Realism vs. idealism in depictions of women

Venus von Willendorf
Photo: Matthias Kabel
People have long held a fascination with the human—and in particular, female—form. Some of the earliest cave paintings from tens of thousands of years ago include depictions of women. Throughout human history, artistic depictions of the female form have reflected the ideals and longings of the cultures that created them. Both instinct and culture are important to shaping these preferences, and concepts of beauty definitely change over time.

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.

Michelle Merkin
Modern glamour photography takes this process to its logical conclusion. Starting with already fit models, photographers and graphic artists tweak, enhance, add and remove, until the desired image of perfection has been achieved. It should come as no surprise that the resulting images are striking, and effective at capturing the attention of readers (and the dollars of advertisers). Perhaps in part because the images are exaggerated, they are arresting.

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.

Lizzie Miller
Photo: Walter Chin/Glamour
Other feminist thinkers have argued for more diversity in the portrayal of women. Glamour magazine recently published a photo of model Lizzie Miller, who, although attractive, is somewhat fatter than the typical photo model. The photo elicited considerable feedback from readers, most of it positive. A common theme emerged in the reaction to the photo: there should be more photos in the media of average women.

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.

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