Just like fashion trends, the “ideal body shape(s)” for both women and men changes through the years based on social and economic trends. Of course, socially preferred body shapes within the same population may vary based on ethnicity, socioeconomic class, national background, location, etc., but there are general, overarching trends. As someone who adores fashion history (it’s more tied to gender studies than you think!), visual culture, and mapping social trends, in high school and even now I was intrigued by the idea of ideal body types for each decade: Marilyn Monroe for the 50s, Twiggy for the late 60s, and so on.
Realizing that even though your body type isn’t “in” now but was at some point in history or is somewhere else in the world can be incredibly gratifying. The first time I saw a Roman statue who actually looked exactly like my body type at age 18, I was so happy that there was once someone looked like me and whom an artist felt was beautiful enough to model for a mythological character. I love/d reading about the 1920s, because I would have considered pretty for a shape I was teased about in high school [ed. more about teasing vs. discrimination later]. I think a lot of people, especially women, have this idea that they were “born in the wrong decade/century/era” for their body type, and it can be empowering to see your shape as beautiful or sexy.
So when I saw the illustration “Wrong Century” by Tomas Kucerovsky I should have been happy, right?
Let me actually describe this illustration. We see parts of a woman being stared at and snickered at in an art museum. She, however, is in awe of a painting. Why? She sees for perhaps the first time her own body type in fine art, and she feels happy and beautiful. That’s what’s said on The Judgment of Paris forum here.
So what’s the problem?
The painting the subject is so enraptured with is The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Peter Paul Rubens.
According to the post on The Judgment of Paris forums, the subject of the illustration is meant to be at a real museum. Also, as someone who enjoys history and the classics, I know that, etymologically, the word rape was once used to describe to abduction (see “Rape of the Sabine Women,” “The Rape of the Lock”). Regardless, the painting depicts two clothed men (or one clothed man and one shoed, at least, man) forcibly abducting two nude (or recently stripped, judging from the fabric on the ground) women.
Now, you might say, “Well, the trope of ‘clothed men, naked women’ in European art is because women’s bodies are beautiful, and men’s aren’t,” and I beg to differ from an art angle: precisely what, then, is The David other than a very attractive nude man? Or The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel? But yes, “clothed men, naked women” is a trope. What’s problematic about the illustration is that Rubens painted plenty of depictions of beautiful women who are not being attacked by men. For example, I think The Three Graces would have been absolutely perfect to illustrate Kucerovsky’s point:
Or, better yet, what about one of his paintings of Venus, the goddess of beauty? That would send a powerful message, that a Rubenesque body could depict the character who represents the pinnacle of beauty in Western art:
Now, one might argue that The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus proves that this body type was/is so desirable that men would be overcome with lust for it and abduct or rape women to experience this. That’s not what rape is, and that IS justifying violence against women, the “she was asking for it” defense. Furthermore, I object to the idea of having the male gaze and objectification of women’s bodies as a yardstick for beauty. However, if Kucerovsky wanted to show the subject’s body type as an equal partner in a romantic and sexual sense, why not use Rubens’s Venus and Adonis, where both parties are depicting gazing lovingly at each other and the desire is mutual?
On one hand, I know that beauty standards, despite the decade, are oppressive. I know that the art in this post is Western-centric and depicts white women as the standard of beauty. But I think that it’s also important to feel attractive and desirable, and I don’t mean in the male-gaze sense. Let me be honest and preface this story by saying that I have a body type that is “socially acceptable” for the ’10s and realize that I have the privileges of being cisgendered and white. I grew up in a decade in which tanning was still popular (and still is to some extent in my hometown), and I was teased for wearing sunscreen, for having legs that get blotchy in the cold, for blending in with the paint on the bottom of the swimming pool.
When I moved to Japan, though, despite my finding Japan’s desire for fair skin (bihaku, 美白) as a standard of beauty problematic, it was gratifying to be told for the first time in my life that my “too pale” skin was beautiful. (Contrary to popular belief, though, I don’t wear sunscreen for the preservation of my coloring; rather, it’s that because as a very white person, I’m more susceptible to skin cancer and sunburns hurt.) Of course, peer-group teasing is not even in the same realm as institutionalized discrimination or widespread social discrimination based on appearance, but when your perceived physical fault is suddenly in fashion, it feels good.
I think the desire to feel at home in one’s body is universal. I think it’s important to be healthy and happy at all sizes and shapes. I think it’s important to have positive role models in the media. But we have to consider the message we are sending with art like “Wrong Century.” If you saw a woman in art who looked like you (or a female loved one) being assaulted by men, would you notice the attack before the body type and, if you did notice her body type, would you feel camaraderie with your double instead of rage or horror? The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus is a well crafted painting by an author famous for his voluptuous subjects, but it should not be the “punchline” of an illustration meant to draw attention to changing beauty standards.
Addendum: Scalesoflibra writes in the comments,
The women in Rubens’ paintings aren’t as ridiculous on this point as, say, Michaelangelo’s Sibyls, but…that blonde Grace’s body is just so way off anatomically, it can’t be anything other than a chimera of a male body and what Rubens thought was beautiful for women. The women in “The Rape of Leucippus” also look like they were drawn from men to me; since the breasts are visible on the woman higher up it seems Rubens tried to “shrink” the shoulder girdle he was seeing, but the musculature and bone structure (tell-tale sign of a man: little to no space between the hip bone and rib cage) of the woman closer to the ground seem entirely male.
A woman pining over these images is the same as a woman pining over the Photoshopped models in today’s fashion magazines. Back then the Photoshop was just analog.
We like to think that photos are true to life, and yet, there is Photoshop; paintings, too, don’t have to be true to life. Embellishing details, changing angles, swapping bodies, or even embellishing secondary sex characteristics–the visual culture is, by nature, subjective.