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."* * *
Brontė, like many 19th-century British writers, was of two minds about Classical beauty such as Ginevra's. Brontė acknowledges the physical attractions of the ideal that Ginevra represents, but ascribes to it profound moral failings. Ginevera is censured as often as she is praised, as if Brontė were trying to neutralize her dangerous allure by judging her according to an anti-aesthetic, ideological scheme.
So why should the ostensible protagonist of Brontė's Villette--the mousy, self-effacing, and oh-so-proper Lucy Snow--offer her own carbohydrate-rich breakfast rolls, along with her "white beer," her "sweet wine," and her "new milk," to her pampered rival Ginevra, who so eagerly craves all of these things? Why should she be willing to give even more to someone who, in beauty and attractions, already has so much?
We may find the answer in a central tenet of Classical philosophy, one which is as vehemently suppressed today as is Classical feminine beauty. And that tenet is the notion of proportionate equality.
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.
To use an analogy from husbandry, a numerical rather than proportionate understanding of equality would have all growing things treated identically. According to this approach, a spindly cactus and a lush fruit-tree would be cultivated in exactly the same way. But this approach is destructive, because if one were to give a cactus and a fruit-tree equal amounts of soil and water, the result would be that the spindly-looking cactus would remain . . . a spindly-looking cactus, while the fruit-tree would wither and die on this circumscribed allotment of nourshment (i.e., on this diet)--and the world would be deprived of its bounty.
Proportionate equality is the answer. Whereas numerical equality would give equal amounts of water to both plants (to the detriment of each), proportionate equality would give a greater measure of water and care to the fruit-tree--in accordance with its inherently richer nature. The lush fruit-tree needs proportionately more than the spindly cactus. It needs richer soil, and a greater abundance of water. And if it is given these things, it will produce gorgeous blossoms in the spring, and luscious fruit in the fall.
Amazingly, Aristotle even applies this idea directly to the topic of this forum. Also in the Politics, he observes that,
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.* * *
Lucy doesn't even understand why she feels inclined to ensure that Ginevra be more well-fed than she ("I don't know why I chose to give my bread rather to Ginevra than to another"), because she has been indoctrinated into a belief system that is premised on the levelling tendencies of numerical equality. But deep within her heart, Lucy hears the urging of powerful natural forces. Her instinctive reverence for timeless beauty speaks louder than any reductive ideology, and she pays tribute to her more generously-endowed rival accordingly.
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.
But the sight of a plus-size model confounds this philosophy. It compels all but the most brainwashed individuals to acknowledge that there are goddesses among us, that there are some to whom nature ("the judgment of Zeus," as Plato puts it) has awarded more lavish beauty, and more lavish desires. It is in the nature of a Ginevra Fanshawe to have greater wants, just as it is in her nature to exhibit greater allure. Her "just deserts" (indeed, her "just desserts") are more generous, just as her attractions are more generous.
Images of timeless beauty confirm the superior merits of proportionate equality over numerical equality, as they make evident the fact that the just deserts of such goddesses are greater than those of their more diminutive rivals.
Lillian Russell, who in her lifetime enjoyed worship and adoration in equal proportion to her opulent attractions. (Note that the focus of this image is directly on her soft, full arms.)
(Image kindly provided by Mr. David Stone.)