Throughout the history of mankind, our perception of the female shape has corresponded to the prevailing zeitgeist of the time. Perhaps subconsciously, the beauty ideal has always been one that embodies wealth, as our animal instinct is attracted to ensuring our offspring has a good chance of survival.
When people were poor and hungry, it was beautiful to have a voluptuous body because it meant you had enough money to eat. Then, as unhealthy foods became cheaper, opinion shifted towards considering thin women beautiful, as this signified that the woman had enough money to eat healthily, and perhaps even hire a personal trainer. Having more fat began to imply that you were too poor to eat well and therefore more prone to disease. Although there is now a group of people involved in ‘fat activism’, attempting to reclaim the word ‘fat’ and dispel its negative bias in social attitudes, most of society still feels uneasy when it comes to fat women.
With characteristic satirical edge, Alexander McQueen approached this manifestation of our cultural hypocrisy in his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, ‘Voss’. ‘Full-figured’ journalist, Michelle Olley, was revealed lying on a couch, wearing nothing but a mask attached to a breathing tube. The performance was in homage to an image by photographer Joel Peter Within, entitled “Sanitarium, New Mexico, 1983”, in which a corpulent, masked figure reclines on a shrouded throne, with large tubes feeding out of her mouth and out of shot.
The shared aim of both McQueen and Olley was to confront the audience with their own problematic relationships with fat and the presentation of bodies. Olley remarked gleefully: “My body’s going to be so at odds with the fashion sparrows and bony old crow-people in the audience… I am what most of them fear most – fat.”