I am sitting in the Cleveland Museum of Art on a Wednesday afternoon staring up at a painting of a naked woman. She’s leaned back against a fancy chair with a smirking cupid leaning against her. The painting is by David, a famous French Neo-Classical painter I learned about in my Humanities class. As I stare up at her, I’m stricken not only by the realism and colors of the painting but also by her body. Once again I am reminded of why I love art the way I do. It’s the only place I ever have seen women’s bodies as they are, stomach rolls and all, in all their glory. And while I do acknowledge the whiteness of the bodies often depicted in these paintings, I do see a message of body positivity that I rarely see in everyday life.
I am not a woman that has had an easy relationship with her body. In my middle school and high school years, I often struggled with food, restricting my eating in order to be thin. As my disease progressed and I was put on medication after medication, I often didn’t recognize the person I saw in the mirror and struggled to find some sort of ownership over my body. Then, finally, I lost my hair to chemotherapy and the effects of steroids. All of these things left me feeling uneasy with my appearance in the mirror. I wasn’t quite sure that I knew this woman or even that I liked her all that much.
Until I found myself standing in that art museum, many months later, realizing that somehow in that painting I saw a little bit of myself. In fact, I saw a lot more of the reality of the female form in the work of artists from hundreds of years ago than I ever do today on Instagram. In our current age, women are constantly presented with an image of ever-changing perfection online. Somedays the world wants you to be thin. Somedays the world wants you to be thick. But most of the time it can feel like the world doesn’t want you at all. It can be difficult to find ourselves in a world that’s so full of images. But I think it stands to reason that if some dude hundreds of years ago spent countless hours meticulously carving Aphrodite’s stomach rolls into a block of stone for it to end up on display in the Louvre, then there must be something beautiful about them after all.