Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Body Type and Body Images as Reflected in Art

The Venus  of Willendorf  (c. 24,000  BC)

The Venus of Willendorf and other small statuettes carved during the Paleolithic period suggest that heterosexual men actually prefered curvy women.  Recent studies indicate this is and has been part of a long-term preference and trend. 

In the  Stone Age,  fat was beautiful because it meant vitality and  fertility.  The Venus  of Willendorf  (c. 24,000  BC),  a tiny  limestone statuette found in a riverbank  above  the Austrian Danube in 1908, has become  one of the most popular objects in world art. 

The  sac-like  breasts,  bulging  belly,  and  padded  hips  conflate woman  with  her  procreative  function.  She  symbolizes  health and  abundance.  But  the  masked  face  and  withered  arms disturbingly  show  that  she  has  no  sight,  speech,  or  reach-no identity as  an individual.

As a general rule, large,  ample women have preferred status in agrarian or subsistence periods, while a thin, linear  silhouette becomes  fashionable  for  women  in urban  or  courtly  societies. When  food  is in short  supply,  a plump wife  advertises  a man's wealth and property.

Venus Anadyomene. c.1520.
But there were also biological reasons why, when both pregnancy  and childbirth  could  be difficult and dangerous,  fleshy  women  with  wide  hips  were  seen  as  better prospects  for  motherhood  than  thin women  with  narrow  hips. 

Today  we  know  that  body-fat  level  is  connected  to  fertility: women runners who become  too lean may develop  amenorrhea, since  nature  interprets  low  weight  as  a sign  of famine, insufficient  to  support  pregnancy.  With  today's  media  focus  on thinness,  young  women  are  torn  between  nature  and  society: when fat is the  enemy, young women are at war with their own fragile, life-creating  physiology.

The complete article is an excellent art reference of female body types.  More, the article gives some insight of how the ideal body images are reflected in today's media.  Survey art history courses contribute a counterbalance with it's chronological sweep.  Unfortunately, these courses are losing ground to highly specialized courses in the United States.

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