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Venus envy: Fat phobia and art

The Venus of Olympia courtesy of the NY Times, Titian.
(This image is one of many goddess depictions floating around in the 1800s.)

Did 18th century nude paintings lead to 21st century fat phobia?

I was listening to yet another of my pre-recorded art history lectures, grateful it wasn’t an 8 a.m. in-person class, when the professor mentioned that some people blame historic nude paintings for the fat phobia our culture experiences today. I had previously heard that the way Black people were painted in historic nudes perpetuated racism, but I had never wondered whether skinny white women painted as goddesses would cause us, hundreds of years later, to think having extra fat is unattractive. It makes sense, right? Glorifying a certain body type could lead to other body types being shamed. I decided to dig into this further by talking to Honye Santa-Balasz, an instructor and coordinator for art history at MacEwan University, to see if these claims actually held any merit.

French Salons in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s were annual art exhibits in Paris, which displayed paintings for aristocrats to see. Typically, these Salons were covered floor-to-ceiling with artwork that critics deemed acceptable to display to the public. They ranged from the most notable works, generally near the top, to lesser-known paintings near the bottom. Images of venuses—a term used for nude women with ideal bodies, who are meant to represent goddesses in visual art—were frequently on display. The Salon of the Venuses is a nickname given to the 1863 display, which included a great many paintings that featured these idealized nude women.

“Whatever is the hardest to attain for the body tends to be the most desirable.” 

According to Santa-Balasz, it was understood that, to be accepted for display at an annual Salon, a painting had to be morally acceptable and “aesthetically pleasing,” even though there was no list of specific requirements.

The unspoken rule was that to be aesthetically pleasing, a nude subject depicted in a painting could not have creases or identifying marks. This was not necessarily to shame women for having stretch marks or skin folds, as is sometimes presumed; it was expected of male subjects, too. In order to be acceptable to the art critics and, therefore, to the public, the painting also required an instructional aspect: it must not be just a naked woman (or man) and it must teach us something about our humanity.

In this era, Santa-Balasz says that paintings were derived mainly from one of three sources: history, the Bible and mythology. Because these subject matters were considered of the utmost importance, the manner of representation had to match. Much like photoshopping or retouching photographs, artists emphasized the ideal subject instead of painting reality.

That ideal subject, however, changes all the time, says Santa-Balasz. Nude images appeared centuries before the 1800s, and the earliest versions featured people with an abundance of stored weight. 

“The weight fluctuates. The standard changes,” says Santa-Balasz. Ideal is whatever is the standard at the time, she says, which is not consistent from one century to the next, or even between paintings of the same era

One example of this is 17th century painter Peter Paul Rubens’ artworks depicting  women with heavy cellulite, which were considered to be beautiful nudes. Each century, these would have been perceived differently, as the ideal body type changes, Santa-Balasz says. 

Santa-Balasz addresses this very idea in her beginners’ art class: a substantial number of prehistoric sculptures are of women who would be considered obese by medical professionals today.

“There is no ideal weight,” she says. “To say that fat shaming is rooted in 18th or 19th century attitudes might not be entirely accurate.”

The Venus of Willendorf is said to be a statue made by the subject herself, who may or may not have been pregnant.
(Photo credits to MyModernMet.com)

Origins of fat phobia

So, where does this notion that big bodies are bad come from? 

Santa-Balasz points to a quote from an early 20th century writer named Richard Lewinsohn who commented on a statue called the Venus of Willendorf, a small paleolithic statue with no face and what could be described as a morbidly obese body.

“Looking at this sculpture, sex life in the paleolithic must have been unerotic because this Venus is nothing more than a lump of fat.”

There are dozens of these statues found all across Europe, made thousands of years ago in the Stone Age. Lewinsohn is making judgments about the sex life of paleolithic men because of the body types of women, Santa-Balasz explains. 

“Because ‘look what they had to put up with,’” she says, sarcastically. 

For Santa-Balasz, the interesting part is how the ideal body weight changes over time. Favouring certain body types hasn’t just changed in the last 500 years, but long before that as well. It’s important to understand why different geographic locations at given times favour certain body types over others, she says. It has something to do with the culture, but also the resources that are readily available.

“The conclusion is that at any point in history,” Santa-Balasz says, “whatever is the hardest to attain for the body tends to be the most desirable.” 

