Sizeism in Art

My drawing class began a new project today; recreating a work by an impressionist artist.

I don’t usually go for reproducing work. The thought and care that went into creating that piece, the composition, the color choices, the entire idea, everything is already there. So what I’m creating isn’t meaningful or innovative, it’s just a copy. However, I understand that some pieces aren’t about the finished product, they’re about the learning experience, and as a first year I’d like to improve my technique as much as possible.

I arrived at class with the three images I was considering working from. A Degas:

A Monet:

And a Gauguin:

Interestingly, some people had pieces that were obviously not by impressionist artists. In fact, two separate people had been fooled by Lucian Freud’s work, one student only bringing in three Freud paintings.

Our teacher surveyed the wall, “Jeremy*,” he said with a sigh, “could you tell me why you chose those images?”

Jeremy still didn’t realize his mistake, and began to talk about this painting:

“Well,” he said, “I liked this piece because it’s so grotesque”.

At this point the majority of the room laughed.

“It’s just that, look at this woman, and imagine doing that gesture. And as you keep working it’s just becoming grosser and grosser as you draw and paint more. She’s huge and there’s all of these flaps of flesh. That’s why I picked it”.

Everyone in the room is smiling. Some people nod their heads in agreement.

“That’s great Jeremy, but this piece isn’t impressionist. It’s by Lucian Freud…” My teacher explained Jeremy’s mistake, but not the mistake that I’d like to talk about.

More after the jump!

Yes, Freud’s painting is grotesque. No, it’s not because this woman is obese. Freud’s paintings, no matter what the weight of the subject, are grotesque. They make you squirm, with their artificial lighting and their sickly toned skin. The loose strokes make it look like their skin is crawling, and it makes your own skin crawl as well.

Mockery of those who are overweight is common nowadays. Jokes about obesity are pretty much accepted by everyone as normal (Too many yo mama jokes to count). But why? Around 60% of American adults are obese. Yet despite all this, there’s this attitude that if you’re overweight, you’re lazy. And gross. And probably unintelligent as well.

But this is crazy! How are we drawing all of this negative information from someone’s body type? Genetics play a huge role in weight, and sure, there may be people out there who eat too much and don’t exercise enough, leading to obesity, but there are also those who eat due to emotional disorders. There are those who eat little, exercise a lot, yet never lose weight. There’s also the fact that what some consider overweight can actually be healthier than some acceptable skinnier weights. I don’t want to bash skinny women, I just think that the idealization of models’ weights can go too far.We can’t judge everyone based on our own generalizations. It’s unfair.

The idea that the only attractive bodies are those of thin, young, (and looking at the examples I found, white) women is frequently seen in the media and in the world of art.

Here are only a few recent examples I found, from paintings to sculptures to illustrations and more…

Will Cotton's "Consuming Folly". I could talk about Will Cotton's work in much more detail. Every piece treats women as an object, there only for the pleasure of men. I understand that he's concocting some creepy fantasy world full of sexy women and delicious, sugary treats, but this sort of thing contributes a lot to messed up societal ideals. It's a shame, because his technique is amazing.

Danny Roberts' fashion illustration for Proenza Schouler

Arthur Rackham's "Undine Lost in Danube"

Sam Weber's "The Fisherman's Wife". There are a lot of dead women in the art and fashion world.

Korin Faught's "Leaving Together". Or nearly dead women. But so skinny, amirite???

I don’t dislike these artist’s work. There are things that I love about them. I myself fall prey to mainly depicting thin women in my work, partially because I am thin and draw my own body type frequently, and most likely partially because I’m surrounded by images of thin women every day. And I don’t think that artists are constantly saying, “Hey, we should only depict skinny women. That’ll mess up everyone’s self esteem real good!” But I do think our overwhelming depiction of skinny=good and pure while fat=bad and evil is ruining a lot of self-images and leading otherwise thoughtful and caring groups of students to make sizeist remarks in the classroom.

