Vol. IV: July–September, 2002.
The Paradox of the Plus-Size Model
Despite perpetual controversy about every detail of his life, the impact of Romantic poet Lord Byron on Western culture was so profound that even such a stolidly unromantic scholar as Bertrand Russell devoted an entire chapter to him in his History of Western Philosophy. Byron’s significance as a cultural force was due mostly to the creation of his eponymous literary protagonist, the notorious Byronic Hero.
Anyone who knows the qualities that were imputed to Byron in his day may find the phrase “Byronic Hero” an oxymoron. A paradox. Based on their popular associations, “Byronic” and “heroic” are contradictory terms. We think of a “hero” as someone who petitions for civil rights, exposes accounting irregularities, and blows the whistle on dastardly corporations, while “Byronic” qualities (as derived from the Satan of Paradise Lost, and the villains of 18th-century Gothic horror novels) include pride, elitism, aloofness, moral autonomy, and individualism.
How could a character possessed of such qualities possibly be considered a “hero,” when those Byronic qualities all seem to be “evil,” and in total contrast to the “good” nature of the popular hero?
Nevertheless, almost everyone who reads the poet’s narrative tales finds himself awed and fascinated by Byron’s dark protagonists, whose defiance of the created order of the universe gives them a Promethean stature.
Indeed, to all but the most ideologically rigid readers, Byron’s heroes are heroic, and on a grand scale. Many readers even find themselves questioning their deepest beliefs about morality, and about life, after experiencing Byron’s works, and forever afterwards judge any other “hero” by the Byronic standard. And more often than not, they find those other heroes falling short.
Or to put it another way, once you have Byron, you can’t go back.
So what does all that have to do with plus-size beauty?
A supporter of this Web project once asked us why the Judgment of Paris focusses so heavily on plus-size models and their industry, since (as he put it) “beautiful women with classical figures do a lot of things besides pose for fashion magazines.”
Of course they do. But models are more than just animated clothes-hangers in our society. Much more.
Rightly or wrongly, they are cultural icons.
Whereas Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor may have defined society’s image of “a beautiful woman” in the 1950s, in the following decades the symbolic embodiment of female comeliness passed from actresses to fashion models. Starting with Twiggy in the 1960s, and then by a process that people who know the mainstream fashion industry can trace better than the present author can, the ideas of “model” and “beauty” became inexorably intertwined in our society. Models transcended fashion culture and ascended to the pinnacle of mainstream culture. Beginning with Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley, and then to a much greater degree with the advent of the “supermodels” of the 1990s, the “model look” eventually became the standard against which all female beauty was judged.
And then, in another transition—this time from the covers of Vogue magazines to the covers of Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions—they came to define the ideal of womanhood not only for women, but for men as well.
Whereas World War Two servicemen stuck pinups of blonde bombshell Betty Grable to their gear chests, high-school youths in the ’80s and ’90s taped pictures of size-nil Sports Illustrated waifs to their locker doors.
Anyone who has examined modelling from a professional standpoint knows that there is a great deal of craft and talent required to succeed in the industry. Many abilities are needed besides beauty. But to the general public, there is only one criterion that needs to be taken into account when answering the question, “Can that girl be a model?” and that is, “Is she pretty enough?”
And still to this day, if you were to figuratively look up the word “beautiful” in the cultural dictionary, you would assuredly see the image of a supermodel.
But just as this deification of the underweight model was progressing, the traditional understanding of feminine beauty was being forgotten. Words like “curvaceous,” “voluptuous,” and “buxom” vanished from the popular lexicon, while dozens of new pejorative terms appeared to refer to women whose figures fell outside these newly-prescribed boundaries. And of the many phrases that were devised, the term “plus size” remains the most common.
