Feminism and Art

      Throughout much of history, specifically within a Western context, the symbol of a woman has been used to represent beauty. By encompassing and portraying the ideals found within the society they are representing, the marble statues, paintings, and etchings of women considered to epitomize beauty are everywhere, and influence how we as a modern society still think today. However, while this beauty worship initially seems to glorify and uphold women, in reality it can be quite insidious. 

      In order to rise to the level of a symbol, the symbol itself must have a relatively concrete range for what it is designed to represent. Otherwise, it ceases to be a “symbol” in that its meaning is found in something else, and becomes a thing of its own. To put it simply, a symbol itself does not have value, but merely reminds its beholder of the meaning found in something greater. This poses a tremendous problem for the world of western art, as the woman is not actually the thing of artistic value, but merely a reminder that an overarching concept of beauty is active within the world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this attitude very clearly represents the real world attitude that women are symbols, or, put another way, a means to an end for the exploration of the world by men. They are a tool for interpretation, functioning as a representation of beauty in life beyond their own physical beauty. Thus, the value of a woman is in her ability to convey beauty to those around her.

      The notion that women are symbols of the greater concept of beauty also is quite limiting in the way it allows for this beauty to be represented. Symbols are visual in the sense that they only function because the symbol itself visually conveys what it is designed to represent. This also means that in order to function as a successful visual cue, the symbol has to be consistent in its form. And while there may be variances across cultures and time periods, the end result for the female symbol of beauty is relegated to the opinions and preferences of those in power. In classical art, such beauty was determined to be found in alabaster skin, slight curves, and long hair, all indicators of abundance and wealth. In our modern society, this translates to natural, authentic women made “perfect” by a greasy man and his computer. Our key markers of beauty can be reduced to “the whiter and skinnier the better”.  Because of this, our symbol of beauty strays ever farther from being remotely close to what a real and genuinely beautiful woman looks like. And so, this poses the question that women have faced throughout the entirety of human history: if all I am supposed to aspire to be is a reflection of beauty to someone else, what am I if I am not considered an accurate enough reflection?

      Portrayals of women as symbols for beauty in art and pop culture are extremely limiting in this way as well, as the classification of women as symbols only allows for there to be one specific type that showcases beauty. This damaging logic then necessitates the classification of women into categories, with those deemed beautiful the “real” women and everyone else as “fake” or “lesser”. And, as both a Christian and a feminist, I find any set of beliefs with the conclusion that human beings can be placed into some sort of ranking system of worthy and unworthy utterly false and repulsive. Human beings embody beauty themselves, as they are first and foremost created en Imago Dei. We are all complex, innovative creatures, each with a multi-faceted beauty that in truth can never be bound to someone else’s self-serving standards. Women were created with God’s beauty, and every strand of hair, every inch of tissue exudes this. But, beyond the diverse beauty of their physical bodies, every woman shows her beauty through her mind, through her ambition, through her success and her failure. Because ultimately, the beauty of something as utterly astounding as a woman cannot be conveyed through something as single-faceted as a symbol. Rather, every single woman needs hundreds of symbols for any man to even begin to describe her.

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