Modern Beauty Standards Imposed on Classic Art Show Narrowness of Today’s Ideal

Venus de Milo, retouched

Several years ago, I was admiring the Venus de Milo at the Louvre when a group of American teens approached. Eyeing the statue, one girl blurted out: “She’s so fat.”Her friends laughed and agreed, but her comment just made me sad. The girls were surveilling the Venus de Milo in the same way that our culture has trained girls to surveil themselves and one another: to always be attuned to whether females are living up to our culture’s beauty ideal—and to judge and condemn those who do not.

Besides, the Venus de Milo is most certainly not “fat.” She just differs from the body type that has become the hard-and-fast ideal over the past century. But because these teens were so accustomed to the Photoshopped norm, they couldn’t see the beauty in this classic work of art.This series of retouched masterpieces reminded me of that experience. No doubt some viewers will find the new versions an improvement. As for me, I favor the originals—simply because I appreciate that classic art proves that our culture’s take on “beauty” has been drastically redefined and unreasonably narrowed in recent decades.

So, I decided to retouch the Venus de Milo myself using Photoshop. Here she is, in her original form and again by today’s beauty standards–in a form that modern teens might find beautiful, rather than laughable:


Original photo Matt Girling / CC-BY-SA-3.0

As an aside, I found the process of retouching this image disconcerting. Every time I stood back to inspect my handiwork, I thought, “she’s STILL not thin enough to meet the standard.” I actually thought I was done three times and went back in to do more. It was hard to decide when to stop.

If you compare this image to the retouched models found in magazine advertisements, you’ll probably agree that I could have gone even further. She could have been smaller still. And that’s surely a significant part of the reason why so many of the Photoshop jobs we see on models are completely overdone, with waists smaller than their heads: Once you start retouching, it’s hard to pick an end point. There’s always something else you could do. The software makes it so easy.

Women can be beautiful at any size. It’s unfortunate that in today’s media culture, one body type is presented as the only kind of body that is valued. Women who don’t fit the mold are ridiculed, and many of us spend endless amounts of time, energy and money pursuing the ideal. It’s tantamount to brainwashing.

Readers: What do you think?

P.S. I’d like to focus our conversation on what this kind of project can tell us about the beauty norms that seem so natural and unavoidable to us today, rather than a conversation about which body type is “better,” “prettier,” “more attractive,” etc. Let’s not judge women’s bodies—let’s judge our cultural norms and the social acceptability of objectifying women. Thank you!


Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

28 Comments on “Modern Beauty Standards Imposed on Classic Art Show Narrowness of Today’s Ideal

    • It’s not about which is prettier, though; it’s about exposing how narrow today’s beauty ideal is. But thank you for reading and commenting!

  1. I posted this to facebook – and my community was appalled – they are a pretty feminist bunch. I think that this is really interesting and perhaps an effective tool for showing the timely nature of aesthetic issues to students .

    • Thanks! I hope it can be used pedagogically. By the way, how does one find your facebook community? I’d love to connect there!

      • Rebecca –

        My facebook presence is threefold – feminist cupcake, Lindsey Averill and Extraordinary Being. I created the feminist cupcake page recently — but the other are all booming with voices — please like/friend on all fronts!

  2. Thanks for clarifying your statement of preference for the original with, “I appreciate that classic art proves that our culture’s take on ‘beauty’ has been drastically redefined.” I hope more of your readers focus on that instead of debating which Venus is the “prettier” one.

    I appreciate the dialogue you’re starting here but I’m concerned with the direction these conversations always seem to take. What are ways we can have conversations about how arbitrary standards of beauty are without reducing women to objects and talking about our personal preferences for some body types over others? This is *not* about fat vs. skinny, it’s about how women hold ourselves and one another to standards that are about how we look instead of what we do.

    • Margaret, I completely agree. This isn’t about choosing one type as “better” than the other. For example, the images on facebook that go around declaring women with curves to be “real” women are a problem: for one thing, they’re unfair to thin women, and moreover, they still place women in the position of being looked upon and judged.

      Thanks so much for commenting and for the reminder to pay attention to the direction the conversation takes.

  3. I remember visiting the St. Louis art museum a few years ago as a teen and seeing one of those classic statues. It made me feel wonderful – my body looked more like the statue’s than it ever had to models in magazines. I felt beautiful for a short time because of that experience.

  4. I don’t think it’s about which is prettier. It’s about judgment of women’s bodies being wrong. Cultural beauty ideals vary from place to place and over time. This photoshop experiment shows that media has shaped our perception of what is acceptable for the female form, and that this ideal gets thinner and thinner every year, with consequences to the physical and emotional health of some girls and women who feel they must meet this standard. And it’s not just about thinness. Notice the change in the size of the breasts. Women’s bodies are increasingly expected to be BOTH very thin AND have large breasts. For some women this is natural, but for many, can only be achieved with a combination of extreme dieting and surgery. This blog post is an excellent commentary about how girls and women (and boys and men) are affected by media. I will also add that the “pornification” of society is part of the problem. Who has seen what’s going on in Venezuela with the mannequins there and the rates of cosmetic surgery? We need to help girls (and boys) understand that the images they see in magazines are not real. This blog post makes that point. Nice job!

  5. I saw the Venus de Milo in person last week and remember thinking how realistic and beautiful the statue was. This represents a woman who was something – she could do and think and act – and that’s beauty. So often comments about other bodies represent our own negative feelings about ourselves – I’d like to stop that negative cycle. We are all beautiful regardless of our size, shape, or missing arms!

  6. I think the insight you have gained into the marketing industry through your experiment is interesting in and of itself. How DO they know when to stop? Who is it making those decisions, or sending a photo back with sticky notes, perhaps? Inevitably, when reality is not an obstacle, fantasy is your guide.

  7. Someone once asked me why men are attracted to breasts at all. My best guess is that we (as men) are biologically hard wired to be attracted to fertile women. This is for survival of the species. Can you imagine the opposite? It would be horrible if men were attracted to prepubescent girls. Let’s give nature some credit where credit is due. On the other hand, I think the tiny waistline thing is simply false information. Probably an overreaction to the obesity epidemic.

  8. I think this is a very good post. The media constantly bombards young women with the ‘perfect image’. In my opinion I find some of the women in magazines scary, I don’t want to look like barbie with her twice-the-normal-length-of-the-average-human’s neck and head the same diameter as her hips-no thank you! I find it really sad that some girls constantly chase this so-called ‘beauty’ even though not only it being (in my eyes anyway) very hideous but also impossible. If you were to have surgery to look like one of those fashion models you’d, firstly, look like a giraffe, secondly, your insides would start bleeding, and thirdly, you’d be unable to walk due to your ridiculously long, thing legs and tiny feet, therefore you’d have to crawl. Besides, I find that a kind, good personality is far more beautiful than a big bum. If I want anything to do with ‘looks’ then I’ll just make it clear now that I’d much rather look natural than ‘perfect’.

  9. These girls and the girls of today are to hung up on this stuff. But articles like the one I replied to about datings girls with eating disorders lend to this problem. They are told they are worthless unless they are X and in the meantime take on unhealthy habbits. Too many shallow men I guess.

    If interested here was my reply with links to the article:

    It’s a disgusting piece of work from disgusting pieces of work. I also prefer the original. I am under weight and have a hard time keeping weight on. I wish I could gaina few pounds and look more like either view of the statue. Society must change for this misguided view of worth to change. Unfortunately we women seem to let men dictate what beauty is rather than defining it ourselves.

  10. This is an insightful and truthful piece. We are way too obssessed with wanting to look like how the media “thinks” we should look. There is so much beauty in the world and every woman is pretty, but there seems to be a misconception that only a certain type of woman is pretty, beautiful or sexy. It really is very sad.

  11. Sadly, is not only about how narrow are the current beauty standards, but also that most of them are unnatural. Any girl “trained” to pursue these ideal features is condemned to suffer high levels of stress and frustration

    • No stress here. And no “training” required. I stay fit because I like to not because others pressure me to. Hell my BF would be happier if i added some weight. /shrug

  12. “Once you start retouching, it’s hard to pick an end point. There’s always something else you could do. The software makes it so easy.”

    ^ The same might be said for plastic surgery. Great article, very thought-provoking. I’ll be sharing it with my three teenagers!

  13. Second is way more attractive. Become one of those girls that you’ve always resented by any means necessary. You’ll be rewarded in many ways and your opportunities for happiness will increase. Only obese women think an overweight girl is noble for being so.

    • WOW! So now you speak for all women kind? I am far from obesse and actually pretty much what guys like. I am atheltic, thin and active. I’m also Bi and I certainly wouldn’t kick the heavier gal out of bed!
      PS I also used to strip at Thee Dollhouse in Ft Lauderdale as a regular Friday/Saturday entertainer. So I think I qualify to speak as “one of those girls that men like”. Don’t assume what you see as beauty is what all see as beauty. There is indeed a beauty to all women form.

  14. Pingback: Lovin’ my new curves | Feminism for my Father

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