Body of Art Health: Tour of museum seeks the truth about feminine beauty and eating disorders.

February 13, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

They came to the halls of truth and beauty at the Baltimore Museum of Art to explore one of society's most persistent debates: What defines feminine beauty? What should define it? Over the weekend, about 30 women and men toof women's bodies. The program was part of a national week of activities to call attention to the seriousness and prevalence of eating disorders.

The most suspenseful moment came when the group gathered to compare a statue of a robust adult nude with a statue of a waif-like adolescent ballerina.

Tour leader Miriam Arenberg, a Baltimore psychologist and museum docent, introduced the nude torso: A headless bronze figure sculpted in 1910 by French artist Aristide Maillol.

"How would you describe this kind of figure?" she asked the group.

"Undulating."

"Full-figured."

"She's round and full. She has a richness. I almost think of her as a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked," said Dr. Arenberg.

"Also, if you look at her stance, she looks like someone who is proud of her body. She's comfortable with it. She's showing it off a little bit.

"Now, what part of her anatomy would you say is biggest?"

"The lower," observed a woman.

"She has a rounded belly and a rounded behind," Dr. Arenberg pointed out. "There's even a little fat line, but it doesn't seem to intimidate her."

Next, the group studied the young ballerina by Edgar Degas: A reed-like bronze figure with an inward, dreamy gaze.

"What kind of body does the dancer have?"

"A child's body."

"This girl was, in fact, 14 when Degas started working on this statue of her," Dr. Arenberg said. "This is a pre-pubes-cent adolescent girl's body. It's not developed. And yet think about it: In our culture today, if we asked women to choose which body they would prefer, which image do you think would get the most votes?"

"The dancer."

"Which statue do you think has its own power and its own right? Could stand up for itself more?" asked the other tour leader, psychologist Beth Williams.

"The woman."

Dr. Williams, who treats patients with eating disorders at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, stepped closer to the strong but unfashionable torso.

"What would happen to this woman if she took today's standards to heart? What would happen to her posture? Her beauty would die. Not because her body would change, but because she would hold it differently. The inner beauty would emanate differently."

Tour members nodded.

Middle school view

"That statue would actually be ugly to girls in middle school," pointed out Elizabeth Grauer, assistant principal of Holabird Middle School in Dundalk.

"To most grown women, too, unfortunately," said another woman.

"Only maybe one percent of women can naturally look something like that Degas dancer when they get to be mature," says Dr. Arenberg. "Women's bodies are not really designed to look like that."

"Research shows that men tend to like a more full-bodied form," Dr. Williams says. "It is the women who are imposing this more on themselves -- although the men are starting to catch up."

Titled "Feast, Famine and the Female Form," the tour confronted the issue of only-thin-is-beautiful by examining how various artists have used a woman's body shape to define not only seductiveness, but also fertility, motherhood, intellect, power and powerlessness.

Some participants brought personal knowledge of eating disorders to the discussion. Others voiced concern about the children or students they feared might, sooner or later, try to starve themselves into beauty.

"At school, we'll see girls who won't eat," said Ms. Grauer. "The administrators on lunch duty walk around and say 'Susie, Jane, aren't you hungry?' These are extremely thin children, understand. And these girls will sit there and say 'No!' "

Physicians and psychologists who treat eating disorders say that such a relentless desire for thinness comes from a complex combination of psychological, interpersonal and social conditions.

As many as 10 percent of post-pubertal girls and women either suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, or from a "borderline" condition, according to Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, a national nonprofit organization.

Although eating disorders primarily affect women aged 12 to 35, research shows an increasing number of 9- and 10-year-old girls are beginning to "diet."

Physicians are also treating more men than ever before.

"Our daughters, our sisters, our friends are increasingly under pressure [to be thin] in a way that impairs the quality of their lives," Dr. Williams told the tour members. "A huge number of people get physical problems from eating disorders, but 100 percent are impaired psychologically and socially.

"Each of us -- in how we think about and how we talk about what's beautiful in women -- contribute to the problem. None of us is an innocent bystander."

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