The History of the Playboy Centerfold

|

The New Yorker's Joan Acocella leafs through the new book The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds and says thanks for the mammaries:

Six hundred and thirteen women are represented, but there is one basic model. On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield. Playboy was launched in 1953, and this female image managed to draw, simultaneously, on two opposing trends that have since come to dominate American mass culture: on the one hand, our country's idea of its Huck Finn innocence; on the other, the enthusiastic lewdness of our advertising and entertainment.

Read the whole thing to find out why Playboy is like that other great, decade-defining '50s mag, Mad, only more successful. Online here.

NEXT: Cherchez Le "State-Sponsored Piracy"!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Playboy is lewd and disgusting, and has been the primary reason for the moral decay in America! Wait….let me look at it again and get back you.

  2. I was just saying the other day that my recent perusals of Playboy had unearthed two disturbing trends in the field of breast enhancement.
    1: Breasts that are too far apart. So far, in fact, that I could lay my forearm between them without touching either.
    2: Breasts too close together. Naked women should not be shaped like they are wearing push-up bras. A little breastbone in the middle is nice, instead of a severe fleshy angle between one breast and another.
    The person/people responsible for making these bad breast aestetics popular need to be found and detained. I open the floor to discussion on fitting ironic punishments.
    I much preferred the 1970s artistic eye of Bob Giuccione, who knew that women should be completely out of focus and draped over furniture.

  3. I know it’s a cruel thing to say, but Joan Acocella writes like a New Yorker writer. Playmates are no more, and no less, untypical than ballerinas, who basically get paid to look like they’re twelve years old. Why waste all that Manhattan wit on something as unsubtle as a Big Mac?

  4. From the publisher’s website:

    “…this chronological look at the history of Playboy centerfolds includes photos of the Playmates as well as updated personal information about their lives to this day…”

    This will be a goldmine for sociology students and economists. “There is a weak correlation between being a Playboy Playmate and employment possibilities in middle-age…”

  5. What’s the correlation between being a Playmate and “marrying well”?

  6. Playboy had better looking woman in the 50s and 60s. The ones today have too much silicone and are too skinny. They really did have naturally beautiful woman back then. The ones now, while not unattractive, have too much of that manufactured in the L.A. plastic surgury shop look about them.

  7. Sulla,

    Interesting concept that marrying well thing. I live in a very well off neighborhood full of families in their 30s and 40s and doing well. The men are a motely collection, some are nice looking others are short, fat, bald, funny looking; basically a pretty even cross section of people. The women in these couples by contrast are invariably attractive, never overweight, never with bad skin, always with nice figures. There are two constants about these upper middle class couples, they have lots of money and the wife is nearly always attractive. Hmm, I wonder why that is? Could it be that women marry for money and men marry for looks?

  8. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities that the mix of innocence and voluptuousness as a desirable combination of traits in women for men is to some degree specific to modern America as implied by this Joan Acocella, but I can’t help but suspect that when magazine authors, especially female ones, make this claim, they’re just regurgitating trendy pop sociology mixed with their own tut-tutting displeasure with the phenomenon rather than utilizing any genuinely scholarly knowledge of how women are viewed in this culture compared to others across time and geography.

    I should also add that while perusing an earlier overview of playmates, I noticed that smaller breasts were a bit more in vogue during the sixties. I’m guessing Acocella glossed over this inconvenience in order to better draw the conclusion she wanted to draw.

  9. I’ve always thought it was telling that while fashion models have become increasingly skinny over the last 25 years (from about 22 BMI to 17 or less), Playboy’s centerfolds have stayed relatively close to the 22, and their hip-waist ratio has as well.

    Except when I just went to find a source, I came up with a study refuting it!

    “The typical body mass index of Playboy centrefolds has further descended below corresponding population levels, whereas their typical waist:hip ratio now approaches population levels. In sum, centrefold models’ shapely body characteristics have given way to more androgynous ones. These temporal trends are at odds with claims that centrefolds’ body shapes are still more “hourglasses” than “stick insects” and that the maximally sexually attractive female waist:hip ratio is stable.”

    http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/325/7378/1447

  10. I can’t believe the article doesn’t credit Russ Meyer. Not only did he take many of the early centerfold photographs, he pretty much invented their casual-intimacy aesthetic.

