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One glance at the art of Rubens, however, shows that this was not always so—obviously, thinking fat used to be the thing. The opulent fleshy beauty of Rubens's women probably made the leaner ladies of his day frown when they patted their own meager stomachs, and wish they could compete in the big leagues.

Yet today the very name of Rubens is apt to produce a reaction of disgust. Those puffy knees, those bumps and hilts of flesh have never had less fashionable appeal than right now, in the very year of Rubens's th anniversary. He was born on June 28, and, like it or not, must confront the Rubens ideal: His enduring importance as an artist commands international attention, even if it can't coerce universal love. Rubens's greatness as an artist has remained unchallenged ever since the beginning of his career, but by the 's Rubens's art had become increasingly hard to like.

Rubens did have an incredibly fortunate and prosperous life. Besides quickly becoming famous as a virtuoso of the brush, he was cultivated, learned, very rich, and he had a successful sideline career as a diplomat. Rubens's art reflects the unique abundance of his endowment and his heritage. It combines all the sumptuous and harmonious accomplishments of Italian Renaissance art which Rubens absorbed during early sojourns in Italy with native Flemish gifts of nervous energy, graphic skill and a flair for expressive grotesquerie.

The resulting rich confections ideally suited the appetites of his own age, but in modern times these confections, epitomized by his active, fleshy nudes, have sometimes proved hard to digest.

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The 20th century has been trained in more stringent schools of visual economics. In the past 50 years, taste in physical beauty has shown a marked rejection of bodily opulence—or, to put it bluntly, fat. Why should this be so? The look of actual human bodies obviously changes very little through history. But the look of ideal bodies changes a great deal all the time, and so the perception of corporeal facts is edited to match. In ordinary life, a common vehicle of expression for this changing physical ideal is the changing fashion in clothes. In art, the nude whether it is offered by Rubens or Playboy tends to reflect the same changing standards.

Rubens's nude ladies are expertly conceived versions of the fashionable apparel of the day, which favored bunchy satin dresses arranged in thick but mobile folds, especially around the middle. In nude art, shiny satin skin over thick and mobile folds of flesh produced a body perfectly tailored to the chic, erotic taste of the moment.

Meanwhile, in real life, people who were thin wore lush, fluid and bulky garments to suggest that they resembled a Rubens nude underneath. For about years, roughly between andbodily weight and volume, for both men and women, had a strong visual appeal.

There were variations according to country and century in this standard of good looks, but in general it was considered not only beautiful but natural to look physically substantial. In conventional art, not only refined courtiers but servants and rural laborers were depicted as solidly fleshy, clad in thick clothing, and taking up a good deal of space. As for bones, they were totally banished from the idealized female nude. Rubens, reaching maturity at the end of the 16th century, caught the taste for physical plumpness on the rise, so to speak, and gave it a whole new dimension.

Abandoning the smooth terrain of the Renaissance nude, he conjured up a hilly and lustrous landscape of flesh—a new Baroque vision of fat. Rubens's glorification of flesh was an outgrowth of the Renaissance belief in the almost limitless possibilities of the human mind and body. In the visual arts, human importance seemed most appropriately expressed in terms of solidity, of undeniable substance and weight. Thinness of body came to connote poverty and the weakness of disease and old age. It also suggested spiritual poverty and moral insufficiency. A thin body might have been appropriate in the Middle Ages when the Church emphatically preached the unimportance of the flesh, but by the 16th century cultivated opinion had acquired a more worldly view of corporeality, so a thin body looked not only unlovely but unliberated.

Today, slimness is considered an attribute of youthfulness, and both traits are viewed as highly desirable. In earlier centuries, however, youth was seen as an age of blooming plumpness, a time for physical abundance and satisfaction.

Any skinniness or boniness found in youth was an indication of undesirable morbidity—not only a lack of good fortune and muscle, but a lack of will and zest. There was more than sensuous pleasure associated with the fullness of body. It was a visual expression of stability and order. The most extravagant compositions of Rubens and other Baroque artists may be full of flying cloth and soaring bodies, but they are all expertly organized, as stable in form as works of Baroque music. Toward the end of the 18th century, a period of revolution in both taste and politics, a certain underground admiration for thinness arose, stimulated by the literary beginnings of Romanticism.

Such morbid literary thinness was extreme and unorthodox, but it eventually proved fashionable and attractive for its very morbidity, its erotic suggestions of forbidden practices and unholy preoccupations. But the interest in morbidity was a side issue to the more important change in European taste at the end of the 18th century: the growing fascination with Classical antiquity.

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The impulse to look as the Greeks and Romans looked soon contributed to a taste for slimmer bodies. Simultaneously, fashionable clothes were pared down to resemble the drapery of antique sculpture.

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In both art and life, however, a fatty layer was still needed to guarantee that bones not show and spoil the flowing purity of the line. Roucher's soft, chubby nudes perpetuated the Rubens ideal in the 18th century.

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People soon recognized that the whole order of society could be altered at a stroke. And although bodily beauty remained conventionally solid, there was in the air a commitment to movement and movements, to deliberate action and change, to the overthrow of conventions as well as governments. Stable and weighty humanity had become afflicted with the spirit of discontent.

