By Jana Melkumova-Reynolds
Some months ago I came across Venus, a series by the Italian artist Anna Utopia Giordano, which aims to reinvent some of the iconic naked Venuses of the past in line with contemporary beauty standards. In Giordano’s interpretation, Botticelli’s Venus my personal physical ideal, had lost her buttocks and the roundness of her waist; The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez (who sports a rather slim build in the original painting) looked like an underfed twelve-year-old, and Titian’s Venus of Urbino was missing her plump belly and curvy hips but boasted a plus size bust. No surprises there, you may say. That was what I thought – except for one thing: while looking at these paintings I caught myself finding Giordano’s women indeed more attractive than those in the old masters’ works.
I like to think of myself as an intelligent woman. I have an unfinished degree in Art History and ten years of work in women’s media behind me. I should know better. Yet it would be fair to conclude that I am just as susceptible to the propaganda of the aforementioned media as any other female if my instinctive reaction, upon seeing Botticelli’s Venus shed of a few pounds, is: “looking good!”
This expression is crucial for the modern perception of beauty. It is an infallible compliment, resounding with more objectivity than, “you are beautiful” (as we know all too well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder), and, come to think of it, with more accolade: beauty is a gift of nature/God, whereas looking good is an achievement. In fact, the ability to look good is proof of personal merits that have nothing to do with the actual looks: willpower, self-control, determination, pragmatism. You name it, all these qualities are essential for a modern liberated woman, whether a reader of female glossies or feminist literature (or both). It is no coincidence that these are also the qualities most cultivated by women with eating disorders, according to numerous polls on online anorexia forums.
Beauty ideals have been linked to willpower and self-control for centuries. Think tightly corseted ladies of the 1600s–1800s. Think Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria who refused to accept any food if her morning waist measurement showed more than 18.5 inches. Think female American students in the early 1900s, described by anthropologist Margaret Low in her book Looking Good: College Women And Body Image, 1875–1930, who proudly reported in their letters home, alongside their academic and athletic performance, their achievements in gaining (!) weight. Feminine slenderness was used as an argument to defend a popular point about women being too frail to study, therefore putting on a few pounds in college was the goal of any emancipated girl determined to prove otherwise… Think unnaturally muscular bodies of the 1980s beauties, and unnaturally thin bodies of the 1990s supermodels. All these women carry the same message with them: that they are in control of their lives and their image, that they have enough power to make themselves into whatever they want to be, rather than sticking by what they were designed to be.
A recent study of plastic surgery published by The Guardian suggests a trend in patients wanting to look “done” rather than younger, which probably explains why they do not look younger. As one of the surgeons reveals, “There’s this new mentality that if you do not look a little bit fake, then the surgeon hasn’t done his job.” Shocking as it may sound, this idea goes hand in hand with the general concept: real beauty is a result of work rather than a blessing of fate.
I suspect Botticelli’s mates are to blame. It is his contemporaries, the Renaissance philosophers, who taught us that human beings are lords of creation and masters of nature. It is they who endowed us with the right to fight and change the universe, rather than humbly accept divine providence, as the medieval schools of thought had instructed. The Renaissance was greatly inspired by antiquity, particularly its visual arts and literature. The pillar of ancient Greek literature is tragedy; the premise of any ancient Greek tragedy is a human trying to fight his or her fate.
Philosophies of the Renaissance may not have immediately translated into ideals of beauty – hence Botticelli’s women in their full natural splendour – it took some years for these views to affect body image. By the end of the sixteenth century, ladies were beginning to lace up their corsets, and in the next centuries things only got worse. Heavy makeup became popular in the 1700s, the nineteenth century saw an expansion of dieting trends and the first reported cases of anorexia, and the twentieth century brought, alongside film and other media that replicated and thus imposed standards of female beauty, all sorts of means to facilitate body transformation, from hair straighteners to accessible plastic surgery.
Lately, one of the things that strikes me when I flick through beauty ads in a glossy magazine is not the thinness of the models (which, thankfully, is starting to recede) but their impeccably straight glossy hair, which is clearly unachievable without a Babyliss. To me, this is what distinguishes ads in a 2012 Harper’s Bazaar from those in its 1912 edition. The strictly controlled hair of a 2012 beauty, in comparison to the wavy, unruly and at least seemingly natural chevelure of her 1912 counterpart, signals the end of the idea(l) of natural beauty. The rhetorics of hair care product ads are usually based on the idea of “control” too, and for a reason.
Unnaturally thin waists, straightened hair, pumped up biceps, and rhinoplasty are all visual symptoms of a battle with nature, encouraged by the Renaissance and inspired by antiquity. Modern beauties sporting these are akin to the heroines of ancient Greek tragedies, rebelling against the order of the universe and their fate, which may indeed manifest itself in the shape of one’s nose. What we perceive – or are expected to perceive – as beauty is, in fact, willpower and control; “looking good!” translates as, “you’ve done a good job”.
This is why Titian’s and Botticelli’s Venuses look to a contemporary eye (including mine) like women who do not look after themselves, that is, do not fight their nature hard enough. For modern control freaks, this is unacceptable slackness. In our minds beautification seems to go hand-in-hand with beatification (beatus is Latin for “blessed”); modern sanctity is about control, about the triumph of culture over nature, including human nature as seen in the soft bellies and curvy buttocks on the Venuses of old masters. From that point of view I must admit that I am no saint: I am certainly closer a Botticelli Venus than to a Harper’s Bazaar beauty ad, and I like it like this.
Adapted from an article first published in Psychologies Luxe (Russia).