Vol. VIII: July–September, 2003.
Although this Web site focusses on topics related to timeless feminine beauty, we often find it necessary to extend our discussions to Beauty in general. While plus-size beauty in particular came under assault in the 20th century, these attacks were merely part of a century-long cultural war against the notion of Beauty itself—a war that is still being fought today.
However, over the past several years, the present author has sometimes pondered the odd set of circumstances that led him to create and administer a Web site devoted to the theme of Beauty. In fact, beauty is not my traditional area of academic specialization. Ever since my undergraduate days, I have devoted the larger part of my studies to 19th-century Romanticism rather than to 18th-century Neoclassicism, and although “The Beautiful” was very much the focus of 18th-century aesthetics, by the 19th century, another avenue of aesthetic inquiry tended to dominate cultural discussions—the Sublime.
It may now be worth sharing a few thoughts on the Sublime, not merely because it is a fascinating subject, but also because, as the natural compliment to Beauty, it may bring our customary topic into sharper relief.
Although notions of sublimity have been with us since Antiquity, it was during the 18th century, the “Age of Reason,” that the sublime became popularized as an aesthetic phenomenon. At a time when the French Philosophes were explaining human behaviour in rational, mechanistic terms, 18th-century writers were realizing that they still needed a way to talk about those peculiar, irrational sensations that people experienced when they confronted the terrifying ferocity of wild nature, or the sinister majesty of Gothic cathedrals. Those stimuli obviously could not be classified as “beautiful,” but they were also not “ugly” or repellent, since they seemed to provoke a paradoxical combination of horror and delight.
Unable to rationally explain this phenomenon, the English essaying Edmund Burke raised the proverbial white flag, and stated, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that when we are confronted by a sublime object, we become utterly “astonished,” and astonishment he defined as
that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case, the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object.
You can imagine what a setback it was for the Age of Reason to acknowledge an area of human experience that was impervious to reason. Burke proceeded to catalogue in minute detail the sundry elements that he believed could stir a sublime reaction.
Not long after Burke published his seminal treatise, the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay of his own on the same topic titled, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, and that essay provides us with a useful explanation of the sublime, as contrasted with the beautiful, that is well worth quoting here. Kant writes:
Finer feeling, which we now wish to consider, is chiefly of two kinds: the feeling of the sublime and that of the beautiful. The stirring of each is pleasant, but in different ways. The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds,
Far from containing the sublime, Burke’s and Kant’s treatises led European imaginations even further in this direction. Suddenly, artists everywhere were enthusing about this old/new aesthetic idea, the power and grandeur of which offered a welcome alternative to the sterility of the Newtonian cosmic machine. Writers began using Burke’s descriptions as a kind of “cookbook,” and assembling literary works precisely in order to achieve sublime effects, and to stir that intoxicating admixture of terror and pleasure. The most notable immediate examples of this were the infamous “Gothic Horror Novels” of the late 1700s, which spearheaded a full-blown Gothic Revival that was the direct precursor of cultural Romanticism.
Kant also made a crucial distinction between aesthetics and morality in his discussion of both the sublime and the beautiful, a distinction that would have a far-reaching effect on Romantic sensibilities:
Resolute audacity in a rogue is of the greatest danger, but it moves in the telling, and even if he is dragged to a disgraceful death he nevertheless ennobles it to some extent by going to it defiantly and with disdain.
It was the sublime aesthetic effect of this kind of resolute defiance that the Romantics valued above all else, regardless of the moral alignment of the character in question. This notion of an aesthetics beyond morality helped spur the Romantic reassessment of Milton’s Satan, in whom the Romantics found a character who was the sublime personified:
Now, not only could landscapes and settings be sublime, but so could literary characters. The lone individual facing insurmountable opposition, destined to fail, but undaunted in the struggle, became a Romantic icon, and reached an apogee in the dramatic poems of Lord Byron, whose protagonists came to be dubbed “Byronic Heroes,” but could as easily have been termed “Sublime Heroes.” Like wild nature itself, such characters were unconcerned with transitory human ethics. They seemed to be embodiments of an older, more enduring notion of the universe, their actions too extraordinary to be judged by changeable human moral codes.
Incidentally, Kant also gave Beauty a value outside morality, confirming in it the “dangerous” qualities that we still associate with femmes fatales:
The amorous inclination (coquetterie) in a delicate sense, that is, an endeavour to fascinate and charm, in an otherwise decorous person is perhaps reprehensible but still beautiful, and usually is set above the respectable, earnest bearing.
Just as notions of beauty and femininity have been inexorably intertwined throughout the history of Western art, so were notions of sublimity and masculinity merged in the Romantic era as aesthetic compliments. This may shed light on why so many viewers respond favourably to images of full-figured goddesses (past or present) in lush surroundings of flowers, fields and meadows when they are posted here.
Quite simply, these are natural associations.
July 1, 2003
Work that has real value
[This essay is a follow-up to a post titled “Confessions of an Anorexic,” a first-hand account of the negative effects wrought by images of underweight models.]
If only the models, photographers, and everyone else involved in the plus-size industry had any idea of just how much good their work is doing for society, they would never again look upon their efforts as being somehow secondary to the concoctions of the anorex-chic fashion establishment. Rather, they would accept the “plus-size” label as a distinction, a badge of honour; indeed, as the particular feature of their work that gives it real legitimacy and meaning.
To create beautiful images merely for the advertisement of products is neither a morally positive or negative act in and of itself. But to create images for that purpose which also promote size celebration is a truly noble and worthwhile goal.
