing. I supplement this with a multi-vitamin pill, and I doubt if any doctor could prescribe a more nourishing breakfast for a working girl in a hurry.’
The idiosyncratic approach continues: ‘My dinners at home are startlingly simple. Every night I stop at the market and pick up a steak, lamb chops or some liver, which I broil in the oven. I usually eat four or five raw carrots with my meat, and that is all. I must be part rabbit; I never get bored with raw carrots.’
Lest we imagine Marilyn’s life is only about protein and vegetables, she makes the girlish admission: ‘It’s a good thing, I suppose, that I eat simply during the day for, in recent months, I have developed the habit of stopping off at Wil Wright’s ice-cream parlour for a hot fudge sundae on my way back from my evening drama classes.’
And here the starlet is, ice-cream spoon heading toward lipsticked mouth, grinning over her chosen indulgence. Where so many of today’s A-listers now consume joyless, low-calorie frozen yoghurt, so Marilyn oozes hot fudge sensuality.
‘I am sure she would be completely horrified to see what the stars of today put their bodies through,’ says registered dietician Hala El‑Shafie, who runs body image workshops with Nutrition Rocks.
‘She ate healthy, unprocessed food and her choices were based on common sense. She didn’t miss meals, and was sure to eat a balanced amount of protein which helps exercise natural portion control. Then, after a sensible day, she treated herself.
‘This is what dieticians today call the 80/20 rule: eating healthily 80 per cent of the time so you can have the odd indulgence.’
The 10-minute workout to boost your bust
As for exercise, Monroe maintained her sumptuous physique with a characteristically insouciant regime. Today’s celluloid wannabes spend hours aggressively pounding the treadmill and pumping iron. Fiftysomething Madonna’s coach Nicole Winhoffer has her strenuously working out twice a day, six times a week.
In contrast, Monroe grimaces: ‘I couldn’t stand exercise if I had to feel regimented about it.’
Instead, she merely slipped out of bed, brushed her teeth and engaged in a supine bust-firming routine with two 5lb weights, clad in jaunty high-waisted shorts and a bikini top.
‘I spend at least ten minutes each morning working out with small weights. I have evolved my own exercises for the muscles I wish to keep firm, and I know they are right for me because I can feel them putting the proper muscles into play as I exercise.’
She stopped not at some masochistic height of achievement, but simply when she felt tired.
‘Marilyn’s attitude was spot on because she listened to her body,’ says fitness guru Dalton Wong, director of TwentyTwoTraining.
‘Marilyn enjoyed life — she loved ice-cream, she partied — but exercising for just ten minutes a day was enough to keep her on track.'
In fact, the latest research on high‑intensity training, published in leading medical journal The Lancet, confirms that every adult should do ten minutes of exercise a day for their health.
Doing a weights circuit is the perfect exercise as it increases your resting metabolic rate — helping you burn calories, and increases lean muscle mass — making you look toned. Doing hours of cardio like Madonna would have eaten away Marilyn’s famous curves.
The ‘love the skin you’re in’ attitude
Marilyn’s easy contentment with her body is even more alluring when juxtaposed with 21st-century self-hatred. In a recent survey, 90 per cent of women said their bodies made them unhappy, with more than two-thirds declaring that they would resort to the surgeon’s knife. We are, it appears, in the grip of a self-despising epidemic.
As psychoanalyst Professor Susie Orbach has told me, for today’s woman ‘normal is messed up’.
Ironically, the myths about Monroe’s blithely normal body are legion, frequently being used to bolster women’s misguided notions about physical perfection today.
Elizabeth Hurley — a woman who has boasted about living off six cups of watercress soup a day, bolstered by snacks of six raisins — commented: ‘I’ve always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat . . . I’ve seen her clothes and I wanted to take a tape measure and measure what her hips were. She was very big.’
I, too, have seen Monroe’s clothes and, let me assure you, the woman was petite. The now fading costumes from her films were unexpectedly minuscule (mostly UK size eight).
It is only when one consults the images in which they are worn that things look different: some alchemy of femininity rendering her body all trembling, blancmange flesh.
The curve-creating tricks of the trade
And herein lay the secret to Marilyn’s look: the actress was crammed into these creations. Hems were weighted to achieve the requisite cling, biases cut so tight that she could not sport underwear, a reputation that only added to her allure.
To be sure, her weight fluctuated. Monroe’s dressmaker recorded that it varied between 118lb and 140lb (about 8½ st to 10st), her bust from 35 to 37 in, her waist 22 to 23 in, hips 35 to 36 in and bra size a by no means gargantuan 36D.
The upshot: an undulating 36-22-36-ish figure, that differed from the Fifities average of a 36/24/35 size 12 body of 9st 12lb only by merit of her tiny-waisted hourglass outline.
It is only in the context of contemporary Hollywood self-starvation that these proportions appear so excessive to the likes of Ms Hurley.
Rather than being terrified of adult womanliness, Monroe revelled in it. Today’s starlets — not to mention the rest of us — could benefit from Monroe’s relaxed and rational approach to her body.
While the population at large grows ever fatter (the average British dress size has shot from a 12 to a 16 since Monroe’s day), so its icons shrink ever smaller. When I look at Monroe prancing barefoot, all buxom bosom and creamy thigh, I think of how lovely Victoria Beckham and the frequently skeletal Angelina Jolie would look without their jutting clavicles and stick-like limbs.
It is a shameful indictment of our culture that the contentedly curvaceous 20th-century woman has been usurped by so many self‑starving, 21st-century celebrity skeletons.