|Venus von Willendorf|
Photo: Matthias Kabel
Depictions of women often depart from faithful representation of the female form. Venus figurines dating back thousands of years exaggerate some features like hips, breasts, or genitals. By choosing to emphasize these parts of female anatomy, perhaps the artists hoped to express their awe at women’s power to create and nurture life.
Artists are limited by the medium in which they work, the technology available, and their own knowledge and skill. As the state of the art has evolved, so has the faithfulness with which artists have portrayed the world. What has not changed though is that artists exaggerate. The media and the tools may be different today than when the Venus von Willendorf was carved some 22,000 years ago; but the basic principle is the same: start from images of actual women, and create an idealized image of femininity.
The practice of enhancing photos of women has become so widespread though, that it has led to a fair amount of criticism. Feminist pundits worry that unrealistic images of women contribute to an atmosphere in which women are held to an unattainable standard of beauty. The argument goes that the prevalence of images of beautiful women makes women feel bad about their appearance, and makes men expect above-average attractiveness in women. It has been shown that the images to which people are exposed do indeed affect their attitudes and behaviors, so perhaps this is not an entirely unfair critique.
Some have suggested one possible remedy: that a warning label be required on all images that have been doctored. It’s hard to imagine this happening though. Most images created today are enhanced in one way or another. Moreover, there is no obvious place to draw the line between unadulterated and enhanced imagery.
Photo: Walter Chin/Glamour
Unfortunately though, this is not a solution. What is average? In the United States and a growing number of countries in Europe, a significant portion of the population is overweight. If depictions of women were based on the average, this example would be an unhealthy one to follow! Most people would be healthier and live longer if they ate less and exercised more. Body acceptance is a great, but not when it facilitates an unhealthy lifestyle.
It’s a good idea to increase the diversity of body types depicted in media—but centered around a healthy body, not an average one.