female form

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female form In many respects, images of the female body serve to define some of the most important discourses of Western culture — the appreciation of Fine Art (beauty, and the tradition of the nude); the application of the law (the prosecution of obscenity and the licensing of pornography); and religious worship (the Virgin Mary and the goddesses of ancient religions — images still prevalent in art). To this list might be added, in certain respects, the practice of medicine (principally obstetrics and gynaecology) as an investigation into the form and interior of the female body. Each of these practices regard the image of the naked woman as the object alternately of fascination and suspicion. Alongside these privileged discourses, the ubiquity of images of women's bodies in both advertising and art, make the female form one of the most familiar, if also most contested, images in newspapers, on cinema screens, and along any public street.

In each case a question of legitimacy arises. How are these images to be judged? Which are acceptable? Which are, by contrast, obscene? The latter question is crucial. Indeed, one way to begin to think about ‘female form’ and its cultural significance is to think of representations of the female body as less of a static object and more as a limit point or set of exclusions, for while an image of the body of a woman can represent all that is pure or worthwhile, it can also embody that which is thought to be the most contaminated and disgusting. The history of art, and indeed that of medicine and the law, is replete with campaigns designed to contain or to repackage the materiality of the female body within the reassuring assumptions of aesthetics. Let us consider some of the ways in which that demand for order has shaped discourses about female form historically.

The most conspicuous example of this social regulation comes from within the languages of aesthetics and art history. Within the tradition of Western aesthetics, female form has been defined and judged on the basis of the plasticity of its parts, the smoothness and fullness of its shape, and its capacity for completeness. Although the judgement of female form has retained a sense (inherited from Aristotle) of the value of order, symmetry, and definiteness, most aesthetic accounts of female form add an appreciation of the sensual and tactile qualities imagined to be defined in the female body. The imagined refinement and poise of the female figure led, by the eighteenth century, to the assumption that an ideal female form was the logical antithesis of the body defined by physical labour or warfare. Unlike the male body, which disclosed the signs of labour through muscular development, the female body was thought to remain whole, and undisrupted by apparent effort. Above all, the female body was assumed to be moulded, enclosed: all openings sealed, all passage denied. In many cultures the assumption of the perfectibility and completeness of the female form has also led to its endorsement as a national or cultural symbol: witness Britannia, Marianne, and the Statue of Liberty, amongst others.

Examples of such reverence for the female form are not hard to find. One of the more notorious is Edmund Burke's, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (first published in 1757). Throughout the Enquiry, Burke describes female form in a way that stresses both its formal resolution and the continuity of its surfaces. Burke writes:
‘Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same.’Despite the air of sexual excitement, Burke's description succeeds in laying its emphasis on the harmonies and varieties of a completely closed and completed form. Female form for Burke represents the perfection of beauty because it embodies no excesses or disunities that might shock his roving eye. Burke is a useful example, as his opinions were to codify aesthetic opinions about the beauties of the female form for over a century after their publication.

This tradition continued into the twentieth century, most notably in the work of the art historian Kenneth Clark. Clark's 1956 study The Nude remains a landmark (albeit an increasingly controversial one) in the description of the female body as art form. Indeed, for Clark the female nude represents the triumph of art: the ultimate transformation of matter into form. In these terms the image of the female nude is a pure form, one that, rather than provoking action, encourages contemplation, even reverence. To make his point Clark differentiates between the celestial and the earthly Venus. The former represents a perfection of the female form, so abstracted from sexual pleasure that it can sanction the male gaze and turns the female body into a work of art. The earthly Venus, by contrast, is warmly sensual, its wanton form always on the brink of immodesty. As such it is taken to be a less deserving object. Clark's statement is a classic example of the ways in which art criticism has sought to regulate the female form.

The opinions of men such as Burke and Clark — they are but two examples from a long tradition — image the female form as potential perfection. It is doubtless for this reason that the nude study has retained its high prestige within art practice and teaching. In order to achieve such prominence and such apparent respectability, the female body is assumed to require transformation and realignment. It is commonplace within the tradition of aesthetics to argue that while mere flesh is pornographic, art requires the contemplation of purified form: the body's orifices are either passed over or discreetly sealed. The exclusivity of such a position should be made evident: the bodies of women which do not fit this profile are imagined not to count as art or imagined to be deficient, excessive, or disgusting. This might include: bodies of aged, disfigured, or impoverished women; the body during parturition or menstruation; the pornographic image; the apparently savage or bestial. In each case the rejected form is taken to embody that which is beyond the bounds or transgresses the limits of, variously, decency, acceptability, or good taste. Of this latter category the nineteenth-century interest in the ‘Hottentot venus’ will serve as a good example. During the 1860s, the protruding buttocks and pendulous breasts of Hottentot (Khoikhoi) women provided Victorian society with an object of both anthropological inquiry and almost pornographic curiosity. Certainly the differences between African and white women were both examined and exaggerated as part of the spectacle of imperialism. Most importantly, the physical form of other peoples was imagined to define the greater perfection of Europeans.

Since the 1970s, feminist art practitioners have sought to challenge and to overturn the restrictive and complacent assumptions of this dominant tradition. From the late sixties onwards there was a growing sense within the Women's Movement that such discourses had a profound and detrimental effect not only on women's self esteem, but more forcefully on women's health. Seeking to break the stranglehold of a tradition that upholds only one image of the female body, artists have sought to emphasize the divergence and difference of the female form. In place of the insistence upon the pure form of the feminine body, artists such as Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman, and Jo Spence represent their own bodies as both different and distinctive, and in so doing reject the dominant aesthetic tradition represented by Burke and Clark. In so doing, many artists, most controversially performance artists, have rejected the assumption that the female body is best presented by the stasis of its exterior surfaces, and have represented the female body as potentially difficult, open, or inclusive. Such a movement is both utopian and critical in its insistence on the multiplicity of women and the diversity of female form. The success of such a project would transform the language of aesthetics irrecoverably.

Robert W. Jones


Clark, K. (1956). The nude: a study of ideal art. John Murray, London.
Nead, L. (1992). The female nude: art, obscenity and sexuality. Routledge, London.

See also art and the body; beauty.