Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Degas' Ladies

The other evening I was moisturising, as you do, rubbing body butter into my skin, when my flatmate walked in on me bent over, one foot on the toilet seat. She shrieked and recoiled in horror as one would if they encountered their flatmate’s arse in all its full moon glory.

And with a mixture of my own mortification, dented vanity and the new found confidence which can strangely enough be gained in nakedness I confronted her head on. For I was affronted that she was so taken aback by my bare bum! ‘Is it really that bad?’ I challenged. ‘No’ she said gently un-recoiling her horror ‘I was just embarrassed that I’d walked in on you.’ And so as I stood in the buff, bare as they day I was born and steeped in my new-found naked confidence she told me that I reminded her of one of Degas’ ladies at her toilette.

My first reaction was embarrassment. ‘But all those ladies we’re fat!’ Naturally showing up what an art philistine I am, feminism also took its first knock of the day. I backtracked, ‘Err well, I don’t mean that, but those ladies were rounder.’ Despite my feminist principles my first reaction to being likened to an oil-painting was the stirring of the grave anxiety that nags most women: that we are fat. Under the strip spot lights of the bathroom, furiously rubbing body butter into my skin, I had been exposed in Rubenesque glory and I thought I was fat.

But then, later that evening I went out to get an Observer, well I had to counter-act my out-of-hand criticism of my own body and a Sunday Mail wasn’t going to do that. The woman’s monthly featured a picture of a stunning and gloriously curvy model. Her name was Crystal Renn. With a name like that how could she be anything other than the bouncy espresso haired, bodacious beauty that she was and how interested I was to read that she is the world’s first size 14 Supermodel. A former anorexia sufferer, Renn turned her back on starvation to embrace her body in all its glory. And what a body!

Feminism is about challenging the objectification of women, but it’s my belief that that which is challenged is the kind of objectification which seeks to degrade, subjugate, dis-empower, gratuitously sexualise and particularly that which is for Capitalism’s gain. Okay so Renn’s a fashion model, she’s in the business of selling clothes but I’m going make an exception in this case because when we are not body buttering us ladies do need clothes, otherwise there would be zig-zagging cars and alas white van-drivers' heads would probably explode.

As I looked at the pictures of an exceptionally beautiful woman my first thoughts were not ones of painful jealousy, or anger, or the more usual benign reaction that I’ve ‘see it all before’ but rather a more enjoyable one. It was a liberating and simple enjoyment of the looking at the human form in all its glory, without scrutiny, without anxiety but instead with unadulterated admiration for the image on the page. And I had a thought. If I could think so highly of Renn, then I have to be kinder to myself.

A little later that night I searched the inter-web for Degas’ ladies at their toilette. I looked at the images - really looked at them with refreshed eyes. A woman’s back is a beautiful thing, especially when there isn’t a distracting protruding spine. These women had slim waists that gave way to the curve and swell of well formed buttocks. Yes they had rolls, gentle creases and little bellies. But they also had wonderful red hair, plaited, or un-braided in all its glory and they were not fat.

They were women in all their naturalness, organic and tending to the business of their toilette. I smiled at my new-found-knowledge that my flatmate’s remark was an original compliment – it’s not every day your image is likened to the painting of a great master. But in future I’ll lock the bathroom door for she is a budding life-drawer and this particular lady although feeling better about herself, isn’t quite ready to be immortalised as one of those ladies at their toilette. Not yet at least.

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