Art masterpieces in Paris made me reflect on the time when plump women were the epitome of beauty
"Over centuries, men have convinced us that we are to like ourselves only in a form that is pleasing to them"
I am at a clothing store in Paris, trying out dresses. There was a time I could blindly buy clothes in my size without trying, knowing that they would fit me beautifully. But those days are behind me; I have to try many outfits before I find the one that flatters me and suits my style without me having to hold my breath in for an entire evening. Seeing that I do not look as good as I hoped to in the dress I have just put on, I make a mental note to avoid sugar and carbs at night during the rest of my trip.
Dissatisfaction similar to mine is being felt by someone else outside the fitting room, where I notice a twenty-something girl in a green dress critically examining her reflection in the mirror. She squeezes the little flesh around her flat stomach and complains to her friend that it looks “flabby” in the dress. This girl is in good shape, but it is apparent that she doesn’t consider herself thin enough. I know that feeling only too well; I have been her for most of my life.
Later the same day, I am at the Musée de l’Orangerie, and not for the first time, I am struck by the contrast between the idealised beauty standards of today and those from past periods in history. As I come face-to- face with the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, I am reminded that men in his time preferred soft and supple women. He was known to celebrate female sensuality through his work, and if you look at his Femme Nue Dans Un Paysage (Female Nude In A Landscape) or consider Baigneuse Assise (Seated Bather Drying Her Leg), you will notice their full faces, plump bodies, fleshy stomachs and gapless thighs, just as they ought to be—unlike the present, where young girls consider thigh gap to be a thing to aspire to. I suddenly begin to feel better about my own body, which I don’t believe is fat, but that I do know has gone soft in places.
On my way out of the museum, I spend some time admiring Pablo Picasso’s Grand Nu À La Draperie (Large Nude With Drapery) and Grande Baigneuse (Large Bather), both monumental seated nudes of a woman of exaggerated proportions. On a day like today, it is indeed a reassuring sight.
As I head towards my next destination, Musée d’Orsay, I deliberately take a longer route to walk to it. Given how impatient I am to drop a dress size, I would be happy to walk to China right now. At the museum, I especially notice Henri Matisse’s famous Woman In White, on show as part of a special exhibition. She sure has a wholesome body, and I don’t remember the artist’s odalisques being without full curves either.
It is here that I also spot Édouard Manet’s iconic Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe (Luncheon On The Grass), where a naked woman sits casually among clothed men, and looks directly at the viewer. I notice for the first time that she has folds on her stomach, although nobody has an explanation as to why the artist has shown her picnicking naked in the company of suited men.
Baigneuse Assise (Seated Bather Drying Her Leg) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Collection Walter Guillaume RF1963-26, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
Photograph: ©RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/ image RMN-GP (Baigneuse Assise)
Leaving this concern aside, I think about all the carbs women could eat in this belle époque of the female form, where artists from Sandro Botticelli and Raphael to Manet and Matisse celebrated a more or less natural body type. In fact, even the very word “Rubenesque” is an eponym, named after the baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, and is used to describe a woman who is plump and full-figured.
How tragic then, that all those women, with their amply proportioned beauty immortalised on canvas, would be forced to sign up for a lifetime membership to a gym and be put on a stringent plant-based low-carb diet today to adhere to contemporary standards of beauty.
In some ways, I wonder if we would make fewer demands of our bodies if we lived in those times. We would no longer reject our natural body forms. There would be no 16-hour fasts, or attempting to subsist on vile protein shakes. No woman would spend hours training like a professional wrestler at the gym, or spin like she was about to participate in the Tour de France at a Soul Cycle class.
In wanting to look athletic, skinny or curvy, we are not only responding to the male gaze but we are using that as a lens to view ourselves with and peg our self-worth against. Over centuries, men have convinced us that we are to like ourselves only in a form that is pleasing to them. Along with their changing tastes and needs, our struggle to keep up with their fantasies has changed, but it remains an everyday fight for many of us all the same. A man’s concept of idealised beauty in the modern world is insidiously dictated to us via media: cinema, television and advertising have played an instrumental role in the way we think about ourselves.
