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The Nude, said Kenneth Clark in his study of the ideal figure, was an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C., "just as opera was an art form invented in seventeenth-century Italy." In the masculine urge to celebrate erotic perfection, the sculpted naked body was a harmonious design that illustrated divinity and strength. Wrinkles and other imperfections were never permitted. Geometric proportion was a mystical religion. The first great nudes were beautiful young men. Somewhat later they were joined by beautiful young women.
According to the classical Greeks, in the perfect female torso the distance between the nipples of the breasts, the distance from the lower edge of the breast to the navel, and the distance from the navel to the crotch were units of equal length. Centuries later, the Gothic ideal was strikingly different. With the breasts reduced to oval spheres that Clark finds "distressingly small," and with the stomach expanded to a long ovoid curve that suggests an advanced state of pregnancy, at least to the modern eye, Clark finds that "the navel is exactly twice as far down the body as it is in the classical scheme." The Greek, the Gothic and the Renaissance ideals do share some similarities. In all three forms the feet and toes are wide, strong and sturdy, and the fingernails, when they show, are trimmed short and blunt by modern standards.
Ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph, whatever natural variations the human form can take, the idealization of the feminine form in a given age is usually one form only, and ideas of perfection can change with lightning speed. Not surprisingly, the ideal feminine shape most often goes under the name of Venus, for Venus is the goddess of love, and as the poet Byron expressed it for his sex, "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart;/'Tis woman's whole existence." The first discovered example of a famous paleolithic figurine, all breasts, belly and buttocks, which defied any accepted standard of feminine beauty, was sarcastically named the Venus of Willendorf, as a joke among men.
The tyranny of Venus is felt whenever a woman thinks—or whenever a man thinks and tells a woman—that her hips are too wide, her thighs are too large, her breasts are too small, her waist is too high, her legs are too short to meet the current erotic standard. In London society on the eve of World War I, a Venus painted by the seventeenth-century Spaniard Velasquez was thought to be the most perfect Venus of them all (she still has her champions today). Known as the Rokeby Venus, she reclines odalisque-style with her back to the viewer while she regards her face in a mirror (oh, feminine vanity; oh, feminine wiles). The most memorable aspect of the Rokeby Venus, indeed the focal point of the painterly composition, is—to put it straightforwardly—the voluptuous expanse of her naked ass.
In 1914 when the militant suffrage campaign in England had reached the stage of guerrilla warfare and Mrs. Pankhurst was on hunger strike in Holloway prison, a movement activist named Mary Richardson, alias Polly Dick, decided on an audacious act. Making a stunning connection between the public celebration of the erotic feminine nude and the refusal of Britain's male Parliament to grant women the vote, Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery with a small ax tucked into the sleeve of her jacket and broke the glass that protected the Rokeby Venus before she was dragged off by the guards.
With a symmetry that may be as common in politics as it is in art, the new wave of feminism that began fifteen years ago in the United States coincidentally chose to attack a symbol of Venus in its first dramatic act. In 1968 the Women's Liberation Movement announced itself to a startled public by staging a demonstration at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, protesting, among other points, "Women in our society are forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards that we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously and to accept."
At what age does a girl child begin to review her assets and count her deficient parts? When does she close the bedroom door and begin to gaze privately into the mirror at contortionist angles to get a view from the rear, the left profile, the right, to check the curve of her calf muscle, the shape of her thighs, to ponder her shoulder blades and wonder if she is going to have a waistline? And pull in her stomach, throw out her chest and pose again in a search for the most flattering angle, making a mental note of what needs to be worked on, what had better develop, stay contained, or else? At what age does the process begin, this obsessive concentration on the minutiae of her physical being that will occupy some portion of her waking hours quite possibly for the rest of her life? When is she allowed to forget that her anatomy is being monitored by others, that there is a standard of desirable beauty, of individual parts, that she is measured against by boyfriends, loved ones, acquaintances at work, competitors, enemies and strangers? How can she be immune to the national celebration of this season's movie star sporting this season's body, to the calendar art in the neighborhood gas station, to the glamorous model in the high-fashion photograph, to the chance remark of a lover, the wistful preference of a husband, the whistle or the unexpected hostile comment heard on the street?
As I remember, a thin, fragile wrist easily circled by the fingers of my other hand was the first demonstration of femininity I demanded of my growing body; the second was a small and tightly belted waist. Staying shorter than the boys, or at least not vying for the place in line of tallest girl, became the next consuming worry. "My, she's growing up," and "Isn't she getting big?" were warning rumbles. By the fifth grade I knew that bigness was not what I was after. Slight and slender were my grownup ambitions. Too often for comfort my mother, statuesque and on the heavy side, had teased (in front of my father!) that I was going to inherit her ample bosom. No I won't, I'd mutter, in awe of what I'd seen when we shared a bath. Even worse was the fear that I might not develop at all, that I'd be stuck wearing undershirts for the rest of my life.
She had communicated to me, without really meaning to, I think, that breasts were a problem. Hers had been ruined, she believed, when she had bound them tightly to achieve the flat, boyish, flapper look of the 1920s. "Don't ever bind your breasts," my full-figured mother would say as she poured her flesh into a long-line brassiere-and- girdle combination. As it turned out, this was advice I never needed. At college in the Fifties, the Jane Russell/Marilyn Monroe inflated mammary era, I agonized that I was miserably flatchested and wore my small breasts unnaturally high and pointed in a push-up bra with foam-rubber padding.
At least I wasn't broadshouldered and I didn't have thick ankles. As for dimpled knees, I found that concept puzzling, for mine were bone-hard and knobby, but even more unsettling was their failure to touch when I stood up straight with my feet pressed together. I had to admit I was hopelessly bowlegged. In truth, I didn't form an opinion about my rear end until the middle of the Sixties, for I had grown up in the era of the panty girdle and the two-way stretch, when all young ladies were said to require some abdominal support and containment of our shaking buttocks, not to mention a secure means of holding up our stockings. By the mid-1960s when I put away my bra and girdle in response to a newer model of the feminine body, I found that without one iota of change in my physical dimensions, my breasts were suddenly not too small, and my thighs, hips and buttocks had passed the supreme test—they could fit without chafing into a pair of men's jeans.
In recent years my stomach has been showing signs of spread, implacably female instead of teenage flat, and I cannot pass a group of construction workers on a New York City street without involuntarily sucking in my gut. I do my yoga every morning, eat less than I used to and try not to think about chocolate. Staying thin has replaced staying shorter than the boys and "We must, we must, we must increase our bust" as my bodily desire, and I expect I will continue to be obsessed with weight until, like Lea in The Last of Cheri, I am past the age of sexual judgment and no longer concerned with what a man might think.
At the moment of birth, gender difference in anatomy is a fairly simple prospect. It's a girl ... It's a boy. Those age-old cries of relief arise from one fast look at the baby's genitalia. Patterned by the chromosomal message—XX for a female, XY for a male—a tiny vulva or a little penis is what we see. Beyond the genitals, sexual dimorphism in size and shape does not occur until puberty, when according to a hormonal mechanism that is usually in working order, the boys shoot up and the girls fill out to complete their maturation.
Triggered by her estrogens, the adolescent girl's genitals increase in size and sensitivity, her mammary ducts enlarge, her uterus expands and her pelvis widens. Her ovaries and Fallopian tubes ready themselves for their reproductive function and menstruation begins. Coming of age is marked externally by the appearance of fatty tissue that cushions the pelvic area and mammary glands—the distinctly female soft flesh, the ideally feminine rounded curves of the breasts, hips, buttocks and thighs. Reproductive maturation gives a young woman her figure, the somatic emblem of her sexual essence. Exalted by poets, painters and sculptors, the female body, often reduced to its isolated parts, has been mankind's most popular subject for adoration and myth, and also for judgment, ridicule, esthetic alteration and violent abuse.
When the human male comes of age his genitals also enlarge and become reproductively functional, and he is the proud recipient of increased muscle mass in his arms, chest, back, shoulders and legs. This swift jump in musculature and strength may be enhanced by exercise and sports, but the basic cause is genetic and hormonal. The estrogenic property that adds soft fat to the female body has been used with great success by poultry breeders who want to fatten and tenderize their products for the market, but testosterone would make for a mighty tough chicken. At adolescence a male's skeletal frame grows larger than a female's in all directions except for hip width, and his bones become more dense. Broad shoulders, big bones and rippling muscles characterize the ideal masculine form; they separate the men from the boys, and the man from the woman.
A girl's serious growing is usually over by age thirteen or so, shortly after first menstruation, and she has reached her adult height by the time she is eighteen. Just when she despairs that she will never find a boy tall enough, the boys begin their big spurt. Males, who enter puberty two years later than females, may continue to gain inches until they are twenty. When the sex hormones act in concert with the growth hormones, testosterone is a powerful additive, but a longer growing season for males because of their later maturation is the basic reason why they end up 5 to 10 percent taller.
An explanation for why girls mature more rapidly than boys, and why they stop growing in skeletal size after menstruation begins, may be rooted in our primitive past when life expectancy was low and a female needed to get on with the important job of reproduction as quickly as possible. Obviously, the sooner she reached puberty the better—no such biological urgency would attend the male rate of maturation. Once she started to bear offspring it would be biologically unsound if a mother herself were still growing. A developing fetus and a suckling infant require enormous amounts of protein, calcium and other essential minerals, and these life-or-death demands would create a double strain and a severe nutritional hardship on a body hellbent on its own enlargement. A mother whose skeletal growth had stopped would stand a better chance of survival, and so would her baby. In a phenomenon stressed by Ashley Montagu, for the first few years after the start of menstruation a girl usually is not fertile despite outward signs. These are her years of minor but continued growth, and infertility seems to be nature's way of cutting down on infant and maternal deaths.
Anthropologists view superior size as a reproductive advantage for the male in terms of competition for access to females. In the popular imagination masculinity always includes the concepts of powerful and large, while slight and weak are feminine descriptions. A man-size portion puts more food on the plate and the Man-Size Kleenex packs more tissues in the box. The average American male measures in at a shade over five feet nine inches, and the average American female stands at five feet four and a half inches. If a woman fits neatly into the averages, a few inches shorter than a member of the opposite sex, she is probably going to feel comfortable about size, sweetly in harmony with the proportional esthetics of male-female relations. However, 10 percent of all American women stand above five feet seven and a half inches, and they hover over that 10 percent of all American men who are under five feet six inches. (Ten percent of the population defy the averages for their gender in other signs of dimorphism such as hip girth and width of the shoulders.) Five percent of the female population, the really tall women, upset the order of conventional proportion by standing above the mean height of men.
Most of the gestures of etiquette and the rules of good manners were designed for a conventional disparity in size and strength. A small man protectively holding an umbrella for a taller woman looks faintly awkward, and a conventional difference in size is considered the norm in romantic expectations. The world's tallest woman has said she could never fall in love with a shorter man—at seven feet seven inches, alas, she remains unmarried. Cher is taller than Sonny, but was not in their television promotions. Only a half-inch shorter than Prince Charles when she wore her flat heels, Lady Di was reduced in stature by a full head for the postage stamp that commemorated their royal wedding. "She looked up into his eyes" is more than a breathless phrase from a Gothic novel; it is an expression of the heterosexual relationship as we expect to find it. When a woman stands taller than a man she has broken a cardinal feminine rule, for her physical stature reminds him that he may be too short—inadequate, insufficient—for the competitive world of men. She has dealt a blow to his masculine image, undermined his footing as aggressor-protector. To show a man that he may not be needed is a terribly unfeminine stance, and she knows she will pay for it unless she can compensate in some other manner.
Even though I'm not quite five feet six inches, a lucky size for feminine appearance, I usually feel lumbering in relation to a smaller man. The familiar ratios are out of kilter; the level of eye contact is oddly reversed. Perhaps with an unwitting, forceful gesture I might accidentally tip him over. I suffer for his shortness and feel guilty for the unalterable fact of my height. I slouch, I twist, I tilt my head. I reach into my little bag of feminine tricks, anything to diffuse my apparent solidity, my relative strength. Once on a crowded subway car in Tokyo I felt at the outer limits of appropriate size, in peril of being a rude affront to all Japanese men and a gross insult to their country's sense of exquisite proportion. It was hardly my fault that Americans in general are a taller people, but I did not want to seem un-feminine—outsize, overbearing, impolite.
America produces some of the tallest women in the world, outranked only by the Swiss, the Swedish, the Germans and the Norwegians. We're the same size as many men in southern Europe, Asia and Latin America. We're taller than most Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian soldiers. We're bigger than the Yanomamo warriors of Brazil, the fierce tribesmen of New Guinea, the Javanese, the Lapps and the Maya and Quechua Indians. We're indisputably larger than Kalahari bushmen, the Pygmies and a few other African tribes. American women can tower over Yemenite Jews, Siberian natives and entire village populations in Sardinia and parts of Spain. We're appreciably taller than most French, Italian and Spanish women and we're almost the same height as Polish men. Genetics and nutrition have given us the edge. More than our supposed independence, brashness or sexual liberation, sheer size may give us our unshakable reputation for a certain lack of femininity in comparison to women in other parts of the globe.
Excerpted from Femininity by Susan Brownmiller. Copyright © 1984 Susan Brownmiller. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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