Thursday, 9 September 2010


There were a few articles in newspapers and magazines recently that have gotten me thinking, everyone knows that mass media has been cited as the cause of people feeling they need to be thin and beautiful to be accepted. Media has had the blame piled high but is it actually magazines and TV that have caused this, does it go a lot deeper than that?

My main educational background has been in the arts, paint on paper mostly but I've seen such a broad range from sculpture to living art that I feel fairly comfortable talking about the subject. Art in any form is about getting you and your work noticed, it's all about screaming from the rooftops "This is ME, this is what I can do!" It's no different now than thousands of years ago with the creation of the Pyramids and the Sphinx statues in Egypt, however those craftsmen were nameless when they created them, they were doing it for the good of the Gods rather than personal glory so there was no reason to say who had made them.

Ancient art is fascinating but most of the information gleaned from it is either very technical, or guesswork using what we know of the period it was made in. One piece I've always found beautiful yet puzzling is a tiny sculpture, only 11cm/4.3 inches high, of a woman called "The Venus of Willendorf"

A few technical details: She is made out of 'Oolitic limestone' (I love that name!) and painted with red ochre - a really rich terracotta red. She is thought to have been made between 24,000-22,000 BCE, which makes her at least 25,000 years old. She was found in 1908 by the Archaeologist Josef Szombathy, near the town of Willendorf in Austria, and is currently making her home in the Natural History Museum Vienna. The Oolitic limestone that she's carved from isn't found naturally in the Willendorf area so, the best guess is, she was made somewhere else and travelled in with someone.

I think this tiny sculpture is a marvel, there have been many Archaeological experts and artists who have pondered and wondered over this sculpture: Is it a fertility goddess, is it a representation of Mother Earth? They all seem to want to believe that she is an idealised form of a woman, I've not really heard anyone say yet "Well, hang on. Couldn't he have just seen a big woman he really liked and made a sculpture of her?" They haven't really entertained the idea that a big woman could have absolutely stunned a passing bloke enough to want to make a model of her for all eternity, a lot of them are looking at it from an entirely modern viewpoint.

Whoever carved this - man or woman - was quite frankly an amazing sculptor. This ancient Stone Age relative of ours had a staggering grasp of anatomy and the human form equal, even better in some cases, to the sculptors living today. Just look at her, if this was modelled from life then I applaud them. If this was - as most believe - an idealised form of a woman and not done from life then this person was equal to the great masters! They have got all of the areas where fat commonly collects on women correct, they have got it to hang correctly. Even going as far as to put the 'dimple' just above the bum where our monkey tails used to be. (Humans still have a tiny tailbone, it's called the Coccyx and it hurts like hell if you damage it!) She’s got her arms folded over her breasts, like a lot of pregnant women do with their baby bump. Her head is a little strange, it’s not been decided whether the bobbles on her head are braided hair or a woven hat pulled down over her face. Whatever this is it has made a faceless form, a body without identity.

Women of this size aren't uncommon in history, certainly not in Africa. In Africa a big woman was a sign of great wealth and prosperity as the woman's family had enough to eat that they could overeat! It is regarded as the accepted beautiful figure. There was a series on the BBC called 'The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency' set in Botswana, South Africa. The lead character in the series was 'Mma Precious Ramotswe', played beautifully by American soul, jazz, R&B artist, songwriter and actress Jill Scott, who sets up a detective agency. She's a larger lady and in one of the episodes she goes undercover to solve a case, another character makes reference to the fact that she "Didn't think my son preferred women with a classical figure."

If you're skinny then you must be poor as you can't afford enough to eat. This, ironically, has become a problem for some girls in Africa. Some of the tribes actively force feed their daughters on milk and fat rich cheeses to make them larger and a more attractive prospect for bringing wealth into the tribe, this is causing a lot of health problems amongst certain tribes in some areas! The problem is being addressed by different organisations but it proves that wherever you are, Body Image always manages to creep in.

A societies historical concept of beauty will always influence how the populous see themselves, there is very little 'mass media' in Africa yet everyone knows what a beautiful woman is meant to look like and some tribes are going to damaging lengths to achieve this - all with completely good intentions for their daughters. It's very easy to put the blame on the media, admittedly they don't help themselves, but there is always an underlying established constant that is generally maintained.

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