Our recent discussion about Lillian Russell, and the size-positive editorial policies that governed the women's magazines of her day, raises a rather crucial question:
Is the shift that took place in society during the past century--which resulted in plus-size beauty being displaced as the feminine ideal, in favour of emaciation and androgyny--due to a general cultural change, a change to which writers, publishers, and everyone else working in the mass media simply acclimatized themselves?
did it occur because altogether different
individuals, with different personality types--and correspondingly different tastes--proliferated in the media?* * *
Before we suggest an answer, let's consider an artistic parallel.
As we all know, Western culture developed in stages, or stylistic periods, and many of the greatest artworks that were created during these respective periods were broadly similar in theme and manner.
For example, the art of the Neoclassical era (18th century) is marked by its adherence to order and rationality. The art of the Romantic period (early 19th century) evokes passion and myth. The art of Realism (later 19th century) is less fanciful, and more down-to-earth. And so on.
The puzzle, then, is this:
Do the artists of any given era create their works in accordance with the prevailing style of the time? Or, does the prevailing style dictate which
artists achieve prominence, and which languish in obscurity (or never become artists in the first place?)
For example, are there potential Romantic poets born in every century, but do such individuals only gain recognition if they happen to be born in an era that is itself Romantic? And in other eras, are Romantics and their works simply ignored, and dismissed?
Conversely, in anti-Romantic times, do anti-Romantic individuals become the celebrated artists of that era?
Would Beethoven have composed music like Bach's, had he been born during the Baroque? Or, (unthinkable as this may seem,) would he never have become a composer at all?* * *
Now, to return to the original question . . .* * *
Let's assume that, in every era, the majority of the populace is predisposed to adore plus-size beauty, while a small minority of individuals find womanly curves unattractive (for whatever reasons--cultural, or biological).
What happens when the prevailing artistic taste of a specific era happens to match the inclinations of precisely that minority which does not favour the full-figured ideal? Do these individuals, then, become disproportionately significant in the media? Do they wind up speaking for the culture as a whole--regardless of how small a percentage they actually represent?
As we recently learned, the Ladies' Home Journal of the 1880s espoused a voluptuous figure, and full, rounded facial features, as the epitome of feminine beauty.
Would the same types of individuals who were that magazine's editors in the 19th century also be the magazine's editors today--except that they would be championing today's androgynous standard?
Or, would those individuals have never found their way into the publishing world at all, had they been born in our time?
Conversely, if Anna Wintour had been born a century ago, could she have edited a magazine that featured models who were "voluptuous, with a full, round face and long hair"? Or would she have never entered publishing at all, since her aesthetic tastes would have been incompatible with this timeless ideal of beauty?
This is not merely an abstract problem, but one that has very specific ramifications for our case.
Let's assume, for the moment, that the answer is "yes"; i.e., different types of people, with very disparate tastes, become cultural creators in different eras, based on the prevailing artistic currents of the time.
If so, then we have little chance of ever persuading today's media elite to substantially change their aesthetic.
Quite simply, they cannot comprehend what we are asking for--no more than a Ladies' Home Journal editor of Lillian Russell's day would have been able to understand why anyone would wish to see a malnourished skeleton in a magazine (and specifically, a malnourished skeleton with good bone structure, wearing pretty make up, dressed stylishly, and photographed well).
Plus-size beauty is just as unintelligible to today's fashion elite as the sublime glory of Beethoven's music is to someone who has no trace of Romanticism in their soul.
And because the current fashion establishment cannot understand this timeless ideal, they cannot possibly be expected to present it to the public in a reverent or celebratory fashion.
The most that they can ever be expected to do is to include campaigns based on "reality" in their magazines--campaigns which present full-figured women in a prosaic and homely manner (and do not threaten their aesthetic hegemony).
The only way--the only way--for timeless beauty to ever return to cultural prominence is for different individuals, with altogether different tastes, to enter the media world, and to begin to steer the culture along a new course.
In other words, the same types of individuals who would have been the editors of the pro-plus Ladies' Home Journal of 1883 need to take the tillers of women's magazines today.
Photographers who possess the same aesthetic tastes as those who captured Lillian Russell on film must become today's photojournalists and filmmakers.
Authors who share the same sensibilities as those who described Lillian Russell's beauty in such rapturous prose during her lifetime must become today's fashion writers and entertainment reporters.
If there is to be any hope of recapturing the timeless beauty of Lillian Russell's world--a world that has been suppressed for nearly a century--then those individuals living today who adore that manner of beauty (just as they would have adored it, had they been born in any other century) must engage in the creation of modern culture, and guide it along a new course.
Goddesses of beauty, then and now: Crouching Venus, from the Louvre collection (2nd century A.D.), and Kelsey Olson (21st century A.D.)