Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s subjects are big—many would call them fat. Across his canvases, figures gaze fondly at their bodies in the mirror, are swathed in bullfighting garb or floral dresses that hug their curves, or lie naked on the beach or in bed eating fruit. In all of these scenarios, they stand, lounge, and gaze at the viewer with pride.
In interviews about his work, Botero has maintained that he doesn’t consider his figures to be fat. “Nobody believes me but it is true,” he explained in a 2014 interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “What I paint are volumes.…I am interested in volume, the sensuality of form.”
Despite the artist’s motives, however, proponents of the body positive and fat acceptance movements (who are active on social media with hashtags like #bodypositive and #selflove) have adopted Botero’s paintings as emblems for their cause: to celebrate bodies of all sizes.
On Instagram, for instance, selfies taken in exhibitions of Botero’s work and reproductions of his paintings are often captioned with hashtags like #bodyconfidence, #curvyandproud, and #effyourbeautystandards.
Books that have become the body positive movement’s gospel mention Botero, too. In her essay “Fierce Fat Fashion” in The Politics of Size: Perspectives from the Fat Acceptance Movement, Cathy Miller asks: “So, what can help you in the quest to learn to love your body?” Her answer: “Surround yourself with positive images of differently sized large bodies” and “revel in the wonderful, sensual art of Botero.”
Botero, of course, is by no means the only artist to depict shapely subjects. Rubens, whose work inspired Botero and is also mentioned in Miller’s essay, filled his massive 17th-century religious and mythological paintings with the fleshy, curvaceous bodies of goddesses and cherubs—paragons of beauty and virtue.
Notable, too, are the Paleolithic-era Venus figurines. Each of these palm-sized figures, such as Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Lespugue, and Venus of Hohle Fels, depicts a naked women with swelling breasts, protruding thighs, and, under a curve of belly, an exposed vulva. Their original function continues to be the subject of scholarly debate—historians have called them fertility icons, a form of prehistoric porn, or shamanistic talismans—but the general consensus is that these full-bodied figurines were venerated, even idolized.
While photos of Venus figurines and images of Rubens’s sensuous paintings also crop up on social media alongside body-positive hashtags, Botero’s paintings make more regular appearances. But why?
The answer lies in the basic ingredients of Botero’s style.
For one, in the world of Botero’s compositions, everything is plump. Bouquets of flowers are round and effusive; apples, bananas, and cakes are full, as if ready to burst. And the bodies of both women and men are large. There’s not a traditionally thin person—or puny piece of fruit, for that matter—in sight. In this way, volume (as Botero calls it) or bigness (as viewers often read it) is normalized in his work.
What’s more, his subjects exude confidence. They flaunt and admire their nude bodies, as in Nude on the Beach (2000) and The Bedroom (2009), and when vulvas are visible, pubic hair is always on display. When they are clothed, they wear tight-fitting, colorful outfits that accentuate and celebrate their curves.
These subjects convey assurance with their gazes, too. In most instances, eyes engage directly with the viewer or with themselves, in the mirror. Rarely do they avert their eyes or look to the ground. In only one instance that this writer could locate does a woman cover her breasts and genitals with her hands, as if trying to hide something.
Perhaps the most compelling characteristic of Botero’s figures, though, is that they fill almost the entire canvas, assuming as much space as possible. Sometimes, the surface area of the painting isn’t big enough to contain their bodies. But this never reads as a satirical jab. Instead, it’s an assertion of authority.
In Encarnación Vargas (1987) for instance, a female matador occupies the majority of the canvas. Here, she controls not only the space her body fills, but also the entire stadium behind her—and the viewer’s ability to see it. She, like most of Botero’s subjects, asserts control of her body and her surroundings.
Botero’s paintings, in the eyes of body-positive activists, turn large bodies into authoritative volumes that don’t take up space, but rather command it. In another widely shared essay on body positivity and personal experience with obesity, writer Carmen Maria Machado called on Botero to explain the distinction he had made, between fat and voluminous bodies.
“What is the difference between a fat woman and a voluminous one? Botero was being defensive, but he also accidentally gave us a new way to consider the body,” she wrote. “Fat is an artifact of internal bodily processes, the result of a breakdown of chemicals that eventually push us outward. Volume is about taking up space in the world, displacing what is around us. Or, alternately, a level of loudness.”
Through their assertive poses, confident gaze, and proud nudity, the women and men that populate Botero’s canvases are not simply fat or voluminous, but icons of infectious self-love, too.