Monday, March 31, 2008

"We're worse than the ancient Romans"

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in an age of scientific progress, flowering intellectualism and an all-around inproved standard of living, the female form was revered. Indeed, women were sources of awe and inspiration in their natural beauty. Women were the muses of some of the greatest painters of all time, and the artist would remain true to his subject, giving us priceless works of art.
Women of the Renaissance were portrayed beautifully because they were beautiful. One can always expect there to be a certain spread - not all women looked exactly alike, of course - but those living in the time of the revolution and rebirth knew that women are beautiful. Women, women who are natural and comfortable and full of life and love, are stunning. They're engaging. They're lovely. They were beautiful. They are beautiful.

Now, however, we are unscrupulously barraged with images of women who, by contrast to our modern standards (I loathe to call them standards), "just aren't good enough." Women now, through endless and pitiless repetitions of that same mantra, have come to believe that we are somehow remarkably unattractive if we are subject to our natural form. Instead of happily plump ("full figured," as some might put it) and naturally skintoned, we are to be painfully thin and tanned as leather. Advertisements like these pop up on my facebook page daily:

But why? Because, in today's society, we're not supposed to just be beautiful. We're supposed to work at it. We're supposed to struggle to be like those privileged few who have made the cut. Somehow (and, Lord knows, I apologize profusely for this photo, but I hope you'll understand its use), beauty has been redefined as this:

When did we become so ugly?
Some people have connected our own standards with those of the ancient Egyptians, or have associated them with some sort of evolutionary preference. But what evolutionary advantage is it to men to desire to mate with a woman so skinny, she'd probably die during childbirth (I am purposely neglecting the health aspect here, as it is equally unhealthy to be morbidly obese as it is to be anorexic)? And without a legitimate religious push (to become like a goddess and so persist into the afterlife), our motives are mere ghosts of the aspirations of the Egyptians. Interestingly, there seem to be connections between the social pressure of conforming to a more masculine-defined beauty (such as now, or in Egyptian times) and the legal rights and privileges enjoyed by women of the age. Does this mean, conversely, that if women are more socially liberated, we are not as legally free? It's a questionable link. Athenian and Spartan women (during the "classical" Greek period) enjoyed many freedoms, both social and political; in the Roman Empire, as is seen similarly elsewhere, liberties were tied more closely to wealth and stature than appearance. It is probably useful to note that the Romans put an undue emphasis on randomly chosen attributes of women as beautiful (nose shape, waist size, etc) during their empire's infamous decline.
My point is this (and I must conclude, as I am liable to rant indefinitely on such a touchy subject): women are beautiful. We are beautiful regardless of the dictated social norms, we are beautiful regardless of the flighty fancies of men, we are beautiful intrinsically.
And don't worry... I am fully aware, of course, of my own personal bias in the matter.


  1. I've so many things to say: I'll try to be concise, but I know in advance that I will fail :)

    Firstly, I still wonder if the general aesthetic that these images portray is really so pervasive as their dominance in the media suggests. I find it difficult to realise that I'm so much of an outlier on this (but then I know that I reside in the tail of the distribution for most other things, so I shouldn't be that surprised, I suppose).

    You touch on this, of course, but the correlation between social reform and female aesthetics is really intriguing. It seems to me that the two times in the 20th century that there has been a significant trend towards masculinity in the female form (by which I mean a trend toward a very lean body tone, with a downplay of emphasis on feminine curves in favour of a straighter figure) were in the 20s and 60s, concurrent with leaps forward in social, political and sexual freedom for women. Could it be that, as women focus on obtaining things that (traditionally) were seen largely as male oriented (though there is no actual correlation) that a bias arises toward anything seen as masculine by that society, including a drift in 'ideal' female form?

    There is another component which I think perhaps contributes to this. There has been a tendency in the past few decades towards a sexual aesthetic which is significantly 1-dimensional. Consider what is commonly perceived as sexy - it's vastly simplistic, and extremely direct. For example, to a very large extent a 'sexy' photograph of a woman is one in which she's wearing very little: the more of her legs, backside, breasts or crotch are showing, the 'sexier' the image is deemed to be. Now, I'm not in any way arguing that the naked form cannot be sexy (quite the contrary), but it is only a single component of a vast range of factors that can stir the male sexuality. In fact, I'd argue that as such direct approaches at sexiness are by definition quite simple, they are alone of limited appeal to all but the teenage mind.

    Take the images you use to convey your message - the beauty and genuine sexiness is actually largely unrelated to how much of subject is exposed. Perhaps conversely to expectations, more of the subject is visible in both paintings than in your contemporary image; however, (aside from the body type issues) this is not what makes the former images vastly more attractive. The things that are captivating in a truly beautiful portrayal of a woman are much less direct and much more subtle. There is something far more deeply stirring in the nuances of a look, in an angled upward glance, in a slight deflection of the lips hinting at a wisp of a smile, in hair cascading over an unadorned neck, of the gentle pressing contact between upper teeth and lower lip, than in any extent of nudity.

    The point is, when an aesthetic becomes based on a simple single component (in this case nudity, and consequently a overly emphasised importance of body shape), that component becomes the metric. When this happens, there is an inevitable trend in aesthetic toward the extremities of the distribution. Thus, the cost in terms of the full spectrum becomes increasingly great. One can see examples in other facets of culture. I was going to write something about movies here, but I've written enough as it is.

    However, this does bring another question to mind. How much of the imagery that we are comparing is really representative of the time? One has to be careful, when making comparisons of the past with their own time, to remember that there is no quality filter being applied to what one currently observes. In the preservation of images in the public domain over history, there is something akin to natural selection occurring - there is a bias in preservation towards those images that are deemed worthy. I'm sure that the majority of junk we see around us will not stand even a moderate test of time.

  2. Update - a nice quote from C.P. Estes.
    "...Harsh judgments about body acceptability create a nation of... women in hiding. Destroying a woman's instinctive affiliation with her natural body cheats her of her confidence. It causes her to perseverate about whether she is a good person or not, and bases her self-worth on how she looks instead of who she is. It pressures her to use up her energy worrying about how much food she consumes or the readings on the scale and tape measure. It keeps her preoccupied, colors everything she does, plans, and anticipates. It is unthinkable in the instinctive world that a woman should live preoccupied by appearance this way."

  3. It ha a lot to do with the general push of the consumerist economy to promote more and more strongly the ideal that we need to be kept busy working toward goals set by others as part of the process of validating ourselves.


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