Yesterday, during my educational peregrinations, I was reminded of a word I haven’t had occasion to use in recent years: “Rubenesque.” Rubenesque is an adjective that can be applied to bodies similar to those that the Dutch painter Peter Paul Rubens put on canvas.
Below, check out the closet thing to pornography I’m ever likely to include in these postings. The painting is the Judgment of Paris and portrays the event that eventually led to the Trojan War. Here, the Trojan prince Paris is called upon by the three unclad ladies to the left to determine which is the most beautiful. The contestants in this beauty contest were three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. If ever three “women” would be granted the ideal of female beauty, these three would claim the prize, right? Yet these women, painted by Rubens in 1636, are, by our standards, pretty chunky.
As the video below illustrates, female standards of beauty have changed drastically over the years. Just within recent decades we have seen these standards swing around from the voluptuous (think Marilyn Monroe) to the emaciated (heroin chic models) and then somewhat back in the other direction.
But here’s my question. Why don’t male standards of beauty swing around as dramatically as female standards do? Do a Google search on the female side of this and you’ll get all manner of hits. The male search yields nearly nothing. A video that promises “Men’s Standards of Beauty around the World,” doesn’t even try to talk much about change over time but in the end fails to show very much diversity around the world.
Look back at the Rubens painting above. The two male characters are the god Hermes (standing) and Paris (seated). Both of them seem a bit fleshy, but I would argue that they’re carrying a lot less “extra” weight on their bones compared to our standards than are the women.
Look at other artwork from the past, works that seem designed to portray ideal male figures. Would you like to have the body of Michaelangelo’s David? Most people would. That figure doesn’t have quite the six-pack belly that magazines would suggest we need to have, but in a real world, at least 95% of men would immediately jump at having his physique. Charles Atlas or Jack Lalanne, photographed in their primes, could fit into a magazine today much more easily than could some of the fleshier female stars of Hollywood’s earlier decades.
Yes, the standards for men change, but they do not seem to change as drastically as the ones for women? Why is that? Is this just another example of the oppression of women by a systematically patriarchal society? (The tongue was in the cheek there.) Does it simply tell us that people–men mostly–don’t really know what they want in the long run? Is there some really good answer to this question that I’m not imagining? I honestly don’t know, but I’d love to see an answer.
We can all agree that either the 97-pound weakling or the grossly obese couch potato is both unhealthy and unattractive in a male. However, we do tend to have a much wider acceptable range when it comes to men than we do for women. A man with a bit of a belly can be tolerated far more readily than a woman with the same belly. Why?
Again, I don’t know, but I think we should all agree that healthy, functional bodies can come with a range of body fat percentages and different levels of musculature. We see that for men, but we seem to see it less easily for women. Both Christian men and women need to recognize that a beautiful female form, a body that can bless and honor God, need not conform to the very rigid and unrealistic expectations that a visually overwhelmed society would impose.