Conventional beauty standards
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
This entry is triggered by my friend Anepanalipti's recent blog about 'conventional beauty standards' and not wanting to fit the cookie cutter.
My first degree was in Art History and I have a very good idea of how these 'beauty standards' have changed over the years. Look at the steatopygeous Willendorf Venus, the rounded tummy of the Aphrodite of Melos, the dimpled (some would say cellulite-riddled) thighs of a Rubens model. The first really thin idealised women in art I can think of were the Pre-Raphaelites at the end of the 19th Century, and the ideal of thin=beautiful (or desirable) only seriously took off in the 20th Century with the likes of Coco Chanel and the Duchess of Windsor (she of 'can never be too rich or too thin' infamy). In art one could point to (some) Modigliani, Giacometti and Dali, but their attenuation of the human figure was a sign of abstraction rather than a representation of their ideal, in my view.
Before that, excessive thinness was seen as a sign of poverty, weakness, ill health: a reserve of fat for times of famine was essential for the survival of the species in days when human food supply was at the mercy of the vagaries of the luck of the hunt or the rainfall. Some cultures still prize fatness, q.v. the 'fattening huts' for brides in Uganda or royalty in Tonga. Since women are the sole source of food (milk) for their babies until they can handle solid food, our bodies are made to store fat to ensure lactation will continue even in lean times. In days before caesareans became routine 'good child-bearing hips' were a criterion when selecting a bride.
Fashions come and go. For most of human history paleness was prized as a sign of aristocracy and wealth: on Greek vases and Minoan frescoes the men, who worked outdoors, are depicted as red, while the women, who stayed indoors, are white. The idea of lying for hours sizzling under the sun to acquire a tan is also a 20th Century innovation (Coco Chanel again). Most of us now know how damaging, even dangerous that can be, and use sunblock. Nicole Kidman's pale alabaster skin is the new ideal, not the tanned leathery skins (pun intended) of the recent past.
Similarly, the pendulum is already swinging against the super-thin waifs that still "grace" the fashion runways and magazines. As public awareness of the dangers of anorexia grows some countries are legislating against 'size zero' models. However, the slimming industry has multi-billion-dollar vested interests in keeping this impossible skinny image alive in fashion magazines, to make us feel insecure and rush out to buy the latest cellulite cream, magic pill or book.
It's hard to resist this barrage from the media. Apart from magazines, think of Hollywood. Plump romantic heroes/heroines can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Bridget Jones is the only one who comes to mind right now. "Overweight" actors are nearly always secondary characters, either evil (Kathy Bates) or funny (Jack Black, John Candy, Kung Fu Panda).
But take heart from the English language. There are just as many positive euphemisms for "overweight", like 'pleasingly plump' and 'curvaceous', as there are negative expressions about excessive thinness: 'scrawny', 'puny'. Not an exhaustive list by any means, just a couple of examples.
All of us are unique, all of us are special: be it race, creed, sexual orientation or weight, let us celebrate our uniqueness and resist the forces that try to force us into cookie-cutter sameness.