Not only does the presentation of full-figured femininity endow our culture with true beauty (something it has long been denied), but it also helps to undo the damage caused by the unnatural creations of the thin-supremacist media.
In truth, however, that vague term which we use so often—i.e., “the media”—is quite inadequate in describing the demon that we are fighting. It somehow implies that the media is a simple device, or instrument, that can be ignored or “turned off” at any time.
But it is not. Rather, the images with which we are bombarded, non-stop, every day of our lives, linger with us long after our initial viewing. They penetrate deep into our subconscious memory, and warp our understanding of what a normal human shape looks like, until we no longer see the world naturally, but always distorted by this acquired lens, or prism.
Once our vision has been corrupted in this fashion, whenever we see a full-figured woman (whether in a magazine, or in the mirror), we no longer see her for the goddess that she is, but rather, as someone who falls outside the artificial norm that has been implanted in our minds. Our eyesight has become impaired—the “eye of the beholder” has been corrupted—and natural light no longer penetrates as it should.
Images of plus-size beauty—natural beauty—are like aesthetic contact lenses, or corrective eye surgery, which help undo this damage. They compensate for the visual distortion that our culture inflicts on us. With repeated exposure, they help us bring our blurred vision of the human figure back into focus, so that, over time, we can once again view beauty with the crystalline clarity of sight that we possessed in the Renaissance, in the Baroque, and in every every era prior to our own.
The “media,” then, is simply the leading edge of an overall, society-wide hallucination that recasts artificial thinness as normal, and natural fullness as marginal. And the eradication of this cultural delusion should be the overall goal of size celebration.
July 23, 2003
The Rock Star I Saw at the Mall
Gabrielle (Ford L.A., PB, Hughes) was actually commissioned by a size-acceptance organization to write this memorable piece about junior plus-size fashion, but once she permitted us to read it, we implored her to share it with as many people as possible. It took considerable arm-twisting on our part to persuade her to post the essay here first, and we are certainly grateful that she allowed herself to be persuaded.
The reason why should be obvious. Not only has Gabrielle convincingly written in a youthful voice, speaking as “one girl to another” to the oft-neglected junior audience, but she has composed a piece that is identifiably a work of size celebration rather than mere acceptance. The portrait in words that Gabrielle paints of her “glorious vision” is so vivid that one can almost see it play out in one’s mind, like a scene from a music video—except with a size-16 starlet as the centre of attention. By capturing the essence of a full-figured girl who is so genuinely free of any stigma about her size—indeed, one who is not only comfortable, but delighted with her own appearance—Gabrielle’s essay may help inspire teens who are still wrestling with body-image issues to love themselves just as they are.
Thank you, Gabrielle, for sharing your inspiring vignette. Here’s hoping that someday soon, full-figured teens will be able to see girls like your teenage Aphrodite in the mass media, as well as in the mall.
July 25, 2003
[In response to a message concerning the modern ideal of “angles” in female figures.]
It is still quite astonishing that such an artificial, unhealthy female standard ever became normalized, even with the constant bombardment of images that people receive at every turn in the modern world.
For a welcome counterpoint, anyone who is lucky enough to tour Spain this summer should make an effort to visit the Prado museum in Madrid, which is hosting a highly significant Titian exhibit. We have often referenced the works of this Italian Renaissance master as prime examples of the natural ideal of femininity.
Note the descriptions that the Prado site provides with Titian’s canvasses when one views them at full size. Whatever symbolic dimension these paintings may possess, scholars agree that these works were primarily created as consummate expressions of womanly beauty.
By today’s warped standards, Titian’s goddesses are certainly full figured. And yet, if we look at them objectively, free of modern distortions, we must acknowledge that they are infinitely more attractive than any of the brittle, sunken-cheeked celebrities that stare back at us from news-stands, from television screens—and from Vogue magazine Web pages.
We will yet see the return of the Renaissance aesthetic—the timeless aesthetic—in which curves and softness, rather than angles and hardness, are the characteristics that people naturally associate with the feminine ideal.
July 20, 2003
A Postcard from Italy
Visitors to this forum may recall that, several months ago, we were fortunate enough to hear from a reader in Italy, who kindly translated the text of Elena Mirò’s Da sempre belle advertising campaign for us. She wrote to us again recently, and offered the following snapshot of the progress of the aesthetic restoration in her adopted homeland:
I’ve been having a rather hectic time of it since this Spring, with barely enough time to lurk around Judgment of Paris every so often. It looks as though things are beginning to take a definite turn for the better, plus size-wise. Even in the small town where I live, I’m beginning to meet women, young ladies, and even teenage girls who are rebelling against the media-driven concept of beauty. I wonder just how much companies like Elena Mirò (and, at least here in Italy, there are a plethora of clothing companies—even tiny ones—that have awakened to the fact that even those with “imperfect” figures have money to spend, and will spend it much more willingly to look and feel good and in fashion) have influenced this rebellion? Maybe I already mentioned this to you, but even at the open air market held here twice weekly there are several stalls exhibiting full figured, up-to-the-minute fashions. It seems like every time I’m out, at the supermarket, the hairdresser, the doctor’s office, I see plush women and girls, dressed to the nines, exchanging recipes for luscious things to eat! I recall that only a few years ago nobody plush ever talked about eating where they could be overheard, as though the very fact of eating at all was somehow shameful…
Now, if this is not size celebration, what is? That is exactly the sort of defiantly decadent, “la dolce vita” spirit that we were treated to by MODE, particularly during its first two or three years in print. It almost makes one want to move to the Old Country—or at least to spend one’s holidays overseas. But perhaps the best result would be if experiencing the warmer, more receptive climate for “plus” in Italy kindles in every one of us the determination to do whatever we can to import that spirit to our own culture.
