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Body Beautiful, Anna Sampson
“Alexandra Loveless” (2018)Photography Anna Sampson

Fifty artists explore the spectrum of beauty in this new exhibition

As her latest exhibition opens, curator Indira Cesarine talks about changing beauty standards and how she hopes visibility will help change perceptions

Throughout history, every culture has prized a very particular body shape and anyone who hasn’t conformed to this narrow ideal has been consigned to the margins. These concepts of what a beautiful body looks like have always shifted and evolved to reflect what society most desires, depending on what’s rarest and most prized. 

The omnipresence of social media has had the democratising effect of enabling us to see more ‘real’ pictures of people and creating a platform to challenge dominant standards of beauty. But, conversely, it’s also responsible for exposing us to a higher volume of impossibly ‘perfect’ bodies. 

A new exhibition at New York’s Untitled Space gallery aims to redress the balance by displaying artworks that promote body positivity and a wider notion of beauty. “We now live in an era where body acceptance has finally become, not only an important subject but is taken seriously as central to the human experience,” the show’s press release explains. “This dialogue has changed the lives of many women (and men) with marginalised bodies who didn’t fit into society’s definition of beauty or feel comfortable in their own skin. In particular, ideals of feminine beauty have historically been reserved for a select few who were blessed with privileged physiques.”

The collaborative exhibition features the work of 50 artists all responding to the body “not just as an object of beauty, or a subject of anatomy”, but elaborating on “body-positive depictions of the human form, including all body types, ages, and genders, celebrating diversity as well as the timeless beauty of the body."

Below, we talk to the show’s curator, Indira Cesarine, about how she began putting together such a comprehensive celebration of the human form.

Can you please tell us a bit more about what inspired you to put this show together?

Indira Cesarine: The body positive movement has really exploded over the last few years in particular on social media, and I felt it was good timing to curate an art exhibition that explored this theme in depth. I was actually really surprised when I started researching it that there haven’t really been that many body positive art exhibitions presented in a gallery environment, as it’s such a relevant issue in contemporary culture today. At first, it started out as a smaller show, but I was really motivated when I started reviewing artists and artwork to expand it into a much larger presentation with 50 artists work on the theme. 

In your press release, you state that you wanted to ‘represent all body types in this narrative’. Was it a struggle to make the show feel truly inclusive? Did you encounter any difficulties? 

Indira Cesarine: Although the body positive movement is supposed to be about self-love and body acceptance no matter your body shape or size, and that ‘all human beings’ should have a positive body image, when I asked artists to send me relevant work on this theme, the vast majority only sent me artwork depicting plus-size bodies, addressing body positive in relation to fat-shaming and little else. I think the social media movement has been very focused on unrealistic beauty standards in relation to body weight. I had to reach out to artists to specifically send me artwork that included for example scarring, ageing, and bodies that don’t fit beauty standards in more diverse areas than just extra poundage. As a curator, I felt it was important to represent all body types in this narrative. A lot of women I spoke to about the movement said they actually felt 'left out' and that it was only about ‘bodyweight’ and that if you were skinny or veiny or had any other body related issues that didn’t fit beauty standards that it wasn’t as relevant unless you were plus-sized. To me body positive – which is supposed to represent 'all humans having a body-positive image' – should be inclusive of all shapes and sizes, skin colours, perfections and imperfections – including 'skinny' bodies, plus size figures, pregnant bodies, bodies with stretch marks, scarring, wrinkles, aging – and beautiful bodies size 0 to size XXXXL. I really had to go out of my way to invite artists to exhibit their work that was representational of all of these body types, in my effort for the exhibition to celebrate diversity and be truly inclusive.

You also describe how the beauty standard has evolved over the years, from 'perfect hour-glass silhouettes achieved with corsets to the thin athletic figures and supermodels that dominated the 80s, waifs of the 90s and to yoga perfection of the 2000s.' How would you characterise the dominant body ideals of the moment? 

Indira Cesarine: I think, right now, the dominant body ideals of the moment have shifted to people having a far more open-minded point of view on beauty. In many ways, we are seeing a rejection of what was considered 'beautiful' over the last few decades as a result of this shift. Beauty standards have progressed from the old fashion ideals of 'thin is beautiful' to accepting bodies types of all shapes and sizes. The emphasis on having to be a size zero no matter what has definitely evolved (although I think if that is naturally your size you should equally be ok with that – many women who are thin are still very insecure about their bodies). I think there is finally an emphasis on body shaming of all kinds as being wrong. We are also seeing a massive emphasis on aesthetics such as body hair in a new light. For decades it was an absolute no-no for women to be portrayed as having leg hair, facial hair, pubic hair – or even worse – armpit hair. (Remember the Julia Robert’s armpit hair scandal?!) Over the last few years, we have finally started to see a change with that attitude – real women are posting pictures of themselves with body hair, models are showing up in fashion campaigns with armpit hair and leg hair. It's actually really refreshing that we have finally gotten over the need for women to be hairless on their bodies – which is completely counter to reality. We are also seeing real skin depicted in beauty campaigns, with visible wrinkles and pimples and that is definitely something that has come out of this new wave of acceptance. I think body positive is, in fact, a great term to characterise our current era.