So let’s take a look at these two ideas that we have in front of us. Today, the word “model” defines the notion of a “beautiful woman,” while the term “plus size” refers to women who are excluded from this definition. In other words,
But what happens when the culture is confronted by that paradoxical entity called the “plus-size model”? Such a being shouldn’t even be possible, since the terms “plus-size” and “model” appear to contradict each other. But there she is, nevertheless, and…and my goodness, she is beautiful. She’s not supposed to be…but she is!
That is the real significance of the full-figured fashion industry, and the true power of the plus-size model. She is, by her very existence, a subversive cultural force, every bit as much as the Byronic hero was (and is). She upsets the media-ordained “order of things.” She is a living revaluation of social values.
And just as many readers find their sensibilities transformed, when reading Byron, from feelings of opposition to the qualities embodied by his protagonists, to sensations of awe, and even admiration, so can images of plus-size models shatter people’s media-blinkered impressions of what constitutes true feminine beauty.
In fact, thanks to plus-size models, the public may often find that the very qualities which modern culture tells us are supposed to be unattractive in a woman are the most attractive of all, just as they find that Byron’s protagonists are heroic not despite their Byronic attributes…
…but because of them.
July 5, 2002
Beauty and Horror in Vienna
What’s the most beautiful city in Europe? Paris certainly deserves its reputation as a world unto itself, and transcends every cliché that has ever been written about it. Berlin has solemnity and grandeur, and pain in every square foot of its vast expanse. But if beauty is the measure, then Vienna, the fabled city of the blue Danube, the capital of the bygone Austrian Empire, is surely the prima donna.
There is simply no end of history to absorb in this fabled city. It more than lives up to its renown as the “capital of music,” and one can see here the homes of almost every great composer, including the “House of the Heiligenstadt Testament,” where Ludwig van Beethoven came to within an inch of taking his own life. One can tour the art collection of the Habsburgs, the equal of any on the continent. One can even visit the world’s only funerary museum, which features some of the most astonishing exhibits of any museum in the world.
But to itemize “things to see” in Vienna is futile, because the truth is that the whole city is a sight. There is beauty around every corner. True beauty. Timeless beauty.
One of the most vivid examples of this is a series of goddess statues that adorn the pillars of a 19th-century building at the intersection of Kohlmarkt and Graben streets. That green cupola to the south is the dome of the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace from which the Habsburgs ruled Austria for generations.
Each of the statues is stunningly gorgeous, with long flowing tresses and sumptuous curves, but the most beautiful of all is the goddess in the centre:
Inspired by a Titian painting in the Louvre, this statue has been known to stop passers-by dead in their tracks, time standing still for them as they gaze at her with unabashed longing. She looks young and radiant and healthy, a symbol of physical perfection.
Yes, there is beauty in Vienna. Beauty…and also horror. Because mixed in with the lovely, we also find the grotesque.
Walking east from Kohlmarkt and up Am Graben street (literally, “By the graves”), towards the Gothic majesty of St. Stephen’s cathedral, which looms menacingly over Vienna’s Old City, we encounter a sublime structure called the “Plague Column,” placed approximately where the folds in this map image intersect over the name, “Graben”:
Built in the 17th century to commemorate Vienna’s survival after a devastating plague, this monument is a riotous mass of stone figures of order triumphing over chaos, good over evil.
The most arresting feature of the monument is this group of three figures at the front of the column. Here we see a cherub vanquishing the incarnation of the plague, casting the demon back down into the underworld, while another feminine figure (Mary?) looks heavenward.
But note the way the vanquished plague-demon is portrayed. It is depicted as a wizened, emaciated female figure, all bone and ropy muscle:
What does it tell us about the values that a culture associates with health and attractiveness, as well as with sickness and ugliness, when that culture produces artworks such as that buxom, Titian-inspired sculpture to beautify its noblest buildings, even as it creates works such as this shrivelled plague demon to represent a devastating epidemic?
