Beauty ideals are as insidious as they are hard to pin down. In every era, humans have penned their own guidebooks to the perfect female form, using whatever materials were available. Traditionally, this has been sculpture and painting; today, we’ve added printed advertisements and the whole cornucopia of digital media to the arsenal.
And who were the authors of these archetypes? Overwhelmingly artists—that is to say, the famous and successful artists of each era, most of whom were men. Whether they dreamed up these flawless molds themselves or just set in stone (or paint) the mode du jour, the ones who held the brushes held the power.
So, while these archetypes of beauty ranged from benign everywomen (Vermeer’s milkmaid) to biological impossibilities (Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque), they were created for women, but not by women. Meanwhile, the ladies were sidelined—to the canvas, to the model’s couch, to the kitchen, to the bathroom to powder their faces with lead. They were everywhere but behind the canvas, holding the brush, creating images of themselves.
Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Ingres, La Grande Odalisque (1814).
So, as we flip back through Art History’s dusty pages in search of the best body-posi moments, we should never forget what we’re looking at. Even the most realistic, body-positive images of women—the ones that honor the natural female form, not the shape it takes on with a bone corset or after not eating for a week—are still male fantasies, even if they looks like you or me. And at the end of the day, any single beauty ideal is damaging because, by definition, it excludes and devalues the vast majority of bodies.
And to be fair, it’s not just the ladies affected here. Men have not totally escaped the trap: the super-built “guy that works out” physique is still going strong thousands of years later, from Laocoön and His Sons to the inescapable gym selfie. But at least these Herculean figures represent the qualities men value in themselves—strength, virility, dominance—while female beauty archetypes represent the qualities that men value in women.
See the resemblance?
But since we can’t change the past, we might as well learn from it. Today, we all have the chance to create and share our own images of ourselves and of each other, creating a digital visual culture with the greatest variety of representation in human history. Hooray!
But with great power comes great responsibility. We should pause before we post and ask ourselves: which images should we send out into the digital void? How can we portray the human form in a way that honors individuality and celebrates diversity at the same time?
When we aim for body positivity, this obviously includes the shapes, sizes and colors of the bodies we show, but I would argue that it also goes beyond these qualities. What are the bodies doing? How are they being treated in the picture? Are they passive or active? Are they tense or at ease? Are they powerful or submissive?
Heavy stuff before your morning coffee, I get it. But think of it this way: if you have an Instagram account, you’re basically the Leonardo da Vinci of the twenty-first century. Or, okay, like, one billionth of Leonardo da Vinci. What I mean is that all social media users, and even all Internet users, are working together to essentially create a contemporary composite of the Mona Lisa: the blueprint for beauty.
To get your creative juices flowing, we’re pulled together a juicy little montage of the best body-posi moments in art history—images that glorify femininity, body and spirit, in all its forms. Meditate on them before you dive into your next art project; use them for you own ‘Gramming inspo; or just tack them up on your fridge for the next time you wake up feeling a less than the goddess you really are.
You’ve probably heard of the Venus of Willendorf, the famous sculpture of very curvy lady dating from the Paleolithic period. Most archeologists have dubbed her a fertility goddess, judging by her exaggerated curves and sexual features. Some scholars have even argued that this is an example of a woman’s self-portrait, since the features look like what you would see if you looked down at your body.
She was originally called Venus after the Roman goddess of love, but since she was obviously created way before anyone knew who Venus was, the name is a little misleading. You know how shitty it feels when the Starbucks barista writes “Caught ‘ya” instead of “Katya” on your latte (true story)? So let’s just call her the Woman of Willendorf to be safe.
No one really knows what she was used for—fertility rituals, maybe, or as a charm or amulet—but we can all agree that she was respected and venerated. Which means that, long, long before Twiggy and heroin chic, the big thing was for women to embrace their curves. Prehistoric women knew what our own society is just starting to get through its head: women’s bodies are beautiful and divine, and our curves are what allows us to create new life.
