The gendered body

For as long as people have been making art, human bodies have been the subject of paintings, sculptures, photography, film. We have always liked looking at other people, and, ultimately, looking at ourselves.

The changing nature of art is a reminder that human bodies are subject to the whimsy of fashion, that the skin and bone and fat and muscle that we inhabit are ultimately arbitrary objects as susceptible to trend forecasts as clothes or shoes.

And throughout history, no other body has been quite so scrutinised by the spectator’s gaze than the female body.

The Ancient Greeks may have liked their statues with their marble kits off, but the female form was shamed for the very nature of its femininity and nude female sculptures were often covered up. However, once they decided it was okay for women to have corporal forms under their tunics, it’s clear from sculptures of Aphrodite of Cnidus et al that fuller figures were the definition of beauty.

Paintings and portraiture of the European Renaissance period also presented rounder figures as the height of beauty, while the Victorians preferred hourglass silhouettes. However, unlike classical sculptures, these figures were a little more modest. Beneath the gowns and petticoats lurked corsets and all other manner of garments that look like they should belong in one of the more gruesome exhibits in the Tower of London. Fuller figures may still have been in fashion, but this was a very specific type of figure. One with broken ribs and a poor respiratory system, evidently.

The twentieth century saw another type of body become fashionable. During the flapper fad of the 1920s boyish silhouettes were often present in art, exemplified by idolised celebrities like Clara Bow. Then came Marilyn Monroe and a return to curviness, or Hollywood’s definition of curves, at any rate (her waist was tiny, okay). Gamine frames were back in vogue in the 1960s, epitomised by women like Audrey Hepburn and Mia Farrow. In the twenty-first century, in photography and film alike, thin bodies are still seen as the ideal, despite an often half-hearted push for “plus size” models.

Of course, all of these “trends” are very much Western fashions, Eurocentric fads that are, by and large, still usually imposed on the rest of the world (surprise surprise).

It could be argued, then, that the self-portrait was, and continues to be, an important tool for the female artist, an opportunity to blur the line between object and subject. Perhaps the first thing that jumps to mind is Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits; the unflinching black of her monobrow, the shadow of facial hair on her upper lip, and her refusal to conform to the Eurocentric ideal of the female body.

When the standards that female bodies are held to are so prone to changing on the fickle tides of fashion, the importance of women artist’s autonomy over the representation of their bodies shouldn’t be overlooked. With the rise of photography in the twenty-first century, this task is easier than ever. With nearly every phone having its own camera, capturing your own image has never been more accessible, even if this nudge towards a shift in the politics of looking is often subject to criticism and regularly scheduled lukewarm thinkpieces about narcissism. In the words of art critic, John Berger: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity’”.


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