“Wrong Century” — Brilliant illustration by artist Tomas Kucerovsky depicting the fate of plus-size beauty in the modern age.
TW: (abstract) discussion of rape
To start: I really like this piece of art. Because I like this piece of art, I want to respond to some of the interpretations of it that I have read. I’m not an art expert, or a plus-sized beauty expert, but when the interpretations do not match up with, or ignore parts of, the piece of art, I think it is fair to critique these interpretations.
The most common, and most over-simplistic, interpretation of this piece goes something like this:
“The theme of the page is clear, and the title of the piece confirms it: the girl visiting this museum was born in the wrong century, for in any other era her generously indulged beauty would have been worshipped and celebrated.
In the degenerate modern age in which she lives, however, her loveliness cannot be comprehended, and the public has been brainwashed into accepting the beauty-hating tastes of the arbiters of modern culture.” (http://www.judgmentofparis.com/board/showthread.php?t=2500)
And maybe that is what the author was trying to say (I have no fucking clue), but I think there is A LOT more going on in this work. Here are some of the major things I see going on:
1) I agree that there is a point being made here about how notions of beauty have changed over the centuries. In the 17th-century (when the painting she is observing was created), women’s “fatness” was seen as beautiful, even though the same “fatness” might today be seen as undesirable. Okay, so we see that beauty is socially constructed and there is nothing inherently un-beautiful about fat bodies. Fair. However…
2) The painting that the woman is looking at is Rubens’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (c.1618), which I think is very important. While the daughters in this picture are depicted by Ruben as both “fat” and beautiful and desirable, there are many pictures of the time that do the same but not all of them depict the beautiful women being raped. This choice of painting is very interesting because it both: sets up a contrast between the oft-deemed “unrapeable” (because purportedly undesirable) fat woman of contemporary times with the “rapeable” (because desirable) fat woman of yesteryear, but also shows howthe treatment of (fat) women is different in two centuries, but in each case they are still disrespected and oppressed. Neither the raping men of the painting nor the heckling men in the museum have any real reverence for the personhood of the women they interact with. Whether the (fat) women are perceived as beautiful or not does not necessarily correspond to a recognition of their worth and subjectivity.
3) The idea of the romantic “good old days” where “full-figured femininity” was appreciated really ignores the way that beauty has been constructed in past and present. For example, it has been argued that “fatness” used to be the ideal because fatness attested to the class of the person and their ability to procure abundant and indulgent foods. Today, thinness is seen as the ideal, in part, because thinness often correlates with class status and the ability to procure healthy foods and spend time working out. For this and similar reasons, I think it would be silly to see our age as one where human beings are more degenerate and shallow. Seeing fatness as definitive of beauty is as arbitrary as seeing thinness as definitive of beauty. The fact that people in the past appreciated fatness does not mean that they were paragons of body positivity. It means that they lived in a different social context.
TL; DR: I don’t think it is reasonable to see this art as a romanticization of past times where fatness was regarded as desirable and appropriately feminine. I do think that this piece says a lot about the possibility of seeing fatness as beautiful. And, while I think this art encourages us to accept the fact that different bodies can be beautiful, it also suggests that beauty is not enough. Recognition of beauty does not guarantee recognition of subjectivity and worth. While the acceptance of all bodies is important, it is also not sufficient.