Dr. Liz Ahl

When we speak of putting learners at the centers of our classrooms and enabling them to be active participants (rather than passive recipients) in their education, we owe a debt to Women’s Studies.
- Dr. Liz Ahl, from her 2005 Kalikow Award acceptance speech.

2008: Hilary Austin

June 29th, 2008 by Bridget

Hilary Austin

Suite Box 1321

603-496-1992

More Than Just Fat: Jenny Saville and Body Image

Jenny Saville’s paintings of obese women are shocking portrayals of the female figure in contrast to our thin-obsessed society. While her paintings are graphic, vivid and grotesque, they also serve as a realistic view of the body figure many women have grown ashamed of. These paintings give obese woman a place in art and society, finally.

Modern American culture has become increasingly more body and beauty conscious; women who don’t have perfect cheekbones, or have more than an ounce of fat are condemned, labeled “Imperfect”. Women are held to an impossible standard of beauty, and those who fail suffer mentally and emotionally, and often push themselves to their physical limits. Saville has used her gift of brilliant and energetic painting to carve these “imperfect” women their own niche in the world.

Often times her subjects seem bloodied, bruised, somehow beaten down by their “ugliness”, yet their eyes are often deep and emotional, sometimes even seductive. Expertly Saville paints these women on giant canvases, so that from a distance the viewer can experience the figure with a sense of awe, and from a closer view, the viewer can observe the feverish brush strokes that make up these beautiful giantesses.

Body image involves our perception, imagination, emotions, and physical sensations of and about our bodies. It s not static- but ever changing; sensitive to changes in mood, environment, and physical experience. It is not based on fact. It is psychological in nature, and much more influenced by self-esteem than by actual physical attractiveness as judged by others. It is not inborn, but learned. This learning occurs in the family and among peers, but these only reinforce what is learned and expected culturally. (“Body Image”)

Throughout the last century the female body image has bounced back and forth drastically. During the 1920’s, as women fought for liberation from their stifled lives, the ideal figure was slim with short hair, very boyish. During the 1940’s women left their homes to join the work force and keep the economy going during World War Two, the ideal figure shifted to brawny and capable. In the 1950’s the female figure shifted to a more curvaceous form. Large breasts and wide hips meant that women were capable mothers, nurturing and fertile. In the 1970’s female rebellion broke out again, and the bodies of the ‘20’s were revived (Cohen).

In the United States about ten percent of females have some sort of eating disorder, and from these women about 50,000 of them will die as a result of their disorders. In a poll from People Magazine, about eighty percent of women said that they felt insecure about their bodies from the images of the female body found in magazines, movies and TV (“Body Image”).

Everyday women are bombarded by the media, being told “skinny is sexy”, but who is really behind this media machine? The cosmetic, diet, and fashion industries make billions of dollars a year and are dependent on the disempowerment of women (“Body Image). Women are taught that they will never fit in without squeezing into these impossible ideals, and if women can never fit in, they can never be happy. And so the pursuit of the ideal continues and the cosmetic, diet, and fashion industries that make up an empire of beautification, thrive on (“Body Image”).

So, in our skinny-obsessed world, where does this leave the fat people? Over-weight people are discriminated against daily by numerous people, from politicians to doctors, and even strangers on the street. I As a result of discrimination from the “obesity epidemic” “fat” people are coming together in an acceptance movement. In a study by The Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research, it was shown that out of 25,000 men, a fit over-weight man is much healthier than an inactive thin man. Another point that came out of this study was that over an eight-year period technically “obese” people were less likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and strokes than inactive, people of normal-weight (Samuel).

Inadvertently Jenny Saville’s paintings of obese women have helped to bring “fat” discrimination to the public eye. Saville’s paintings Plan, 1993, figure one, Hyphen, 1998-99, figure two, and Hem, 1998-99, figure three, are all of over-weight women superficially, but beneath the painted rolls of fat, Saville has lit up real women with beauty of their own, women who do not fit in to our society’s impossible canon of beauty.