We’re saturated with images of bodies. Technology such as social media, digital photography and smartphones have made it very easy (and much more socially acceptable) for people to take pictures of bodies and share them publicly. How do you feel this has affected body positivity? 

Indira Cesarine: I definitely think that it is exactly this component of technology that has finally shifted the needle with regards to beauty standards in our society. Prior to the internet and social media in particular, we used to only see images of women portrayed in magazines, on TV, and in films – and in general, the bodies presented to the public were always unrealistically perfect bodies of women blessed with privileged physiques. In general, they were, of course, young bodies, with no visible defects, perfect symmetrical faces, perfect sample size figures. Since the rise of social media and everyone sharing their bodies online this emphasis on perfection – the fashion model and Stepford Wives ideal of beauty – has become completely obsolete. I think we are going to see even more diversity as we continue to evolve with social media having a bigger and bigger influence on the public. It has really only been in the last decade that it has been relevant, but when kids who were born with social media are adults – which is another decade ahead – I think that will be the new era where we will see an even more substantial shift in beauty standards and acceptance. 

How do you hope this show will contribute to the conversation about body image?

Indira Cesarine: I hope that this show will open up the dialogue about what the 'body positive' movement is about and what it can mean to each individual. That it allows everyone to feel included in the movement as we all need self-love and confidence no matter our body shape or size. All humans are also affected by ageing, scarring, body hair and a host of other body-related issues that we need to stop feeling embarrassed about, as we live in a society that has emphasized unrealistic, retouched perfection for a long time. It has long been considered that if you aren’t perfect then you aren’t 'beautiful' but that is finally changing and the Body Positive movement is responsible for this shift. The concept of 'feeling beautiful' has been so unattainable for so many people for so long due to our unrealistic beauty standards and I think it’s important that exhibits such as this address this narrative and shed light on the movement and what it’s about. The body-positive movement has changed the lives of many people with marginalised bodies who didn’t fit into society’s definition of beauty or feel comfortable in their own skin. I hope the Body Beautiful exhibit can reach more people of all ages and genders, as social media activism is more focused on the younger generation, and the movement has also been more focused on women. I am looking forward to seeing more men participate in the dialogue. 

I feel that ageing bodies are often underrepresented in the media. What do you think are the most taboo areas in terms of body positivity? 

Indira Cesarine: Yes I agree, I think ageing is something that people really fear, and we really don’t see that many images of older people being celebrated for the bodies with visible signs of ageing. Our culture has always been very youth-obsessed, and as people age, they often share their images less – for a variety of reasons. I think other taboo areas that we are finally seeing emphasised aside from plus-sized bodies include real skin, with pimples, stretch marks, scarring, mastectomy scars, as well as the inclusion of pregnant bodies and transgender bodies. As I mentioned previously women with body hair is also another area that is being emphasised that has been taboo for a long time. Whether it's a femme moustache, facial hair, leg hair, excessive pubic hair, armpit hair or whatever. Lastly, I think body positive – when it comes to the male physique – is something we have yet to see emphasised. I hope more men will be encouraged to come out with their own set of issues regarding acceptance over bodyweight, having feminine physiques or losing their hair. We really didn’t get see many artists addressing body positive in relation to the male body and I think that is definitely something I would like to see more of.

What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

Indira Cesarine: I hope that viewers walk away feeling more confident about their own bodies. That they can finally feel that it is ok to not be perfect. That they don’t have to go on a diet to be beautiful, or cover their imperfections with heavy makeup, retouch their selfies, or get electrolysis to fit in. I actually timed this exhibit around the holidays as I feel like a lot of people have post-holiday guilt trips about indulging in family feasts and I hope that this exhibit lets them perhaps for the first time feel like it’s ok to just enjoy life, and be yourself – that your body is beautiful no matter your age, weight or imperfections. I think for a lot of people who are less present on social media this will also be a refreshing eye-opener, as the movement has been so focused online, it is still early days as far as really reaching and affecting the public in a larger way. 

I am also proud to support through this exhibit my new initiative, Art4Equality, that raises funds for gender equality themed exhibitions and public art.