Feeling dissatisfied with our bodies has almost always come naturally to us, and to those before us. I have watched my mother and my aunts habitually diet as I grew up, and I have tried almost every diet on the planet myself: high-protein, fit for life, intermittent fasting, raw, portion control, the GM diet, the Rosedale diet… There is no restrictive food regime that I have not tried at some point in my life.
Femme Nue Dans Un Paysage (Female Nude In A Landscape) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Collection Walter Guillaume RF1963-13, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
Photograph: ©RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux (Femme Nue Dans Un Paysage)
In my early twenties, after dropping two sizes suddenly because of a prolonged bout of jaundice, I lived in dread of putting the weight back on. I am reasonably tall (and I was never fat), but before my illness I wasn’t painfully thin either. In those days, Kate Moss was everything, and I only ever wanted to be Kate-Moss-thin, or “heroin skinny” as they called it. And so, the fear of gaining my lost weight brought about an eating disorder. I became chronically bulimic, and soon I could not keep my food down even if I wanted to. I was low on energy and I developed recurring intestinal pain and acid reflux, but I was happy because I was finally a size 4. At last, I was “supermodel thin”.
I did however eventually come to my senses, and thankfully, regained my health over time. Today, I love my food and I nourish that fondness by eating well, even if it is accompanied by a little guilt. I exercise moderately, and even though I am not crazy about it, I realise its importance in my life.
When I look back at the “skinny but sick” time in my life, I feel sorry for my younger self. And I feel sorry for all those women who have ever had to torment their bodies in order to feel beautiful. It bothers me that young girls today are trying harder than ever before to conform to beauty standards set by our society. Fat freezing, liposuction and tummy stapling are terms that have become dangerously casual.
Teenagers today are gifting each other waist trainers, which are essentially punishingly tight corsets that practically cut off your blood supply. This isn’t new. Scarlett O’Hara wore one, holding on to the bed post as Mammy went about tightening the strings of her corset in Gone With The Wind (1939).
It is indeed natural for men and women to want to look attractive for each other, but we are confronting a bigger issue here that has to do with gender politics, wherein there is relentless pressure on only one sex to maintain its appearance at a certain standard set by the other.
To quote the author and motivational speaker Robin Gerber, “We don’t need Afghan-style burkhas to disappear as women. We disappear in reverse—by revamping and revealing our bodies to meet externally imposed visions of female beauty.”
Grand Nu À La Draperie (Large Nude With Drapery) by Pablo Picasso. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume RF1960-33, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
Photograph: ©RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux, ©Succession Picasso – gestion droits d’auteur (Grand Nu À La Draperie)
Be that as it may, I am not merely placing the blame of these expectations incepted in our minds at the doorstep of men alone. We, as women, have allowed this to happen to us without a smidgen of hesitation. I only recently discovered a woman named Ruth Handler created Barbie, the doll that is the foundation stone of body image issues and eating disorders among girls. This knowledge made me feel cheated. But what disturbed me more was the understanding that our subservience is so deep-rooted that we had one of our own create a man’s idea of an unattainable beauty standard in plastic for little girls to play with and aspire to.
Little wonder then that in order to conform to an idealised body type, women have even attempted extremes such as ingesting tapeworms, laxative abuse, routinely swallowed balls of cotton dipped in juice to kill hunger, used chemical hunger suppressants, and developed eating disorders.
To course correct, society and media will have to start allowing women to have an affirmative relationship with their bodies, just as it allows its men. Don’t impress unfair beauty ideals upon us. There is no point in telling women that they are beautiful just the way they are, and “worth it” unless the model in that ad or the pop star in the music video looks like one of us.
We should not have to reach our forties to realise that we have been prisoners to a male ideology all along. But the tragic irony here is that this has gone on for so long that even as I write about it, I am not confident that I will not be in the doldrums if I discover that I have gained a kilo or two from having spent a week eating crêpes sucrées and macarons from Ladurée by the end of it.
The way I see it, my walk to this freedom is going to be another long struggle.
Shunali Khullar Shroff is a bestselling author, a commentator and a columnist. Her new book, Love In The Time Of Affluenza (Bloomsbury India) is now on stands.