If you ask me, that’s definitely a cause for celebration, whether it’s making your own little fertility goddess statue or just posting a cute mirror selfie, au naturale and no sucking in. Maybe, in 30,000 years, some Internet archeologist will dig it up will remind her own society to show some respect for women’s bodies.
But, did you know that the earliest known depiction of the human form in art history is also a curvaceous babe? The Venus Hohle Fels, found in a cave in Germany, dates back 10,000 years before her Willendorf sister, to between 35,000 and 40,000 BCE. So in a way, the body positivity movement is both progressive and a profound return to our roots at the same time.
At first glance, you might think you’re looking at a 1980s Jazzercise ad, not a mosaic from a fourth-century Italian villa. Tall, thin and blonde, these ladies don’t immediately strike you as body-posi material, but try to think of another example from art history of sporty women, besides dancers. I’ll wait. We’ll be here for a while.
The Bikini Girls present an active and liberated female body at a time when most women were confined to the home—just look at how much fun they’re having with their Frisbee and 2 kg weights! Best of all, they’re moving spontaneously, using their bodies for pure enjoyment, not doing endless reps of squats while blasting Rihanna to trick themselves into thinking they actually love being at the gym. That’s a workout philosophy we could all get behind.
If you’re not familiar with this Old Testament story, here’s the ten-second version: hot babe Judith used her sex appeal for the greater good by sneaking into the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general who was about to destroy her town. While he was passed out from #drank, Judith casually sliced his head off with a sword and carried it off in a basket for good measure.
If you think the subject is empowering, wait until you hear about the artist. Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the rare successful female artists of the Baroque, became a court painter in Florence and was the first woman admitted into the Accademia di Arte del Disegno. She was kind of a big deal.
At a time when women were rarely even allowed near a paintbrush, and definitely nowhere near nude models, she broke with conventions by using her own body as a model for her heroines, notably Susanna and the Elders.
Deprived of close female relationships and raped at an early age, Gentileschi clearly used art to work through her emotions, focusing on scenes of strong femininity (like Judith) and emphasizing intimacy between women. All of her paintings put the spotlight on women, depicting them not just as beautiful sirens but also as fierce and powerful actors in the drama. In fact, like in Judith’s example, their sexuality is their strength, and in this way, Gentileschi’s work embodies the same vein of body positivity that remains radical to this day.
Okay, strictly speaking, this is a highly unrealistic depiction of the female body. How many friends do you have with 21 arms? Maybe a couple, but definitely not more than five or six. But this painting still made the list as the most literal picture imaginable of a woman #slaying.
While many popular depictions of female goddesses in art history celebrate their beauty from a romantic, sexual angle, the Hindu goddess Durga is a warrior who destroys the evil forces that threaten peace and prosperity. She’s also worshipped as the female form of Brahman, the supreme reality of the universe. Her name means “invincible,” and as you can see, one of her main hobbies includes slaying water buffalo demons (ignorance, laziness and pollution) with her many arms while balancing on a tiger. If that’s not body-posi at its height, I’m that little dog carrying off the buffalo’s head.
To channel your inner Durga today, I suggest starting small for us mere mortals. Maybe you can slay your own laziness by going on a run, or doing a little Zumba YouTube video in your living room (they’re so fun). Then, gradually, work your way up to water buffalo.
Before there was #freethenip, there was Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first woman artist to paint a nude self-portrait. Though not many people know her name today, she very much ran with the cool kids of her day. Her work inspired one of Picasso’s paintings, and her friends included famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote a poem in her memory after her early death.
As you can see, her technique rivals that of any leading impressionist. And I don’t know about you, but this dreamy scene makes me want to go frolic naked in a garden immediately. The figure in the painting looks at ease, casually naked, enjoying the sunshine and her body. She looks off into the distance—she doesn’t know if anyone is looking and tbh, she doesn’t care. She is pensive, probably dreaming up her next philosophical treatise, not thinking about if one of her boobs is droopier than the other. In this way, she exemplifies the ultimate level of comfort with our bodies that we all aspire to.
