“You have the body of a goddess…”
For a moment, I allowed myself to bask in the glow. Vague visions of those marble-limbed deities beloved of sculptors and painters flickered across the screen of mind. The Judgement of Paris… the Venus de Milo… or, more realistically, something by Botticelli…
…and, meeting my friend’s eyes, the one that was really in both of our minds. The Venus of Willendorf.
“… not that you are that bad…” added my cautious friend, before the cheese-knife could be used to good effect.
Curiously enough, no insult was intended…or taken. It was actually a compliment. My friend clarified by adding that I have the body of a woman who has lived most of her life already, borne, fed and raised children, laughed, suffered and lived to some purpose. Although my body might look out of place on a lissome twenty-something, her body would be equally out of place were I to wear it. I have the body my life has shaped and I am fine with that… though a little less of it would be acceptable too.
The incident amused me, but the conversation and ensuing thoughts made me think a bit deeper about this whole body-image thing. We are, both men and women, bombarded by images of what we ‘should’ look like. From the cradle to the grave, and all across the globe, there are ideals of perfect beauty to which we are ‘encouraged’ to aspire. As most of us are doomed to failure, we leave ourselves wide open for becoming uncomfortable in our own skins.
It doesn’t stop there either. We judge others by their ability to conform to that ideal too. Not always consciously. I read a study a while ago about the deciding factors when going for job interviews. Oddly enough, their findings showed that a few extra pounds could sway a decision against an applicant… and we are talking literally just a few pounds. How reassuring is that when you are job-hunting?
Is that down to some kind of genetic programming that still makes us see each other in terms of ‘fittest mate’? I don’t think so, as our concept of the physical ideal changes so frequently. Within my own lifetime I have seen feminine ‘ideals’ cycle through every body shape from the voluptuous to the gamine. Over history, both men and women have been subject to even wider and often less realistic ideals and have gone to great lengths to conform. Yet we can be sure that at some point in history, somewhere on the globe, we would all have fit the ‘ideal’.
The women of the Italian Renaissance were curvaceous, round-bellied and prone to cellulite… and that was how many of the goddesses were painted. Whoever carved the Venus of Willendorf had yet another ideal, and that got me thinking even more.
She is called the ‘Venus’ even though she was carved around 25,000 years before that goddess was named. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty and desire… not precisely the attributes that today’s culture would project onto the little figurine, but the name does conjure images in the mind, immediately associating the figure with sexuality. The choice of name reflects the supposition that the figurine represents a fertility symbol, because of its physical attributes. So the archaeologists who gave her that name when she was found in 1908 made an assumption and named her according to the lens through which society viewed women.
I looked at her again, asking her who she is. By our standards, she would need to see both a dietician and cosmetic surgeon before she could be considered beautiful. I tried, instead, to look at her through the lens of her time, not mine. The workmanship involved, carving such detail on stone with stone, means that she symbolises something important. She is well fed… and at a time in history when food was hard-won, that must indicate that her attributes were an indication of position in the tribe. The well-fed would be the best hunters, or be supplied by them… or cherished by the tribe.
I thought about the women I know and the changes my own body has seen over the decades. Perhaps she has nothing specifically to do with fertility… perhaps she is just Woman. The Mother who is also Maiden and Crone… for hers is a body that has matured, given and sustained life and yet still remembers youth. She comes from a time when the average lifespan would have been much less than our own. To me, the Willendorf figure has the body of an older woman. The old ones would be the keepers of wisdom for the tribe…the elders who had seen much and survived. They were living ancestors… and age, like the ancestors themselves may have been revered.
The confidence to wear one’s own skin, whether it be old, young or somewhere in between, should not come from a projected image that is no more than a passing fashion. Nor should perfecting it and erasing all signs of age be required of us before we can feel accepted by our ‘tribe’. It is one thing to seek a healthy body, quite another to chase or be cowed by a vision of airbrushed perfection. Why can we not celebrate who we are instead of how we compare or look?
To age is a gift not all will receive. To give life, a grace… to love life, a privilege we could all share. To look in the mirror and see the changes the years might bring, is to know we have lived.