It’s high time that the new Italian Renaissance made an impact on this side of the Atlantic.
August 1, 2003
A Declaration of (Body) Love
A reader of this forum recently drew our attention to a significant article in the August 2003 issue of British Cosmopolitan. The magazine’s table of contents promises the following story:
LOVE THE BODY YOU’RE IN:
When you read a statement like that in a magazine named Cosmopolitan, your reaction is probably something along the lines of: “Yeah—sure you do!” And who can blame you? After all, the women that magazines like this usually employ to “prove” that curves are “cool” are women who are barely curvaceous at all. They are invariably cookie-cutter Hollywood ingénues who fit well within the narrow margins of mainstream-media acceptability, and are about as dangerous to the aesthetic status quo as Kate Moss would be if she gained, oh, five-and-a-half pounds.
But U.K. Cosmopolitan did something rather different this time—something quite extraordinary, actually, for a magazine that is usually just another tool of the thin-supremacist establishment. It published an article that is a legitimate expression of size celebration. And it did so by spotlighting three women who do prove—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that “curvaceous is cool.” And who might these three goddesses be, you ask? Why, plus-size models, of course—specifically, Kate Dillon, Mia Tyler, and Liris Crosse.
The article wastes no time in making its size-positive position clear. It opens with the following heading:
We all know the average British woman wears size-16 clothes, so why aren’t you convinced that curvaceous is cool? We asked these gorgeous models to share what’s great about their shapes
This immediately suggests that the piece might differ from typical, mixed-message, “body-image” stories. The article does not pretend that these models look just like any other models (as if that were some sort of notable achievement!), nor does it refrain from referring to the models’s opulent shapes—as if those shapes were something to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary—it allows the models to talk about their figures at length, and to state precisely what it is about their bodies they really love.
Liris’s enthusiastic answer is proclaimed in big bold letters in a caption which accompanies her image:
“Men go wild for my curvaceous bottom”
If that elicits a round of applause, then the rest of Liris’s ode to her own voluptuousness deserves a standing ovation:
I’m very proud of my body—especially my bottom. Men are crazy about it. I can’t walk down the street without getting whistles and propositions. Sometimes I have to remind men that I have a personality too! I’m single at the moment but, when I’m in a relationship, boyfriends go on and on about how sexy my curves are. Who wants to hug a skeleton?…Eating is one of the main pleasures of life and I’m not about to give that up. I think skinny models are jealous of the fact women like me can eat what we like and still earn lots of money!
How refreshing—how original—to hear such an affirmative statement! And note the unapologetic expression of a love of food, which remains the most dangerous, most forbidden aspect of size celebration. Why are comments like these so rare—even in articles that purport to encourage size acceptance?
Kate Dillon’s response includes the two most famous statements that she has ever made on these matters—statements that we loved so much when we first heard them, that we included them as the captions to her image galleries. They exemplify a Nietzschean revaluation of aesthetic values, a stratagem which is our greatest weapon in the war against the androgynous ideal:
Nowadays, when a woman tells me she’s lost weight, I say, “That’s too bad, I’m sure you’ll gain it back.” I weight myself every week—to make sure I’m not losing weight. I love my body just the way it is.
And finally, Mia Tyler contributes not only the most seductive image of the three, but also the most celebratory message of all. Her big, bold caption reads:
“I adore my womanly tummy”
And her response continues as follows:
I think my belly is extremely sexy. When I was growing up, I used to feel ashamed of it because it wasn’t perfectly flat. Now I think it’s adorable—and so does my boyfriend Dave Buckner…
There you have it—body love. For real.
U.K. Cosmo gets a gold star for publishing this story as is—free of any mixed messages (well, as long as you don’t look at any other pages in the entire magazine), and the models deserve our boundless gratitude and admiration for “proving that curvaceous is cool”—just as the magazine said they would—by showing off their full, feminine curves, and, quite radically, by explaining that there is no reason to suppress a natural appetite.
Ultimately, if you remember nothing else from this post, remember what Mia reveals about how her boyfriend improved her self image:
He makes me feel comfortable with my weight by constantly telling me how gorgeous and sexy my body is.
That is the tone which any writer should adopt whenever he or she discusses matters of size, in any venue, whether here at this forum, or in print for a magazine—especially for a magazine that is targeted at full-figured readers. Not a paltry attitude of tolerance, nor a halfhearted tone of acceptance, but an ardent spirit of celebration. An unconditional declaration of…body love.
August 11, 2003
The MODE Love Affair
[In response to a post by Julie, who raved about the December 1999 issue of MODE magazine, which she had just obtained via an eBay auction.]
In the days when MODE was at its height, we always followed a certain ritual whenever a new issue arrived on our doorstep. First, we removed any pages which contained images that deserved to be preserved for posterity. After scanning said images, we filed those tear sheets away according to the models’ names, and grouped the remainder of the issue separately.
Because of this filing process, and because only about half of the pages in any issue were ever numbered, it was no easy task for us to reassemble our December 1999 MODE, but the effort was well worth it. Today, looking back over the issue as a whole, it comes as a shock—a complete and utter shock—to discover just how good the magazine really was, and particularly, how much better it was than any of the publications that have followed its demise.
