I teach a lot. Did you know that? I teach online for a college and a university, stuffing my hours in when the girls are sleeping and playing. Usually it is a pretty seamless effort (but an effort to be sure), but when it is time to grade tests and essays I end up putting in a lot of extra time. I was recently grading a test in which students wrote about this sculpture. Do you know it? Have you seen it?
The sculpture, Aphrodite of Knidos, is a recreation of a work that is attributed to fourth century (BC, yo) sculptor Praxiteles. ANYWAY......the statue depicts the Greek goddess Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty and pleasure and so on and so forth) as she is emerging from her purification bath. She modestly covers herself as she looks off into the distance. The work is important for a variety of reasons, including the use of contrapposto, the fact that this is thought to be one of, if not the the very first full sized female nudes created in the round (meaning you can view it from all angles).
A while back I was grading papers I was looking for that kind of information and a lot more, but as I read along I noticed that many students were focused on Aphrodite's body. Saying things like (I am changing exact words and phrasing) "people enjoyed this work because it was flawed and imperfect." I was reading the papers without first checking the student's names (I like to read without knowing whose paper I am reading) and finally I looked up at the name of one of the authors and realized it was a woman! I was horrified that a woman was taking such a critical look at the body of another woman. It didn't stop there, no less than five other female students commented on Aphrodite's physique---using words like obese and chubby.
Why? Why? But seriously, why?
I will say that I had exactly zero men look at this statue and comment on her weight, simply focusing on the beauty of Aphrodite in a passing remark.
My heart hurts for these women who probably fix that same hurtful gaze on their own bodies in the mirror each morning. Judging their bodies as obese or overweight. Oh how heavy that burden must be to carry. I hurt to know that other women look at each other this way too. Why must we do this?
I am certainly not a master of body image hang ups, but I am working diligently to ease that burden. I try hard to focus on the strengths that I possess. I thank my body every single day for being strong and healthy. Every single time I have negative thoughts about my physical appearance I force myself to note three positive attributes. It is a weird process, but over the course of the past several years this has really changed my inner dialogue and I rarely judge myself in a harsh light anymore.
I try to apply that same process to others. I look at my friends and see the women who have borne children, who get up at five in the morning just to care for their bodies, the women who are naturally fit, the naturally petite, the chronic dieters, the women who run stairs on breaks at work just to stay healthy, the women who struggle to love themselves and I try my hardest to feel empowered by their strengths and to feel compassion for their weaknesses. I hope they feel the same way about me. I would hate to think that we were focusing on each other's physical bodies. What kind of life is that?
So what did I tell my students? Well, as much as I wanted to rage about lifting women up, even stone women created by men, I didn't because I teach art history. Instead I reminded students that standards of beauty are always changing and that it is important to set our modern ideals and beliefs aside as we discuss a work of art. What else could I do?