Marie Laurencin, one of the few women Cubists, took what was an essentially male aesthetic and made it feminine. She’s famous for her paintings of women, alone and in groups, and animals, suggesting a connection between the natural world and femininity. Her figures border on the mythical; they seem to flow across the canvas and into one another. Unlike the sharp angles of the male Cubists, an image of a world shattered into distinct and often disharmonious pieces, Laurencin’s vision is one of romance, fluidity and continuity, a vision that emphasizes the togetherness of creatures rather than their separation. We are all one body, she seems to whisper. That qualifies as a positive vision of the body, don’t you think?
Living in Paris at the start of the twentieth century, Romaine Brooks was part of the first generation of women artists to embrace androgyny and fluid, non-monogamous sexuality in their work and lives. This portrait of her friend and lover, “eccentric” artist Hannah Gluckstein, who went by Gluck as her artist name and Peter with her friends. Gluck shocked everyone by dressing in a full pantsuit, as Brooks painted her here. By the 20s, “masculine” fashion like cropped hair and men’s jackets were the hot new trends in fashion, but wearing trousers for women was still unheard of. What began as part daring fashion, part signal of sexual preference, the menswear look has clearly caught on in the century since this painting.
In this painting, Brooks applauds her pioneering spirit and unconventional, androgynous beauty. At the time, the standard for female beauty was still ample curves, full lips and rounded features, a standard that Gluck’s sharp features and serious, “masculine” gaze flouts. In fact, if it wasn’t for the title, you might not know the gender of the person depicted. These women were about 100 years ahead of their time; today, Gluck wouldn’t look so out of place on a Saint Laurent runway.
In the 1980s, Robert Mapplethorpe made many photographs of Lisa Lyon, the first Women’s Bodybuilding Champion. At the time, Lyon’s muscular physique was a revolution when compared to the beauty ideals of the day: either curvy and traditionally feminine, or thin, waifish and androgynous. Lyon was clearly neither, but Mapplethorpe’s lens captures her shocking strength and beauty. While throughout art history, the female form has often been decorative, Lyon’s physique is obviously meant to be used. Mapplethorpe shows her in a variety of active forms, highlighting her identity as an athlete. At the same time, he doesn’t mask her femininity; the message is that beauty doesn’t have to be soft but can be hard and powerful. Here, the bow and arrow alludes to the Amazons, making Lyon out to be a modern warrior woman.
Joan Semmel’s super realistic point of view paintings of her body bring us full circle, all the way back to the Woman of Willendorf. Remember the art critics that argued that the Woman was a self-portrait showing what ancient women would see when they looked down at themselves? Well, that’s exactly what Semmel does in the majority of her work. Her paintings show her body in its most relaxed unguarded moments (in bed alone or with a lover, dozing in the sun on the beach), capturing images that are both super familiar to anyone with a body and completely original because no one has painted them before. Her work implies that the body doesn’t have to be decorated, dressed or posed to be a work of art; just by existing the way it naturally does, it deserves to be painted and hung on museum walls.
Laura Aguilar bared both body and soul in her photography. As a longtime member of the queer Latinx community in Los Angeles, she captured intimate moments that few artists would have access to, but it is her later work on bodies in nature that present a radical view of body positivity. Beyond showing queer and larger bodies in a way that art rarely has (let’s just say her nude boulder pictures are a far cry from your typical Rubens), her work poses poignant questions about the body’s connection to land. Her Mexican ancestors lived on the land where many of her pictures were shot back before California became the United States. The serenity and stillness of both the bodies and the land they rest on poses a sharp contrast with the violent history that still haunts those spaces.
Photos via Dazed Digital, Wikipedia, @gymshark, Wikimedia Commons, Don’s Maps, Der Tagesspiegel, WikiArt, Christie’s, Smithsonian American Art Institute, Mutual Art