We are accustomed, in our society, to seeing images of plus-size women flashed across TV screens in reports about the health concerns involved with not being thin. The media does everything in its power to present the fuller feminine figure in a negative way, to equate health with starvation, and ill-health with being voluptuous. But it was not always so; indeed, this, like so much else, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Historically, a malnourished look was often presented in a negative light. Emaciation was equated with illness, while a curvaceous figure was symbolic of vitality and well-being. These were symbolic associations based on natural impulse. The modern inversion of those values is merely a temporary aberration, with no more intrinsic justification than the use of a cross or a star or any other sign to signify good or evil.
The only reason the media can use images of heavier women for “shock” value is because such images are seldom seen in our culture in anything but a negative context, while images of underweight women (who also happen to be young, dressed in attractive clothing, flashing a big smile for the camera, and shot in locations that suggest prosperity and “la dolce vita”) are everywhere.
But if plus-size women are presented in the same way, as being happy and relaxed and confident, if they are youthful and dressed to kill and photographed on the Côte d’Azur, then a natural association of health and lush femininity once again becomes possible.
“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
July 16, 2002
“Under a Distant Grecian Sky”
Of all our many influences, we owe our greatest debt to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s technique of tracing a system of established values back to its origins in order to examine its basic principles is the one that we frequently employ. We uncover the origins of the aesthetic values that currently dominate the world in which we live in order to reveal where they came from, and to question where they are taking us.
A lifelong scholar, Nietzsche spent more of his conscious existence in classical Greece than he did in the day-to-day life of the 19th century. He developed an understanding of Antiquity nearly equal to that of someone who had actually lived in those times. To Nietzsche, the classical world-view was familiar and comprehensible. And this gave him a unique perspective. By distancing himself from his immediate society and familiarizing himself with another, he was able to evaluate the morality of his age from an entirely alternative vantage point.
Nietzsche could—and did—compare classical ethics with 19th-century European ethics. He judged the society he saw around him against the standard that Antiquity had set—and he found his own society wanting, by comparison.
Nietzsche asked, “What strengths did ancient Greece have, that we have lost?” and “How would we need to change, in order to recover those strengths?”
But he could never have done this without his historic reference point. Without the precedent of Antiquity, Nietzsche would only have had a theory. He could, at best, have created a fantasy world, an alternative reality to contrast with his own. He could only have dreamed that things might be different. But classical Greece was proof that things really could be different—because there was a time when they actually were.
Today, that classical precedent benefits us as much as it did Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s life and work was, in many ways, a realization of the artistic ideal that Friedrich Schiller outlined in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. As the title indicates, this work is a collection of letters that Schiller wrote, outlining the potential that art and the artist have for reforming society.
It is uncanny to see both the parallels between Schiller’s ideal vision of the artist (as quoted below) and the case of Nietzsche’s own life, and to consider how that vision affects us, today:
July 22, 2002
The EVIL Diet Ad
Undoubtedly, the title of this post will give some readers pause. “Isn’t that redundant?” they will rightly ask. “Aren’t all diet ads evil?”
Of course they are. But here is one that strikes us as particularly egregious:
This is the first panel of a multi-panel Flash-based diet ad which anyone who uses Yahoo mail, or participates in any Yahoo groups, has probably seen. (We confronted it at a Yahoo-based size-acceptance group, where it rather undercut that site’s message.) The next panel presents the name of the company, so we will avoid reference to that. It is this first panel that strikes us as particularly shameless.
Pretty girl. In fact, she doesn’t have gaunt facial features at all. She has a soft look. If she went up a few dress sizes, she could be an effective plus-size model. And you can’t actually see her figure, so viewers are free to project any body shape they wish on her.
But what viewers do see is that she is attractive, and youthful.
Now note the sentiment which the ad plants in the viewer’s mind. “Remember when.” “Remember when you loved putting on a bikini.”
There isn’t any particular reference to size, is there? Since the panel doesn’t present a specific body size, or body shape, what is the ad using to promote dieting?