First of all, there is that unforgettable cover, which was actually the most beautiful cover that MODE ever produced. Could anything be more eye-catching and irresistible than a shot of Barbara Brickner dressed in an elegant evening dress, expressly designed for turn-of-the-millennium partygoing? The model has a look of excitement and feline sensuality in her eyes, and her dress accentuates her dizzying décolletage in a way that is extremely seductive, but tasteful. It makes the covers of subsequent plus-size publications look altogether lifeless, by comparison.
And note the fact that, at this time, MODE still included a size reference right up front, where all the world could see it: “Festive in size 12, 14, 16…” The moment that MODE removed those numbers from its cover was the moment that it began to falter as a plus-size publication. That visual cue, which clearly stated that the magazine’s styles were designed for women size 12, 14, 16, and up, helped remind the magazine’s staff on a regular basis that their models should be size 12, 14, 16, and up as well.
Like most plus-size periodicals, the December 1999 MODE contained many beautiful ads, each of which was memorable in one way or another, but the issue’s real treats were MODE’s own fashion layouts. Many of you may have probably forgotten—or perhaps you never knew—what a joy it once was to see plus-size models in gorgeous editorials, wearing stylish clothing, and photographed in ways that showcased their exquisite beauty to the fullest.
The “Form & Function” section in our issue is incomplete, but the pages that remain include two glimpses of Shannon Marie, who was a MODE mainstay at this time, and whose every single, sumptuous image justified a subscription to the magazine, all by itself. “Form & Function” was a regular MODE feature in which recommended styles were divided into descriptive categories such as “Petite & Full Hips,” “Hourglass,” “Full Waist,” “Ample Bosom,” and so forth—and, in exhibiting these styles, MODE did not hesitate to use models whose figures actually matched the given descriptions.
The significance of the latter point cannot be overstated. MODE never exhibited any of the stigma about size that has marred fashion magazines before and since. While other publications perpetually operate on the premise that sinful shapes need to be hidden away, or disguised, or minimized, MODE delighted in talking about curves, embracing curves, and revealing curves.
Next, in the issue, we have Angellika, along with two other models, in a clubwear spread called “The Heat of the Night.” Today, plus-size editorials barely acknowledge that full-figured women even have social lives, let alone exciting ones, but MODE knew better. And while opinions about Angellika’s look have always been mixed, she was certainly a visibly full-figured model. She had curves everywhere—and in spreads like this, MODE allowed her to show them off.
Many of this issue’s original readers undoubtedly let out audible gasps as they turned the page and discovered a luxurious lingerie editorial featuring Natalie Laughlin. “Pure pleasure” is the caption that accompanies one of the images in this spread, and nothing could better describe the tone of the layout as a whole. The photography is chic and atmospheric, black and white and rich in mood, and the camera lingers on Mrs. Laughlin’s every curve, caressing every detail—the tummy, the legs, the arms, everything. It is a rapturous homage to full-figured femininity, and worlds removed from anything that any other magazine has ever produced.
Now, consider this—of all the editorial layouts that we have mentioned, none were scanned for inclusion at this Web site. Not one. That indicates just how high MODE’s level of quality really was. Pictorials such as the ones described above, which, today, look like dreams come true, and more breathtaking than one can possibly imagine, more beautiful than anything we can hope for from any other publication, were—at the time that they were published—utterly taken for granted as simply further examples of MODE’s customary brilliance. In its heyday, MODE created one example after another of timeless beauty brought to life, and it did so with such consistency that what appear to be photographic masterpieces to us today were, at that time, simply…business as usual.
The issue ends—or climaxes—with a two short sections, the first being a collection of inspiring thoughts grouped together under the name “Pleasure Zone,” and bearing the following saucy cut line:
This month, have your cake and eat it too. Find a moment in all the hoopla to get your just desserts.
And the second section, titled “The Good Life,“ presents a number of party tips and mouth-watering dessert recipes.
Isn’t the difference between any other magazine and MODE perfectly summed up by the tone of those concluding features? What a telling contrast presents itself between, on the one hand, a magazine editor talking about her own efforts at weight loss, and describing the methods that she is using to achieve this end; and on the other hand, articles titled “Pleasure Zone” and “The Good Life,” which encourage readers to love themselves as they are, and to enjoy their lives to the fullest, rather than prompting readers to view their bodies with displeasure, and to feel miserable unless they change them.
Body love? When it comes to body love, MODE was a storybook romance—a passionate, steamy, love affair based on unconditional adoration, on total and complete physical infatuation, and also, on a deep and profound spiritual connection. Compared to this, it is no wonder that relationships with other magazines seem like “marriages of convenience,” arrangements that exist because there are no better prospects.
To any readers who remember it fondly, the original MODE is rather like a lost sweetheart, and when a magazine comes along which shows its readers that same kind of unconditional body love, they will take it into their hearts, just as they once embraced MODE. Let us hope that such a magazine comes along someday soon.
August 17, 2003
A plus-size model in a music video
No, this isn’t just another Judgment of Paris prediction/fantasy, nor has Barbara Brickner released her first country-music single (yet). At some time during the past year, British plus-size model Lorna Roberts (whom we once listed on our survey page, and who headlined the latest spring and summer campaigns for Marks & Spencer) starred in a music video which received a fair bit of airplay on the television channels that broadcast such fare, particularly in the U.K.
The music video in question is titled “What I Go To School For” (obviously not for instruction in grammar), and the rock group that recorded it, called “Busted,” is one of those supreme musical abominations of our time known as “boy bands.” The premise of the song, and of the accompanying video, is that a British lad of indeterminate high-school age finds a new reason to enjoy attending classes—i.e., for the opportunity that this affords him of ogling his extremely curvaceous teacher.
In the video, Lorna Roberts plays “Miss Mackenzie,” the voluptuous teacher in question, and the Busted trio play the smitten schoolboy and two of his chums.
Seeing plus-size models in music videos is hardly a commonplace occurrence, so yours truly felt obliged to order a video CD-Rom of What I Go To School For, which came with a copy of the music video. (This single currently sits in our CD rack, unhappily positioned between Bruckner and Chopin as the lone album of “modern music” in our collection.) In addition to shots of the Busted boys drooling over Lorna in class, the video (which is only bearable with the sound turned off) shows an extended fantasy-romance sequence in which the lovesick lad dreams of peering through the curtains of his teacher’s window and catching a glimpse of her dressed in lingerie (probably not from Marks & Spencer), then taking her out to dinner, then running with her through a flowery meadow…all prime adolescent fantasy stuff.
Think what you will about this brand of music, the director of the video deserves credit for casting a plus-size model rather than a generic waif as his female lead. The role required someone who was womanly and physically desirable, and it is a mark of progress that the director ascribed these qualities to a full-figured actress. More importantly, seeing this video will send the message, particularly to the young teens who comprise Busted’s fan base, that it is perfectly normal both for a plus-sized woman to be beguiling, and for someone to be beguiled by her.
August 28, 2003
“The only all-out attack on academic freedom you’re ever likely to hear”
Labour Day is upon us once again, which means that all you students out there will be returning to the academy to have your minds expanded and enlightened—or filled up, and sealed tight. Those of you who are progressing with humanities-oriented studies will be subjected to a campaign of indoctrination that is far more sophisticated (because it is far more subtle) than any of the nakedly transparent propaganda efforts of the mass media.
Therefore, let me send you off to class fortified with a shield from the armoury of independent thought. (As always, I will come to a point about size celebration in due course.)
Several years ago, McMaster University attracted none other than the esteemed Dr. Stanley Fish to deliver its annual Whidden lecture series, and it was my great pleasure to attend. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Dr. Fish is one of the preeminent literary scholars and critical theorists of our time. And although critical theory in general has cultivated the malaise of the modern age as much as anything else has, Fish’s famous “reader-response theory” is the exception to the rule, in that it is much more than a narrow, context-based approach to studying literary works. Fish’s method genuinely helps illuminate a text’s richness and meaning.
Fish gave his two Whidden lectures the collective title, Sauce for the Goose—referring, of course, to the old saying, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” He also gave his lectures separate topics. The first night covered “Hate Speech,” and the second night dealt with “Academic Freedom.”
This was all the information that I had about the lectures going into them. Knowing Fish’s reputation as an academic gadfly, but little of his recent work, I had certain preconceptions about what Fish’s stances on these topics might be.
Those preconceptions turned out to be wholly incorrect.
Naturally, I expected Fish to staunchly champion academic freedom, and to defend a tolerance of hate speech as part of the necessary right of academics to think unthinkable thoughts, and to be subversive.
How wrong I was!
Fish began his lectures by characterizing the thrust of his argument as “The only all-out attack on academic freedom that you’re ever likely to hear.”
Audible gasps from the audience followed this statement. Many of us wondered if we had heard Dr. Fish correctly.
Even more surprising was Fish’s first case study—Sam Peckinpah’s 1960s motion picture, The Wild Bunch. Fish framed his discussion by referring to a pivotal scene in this 1960s Western, in which two railway bandits—played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine—discuss the fate of a former friend and ally, who is now riding posse with the U.S. cavalry in an attempt to hunt the two of them down. Borgnine’s character is incensed at this, and considers it the ultimate act of disloyalty. But Holden sees the betrayal in a different light, and says to Borgnine: “You don’t understand—he gave his word to the railroad!”
(This line elicited big laughs from the Marxists in the audience, who interpreted this as a slur on big business—thereby missing Fish’s more subtle point.)
Borgnine’s response in the film is an equally pithy, “It’s not giving your word; it’s who you give your word to!”
Those two statements, according to Fish, define the two opposing positions on hate speech, as well as on academic freedom. Fish identified William Holden’s statement (“He gave his word to the railroad”)—along with the rationale that is implicit in the saying, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”—as representative of the position of classical liberalism, in a tradition going back to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. And this established liberal position, Fish asserted, underlies the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and furthermore, underlies every liberal defense of hate speech as something that is necessary for the preservation of freedom of expression.
Fish, on the other hand, spent both lectures demonstrating the validity of the Borgnine position, (“It’s not giving your word; it’s who you give your word to”), because the Holden statement (and I am only following Fish in identifying the positions with the actors) presupposes the existence of an impossible level of objectivity. Let’s not kid ourselves about our objectivity, Fish asserted. If we are opposed to something, or someone, we are not likely to morally value ourselves equal to them. Quite the opposite. In fact, to invert the Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (which, Fish pointed out, is yet another expression of the William Holden position), Fish observed that “We may think it our moral duty to do unto them what we would not have them do unto us!”
Fish also stated that only those who are convinced of the inconsequentiality of their differences will truly adhere to the William Holden position, because everyone else will think their differences so important as to override that imperative. Or, to put it another way, if the representatives of one side of an argument adopt the William Holden position, then they should not scream bloody murder when the representatives of the other side do not. It was foolish of them to expect that they would.
(At this point in the lecture, I was reminded of an incident described by Spengler in Decline of the West, which I hastily scribbled into the margins of my notes. Spengler cites the following historical occurrence: “When in 1401 the Mongols conquered Mesopotamia, they built a victory memorial out of the skulls of a hundred thousand inhabitants of Baghdad, which had not defended itself.” The Mesopotamians were peace-loving, while their enemies were not, and the relative strengths of the two positions could be seen in that mountain of skulls.)
By now, anyone familiar with Fish’s work will recognize the echoes of his seminal book, Interpreting the Variorum in Fish’s line of reasoning, and it is true that the same arguments that Fish uses twenty years ago to claim that there is no objective text without a reader are the arguments that he used, during these lectures, to demonstrate that asserting objectivity in judgments about speech is illusory. Therefore, Fish continued, since we will be subjective no matter what, why pretend to an impossible ideal of objectivity? Why should judges, for example, be so afraid of condemning hate speech if, after all, they are judges, whose purpose it is to do this—i.e., to make informed but subjective judgments?
Fish also cited a statement by Joseph Raz: “The question [is] whether being absolutely just to another is always more important than all the other possible moral considerations.” This is a strong defense of the Borgnine position, Fish claimed. And in answer to the obvious question, “What other moral considerations?” Fish supplied the possibility that one regards one’s opponent as a “dangerous immoral person purveying incendiary and harmful notions” (that is an exact quote).
The only way out of this conundrum for defenders of First-Amendment thinking, Fish said, (since their claims to objectivity are clearly untenable,) is to state that the First Amendment justifies itself—i.e., that it is self-justifying—i.e., that “It is God” (!). And while Fish concedes that this is a possible defense of the First Amendment, it is not one that he finds persuasive at all.
When a member of the audience asked Fish the obligatory follow-up question about this line of reasoning—“Who, then, will do the judging?”—Fish’s response was simply and succinctly, “Judges!” And in answer to the contention that this prioritized whichever group was holding political power, Fish’s response was, “Don’t get out of power!” (Again, that is an exact quote.)
By way of summary, Fish stated four reasons why the Holden position is questionable. Three of these reasons I can recover for you, word for word:
“Academic Freedom is a bad idea because:
And there was also a fourth, but I missed it while I was frantically taking notes, and cannot now reconstruct it.
So, to everyone who is about to attend lectures in which their professors will tell them that The Tempest is about the exploitation of marginal peoples, or that beauty is merely an example of bourgeois parasitism, or that Beethoven’s music is an expression of the “throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release” (Prof. S. McClary, U of Minnesota), I encourage you to enter your classrooms armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Keep in mind the fact that your professors may consider other factors of much greater importance than dealing justly with the great creators of the past, and may consider it their moral obligation to proselytize from their lectern pulpits, and to use the academy as an “activist factory” in order to shape society as they please, rather than to foster an informed understanding (let alone appreciation) of our cultural heritage.
So what does all this have to do with size celebration? Everything.
This movement is often stymied by the good intentions of its proponents. It is internally weakened by individuals who recoil from criticizing the sycophantic entertainment press corps, the thin-supremacist designers, the curve-o-phobic photographers, and the underweight models who are their (willing or unwilling) puppets in the promotion of an unnatural and socially destructive aesthetic.
The desire is, by many, to impute to the media far better motives than it has, to accept without question its loaded reports about “epidemics” of obesity—this, from a press corps that dubs size-eight actresses “curvy,” and labels anyone who wears a double-digit dress size “overweight”! Despite all of the revelations that have come to light about the fabrications that acclaimed reporters sometimes perpetrate—even going so far as manufacturing sources that do not exist, or writing about places that they have never visited—despite all of this chicanery, people still accept their words as gospel, people still accept without question the validity of their determinations of who is “hot” and who is “not,” people still turn to a “50 Most Beautiful People” list and believe that, of all the people on the planet, those half-starved gym-obsessed individuals actually reflect any kind of true attractiveness, and people still think that if young girls are shopping for “W” sizes, then this is an “epidemic.”
Even at sites that attempt to promote size acceptance, participants often reproduce any and all size-related stories from the mainstream press, often with little comment or criticism, obsessing over them the way some people obsess about the numbers on their bathroom scale. All too often, these “advocates” end up internalizing the values of those stories even as they attempt to poke holes in them, until the size-negative biases of the original reporters become “self-evident” truths. Size “acceptance” soon leads to a helpless “acceptance” of the artificial standards of the amassed media, and ends up being little more than a quest for a little corner for full-figured women to inhabit—for mere tokenism, in other words. People still equate “thinness” with “health.” People still equate “weight loss” with “beauty.” And why do they do so? Because everybody else does. And the media keeps fuelling this perpetual-motion machine.
It’s time for this to end. It’s time to throw a wrench into the machine. It’s time to burst the bubble of perception in which the media has encased us. It’s time to stop playing “fair” with people who are intent on brainwashing society, and who cloak their bigotry about size with terms like “health” or “aspiration”—as if either of those concepts were intrinsically contingent on unnatural thinness.
For ever and always, the culture that we create around us will be the result of a war of words, a war of philosophies and aesthetics. We must fight to win, and not merely expect our opponents to grant us concessions. After all—as Fish would point out—they are “in power,” and they do not subscribe to the William Holden position. If we, for our part, put down our swords and abandon this conflict in the name of some notion of tolerance or acceptance, it simply leaves the field open for the proponents of the androgynous ideal to reassert their own, inhuman standards—and they will be no more “accepting” of size than they have been in the past. Since over half of the women in North America are a size 14 or better, there is no use even talking about “equality” until half of all magazine covers show models size 14 or better—along with half of all actresses. Half—or better.
So before women of size become too tolerant or accepting of statements made by people who hate them, and who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, they might consider the possibility that they deserve more. Much more.
September 1, 2003
Let’s start an epidemic!
Isn’t it sad to read the stories related to body image, weight, and health that the mass media churns out on a regular basis? One would never know that ours is the press of a (supposedly) free society, a society which claims to permit its members “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Rather, one would think that our media is a state-sponsored propaganda apparatus, designed to dictate how people should (and should not) look, what they should (and should not) eat, and above all, what sort of happiness they should and should not pursue.
It is no surprise that the media infantilizes the public from a cultural perspective, cynically appealing to the lowest-common denominator (and by doing so, keeping that denominator as low as it is). This we can expect. It is surely too much to hope for a press corps that fosters an awareness of the cultural legacy of the West, and of the accumulated knowledge of millennia of Western civilization.
However, the media’s current attacks on the body image of young women are beginning to take on a quality of outright hysteria. Some of the articles that warn of so-called “weight epidemics” among youth display such an alarmist tone that they would be ludicrous if they weren’t also disturbing. Many such reports appear to have been written by anxious parents (of the variety of Carmen, Ana’s oppressive and controlling mother in the endlessly insightful Real Women Have Curves film) seeking to rein in their wayward children.
Change a few specifics in such articles, and they could easily resemble the tracts written by fanatical temperance advocates just prior to the passing of the Prohibition laws. Indeed, their writers exhibit such zealotry that they appear to have convinced themselves that they are attempting to save America’s soul, casting food as a Satanic temptation, and eating as a moral failing.
But think, for a moment, what it says about people’s perceptions if they react to the fact that young girls are wearing larger dress sizes by casting this as a “problem,” an “epidemic”—good lord, even as a “crisis.”
Forget for a moment what real crises girls and young women could be facing in their lives (depression, suicide, drug abuse, and so forth). Would it demand such a radical turn of thinking to see this development in an entirely different way—a way that doesn’t accept the bizarre premise that skinniness is the standard to which all young girls should aspire?
How wonderful it would be if parents, the media, and society in general, could interpret these changes as a sign of progress, and realize that, perhaps, this is a good thing. That perhaps this means that some young women are no longer starving themselves. That perhaps these girls have stopped torturing themselves in order to conform to media standards. That wearing larger dress sizes as they blossom into womanhood is a part of nature’s course, and that any attempt to suppress this normal growing process could well lead to an eating disorder.
Is it really so difficult to realize that having young girls shopping at Torrid is infinitely preferable to having them checking into anorexia clinics? Wouldn’t that be the reaction of a press corps (and of a society) that genuinely wishes its youth well, and of parents who truly care about their daughters’ happiness?
The media may be on to something when it speaks of an “epidemic.” In fact, let’s start one right here. Let’s start an epidemic. Let’s breed the strain, and send it out into the populace. Let’s make it as contagious as possible, so that there is no remedy.
Let’s start an epidemic of body love.
Let’s pass it on to as many people as possible. Let’s cultivate it, so that it branches off into several different strains: one, a love of classical statuary; another, a reverence for Renaissance and Baroque paintings; still another, an admiration for today’s plus-size models.
And at some point, the public will realize that what we are spreading, this love of timeless feminine beauty, is actually a cure. It is a cure for the malaise of modernity. It is an antidote to the androgynization of society. It alleviates the symptoms of the war on femininity that society has waged for nearly a century.
Let’s prescribe a healthy dose of body love to all of the young women out there who are wearing larger dress sizes, and hope that this inoculates them against the body-image maladies that the media is helping to spread.
September 4, 2003
A thousand words
At this site, we acknowledge the truism that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that no matter how much theory one devotes to the topic at hand, it remains just that—just theory—unless one puts it into practice.
It’s not enough to talk about size celebration. People have to see it.
However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the ideas which we exchange here—even the tone of voice that we use—can help make a difference, too.
Anyone who writes about plus-related matters—whether they do so for a magazine, for a marketing department, for university credit, or even for their own distraction—must answer questions such as the following ones: How should I characterize plus-size beauty? How can I describe full-figured fashion? What approach benefits the cause? What hinders it? What is too racy? What is too dull? What works? What doesn’t?
And since the mass media is ambivalent about timeless beauty at best—and openly hostile at worst—theirs would be a poor example to follow.
Therefore, the most worthwhile contribution that we can make at this forum may be to present an alternative way of writing about plus-related matters. We should cultivate a discourse that is free of any lingering prejudice about size. We should revalue the thin-supremacist standards of the mass media. We should adopt an approach that is based, not on mere tolerance, or acceptance, but on full-blown adoration. Then, when others are put in the position of describing matters pertaining to curvaceous femininity, they will have an affirmative vocabulary ready at hand.
Fortunately, we are already half-way there. Gabrielle Taber’s recent account of a seeing a size-16 “rock star” at the mall was entirely forward-thinking, and captured the voice of a newer, freer generation. The “Postcard from Italy” that we recently shared was a full-blown ode to the plus aesthetic. Ticolandia’s description of Valerie Lefkowitz’s “David’s Bridal” commercial was a prose poem to a living goddess. Many of the contributors to this forum already write in a heretically size-positive way, and their every post advances the cause one step further.
If we allow this song to swell into a grand chorus, then when others hear these notes, they may find their own voices as well.
Here is an example of a pæan to curvaceous beauty. Our Italian ally sent us the following thoughts about seeing her “postcard” comments shared with a wider audience, and about seeing similar sentiments punctuated by an image of Kate Dillon from the “Princess Pointers” layout in the October 1998 issue of MODE:
I was pleased to receive your email, and got quite a kick out of the “Postcard from Italy.” It reminded me of the times I would visit relatives in the States, and how they loved to hear about things involving my daily life here—shopping for fresh produce every day, bringing home hot fresh bread, haggling in the street markets for everything from fruit and vegetables to quasi-antiques—things I took for granted (while sometimes dreaming of a one-stop shop at a big shopping mall!), but which to them seemed exciting and even exotic.
It may take a thousand eloquent words to match the effect of a single, dazzling image, but when one puts the two together, then oh, how powerful the results may be.
September 9, 2003
“The birth of a whole new movement…”
This is the birth of a whole new movement, a full circle return to the inevitable course of artistic evolution that was interrupted and damaged in the Twentieth Century.
Alphonse Mucha, Dawn (1889)
That statement sounds rather like the credo of the Judgment of Paris, doesn’t it? But in fact, it is quoted from an ARC review of a new art exhibition titled Realism Revisited: The Florence Academy of Art. This exhibition brings together the work of several contemporary painters who have rejected abstraction, and have returned to a representational style.
We have often said that our site does not operate in a vacuum, but is part of a larger movement which renounces modernism as a dead-end in the course of cultural history, and promotes the restoration of the beauty-oriented aesthetic that governed the artistic production of the West since the dawn of civilization. This new exhibit provides us with a significant example of just such a restoration.
The question, “Why does the media resist plus-size beauty?” often yields incomplete answers, full of uncertainty. Industry professionals state (rightly) that it would make business sense for the fashion industry to target full-figured women. Eating-disorder-awareness advocates state (correctly) that it would make moral sense for the fashion industry to stop promoting an inhumanly thin aesthetic. And yet the fashion world remains dominated by the anorex-chic look. Why? Because this twisted ideal did not emerge due to commercial forces, nor due to a perversion of medical opinions about body weight—although both of those factors later perpetuated it. It emerged because of an aesthetic choice on the part of fashion designers. It emerged because of their adherence to the beauty-denying ideology of modernism. Since the Classical goddess was the very symbol of beauty itself, from the dawn of antiquity until the beginnings of the modern age, then for the modernists to win their war against Beauty, they had to obliterate this feminine ideal. And they very nearly did.
But now, in the twenty-first century, we are seeing unmistakable signs of a cultural shift. The growing acceptance of full-figured femininity, first in still images, and then in moving pictures, is part of a true Renaissance of timeless standards. The ARC’s description of the works in the “Realism Revisited” exhibit also applies to the finest achievements in world of plus-size fashion:
The artists included in the Hirschl & Adler exhibition are all motivated by a Renaissance-inspired humanistic approach to their subjects. Much of the art in Realism Revisited dignifies the human experience while also paying careful attention to details such as color, light, shadow, form, and texture.
Luca Giordano (1632–1705), Venus at the Forge of Vulcan
Also in tune with the theme of our Web site is the review’s emphasis that modernism has lost its cutting-edge status, because today, far from being “new,” it is the most exhausted mode of creation in any of the arts (fashion included):
These artists know that abstract art has reached a dead end. Everything that could be done in abstraction has been done. Society’s reaction is a great big yawn! There is nothing left to deconstruct. In fact, it now is time to rebuild. Hirschl and Adler see this so clearly, that they have now made it their policy to no longer represent abstract artists.
Deconstructed female “figures”—Kate Moss and Picasso
In the modernist age, fashion went through one fad after another, then began recycling those fads, regurgitating first one style, then the next, in a flip-flop of “It’s in, it’s out; it’s in, it’s out,” until faddishness itself became outmoded. Just as the Hirschl and Adler gallery finally decided to eschew abstract artists, so are we observing the emergence of an “alternative media” in plus-size fashion advertising (and beyond), which rejects the androgynous standards that still dominate the mass media, and embraces an ideal that genuinely “dignifies the human experience.”
[People] are tired of the gimmicks of the Twentieth Century and the short cuts that produce transitory artifacts that are fashionable for a moment in time, but are not really art. The modernist ideologies are no longer convincing…This audience is too sophisticated with the ways of marketing, too savvy to the rhetoric of modernist promotional verbiage, and too sincere in their attraction to art, to fall for the old line. They want to be able to see the genius with their own eyes in a language that they can be moved by and that they can respond to.
Lévy-Dhurmer, The Temptation of St. Anthony (1896)
Slowly but surely, society is rediscovering how to trust its own instincts, how to identify brainwashing and “spin” whenever it sees it. In time, the media establishment will find it impossible to brainwash the public into believing that crude abstraction is art, or that skeletal models are beautiful, or that alien ideologies should overcome timeless values. And that, perhaps, may be the final legacy of the long, dark night of the cultural soul that was the latter half of the twentieth century: in the attempt to eliminate the notions of beauty and truth, humanity discovered just how barren the world would be without them.
September 13, 2003
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