    Also, when it comes to the Playboy/Mad connection, I always found the Kurtzman and Elder Annie Fanny strips to far more erotic than any of the photos in the magazine.

  11. Dude, I can’t believe you said thanks for the mammaries

    Chuckling still. But not as much as I did reading Alan’s comments about ballerinas getting paid to look twelve

    The thing I remember most about Playboy in the old days was that there were two stacks of them in the front of Thrifti-Mart right next to the big bags of dog food and charcoal briquets. If you were careful and the store was busy you could sneak a quick look inside before you left the bag of stuff your ma sent you to haul home for supper on the bicycle rack that never worked quite right.

  12. I remember that when I turned 18, one of the first things I did was get a Playboy subscription. I have only seen a few recent issues, but the Playmates are definitely more plastic-looking now than they were even in the mid-80s. I guess more ‘professional’ somehow in what they are doing. Which is definitely less interesting than the fiction that they are the Girl Next Door.

    And yes, I did actually RTFAs in my long-ago Playboy subscription! 🙂

  13. I can’t believe the article doesn’t credit Russ Meyer. Not only did he take many of the early centerfold photographs, he pretty much invented their casual-intimacy aesthetic.

    Here here!

    For anyone interested I would heartily recommend Jimmy McDonough’s recent Russ Meyer biography, “Big Bosums and Square Jaws”. Particularly englightening about the details of his last years and the takeover of RM Enterprises by a conniving administrative assistant. Sad.

  14. I was just reading this article this morning (and thinking “Hey, this photo spread is the best thing the New Yorker’s published in a while!”) I get the plastic-surgery thing, but I was surprised they didn’t mention the airbrushing-the-bejeezus-out-of-everything trend. Probably because that’s harder to put a neat sociological spin on. As for “the face of Shirley Temple, the body of Jayne Mansfield” – uh, yeah, that would be called “being young and attractive”, i.e. “fertile”. I don’t think Playboy invented that.

  15. I met a guy in the bar who said that he was a photographer from Playboy! He said that he could get me a pictorial in next months issue if I let him take a few sample shots!

  16. That isn’t me!

  17. fyodor:
    …I can’t help but suspect that…they’re just regurgitating trendy pop sociology mixed with their own tut-tutting displeasure with the phenomenon rather than utilizing any genuinely scholarly knowledge of how women are viewed in this culture compared to others across time and geography.

    I see humanistic value in the effort to fuse innocence with “enthusiastic lewdness.” In his revolutionary 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker debunks the widespread notion of twentieth-century social science that sexual attitudes are purely the result of social conditioning. For complex evolutionary reasons, humans are generally inclined to regard sex with much ambivalence and anxiety: “In all societies, sex is at least somewhat ‘dirty.’ It is conducted in private, pondered obsessively, regulated by custom and taboo, the subject of gossip and teasing, and a trigger for jealous rage.” (p. 253) If some degree of prudery is an eternal, tragicomic element of the human condition, then Playboy deserves our gratitude as an institution that continually reminds us of the counterintuitive principle that, under appropriate circumstances, sex is beautiful and good. Let’s not kid ourselves; we need to be told this over and over again.

    Also, don’t blame silicone for aesthetic decline in Playboy pictures. The real culprit is saline — and the junk science, government do-gooderism, and frivolous lawsuits that enabled it to corner the market.

    Shameless plug: I’ve copied and pasted much of this comment from a post of my blog, Reflections on Playboy.

  18. The ones now, while not unattractive, have too much of that manufactured in the L.A. plastic surgury shop look about them.

    It’s what the market will bare.

  19. I stumbled across the very cool Taschen bookstore in the St. Germain neighborhood of paris last fall. Shame this book wasn’t out yet, though my new wife might not have appreciated my bringing that particular souvenir back from our honeymoon.

  20. Yeah baby, yeah! (read in an Austin Powers voice)

    linguist:

    Except when I just went to find a source, I came up with a study refuting it!

    Intellectual honesty rules!

    I find thinness in girls attractive. And I have an hypothesis that guys who like thin girls tend to have developed an attraction to females earlier than guys who don’t. This is cuz younger girls tend to be thinner and the attraction to them kinda gets imprinted in us that way.

  21. I almost agree with your theory, Rick. I differ with you in that I believe that most men grow up eventually and desire women with hips. That’s what happened to me in my mid-20s and many other men I’ve known.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.