Princess C. Belgiojoso epitomized the Romantic femme fatale. For Picasso, the skeletal look of the poor had esthetic appeal. The change soon became apparent in fashion. Though elegant dress was again bulky, a certain deliberate bizarrerie of shape and accessory, kept in a constant state of modish change along with unprecedented and complicated layers of underwearafflicted women's clothes. Female bodies were ideally very plump above and below but extremely small at the waist. Beefy bodies were considered ideal for men, but the bodies were practically immobilized by clothes: a confining strictness of fabric and fit, and an excessive stiffness of collar, hat and shoe.

Paradoxically, both keen sexual awareness and extreme prudery were expressed vividly in dress. There, thinness of body and starkness of dress came to connote the very spirit of reform and rebellion, of intellectual unrest and dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions. In earlier periods, when sumptuous clothing was considered the sacred privilege and even the duty of high rank, no such movements could have occurred. But in a bourgeois world permeated by puritanism and social consciousness, extravagant clothes and fashionable fatness began to seem unseemly.

Gradually guilt came to lurk under the corsets, flounces and silk hats, waiting for the later revolutions inspired by Freud. The 20th century saw many of the attempted reforms of the 19th century become institutions.

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Two world wars hastened changes already begun. As a result, the thin, simply dressed exponent of reform became the leader of fashion, instead of its underground I enemy. During the preceding centuries, standards of physical beauty were able to reckon without medical science.

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Good health was firmly associated with stable plumpness. Quite to the contrary, meager diets and constant strenuous activity were known to be the unfortunate fate of serfs and laborers. Good health did not mean good muscle tone and good circulation; it meant freedom from disease.

Today, people spend money, time and energy acquiring the skeletal look of galley slaves. They are now in fact the accepted s of mental slavery—weakness of will, neurosis or bondage to ethnic traditions that are dependent on starchy foods as a staple of diet. Even worse, fatness suggests unhealthiness and early death—just as hollow cheeks and bony frames used to do.

Fear of death is, of course, verj strong stuff.

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People who used to be afraid to be thin lest they waste away are now afraid to be fat lest they pop off. They are also afraid to sit still lest they stiffen up, and so stringent exercise, along with a disciplined diet, has often become not just a medical matter but a spiritual preoccupation, especially among relatively leisured people. There are, of course, certain absolute facts about obesity that were unknown to Rubens and his models but that today must be faced.

Overweight can contribute ificantly to ill health and can even kill. Yet public knowledge about the medical dangers of obesity is quite recent, in comparison with the public taste for thin looks.


The fashion for slimness has actually held undisputed sway since the end of the First World War. It seems as if the authority of science were now being invoked to give a very good practical reason for what has always been, and still is, a complex esthetic matter. Slimness has become a staple element in ideal physical good looks, a matter not just of health but of established visual taste, which is currently purveyed—just as it was in Rubens's time—through the idealizations of visual art.

It was probably camera vision more than social change or medical knowledge that created the modern dim view of fat. Well before the end of the 19th century, photography increasingly was seen as the vessel of visual truth. Photographs were supposed to show how things really looked, not how an artist's vision edited them. The camera became a tool with which to stylize and idealize images of reality with more insidious subtlety than ever, and that stylization conditioned and trained modern taste.

The camera is committed to motion. Still photography captures the fleeting moment, as cinematography records motion itself. In both cases, the camera eye tends to fatten the figure: It seems to surround it with an aura, an expanding outline.

The ideal camera figure, therefore, must be slim in reality to allow for the thickening that occurs on film. When, in the second decade of this century, the camera became d to idealize the whole visual dimension of ordinary life in the form of popular movies, the ideal looks of people had to adjust to camera style. Sharply focused, easily understood shapes and lines had to define the figure—no fuzziness of contour, no busy extrusions of clothing, and certainly no bulges. The body had to be slim, and movie dress had to be trim, deed to look good in motion—and to look good photographed in black and white.

Bones, unavoidably disclosed by the camera, gradually became requisites of the new ideal figure. The female jawbone, clavicle, rib cage, shoulder blades and pelvic ridges acquired at last their own measure of fashionable elegance and erotic charm. Yet, surprisingly, homage nas never ceased to be paid to the old ideals. Consider the unique career of Mae West.

All her movies show how the creative camera could shape the image of mature female amplitude into something as sleek and sexy as the modern eye could possibly wish. And in this traditional getup, her bedroom eyes wickedly at work in her plump face, she conquered the male sex with one sashay across the room. Slim as n cigarette, Hepburn embodied the st reatnlined look of 's fimes. Mae West wasn't really very fat, but, just as in the time of Rubens, her clothes and her style of wearing them showed how she saw herself: warm and soft inside, under a gaudy, firmly but fully packed surface.

Her own ample body made her easy in the world: She was like a walking Hollywood bed, luxuriating in its own pillows under a fitted satin spread. We never really lost our love for endowments like Mae's, and so we loved her for her own pleasure in them, even while we and the whole world were conscientiously thinking thin. Recent movie images, mostly imported from Italy, may foster a new change in visual taste. The enormously ample women in Fellini and Wertmfiller films could create a new standard of sexual desirability.

We have already had some models to admire: Mama Cass in the 60's, Barbara Cook in the 70's. Other big figures, such as James Coco and Robert Morley, have already expressed personal pleasure in their own size. One of these days, the bulk of us may be on the way to Fat City—just in time, and in better shape, for the next celebration of the art of Rubens. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions.

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Slim as n cigarette, Hepburn embodied the st reatnlined look of 's fimes Mae West wasn't really very fat, but, just as in the time of Rubens, her clothes and her style of wearing them showed how she saw herself: warm and soft inside, under a gaudy, firmly but fully packed surface.

Chubby and large women

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