Beauty. Beauty, and the nostalgia that viewers are likely to feel for their younger days, when they had more of it. This ad is trying to create (or intensify) a feeling of longing in the viewer—a longing for their past youth.
This ad isn’t saying, “Buy our product and you will be healthy,” nor even, “Buy our product and you will be thin.” (It lets the viewer fill in that blank for herself.) This ad is saying, “Buy our product and you will be young again.” Beautiful again.
With the emphasis on nostalgia, it even makes the viewer recall the activities associated with that time of life—“Remember when.” “Remember what your life was like back then?” And it suggests that, “With our product (the diet), you can get all that back.” “With our product, you can regain your beauty, and all the fun and enjoyment which that beauty made possible.”
Most significantly, it takes for granted the fact that the viewer will equate attractiveness with thinness. All that the ad needs to do is to tap into viewers’ nostalgia, and their media-shaped understanding will do the rest.
The next panel in the ad, the one promoting the diet company, only comes up after viewers have seen this title image for several long moments, and the implications have sunken in.
The ad depends for its effectiveness on many viewers’ realization that as they have gown older, they have lost some measure of their beauty, and the viewers’ belief that this is attributable to weight gain.
Of course, what the ad avoids saying is that dieting will actuallytend to accelerate the visible aging process, as the subject becomes emaciated, with drawn features and a harder look. Far from recapturing past youth, they will see it fade further away. (Consider the youth/age contrast presented in the Vienna statues noted in an earlier post.)
This ad is significant for another reason as well. Some of the organizations that are fighting the “anorex-chic” look that dominates fashion and the media do so by decrying the importance of beauty itself. They praise ads in which beauty has been banished altogether.
But this approach is severely misguided, and based on an erroneous belief about human nature. It is a natural human impulse to long for beauty in the world around us. This love of beauty cannot be suppressed—and woe unto any society that does attempt to suppress it. As we have seen in our lifetimes, only a physical wall will prevent people from leaving such a society in droves. And sometimes even that wall will not be enough.
“Beauty is undoubtedly a great power,” Lillian Russell once said—and she was one to know. Beauty is a great power, and like all great powers, it can be used for good or for evil. Deny it, and it will simply be used against you.
For “size acceptance” to gain ground, indeed, for “size celebration” to take hold, beauty must become an integral component of the movement. This is why the proliferation of images of plus-size beauty is so important; nay, essential.
If the populace rejects media distortions and learns to see beauty in a natural, timeless way, then it will no longer be possible to create diet ads such as this. Because then, when a viewer sees an ad saying, “Remember when you loved putting on a bikini,” they will think, “Yes, I do remember when I loved putting on a bikini. I was a size 18 then, just like I am now. In fact, I put on a bikini just yesterday…and I loved it.”
July 25, 2002
The Lure of the Exotic
[In response to a thread of favourable responses about this Avenue ad.]
Part of the reason why this image is so progressive is because of its brazen presentation of a model with a “soft physique,” but there’s more to it than that.
The image has something of a monumental quality. Its perspective means that the viewer is looking up at the model, as if she were on a pedestal, or otherwise at a slightly higher elevation. Her hair is a bit wild, yet majestic, and the expression is particularly notable. There’s a melting look in her eyes. It’s commanding, but in a distinctively feminine way. And although the clothing is casual and contemporary, the overall effect of the ad is to convey a strong sense of exoticism.
That exoticism was our deciding factor in selecting this image for the survey page. The H. Rider Haggard quotation with which we have paired it was carefully chosen to support and underscore the exotic quality.
One of the objectives of this site is to situate plus-size beauty within a context—the context of Western aesthetic history. During the 19th century, when many European nations were experiencing their colonial phases, there arose a new and fascinating type of colonial literature. Well represented by the works of Haggard and Kipling, this type of literature probably reached its artistic apogee in Conrad’s literary masterpiece, Heart of Darkness. Much of the work of this genre presents the cultural clash of Western observers confronting intensely exotic and unfamiliar landscapes and peoples, and the conflict of values set in motion by this encounter.
