Fat Science

Investigating the science of body weight regulation

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Feminine Beauty: The Dada-ist view

Posted by Miriam Gordon on March 17, 2009

Part of the purpose of this blog is not only to examine the science behind metabolic regulation of body weight, but also to understand how current standards of beauty (read: thinness as opposed to fatness) evolved in modern Western culture. These two seemingly unrelated topics are actually very intimately tied together, as the ever-present, pervasive, all-encompassing, in-our-face images of our society’s ideals of beauty are so powerful that they have a profound effect on our perception of health. This is true for all members of our society, including health professionals.

This past Sunday my husband and I visited the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase. In their permanent collection of Modern Art were some examples of Dada Art. The Dada movement was started by a handful of artists, both American and European, who were deeply affected by the atrocities of World War I. The disintegration of societal norms during the war brought out in the Dada-ists a sort of nihilism and a desire to mock contemporary culture. The presence of the war in Europe drove many artists who were living in Paris to the relative peacefulness of the United States, where the Dada movement blossomed in the 1920s. There they found plenty of fodder for their cynicism in the industrial revolution and the rise of new forms of advertising. After viewing several Dada Art exhibits over the years, I finally realized I was on common ground with them.

At the Neuberger Museum, the piece that caught my eye and imagination was a gelatin silver print by Man Ray of Marcel Duchamp in a female alter ego whom they called Rose Selavy, which in French means “Eros, that’s life!” The original perfume ad was for “Belle Helaine, Eau de Violette”. In Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s version of this ad, the face of the woman, displayed prominently on the label of the perfume bottle, was replaced with the face of Rose Selavy, and the text on the bottle was replaced with the words “Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette” which means “Beautiful Breath, Veil Water”. At first glance, this makes no sense, which is characteristic of Dada art. The description of this photo at the museum described its meaning best:

“This gesture (changing the image and text on the perfume bottle) alludes to the idea that (the reigning image of) feminine beauty (in the 20th century industrial revolution) is not natural, but rather a social construction – a masquerade perpetuated in the images of women circulated in commercial and mass cultural forms like advertising and the cinema”. (text in parens is mine)

To Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, feminine beauty lay much more in the spirit of the soul, rather than crass, glossy, manufactured images. Too bad their images and ideas were completely eclipsed by the power and money of advertising – this to the true detriment of our health as a society.


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