Following up on Josh’s last post, I’m going to look at how the representation of fatness has been handled in Western visual culture for the last few hundred years. Fittingly, I’m writing this whilst convalescing in bed from a knee injury, during which every morsel of caloric food is surely depositing itself to my gluts or artery walls from a lack of movement.
Now there was a time, back in European history not-so-long-ago, when grandiosity was the key to high society: frivolity, excess, not a single trimming spared. If you’ve been watching the ABC recently it’s what “art historian” Waldemar Januszczak will have been annoyingly reminding you of: this was the age of the Baroque. From excessive augmentation in music, luxurious interior designs, to bold and captivating art slowly wresting itself from the Church yet still highly dependent on courtly patronage, the Baroque in own gargantuan reach across 16th-18th century Europe was an artistic “obesity” of sorts. Of course, the taste for the expansive started to impact on representations of the human body, and nowhere more evidently clear than in the work of Peter Paul van Rubens.
Remember: this was the time before the flowing streamlined elegance of art nouveau, before tapeworm diets were in, before flappers, and before the Ramos sisters and Ana Carolina Reston all died from anorexia in the name of fashion in 2006.
A bit of extra flab on the hips, large, full breasts and a round visage were all signs of prosperity, wealth, good fortune and health (I’m guessing it’s because the rich could afford to eat more..). It was still a few hundred years away before Darwin’s theory of natural selection – think “the survival of the fittest”, “fight or flight” – so exercise wasn’t really on the priority list of the everyday courtly lady. No royal gynasiums. In fact, the less one moved and the more one depended on the movement of others was (and still is) a sign of power and rank.
Rubenesque women appear to me to have a certain ease about them, a grace and self-possession that elevates them beyond earthly limitations and standards of beauty. Partly it’s because Rubens’ robust women are by and large mythical, from Venuses, to Graces, nymphs to the daughters of Leucippus being raped. (Note that this was in the time when “rape” also meant “abduction” so it sort of explains why no one’s looking too concerned in the following painting…)
Yet even in his treatment of more realistic subject matter, say of his second wife Hélène Fourment, Rubens retains a certain distance that preserves a sense of untouchable mystery, divinity, luxury and bold sexuality.
I’d be kidding myself if I believed that standards don’t change over time, and that the majority now believe that fat is no longer fashionable. It’s not just the extremes of haute couture which set the aesthetic standard (size 0) for society as a whole; the men and women of 2010 participate in and motivate the cult of the perfected, svelt body. Just like World Youth Day in Sydney, 2008,
subscribers to this Church of the Fit come decked out with Fitness First backpacks and Zumba bodies to boot. Under this new hegemony, individuals of the more generous proportions tend to become lumped at the fringes, the targets of national fitness campaigns, current affair show exposés and, in some cases as in Japan, the targets of new fat taxes. Space is a definitely a rarity in the land of the rising sun.
Hiding behind the art historical pretense that “Rubens loved fat women” (even though fat fetishes are real) in no way justifies the low-brow and kitsch attempts to make obesity normative. My guess is many of the magazines and ads that cater to a plus-sized category do so by feeding off the insecurities of men and women who fail to fit into the clothes the fashion world sets as the limit of acceptable size. Flying the banner of “Big is Beautiful”, the efforts behind the democratization of the standards of beauty seem quite half-arsed
and only serve to reinforce the dominant stereotypes of acceptable body images as they awkwardly parody the fetishized objects of mainstream media and visual culture. Even Whitney Thompson, lauded as America’s Next Top Model‘s first plus-sized winner, appears somewhat to “fall below the benchmark”. Honey, you’ve won, you’re beautiful, but try losing 5 before the next shoot, OK? Slight variations from standards of taste tend to reveal those very standards which have, over time, become so internalized that they seem natural. Thompson didn’t so much set a new standard of beauty as much as proving there is a line, and that she wasn’t inside it. Larger-sized women continue to be superficially accepted yet tacitly pushed to the edges.
Perhaps there are some pragmatic considerations behind the taste for skinny women on magazine covers. I mean, seriously, with all the demands of contemporary magazine covers and spreads, how are fashion houses supposed to sell all their wares if the models are competing for valuable print space?
…but then you look at the minimalism of an A4 magazine cover and realise that theory’s just shit.
The full-bodied, carnal and sexualized bodies of Western art – from the “Venus” of Willendorf, to Titian, Matisse, Man Ray, Henry Moore, to Fernando Botero – given way to mass media culture’s gross and perverted appetite for sensation, inclusion and commodification. Even though their figures weren’t normatively “beautiful” for their time, there’s still an evident celebration of the formal grandeur of bodies larger than life, a certain fluidity that’s pleasing to the eye in their curving sweeps of line and colour.
Maybe it’s in process of commodifying this aesthetic that high-brow beauty was killed by her kitsch, lo-fi sister? Or perhaps its natural selection played out on the level of high-falutin media gambits?
I should add that even though most of what I’ve referred to concerns the representation of the female body, the male body hasn’t come through unscathed. From classical Greek perfection, to hirsute, brawny and muscular men, the first decade of the third millenium has spawned the rise of the “heroin-chic” man.
Whilst some guys continue to beef up in the gym, it’s those smaller and weedier few with high metabolisms (or just coke??) that are now at the centre of the fashion world’s gravitational pull. On the plus side, this has led to a realization by media outlets that conditions such as anorexia just might not be so gendered after all…