There’s a lot more to cover in terms of body depictions in art and in the media. There are gender aspects that make the norm of weight for women much less realistic than the norm of weight for men. There are artists who have very positive depictions of weight and positive messages of accepting one’s body. There are specific artists (Like Reubens, Jenny Saville, Will Cotton etc) that I would like to talk about in much more detail.

But I have class in the morning. And a pile of homework. If only that art school thing wasn’t always getting in the way of learning about art!

So expect more later. And if anyone has thoughts on body types and body images in the art world, let’s hear them! I’d love to learn more ideas and points of view on the subject.

*not his actual name.

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5 thoughts on “Sizeism in Art

  1. I wouldn’t consider myself adept in the visual arts, but I do doodle. One of my more frequent doodles is a female nude. But I noticed after a while that all the women I drew were skinny–and I don’t even have the excuse of drawing my own body type. Buxom I may be, but thin I most definitely am not.

    • It’s always good to know our influences and see how they manifest themselves in things we create, whether that’s something we draw, write, say, and so on. Good for you for realizing that you were only doodling skinny women!

      But I would say that in doodles what you draw isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s when the work that’s exhibited and shown in magazines, galleries, museums, and books is only made of skinny women that there’s an issue. Really, doodling and sketching should be whatever we want! I would say that our doodles of skinny women are indicative of that larger problem and not necessarily a problem in themselves.

      Great example, thanks for sharing!

  2. Hayley says:

    Hi there! Your post touched on a lot of issues I’ve had with the media and its depictions of women. It still puzzles me how the ideal female shape has changed over time from a larger, weightier frame to a thin, sometimes corpse-like body.
    I think a lot of times, weight issues are really issues of power. When women want to be thin, very often it’s not out of concern for their health– it’s out of a wish to be more attractive to men. Instead of being the deciders of their own weight, many women let the desires of others become the basis of their decision making.
    And to me, that’s just sad. It’s sad that I can look at the Freud painting you’ve posted and recognize my immediate reaction as “That’s not beautiful at all,” even while I know, logically, there is no reason in the world why it shouldn’t be.
    I guess that’s why it’s best to be conscious about our own feelings and biases, and to question them (and write about them, like you have =P).
    Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks Hayley! You bring up a lot of good points, particularly in how the ideal has shifted from larger women to thinner women (and vice versa at points in time I imagine). It’s strange isn’t it? When people argue that a certain type of figure is objectively attractive or objectively unattractive it’s like they’re ignoring that there’s been a whole history of differing ideals. And it’s so obviously based in what men deem attractive or unattractive for the time period. It makes me sad that we’re raised to think that guys finding us attractive is one of the most important things in life. That we’re raised to constantly value our physical appearance above so many other worthwhile things.

      Thanks again for the comment, gave me a lot more to think about!

  3. Tom says:

    Melissa, I finished reading your blog from beginning to the present. I found a great deal that was interesting to me, so I’m not sure as to where to begin. I decided to start with your March 10, 2011 article “Sizeism in Art.” First, I never heard of Will Cotton before and I like his “Consuming Folly.” I know you wrote of his work that “Every piece treats women as an object, there only for the pleasure of men.”
    Anyway, I recently I found two artists (photographers) who I feel depict large nude women in a pleasant (beautiful?) and certainly respectful way. They are both women. The first is Laurie Toby Edison. Pictures from her book “Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes” can be found at I don’t know if I feel those pictures are beautiful, but I feel most of the women are pleasant to look at. The second woman is Jennette Williams. Her book is “The Bathers” and can be found at (I was looking for Renoir’s the “Large Bathers” when I found it.) The website has a video of Jennette talking about her book and there are pictures. In this video the artist says “’The Bathers’ questions what makes for beauty in women. I don’t really have an answer to that.” I also feel that I don’t have an answer to that and I don’t know if I would say the women are beautiful, but I do feel they are pleasant to look at. I like works of art that I feel are pleasant to look at.

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