Substantial Figures in History

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how concepts regarding beauty are fluid and continuously changing.  What is aesthetically pleasing in one era might be an undesirable trait a few generations later.  Foot binding, while an extreme example, is a practice that comes to mind when I think of beauty rituals and traits that were desirable at one time, but have since fallen out of vogue.

Foot binding was practiced for nearly 1000 years in China.  The beauty ideal of three to five inch long feet was achieved by systematically breaking and binding the feet of girls when they were as young as three years old.  The smaller a woman’s feet, the higher the implied social status and the more desirable she was to potential suiters.  The practice was eliminated beginning in the early part of the 20th century.  In the 1910’s, feminists and labor activists from the Communist Party recognized foot binding for what it was: a painful, debilitating practice intended to control women, reinforce a hyper-delicate feminine ideal and to equate the size of women’s feet with their personal moral conduct.  Eventually, the practice of foot binding was banned and contemporary Chinese culture largely views the practice as an outdated and brutal beauty ritual.  I bet those themes of “control”, “feminine ideals” and “equating size of body parts with moral conduct” sound a little familiar.

Anyway, this concept of ever-changing beauty ideals made me think I would like to do a series of themed posts called “Substantial Figures in History“.  To talk about fat people who were considered beautiful in their day, or to discuss the historical contributions of people of all sorts of shapes and sizes.  To switch to something a bit more light-hearted than foot binding (sorry to be a Debbie-downer), the first subject of “Substantial Figures in History” will be one of the FIRST documented fat people in history: Venus of Willendorf!

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Venus of Willendorf, herself.

At 4.5 inches tall and nearly 25,000 years old, this statue is said to be a representation of what people during her time found to be the feminine beauty ideal.  Her voluptuous size and accentuated lady bits reinforce what were the desirable attributes of 25,000 years ago.  You know…the “two f’s”:  fatness and fertility.  25,000 years ago, being fat would have been a sign of prosperity to her gatherer-hunter society.  And her accentuated lady bits?  Because of doin’ the nasty.  Well, doin’ the nasty AND the then-considered mystical, awe-inspiring, life-generating act of childbirth.  We can’t forget about that, I guess!