When I was a kid I used to pore through my mother’s art books she’d bought for the one term she’d spent as a fine art student at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. On the bookshelf behind the end table next to the chair lived a red cloth-bound art-history volume that had black-and-white reproductions of great works of art throughout Western European civilization. Because at this time, African and Native American and “oriental” art didn’t count.
Of all the photos I pored over—even more than Michelangelo’s David (which I’m not sure was represented in its entirety, I think they must have cropped the photo at the waist, the way CBS cropped Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show) I think I most closely studied the Venus de Milo.
At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand that all cultures formulate their ideas of beauty. I didn’t even half-comprehend the irony that as I was studying this photo, my own culture was coming up with these images of sexual beauty:
And then Karen Carpenter starved herself to death, and the first stories about anorexia started appearing in the Time Magazines that used to come to the house.
Now, I understand, YouTube has videos giving instructions to girls and women about how to do it well. That is, how to starve yourself.
I found this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo today.
At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand how to look at this sculpture, but today here’s what I notice from this shot: Aphrodite has abs. Her strength shows. And she has quite a nice bit of padding underneath her skin. Her belly looks like mine (or, my belly looks like hers).
She’s well-fed. She’s fit. She would not fit into a Size 2, or even into a size 6.
She doesn’t have cleavage. Her collarbones aren’t sticking out.
Her posture is upright. She’s confident. (She’s a goddess, right? But still.)
And her face. Her gaze isn’t seductive. She’s not thinking about what other people think about how she looks.
She’s not trying to sell herself to any bidder. She’s occupying her own body.
The other day my friend Noah, who has 20-some years sober, said to me that he’d been living in his head. “I’m way up in my head these days,” is the way he put it, and he sounded trapped.
“Can you get down into your body?” I blurted, only half-knowing what I was asking.
He fastened his blue eyes on my face. “I don’t know what that means,” he said, surprised, thinking.
When do you live in your head? When do you live in your body?
(Originally published August 30, 2013.)