Plan (figure one) is a female nude expertly painted onto a giant seven-foot by nine-foot canvas. The figure is actually modeled after the painter herself, Saville. The point of view is forward and extremely low, the painting starts at her lower thigh, just about knee level, and looks up upon the woman. The most of the canvas is taken up with the woman’s thighs, stomach and the bottom of her breasts. Her right arm awkwardly pins her breasts to her chest, and at the very top of the canvas her face peers back down at us. Her skin is pail and looks slight bruised and pocked.

There are markings on the woman’s stomach and thighs. These lines are like the lines used for instructions in plastic surgery, but also they are like the lines of a contour map. They map out the woman’s body, as she herself is a landmass to be conquered.  When asked about these marks in an interview with Simon Schama, Saville answered “I wanted as many associations as possible to do with organization of a mass, of a human attempt to order something unruly, in this case fat” (Gagosian Gallery 125).

If one examines the face of the figure, one can see her personality and sensuality starting to emerge. Her lips are parted and somewhat pursed, they are plump and very sexual. The one eye we can see is soft and engaging, beckoning the viewer into her painting. Her breasts are half exposed, as if the woman is trying to cover herself up slightly, even though her genitals, a clear affirmation of her womanhood, is fully exposed.

From a distance the viewer is awestruck by the shear size of this painting, and it is immediately apparent that this woman does not fit the typical “model” figure. Her thighs are thick, her stomach is not as flat as it could be, and her breasts are large, but upon coming closer, you can see the beauty in this woman. It may be hard to see past her large size, but once you can, you absolutely cannot miss her sensuality.

Hyphen (figure two) is a strange painting to view at first glance. The painting is of two heads with one set of shoulders. It is closely cropped so that there is minimal background, and all the attention stays on the figures. But although there are two heads, the painting is actually of one singular figure. The two heads are of two different positions of the figure, grafted together into one image. The idea is much like seeing your own reflection in multiple mirrors at once. The theme of multiple views of the same figure is one that Saville often explores, and she refers to this as grafted flesh sections. The theme was a result of studying medical books and specimens, and observing plastic surgery (Gagosian Gallery 124).

The first head is tilted back, with her double chin bulging. Her cheeks are round from being pushed forward, and her hair is drawn back as not to distract from the face. The figure’s lips are plump and sensual, giving off a sexual feeling, but her eyes are half closed and seem glazed over, as if she is just a quite observer. There is also what seems to be an abrasion below the right eye that disappears from the second figure. The second head is tilted down in quite the opposite way as the first. Her chin is held down, hiding the double chin, and her cheek is pushed against the inside of her shoulder. Again her hair is pulled back, to keep from distraction. Her lips are plump and sexual, just like the first figure, but here they are open, as if she might be cooing someone just beyond the painting to come to her. Her eyes are wide and sexual, rimmed by thick eyelashes.

There are two distinct heads in this painting, but only one model. It is interesting to see the two different personalities in this one woman. The first figure is tired and laid back, content to observe, while the second uses a “baby doll” pose to draw people into her. Both are completely sexual, though. “Fat” women are not generally thought of as sexual beings, but it is in this portrait that Saville exposes the subtle sexuality an overweight woman can posses.

Hem (figure three) is a ten-foot tall, seven-foot wide oil painting of a massive woman. Saville claims her inspiration for this piece was Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream (figure four); she said that she wanted “to work with a big area of white” (Gagosian Gallery 127). Hem, much like the painting Plan, has a very low point of view. The painting starts at the woman’s thighs, and then moves up the woman’s obese stomach, which takes up the majority of the canvas, to her breasts, and finally her face. She doesn’t stand face to face with the viewer, but at a slight angle. The woman herself takes up most of the planar space, so there is not the distraction of a background.

The woman’s thighs are massive and her stomach seems to be the focal point of the picture. Her genitals are under played, unlike in Plan, but her breasts are somewhat accentuated, as they don’t sag under their own weight, but stand firm at attention. The woman’s arms are back, mostly out of the painting, as if free from the body. Her gaze is forward, not looking down at the viewer at all, but above his head. Her eyes are squinted, as if she was looking into the wind, which gives her an air of power and sternness, and her lips are closed, silently asserting her power and sexuality.