The fat gene

When resources are scarce or the availability of food is intermittent, the body type that is highly favourable from a survival standpoint is a body that can store more fat. For people in the Stone Age, a body that retained more food was more desirable because there were times in between hunting successes where there was no food. If someone’s genetics meant they could keep on more weight for the times of scarcity, they were more likely to survive. 

“We can curse the ‘fat gene’ all we want, but without it, none of us would be here.”

Right now, food—especially unhealthy food—is easy to find and cheap to buy. What’s harder to attain is an extremely thin body, which is, therefore, more desirable. 

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine Some of the earliest traces of art, which is more than 40,000 years old.

Food banks notwithstanding, there is no scarcity of food in the West, says Santa-Balasz. It’s no longer about survival. Plastic surgery, gym memberships and other methods of reshaping one’s body—to what she cites as an unrealistic standard—cost money.

What we don’t know, for the Stone Age or throughout most of history, is what body type that people of the time valued, because we have no record of it. In Western culture today, we have the luxury of aestheticizing body types because we are not focused on simply surviving.

The patriarchy and the internet

We also have the construct of art, or visual culture. Art tends to be the way we elevate things; “it’s about higher matters of the human spirit,” Santa-Balasz says. Art now is all about aesthetics, whereas in the 19th century it was meant for teaching history, mythology, or the Bible.

Santa-Balasz notes that in some cultures, for example, the women who are to be wed are put in tents full of food and not allowed to exercise. A large bride is a statement of the family’s prosperity, because you can physically see how much food the family could afford to feed the daughter.

Almost everyone in the West has access to the internet, where, for the first time in history, consensus determines popular culture and that popular culture elevates what is hardest to achieve. Although current visual culture is complicit in fat shaming, historical pieces may not have as much of an impact as some think.  

If the majority of citizens had access to those nude paintings, would it have had a bigger effect on society’s standard for beauty for that time? 

“That is to say, ‘what if the 19th century was a lot more like today?’ Maybe. Probably. But it’s impossible to tell,” Santa-Balasz says. “I would argue that today, high art that makes it into an art history curriculum, has less of an impact now than other kinds of conversations that go on about visuality and the treatment of women’s bodies. 

“We can curse the ‘fat gene’ all we want, but without it, none of us would be here.”

“This is a patriarchal system which, however much we’re fighting it, is still deeply embedded in how we think about women’s bodies,” she adds, noting the harm that comes when women internalize these things put in place by our patriarchal system. “The context in which this is happening to women’s bodies is still fundamentally oppressive.” 

More than art of the past, it is the current ingrained patriarchal system that affects not only the way women feel about their bodies but the way they treat them. It is not art that created fat shaming, but the oppressive system that we live under.

Santa-Balasz says although we’ve made advances in the fight for equal rights, there is still a long way to go: “It’s hardly the ideal situation.”

Lessons from a cave woman

How people thought about images shaping perceptions of their own bodies was previously very limited, compared with how much information we now have at our fingertips via the internet. In the 18th and 19th centuries, only aristocrats had access to the Salons in France. Most women were not wealthy enough to have access to these idealized figures and were therefore unaffected; but the aristocrats, Santa-Balasz thinks, may have changed their ways to fit this ideal.

Does this carry over to today’s standards of beauty? In the end, Santa-Balasz does not think so. The ways that visual culture from centuries ago would influence today’s body aestheticism are limited. Fetishized bodies today are both stick-thin and overweight. We are becoming more aware of how unhealthy weight restrictions for models are and are starting to include more naturally representative models in the industry. With model industries finally becoming more inclusive, images of heavier-set women could once again be aestheticized. 

The stick-thin look is not what was always the default fetishized body type. In fact, some think that the Venus of Willendorf sculpture was not created by a man, but by the subject herself in honor of her beautiful form. Perhaps we could all learn a little from the cave woman and, instead, thank the ‘fat gene’ for keeping humankind alive. 


Alexandra Holtz

Alexandra Holtz (she/her) is a freelance editor and student, graduating in 2021. Alexandra believes that being a woman is a crash-course in feminism; while the term feminism might seem scary, she believes that it rightfully asks for human decency. She follows the guidance of the grocery store, which categorizes cereal and soup as different foods.