From Botticelli to Cosmo: the 'beach body' and why it doesn't matter

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

*This article discusses body image and relationships with eating*

One of the best moments of my 2017 so far was finally walking into the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The two and a half hour queue, admittedly, was not ideal. But seeing The Birth of Venus, I instantly recognised something very familiar in her. There was the dreaded muffin belly and the almost ‘Flanders mare’ ass. Venus would have struggled to get into anything at H&M as much as I do. And yet here she is, hailed as the epitome of bodily beauty. The wonders did not stop there — another Venus, this time of Urbino, looked as much permanently four months pregnant as yours truly after a formal (and, let’s be honest, before it too). Being painted by the impeccable old masters gives these women’s bodies a seal of approval which is denied to living, breathing human beings of today.

Body image issues tend to get a bigger spot under the sun during the summer. Contemporary media made some progress, and the Cosmo and Glamour of today can be surprisingly progressive on issues from polyamory to women’s employment. However, despite their attempts to diversify standards of bodily beauty, the vast majority of media and advertising still promotes a very particular image of female appearance, especially when it comes to bikinis, shorts, light tops and other joys of anyone above size 8. There is a very limited range of sizes acceptable for the conventionally attractive woman. And it can be absolutely devastating for anyone who does not conform.

Trust me, I was that girl. A size 8 5’9 with a double D bust. Until one day, I wasn’t. Until one day, a number of high street shops didn’t have any trousers I could fit into or any shirts which wouldn’t threaten to burst the moment I button them. Until I had to automatically go towards the ‘bigger’ sizes at the back of the rack in the shops which still had stuff I could fit into. The thing is, I am quite average in size - just above the national average, in fact. Yet, the fashion industry brutally imposes a system of sizing and promotion which makes anyone ever so slightly deviant feel completely alien and unaccepted. Too big to be provided for. Too big to have the same choice as ‘everyone else’ (in fact  — a very select few) have. And that rejection and alienation by the consumer provider creates insecurity and hostility towards one’s own body. So many times I hated what I saw in the mirror or what I could feel in the shower. So many times I discussed diets and gym with my friends in similar situations. So many times I felt I couldn’t possibly be wanted, desired, loved — all just because I don’t conform to the ‘ideal’ by a couple of inches.

I love food. I love pizza, and pasta, and cakes, and burritos, and noodles and all the other delights of life. I love drinking, too — all those high calorie cocktails, wine, IPA. None of this has ever caused any health problems. However, this gain in weight made my relationship with food much more complicated. I didn’t stop loving it — I just felt so guilty every time I ate any of it. I felt like I should impose limitations, and every time I couldn’t keep to those I felt even guiltier. My relationship with food was spoilt by my body image issues — every time I look in the mirror I hate the bloated belly and physically want to smooth it out of existence. That disgust is not inherent — it is created by the money making machines behind the models, the TV shows, the porn.

What’s the solution? Seeing Venus helped me a lot. Beauty is a social construct, and it depends on so many factors. Being exposed to standards of beauty from different time periods and different societies around the world really helps to put things into perspective. It’s a psychological journey of self-love and self-acceptance, but Botticelli and Titian Venuses or Rubens’ feasts of flesh can be a first step in realising that bodily beauty is about how you feel about yourself, not about your dress size. Although it is still work in progress and a constant battle with Netflix and YouTube ads, I like what I see in the mirror. And I like my pasta and cakes, too.

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