In fact, this colonial literature sprang up at a time when much of the literature written in the mother countries was becoming increasingly conventional. Even the work of a great author like Dickens is somewhat weakened by its deference to Victorian strictures. But while the “home” literature was growing somewhat damp and mildewed, the sun of far-distant lands helped to set ablaze a fresh and provocative kind of storytelling from the colonial writers.
This Avenue image conveys something of that exotic atmosphere, the dry heat of the colonial experience. One can almost imagine the sun behind Wyinnetka to be setting on the great veldt, or tinging the Kalahari with red. The model could be someone who, in another time and with different raiment, would have been a queen or an empress, encountered by a Western explorer, and making him question every belief he has lived with.
There is always so much more to see, if only we look past the temporal and see the timeless. Underneath our functional attire, we are the inheritors of a rich and noble cultural legacy. Experiencing it—moreover, participating in it—is our birthright.
Plus-size modelling is a living link to that timeless legacy.
If any readers are interested in a taste of what this colonial literature was like, and if you have a few moments to spare, please click on this link and enjoy “The Lion’s Ride”, a 19th-century narrative poem from the pen of Ferdinand Freiligrath, splendidly rendered into English by C.T. Brooks. Anyone who associates poetry with nothing more gripping than pretty flowers and small children will find this work a bit of a shock. Be patient with it; read it slowly, hearing the rhythms and feeling the pulse of the words. You will be amazed at how vividly it conveys a sense of place—and much more.
August 20, 2002
HRH The Prince of Wales—An Ally
In our day and age, the very existence, let alone the purpose, of a monarchy is sometimes called into question. And the anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales reminds us of the challenges that the British royal family, the Windsors, have faced in recent years. However, HRH the Prince of Wales, for all of his personal shortcomings, presents us with a fine example of the value of a monarchy. Because Charles—the man who will one day be my king—is an ally of the Aesthetic Restoration.
Rest assured, we do not mean to imply that Charles has any notable insight into the nature of feminine beauty. Camilla Parker-Bowles is not one of the more attractive women in the public eye, and Princess Diana, soon after her marriage, succumbed to an eating disorder, the painful details of which are well known.
However, since the early 1980s, Prince Charles has worked tirelessly on behalf of his people to make the architects who shape the face of modern Britain aware of the frustrations that the public feels at their increasingly bizarre and inhospitable creations. Moreover, Charles has used his position to bring much-needed reform to this field, to restore its respect for humanity, and to rekindle its appreciation of beauty.
As an example of precisely what the Prince of Wales is fighting, consider the following image. That prison-like Modernist structure in the foreground is the new British Library in London. And what are those beautiful Gothic spires in the background? That is St. Pancras—a 19th-century train station. How far have we fallen as a culture when even a train station from another era looks like a structure of wondrous beauty, compared to the Stalinist monstrosities that we are erecting to serve as our libraries—the repositories of our written heritage?
The Prince had the following to say about this particular structure:
The Prince of Wales, like any good cultural reformer, has a Web site where his speeches on architectural matters have been preserved, and are available for anyone to read. It is fascinating to discover how closely his thoughts echo the sentiments that we often express here, albeit on a different topic.
Architecture is comparable to both the fashion and advertising industries in that its creations are an unavoidable part of our lives. We can ignore museums, stop attending concerts, and shun the theatre, but when it comes to physical buildings, we are compelled to look at them, work in them, and even dwell in them—just as we have no choice but to wear the clothes that the fashion industry makes, or to view the images with which the advertising industry constantly bombards us.
The Prince’s interest in architecture arose out of his own frustration—and the frustration of his subjects—at the indifference of that field’s most prominent luminaries to public hostility towards their Modernist creations. As Charles once noted in an inaugural speech,
How similar this sounds to the frustrations that the public has long expressed towards the fashion and advertising industries—for marginalizing plus-size consumers, for producing an endless barrage of unhealthy images, and for making only token concessions to customers’ wishes.
