In our recent discussions of history's most renowned beauties, such as Countess Skavronskaia, and Isabel de Porcel, we noted that the paintings which have preserved their loveliness for eternity also testify to their irresistible self-assurance, their intoxicating vanity. No one can look at their images and fail to realize that these goddesses knew exactly how gorgeous they were, and that they deserved the worship that was bestowed on them.
The archetype of the goddess who is conscious of her own attractions, and knows that she merits adoration, is a leitmotif that recurs frequently throughout the history of Western art. And it invites an answer to that most crucial of all questions confronting size celebration, which is, "Why does the media suppress plus-size beauty?"
But before we get to that, let's consider a fascinating passage from the novel Villette (1853), by Charlotte Brontė (author of Jane Eyre). In the following excerpt, Lucy Snow, the thin, humble, morally-rigid narrator of the novel, is describing her flirtatious, voluptuous, self-indulgent rival, Ginevra Fanshawe:
She had an excellent appetite, like any other healthy school-girl, for the morning pistolets or rolls, which were new baked and very good, and of which a certain allowance was served to each. This allowance being more than I needed, I gave half to Ginevra; never varying in my preference, though many others used to covet the superfluity . . . I don't know why I chose to give my bread rather to Ginevra than to another . . . I always contrived that she should be my convive, and rather liked to let her take the lion's share, whether of the white beer, the sweet wine, or the new milk: so it was, however, and she knew it; and, therefore, while we wrangled daily, we were never alienated.
Ginevra Fanshawe is perhaps the definitive example of that exciting staple of English literature, the vain, spoiled, gorgeous coquette, pursued by all men, and envied by all women. She possesses angelic features, but sensual desires, being described as "orbed, ruddy, and replete," with "plump, and pink, and flaxen attributes." Morever, she becomes visibly more curvaceous as the novel progresses, and, in a famous passage later in the novel, Brontė writes that "Miss Fanshawe's gaieties and flirtations agreed with her mightily. She had grown quite plump; her cheeks looked as round as apples."
In his work titled The Laws, Plato outlines the concept of proportionate equality as follows:
There are two kinds of equality which, though identical in name, are often almost opposites in their practical results. The one of these any State or lawgiver is competent to apply in the assignment of honors,--namely, the equality determined by measure, weight and number,--by simply employing the lot to give even results in the distributions. But the truest and best form of equality is not an easy thing for everyone to discern. It is the judgment of Zeus . . . It dispenses more to the greater and less to the smaller, giving due measure to each according to nature; and with regard to honors also, by granting the greater to those that are greater in goodness, and the less to those of the opposite character in respect of goodness and education, it assigns in proportion what is fitting to each. (757b757c)
The Greeks even provided a mathematical explanation of the notion of proportionate equality, or "equality proportionate to desert," which Aristotle offers in his treatise titled, Politics:
Equality is of two sorts. One sort is numerical equality: the other sort is equality proportionate to desert. "Numerical equality" means being treated equally, or identically, in the number and volume of things which you get; "equality proportionate to desert" means being treated on the basis of equality of ratios. To give an example--numerically, the excess of 3 over 2 is equal to the excess of 2 over 1; but proportionally the excess of 4 over 2 is equal to the excess of 2 over 1, 2 being the same fraction of 4 as 1 is of 2. (1301b29)
This, of course, is where the famous phrase "just deserts" comes from--i.e., the determination that people be given what they justly, proportionately, deserve.
It is harmful for our bodies if those who are unequal have equal amounts of food and clothing; the same goes for honours. (1287a)
To apply this to the case of Ginevra Fanshawe and Lucy Snowe, the fuller-figured, more voluptuous Ginevra wants and needs more than the diminutive Lucy Snow, in order to blossom with youthful beauty. She needs more food, and (as even Aristotle acknowledges) richer clothing. Ginevra's desires are proportionately greater than Lucy's, and her beauty is proportionately greater as well. And even while the moral side of Lucy's nature resents Ginevra for this, Lucy's aesthetic inclinations impel her to provide Ginevra with the extra portions that she requires--the "lion's share"--so that her beauty can reach its fullest potential.
This may provide us with a clue as to why the modern media resists plus-size beauty. The ideologies that dominate media culture are predicated on simplistic, numerical equality, with its goal of levelling distinctions and uniqueness among individuals, and treating everyone as interchangeable, undifferentiated units, in a machine-line manner.
(Image kindly provided by Mr. David Stone.)
Re: Proportionate equality
I was recently thinking about this concept of "proportionate equality" (as opposed to the kind that we're more familiar with today, "numerical equality"), and of how the topic of this forum can actually illustrate it quite effectively.
Let's say that there was a plus-size magazine (such as the fondly-remembered Mode). Today's reductive, "numerical" idea of equality would hold that every model should get the same number of layouts, images, etc. in it. But according to the tenets of proportionate equality, the most gorgeous and talented models should get more editorials, more covers, etc., because their images have the best chance of persuading the public that full-figured women actually can be gorgeous -- and therefore, of advancing the cause of size celebration.
I think the proportionate approach makes much more sense. The idea also applies to ad camaigns (the best models should appear more often), or, beyond modelling, to any field of human endeavour.
Reading this post over again, I was also struck by the relationship that is described between Lucy Snowe and Ginevra Fanshawe, and how this mirrors the mythological idea "Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes," which came up in the most recent "Medieval Beauty" post:
In the example from Villette, Lucy Snow plays the part of Ceres to Ginevra Fanshawe's Venus, with Lucy providing her fuller-figured blonde rival with the sustenance that Ginevra requires to augment her beauty. I wouldn't be surprised if Bronte has this mythological reference in mind, when she conceived of the relationship between these two characters.
Re: Proportionate equality
As we discussed on this forum some time ago, modern culture fosters an attitude of resentment towards feminine beauty. Women are led to believe they should envy the modern media's synthetic celebrities, and should emulate their artificial look through various (pricey) methods of inflicting torture on themselves.
But it is not necessary to make women deplore their natural bodies, for the business world to prosper. Rather, profit can be derived from encouraging women to adorn the figures that they naturally possess (with attractive fashion, jewellery, etc.), to devote their resources to indulgences rather than punishments, to pleasure rather than pain. "Beauty sells," to be sure--but the love of beauty sells better than the envy of it.
And on the other side of the ideological fence, most of the criticism of modern marketing--decrying the supposed evils of consumer culture--is even more pernicious. It operates on the premise that envy is the inevitable reaction to beauty (it is not), and that beauty must therefore be done away with altogether, because when society is reduced to the lowest common denominator, no one will resent anyone else (or so these levelling ideologies maintain).
But banishing beauty from the world does not create a "just" society. Rather, it fosters a grey dystopia, a desolate, utilitarian world in which dream and imagination are replaced by cold functionality, and numerical equality. That experiment has already been tried--and it took barbed wire and a Berlin Wall to keep people from fleeing the countries in which this system was imposed.
Not beauty, but resentment of beauty is the problem. The difficulties that modern society has with beauty are not intrinsic to beauty itself, but arise out of the way in which we have been taught to look at beauty--i.e., in a material way, rather than an ideal way; as a commodity, rather than as a blessing; to envy it, rather than to celebrate it.
When we gaze upon a wonder of nature, such as a lush meadow, or a crystalline stream, we do not resent it. Rather, we are uplifted by it. We feel ourselves ennobled, and happy to exist in a world that displays such natural wonder.
Likewise, we do not begrudge Shakespeare his brilliance when we attend a play, nor do we envy Beethoven his greatness when we hear a concert. Rather, we marvel at these embodiments of human genius, and feel grateful at having our lives enriched by the fruits of their talent.
So too should we delight in the fact that nature occasionally brings Helens of Troy and Lillian Russells into this world--that Venus sometimes takes human form. Rather than envying these goddesses, we should celebrate their attractions. In Classical mythology, Ceres does not begrudge Venus the fact that she has been awarded the greater proportion of beauty. On the contrary, as the deity of food and agriculture, she helps Venus to maintain her beauty, by gratifying her considerable wants.
Not everyone is born to be a Venus, but what is to stop someone from filling the role of Ceres, and helping to nurture the beauty that does exist, so that this beauty can develop more fully, and glorify humanity?
Hopefully the incipient restoration of timeless ideals will foster this celebratory view of beauty, based on the premise of proportionate equality, and the result will be a happier and more harmonious culture.
Christina Schmidt modelling for Torrid, Winter 20005:
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