High Fashion Is Only Meant for Boyish Bodies, Not For the Venus of Willendorf

Where does this “thin” reality leave the rest of us, the average-sized women?

Venus of Willendorf, dated around 25,000 to 30,000 years ago and found at a Paleolithic site in Austria

by Phyllis Chesler

What do high fashion couturiers think is the ideal female figure? That’s obvious. They prefer a very tall, very thin woman, whose breasts are almost flat and whose hips are as narrow and angled as that of a beautiful adolescent boy.  I spelled it all out in 1976, in a book titled Women, Money, and Power which I published together with Judge Emily Jane Goodman. We divided the chapters up, and I titled one of mine: “I’d Rather Be Dead Than Ugly: The Psycho-economics of Female Beauty.”

Short, round, large breasted pregnant women are not viewed as fashionable. I meditated on this in my 1978 book titled About Men. In a chapter about male womb-envy, I noted that women are hanging everywhere in museums in oil paintings, but “how few of them are pregnant.” Since most women have been pregnant all the time during their child-bearing years, one wonders why our great painters pre-dated high fashion models? (Well, Rubens painted rosy-hued and fleshy women, but none of them were pregnant).

High fashion models who are not a size 0-2 are not welcome on the runways. A “strikingly beautiful” 5’8” model, Jill Korleve, half Dutch, half Surinamese, who wears a size 8-10 is considered a “plus size” model. For years, she tortured her flesh and her soul:

“I was dieting constantly 24/7, trying so hard to conform to the industry standard…I was antisocial, miserable, and never ‘thin’ enough to get booked, so I felt I was starving myself for nothing.”

Take a good look at most movie stars. Big eyes, big, swollen lips, big enhanced breasts, but shrunken, almost mini-women, from the waist down. Child-like. I see women who look like this all over the Upper East Side. Tom Wolfe called them “social X-rays.” I will not denigrate or further reduce them in any way. I only wish that they loved themselves for reasons other than how they look—and perhaps, would like them to enjoy a full meal of whatever they most enjoy, even if it’s fattening, yes, every single day.

Where does this “thin” reality leave the rest of us, the average-sized women? Ethnic women? Women of color? Women whose ancestry is not Northern European? Women who do not have a single “thin” gene in their bodies? Poor women, whose lives are stressed and who tend to eat cheap, comfort foods, all dangerously high in addictive sugars?

These are the denizens of a certain kind of Hell, condemned to perpetual dieting, weight loss medication (if they can afford it), cycles of weight loss and weight gain, self-blame, self-hate, and self-deprivation coupled with permanent shame and frustration while shopping in stores that do not carry clothing larger than a size 12. Larger sizes are in their own, much smaller specialty areas and have fewer selections to offer.

Where can average and average-size women “see” themselves as simply acceptable?

I know: Fat-shaming is out. Large size and fabulous singers and writers are in (Lizzo and her backup crew, Roxanne Gay, Aretha, always).

I know: Men are judged as well—but mainly by what’s in their wallets, not so much on whether they can maintain teenage-era good looks and good bodies into their senior years. Even if they are so judged, the average Joe does not care as much about this as does our average Jane.

Once, I had a 20” waist. Once, I wore bikinis. Once, I cut a fashionable, even a glamorous figure about town, at least for an intellectual. Yes. Other women told me so. This is all that counts.

And then—time passed as it always does. Dangerous illnesses came and lingered forevermore in my immune system. Multiple surgeries led to a more sedentary life style—et Voila! I am now in my 80s, and I’m a large-size woman, a plus-size woman. Most stores do not carry my sizes. The one genuine plus-size store in Manhattan that catered to women of a certain age and size and who had glamorous, sparkly, kinda outfits closed long ago.

Once I became walking-disabled—ah, it became too hard to shop. What to do, what to do. Here’s what.

Over the years, I’ve had simple, silk dusters made for me by tailors in India. A representative would come to my home in New York and measure almost every inch of me.

Lately, sometimes, I have my clothing made by a very talented Russian emigre who works in the tiniest shop imaginable, and like the fairy that she is, spins costumes for her clientele made of burned velvet, silk, chiffon, all really meant for the stage. This luxury is a necessity for me, but it really costs no more than ready-to-wear clothing costs in most Fifth Avenue stores.

There she is, up above. Does anyone even remember our Paleolithic ancestress, aka the Venus of Willendorf? Our droop-breasted, pregnant, or postpartum fertility or Venus-Goddess figure? Where is she now that she’s so desperately needed? Who will fashion clothes for this venerable woman?

First published in 4W.


One Response

  1. Well, I’m not exactly an Adonis figure myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any illusions of being an ideal male form, whether by the standards of the fashion industry, the Classical world, or anyone else. I’m satisfied though, that actual ‘fat shaming’ has been confined to the grade school yard, only a bit, decades ago. No adults go through life being called fatty by people on the street. In the absence of that, there is no such thing as fat shaming. Representations in art and culture are not that.
    That the ideal male form represented in media and pop culture varies between musclebound bodybuilder and more classically fit Greco-Roman archetypes bothers me no whit. That I do not meet that standard does not mean that it is not better and more admirable. That a majority of men, more with every generation, do not approach it does not mean it is not better and more admirable. That men once worried they were too skinny, and now should worry we are too fat, does not change that the Greeks nailed what should be the ideal form.
    Failure to meet an ideal negates oneself, not the ideal. Especially when it has proven realizable for some. And it does not negate oneself all that much, really. It’s just a mild sense of, “huh, well I guess I’m not going to be immortalized in marble”. Or on a magazine cover. The horror.
    I have known many women whose toleration for inferior male forms has been quite strong, just as most men leave their youth with a more plausible sense of the range of female forms. And temperaments. Still I have no objection to the idea that I fall short of a male physical ideal. I’d be a fool not to know that.
    So for women. I never met a straight man in real life who like women who fit the heroin chic mode. Must be limited to men in fashion, straight or gay. A niche taste. On the whole, I and any man I’ve known have had varied preferences in real life, and less but somewhat varied preferences in pictures, skewing thinner but not anorexic.
    This all seems harmless. If women do not want to date Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, or indeed Homer Simpson, I can hardly blame them. I take no umbrage. I do not understand men who have body shame issues, young or old.
    Ergo, I cannot really understand it in women either.
    Now, when it comes to clothing, yeah, the industry has a whole range of problems for men too. And I am not looking for fashion industry twaddle- just regular clothes in regular stores. I’m not even that fat, but try to find my waste size and leg length matched. Or chest and shoulder. Not impossible, but takes some doing. Two main problems on the male side- I suspect Asian size assumptions are one. Another is the nearest equivalent to the problem in women’s clothing- “fit”. Slim fit, modern fit, various others, according to no standard set of terms.
    Chief and most amusing consequence so far- pants that fit my waste size and leg length well, but have a waist to crotch size clearly meant for a slim midget, and very short zipper. Soooo many challenges in maneuvering.

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