Repugnant Or Rubenesque
Not so very long ago, there existed a broad line, which has since become vanishingly thin, between that which was considered repugnant and that which was deemed Rubenesque. To the latter category, we once attributed the epitome of the feminine form. Such a “form”, or, a womanly physique so constructed as to be appropriately regarded as “Rubenesque”, was thought to be voluptuous, radiant, and inescapable. She was a well-fed and an everlasting belle. She was seen to be curvaceous and dazzling, if not just slightly overly fleshy here and again there.
Around her midsection and beneath her chin, a little extra epidermis quietly gathered, but its accumulation mattered not; it caused no man in his right mind to turn and look away. Rather the opposite, it attracted him to her all the more, as does an object with a gravity greater than that satellite at whose focal point she sits. Under her arms and around her thighs, a subtle, playful jiggle could be seen to quake, but these movements—flabby but attractively involuntary—compromised her beauty not. She was the gravid rose, the fluffy cloud, the full height and width of human desire and sexual appeal. She was the very portrait women hoped to emulate and the person men yearned to acquire.
Her skin, in all of its unworried beauty and superfluity, wasn’t in the least shy about displaying itself. Such insouciance, in fact, ought to be adopted for our own conduct today; the bane of a social-media-driven culture such as is ours is that we’ve become far too timid, too self-conscious, and ultimately too scathingly judgmental of ourselves and of others with whom we remotely interact. From the celebration of the Rubenesque woman’s skin, we might learn a thing or two about treating ourselves with levity and with ease. This it did well, but it also explored with an endless carnal curiosity the canvas on and around which it lived.
Stymied top to bottom by the restrictions on the woman’s height, her skin found other ways to augment its presence and draw in our attention. It reached and multiplied where it could. Like Vespucci or Columbus, it began its exploration east to west knowing not what it would find when its anchor finally dropped. With longitude soon exhausted (one can grow to be only so tall), the body’s latitude became the next and final frontier. And so began the skin’s trek along the abdominal equator.
Yet that frontier has been pushed ever outward—more so, in fact, than our adventurers ever thought it could. And, exceeding a certain point—a point at which the medical diagnosis of extreme and morbid obesity clinically applies—the skin can be said to have gone too far. Its quest has exceeded its reach. Henceforth, no new lands need be charted, regardless of their portly proximity to her center of mass. However, should that astonishing degree of girth become the new condition, the resultant body is in absolutely poor shape. It’s become massive, unconducive, dangerous, and shocking. It’s launched the woman from beauty to curiosity; from attraction to aberration; from the Rubenesque to the repugnant.
She who was once aesthetically, albeit horizontally well-endowed, has now become engulfed in her own skin. She’s gone quite far beyond the ideal that the Flemish Baroque artist and humanist Peter Paul Rubens (from whom the descriptive “Rubenesque” so cleverly derives) had in mind. To the lay aesthetes among us (a group of dilettantes to whom I unabashedly belong), Rubens is best known for a few things.
One is his erudition. A classical scholar as well as a painter, he captured in his imagination scenes that only a committed philhellene and academic would know. See his Consequences of War or his The Judgment of Paris or his The Origin of the Milky Way (spoiler—its creator is not who you’d think!) as masterful examples of his deep and abiding intimacy with mythology. A second was his unwavering religious devotion. From Athens to Jerusalem, Rubens’ Catholic piety was unsurpassed. One need only glance at his heart-wrenching triptych, The Descent from the Cross to understand his belief and the pathos therein. With but one look at the work and its limp, pallid rendering of Christ immediately after his torturous death, one is struck to the ground with emotion as was Paul the Damascene. Third and fourth are his Baroque style and his depiction of women larger than one would expect. Compared with his contemporaries, Rubens is said to have given all of his women a little bit more than average flesh. He made this idealized, although ultimately very real portrayal of the feminine form manifest in almost all of his work.
Likely, she was very much reflective of her time. Her skin was alabaster white and everywhere plump. Rubens painted her as he saw her—with perhaps just a little artistic encouragement by way of his buxom muse. These ordinary women upon whom he modeled those etched on his canvas were to be found within his cities and within his reach. They were to be seen in the open and jaunty streets of Antwerp (where he lived the second part of his life), or along the circuitous canals of Venice (where he studied briefly in his youth), or somewhere within the voyeuristic tunnels of his own brain (where he ultimately found his spark). And it was they who inspired his portly armies of dancing cherubs and curvaceous goddesses who so often visited man below.
But while the high Renaissance may have been a time of prosperity, cupidity, and aesthetic force, it surely wasn’t one of obesity. That once strictly western and now universal phenomenon would have to wait centuries before it took shape. Though even if it had been an epidemic during his own time, I’m certain Rubens wouldn’t have extolled its virtues nor memorialized its corpulence it in his work. What’s more, had he been the managing editor of a widely-read Anglo-American magazine, I’m sure he wouldn’t have plastered a morbidly obese woman upon his cover for the season’s newest edition.
This was the very action taken by the magazine Cosmopolitan, upon whose cover was featured the American “plus-sized” model, Tess Holliday. Ms. Holliday (née Ryann Hoven), unlike the Rubenesque ladies of yore, fails to strike the dainty balance between plump and pulchritudinous; to her, only the former applies. Most disheartening of all is that she appears to be perfectly content with that being the case. A calling card of sorts, Ms. Holliday relishes in being known as the model who eats too much. “Fat”, she says, “is just an adjective”, and on this point, she’s not entirely grammatically incorrect. However, it must be said that morbid obesity rather than “fat” is far more than a crude and sophomoric insult; it’s a legitimate clinical diagnosis. And one needn’t have in hand his freshly-earned medical degree to confidently state that—at a height of 5’3” and a weight of over 300 pounds—it’s a disease from which she suffers dangerously.
What, then, is a magazine seeking to expand its readership and its sense of inclusivity to do? Must it also expand, or promote the expansion of its audience’s waistband at the same time? Must it also then push a relativistic concept of health and well-being—one where standards and anthropometric recommendations no longer need apply? To promote and to glorify Ms. Holliday on its cover is to do just that. It’s to toss out the Rubenesque and invite the repugnant—however harsh and unsympathetic that is of me to say.
A better, more salutary balance can and must be struck. To the editors of Cosmopolitan, I implore them: find women who coincide with the mean—with real women, powerful and healthy women, reflective women of our own living and breathing age. They’re out there. They exist. What’s more, they have all of the beauty and the grace and the nuance you could want. Forgo this strange temptation to jump from anorexic models to those who are obese—from corpulent back again to thin. Neither are of a healthy stature, and neither will improve the anxieties of example-seeking young ladies who sadly look upon glossed magazine covers for air-brushed idols. Cosmopolitan can become the champion of actual women—the type to whom readers can look up and toward whose healthy example they can strive. Ms. Holliday might even do the same.