The whole right side of this figure is formed out of white paint, which both accents the light on the body, and the body’s paleness. Because the painting itself is so massive, one can see the beautiful marks of Saville’s brush strokes. It is amazing to see how one stroke of a slightly darkened flesh tone can create the underside of a roll of flesh.

Saville believes that she doesn’t paint traditional portraits, and that “if they are portraits, they are portraits of an idea or a sensation” (Gagosian Gallery 124). A first impression of this painting is that it is a portrait, but if not in the traditional sense, than what idea or sensation does it portray? Power. This is a portrait of the surprising power that an obese woman can possess. Just like with sexuality, it is not the general conception that “fat” women are powerful, but if one can step back from the fat for one moment, one will find that “fat” women are so much more than their bodies.

“Fat” is an epidemic in today’s world. If you are fat, than you are taught that you are not sexy, and never will be until you look like the stick thin models on television, in magazines, in movies. Women are literally dying to fit into an ideal body type that is impossible for most women to attain. The majority of women are unhappy with their own body image, and so their self-esteem is lowered. And throughout all this, the only people that benefit are those who run the Beautification Empire made up of the cosmetic, diet and fashion industries. Over weight people are discriminated against daily, especially women. And in the midst of all this, Jenny Saville has created many paintings of overweight women, three of which, Plan, Hyphen, and Hem, show these women as more than just “fat”. These three paintings force their viewers to look past the bulging chins and stomach rolls, to the power, beauty and sexuality these women posses. Unintentionally, Saville has brought the issue of what lies beneath the fat to the surface of society.

Work Cited

“Body Image.” Eating Disorder Referral. Eating Disorder

Referral and Information Center. 13 Dec 2007 <http://www.edreferral.com/body_image.htm>.

Cohen, Barbara. “The Psychology of Ideal Body Image as

an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women.” Center for Healing the Human Spirit Publications 1984 12/13/2007 <http://www.healingthehumanspirit.com/pages/body_img2.htm>.

Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Savile. New York, NY: Rizzoli

International Publications, Inc, 2005.

Samuel, Juliet. “Fat Pride World Round.” Reason Online

10/23/2007 12/13/2007 <http://www.reason.com/news/show/123151.html>.

Annotated Bibliography

“Body Image.” Eating Disorder Referral. Eating Disorder

Referral and Information Center. 13 Dec 2007 <http://www.edreferral.com/body_image.htm>. This is an interesting website that has a lot of different articles on body image. The main website is dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, and offers a lot of information on eating disorders and related subjects. It also provides tips on finding doctors and support for those suffering from an eating disorder.

Cohen, Barbara. “The Psychology of Ideal Body Image as

an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women.” Center for Healing the Human Spirit Publications 1984 12/13/2007 <http://www.healingthehumanspirit.com/pages/body_img2.htm>. This is a really great, really long, article that gives a great history of body image throughout the twentieth century in the United States. It also goes into detail on how the diet industry influences body image. It also touches on media influence on self-esteem, which is very interesting.

Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Savile. New York, NY: Rizzoli

International Publications, Inc, 2005. This is a book I bought, which is filled with many of Jenny Saville’s paintings. One of the parts that I really appreciated about this book is that is also has close up shots of a lot of the paintings, so that you can really see the brush work, and it also has pictures of Saville’s studio and reference books. There is also an interview in the back between Saville and Simon Schama, and an article that includes Saville’s work, by John Gray.

Samuel, Juliet. “Fat Pride World Round.” Reason Online

10/23/2007 12/13/2007 <http://www.reason.com/news/show/123151.html>. This was an interesting article that I found online. It discussed the “obesity epidemic” in decent detail, even giving cases where people have been discriminated against by doctors, being told they just need to loose weight when in fact they had serious medical issues. There are other cases stated in here where fat discrimination has led to unfortunate events, such as not being able to adopt, and how children can be taken into foster care in England for being overweight.

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