Left: Picture of the Nefertiti bust in Neues Museum, Berlin. Photo by Philip Pikart, via Wikimedia Commons; Center: Bikini girls mosaic, Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy. Photo by Yann Forget, via Wikimedia Commons; Right: Parvati. India, Tamil Nadu. Chola period, 11th century. Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, Asia Society, New York. Photo courtesy of Asia Society.
Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII, Queen Nefertiti, ca. 1350 B.C.
The kohl around Nefertiti’s eyes and her apparently rouged lips speak to a desire for enhancement and adornment that seems too much a part of being human to have a historical starting point. Trends in altering how we look through fashion and jewelry in all likelihood predates any culture-wide preference for a specific body type. The Egyptian example has proven especially influential in the West, particularly since the 1920s.
Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, ca. 350 B.C.
Originally carved by the Greek sculptor
Bikini Girls, A.D. 4th century
Part of a mosaic found in the early 4th-century Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, the “Bikini Girls,” as they are known, provide one of the few celebrations of the female figure performing athletic acts, other than dance, in the history of art. Thin without being wrought by exercise, their vivacious bodies would not be out of place in mid-20th century Italy or America. Which is to say, the present a “natural” ideal, formed by activity rather than training.
India, Tamil Nadu, Chola period, Parvati, early 11th century
Consort of Shiva, Parvati is typically endowed with wide hips, ample breasts, and full lips. But, though hers is a more overt sensuality than the Western Venus, it is also not leisurely; her physique is not padded. She is active, essentially a dancer, with condign grace and strength.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Les Trois Grâces (The Three Graces), 1531
A theme from classical mythology, The Three Graces explicitly represented the ideal of feminine beauty. What that meant in the northern Renaissance was women of leisure—and little exercise—with thin, sinuous, and softly rounded physiques. Although these women bodied forth sensuousness, their figures, with relatively small breasts and depilated pubis, seem almost unsexed.
François Boucher, The Bath of Venus, 1751
The mythological trappings here are mostly a pretext. Formed by leisure—abundant food and non-strenuous recreation resulting in generous curves—the ideal
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Night (La Nuit), 1883
Far more than the avant-garde Impressionists, the salon-painter
Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon, 1981
David LaChapelle, Pamela Anderson: Miracle Tan, 2004
As the title suggests, Anderson’s is not a sun-tan but rather a spray- or bed-tan—purchased, not pursued in the outdoors. Such technological enhancements promise nothing short of the miraculous: her pumped-up breasts, machine-toned arms, and airbrushed skin all aim, in LaChapelle’s lens, to show that nature is but a poor imitation of artifice.
Bob Martin, Serena, 2004
More than any other woman, the tennis player Serena Williams has challenged—and redefined—norms of the female physique, allowing bigger bodies and developed muscles to compete in the aesthetic arena with the ideal of skinniness. Equally important: Williams’s muscles tend to be portrayed as built by and for athletic acts, not body sculpting.
Left: Bob Martin, Serena, 2004. Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Right: Cassils, Becoming An Image Performance Still No. 4 (National Theater Studio, SPILL Festival, London), 2013, c-print 22 x 30 inches edition of 5 photo: Cassils with Manuel Vason. Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
Mickalene Thomas, A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007
Cassils, Becoming An Image Performance Still No. 4 (National Theater Studio, SPILL Festival, London), 2013
Amalia Ulman, Instagram post (2014)
A previous version of this article referred to the artist Cassils as Heather Cassils. The artist formerly went by that name, but as of press time goes exclusively by Cassils.