And at the same time, underlying the Prince’s efforts in the field of architecture has been his belief that, despite Modernist propaganda, an essential love of beauty still resides in the hearts of the populace:
And this is the ideal role of a monarch in the present day. As an informed layman on a given subject, he can make the “powers that be” (in whichever field or industry is at issue) take heed of the feelings of the general public, particularly when those feelings are being dismissed or ignored.
The following selection of the Prince’s statements on architecture further reveals the similarity of purpose that his work shares with ours.
On the miserable state of the world in which we live, the Prince notes:
On the conflict of the modern world with essential human values (stated at the opening ceremony of a Modernist art gallery):
On paying attention to the needs and wishes of humanity:
On the idea of an approach to beauty that is in harmony with the wishes of the public:
On using our heritage as a cultural bridge:
On where to turn, for inspiration:
On recovering the beauty of bygone eras:
On our forsaken cultural legacy:
On man’s essential love of beauty:
And finally, two statements positing a healthier future:
Our specific topics are different, but the goals of the Prince of Wales are identical to our own—to recover the timeless beauty of the past and celebrate it in the present. Should any industry professionals find themselves here, at the Judgment of Paris, they will hear the words of the public, of informed laymen who lack the public podium that is afforded a prince or a king, but who care deeply and passionately about the culture in which they live. The Prince’s overall statement of purpose will do for us, as well:
September 2, 2002
Normalizing the abnormal
There is a new and insidious way to write weight-control propaganda—dress it in the cloak of size acceptance.
You can find a particularly egregious example of this technique in the October 2002 issue of U.S. Cosmopolitan. In the past, Cosmo would publish diet-till-you-drop stories with titles like, “Hollywood’s Skinniest Stars—What You Can Do to Look Like Them.” Now, they print stories that are different in approach, but similar in effect, with cover blurbs like:
The author of this piece (who is unidentified) adopts a “shocked and appalled” tone about the visible weight loss that many already-thin Hollywood types have recently experienced. But it’s impossible to miss the fact that the two-page article is oriented around its middle paragraph, which carefully itemizes the “insane” methods that these celebs have purportedly adopted to look even more horrifically gaunt than before. In fact, one such method is spelled out in big bold type at the top of the article’s second page.
In other words, the cover blurb should properly read, “We’ve Uncovered the Insane Ways They Get to Size 0—And You Know You Want to Use Them!”
How clever. Long after readers forget the article’s tone of righteous indignation, they will remember these “insane” weight-loss techniques, and will be sorely tempted to adopt them.
And why such an elaborate ruse? Simple. This way, the magazine can dodge the criticism that its weight-control indoctrination makes women hate their femininity, and at the same time, it can still subliminally perform that indoctrination.
After all, if Cosmo wanted to write a size-positive article, why not profile plus-size talents? Why preface this story with a huge two-page spread of six starving celebs, using images that show just how emaciated they have become?
Why? The article itself provides us with the answer. The author quotes a “star stylist” who describes the effect that seeing the cast of Friends shrink, year by year, has had on the show’s viewers:
Now, when we see a rerun of an early episode, they look slightly plump because our views of normal have changed.
When you stop laughing at the thought of the skeletal Friends girls being thought of, by anyone at any time, as ”plump,” consider what this stylist is saying. “Our views of normal have changed.” I.e., our views of normality have changed because we keep seeing women who look so thin.
This effect yet again confirms the importance of our ongoing efforts to champion healthier images of femininity. We are deprogramming the public from the aesthetic brainwashing of the fashion and entertainment industries. Without that brainwashing, society would favour ideals of beauty based on natural impulse—as was the case in Western aesthetic history for millennia before the power of the media displaced it with the alien standard that still holds sway today.
September 27, 2002
You may contact the author of this page at:
You are cordially invited to visit: