Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Who’s Afraid of the Willendorf Venus?

Lynne Murray says:

The Willendorf Venus is celebrating this holiday season with a little fat activism in front of a San Francisco store (wisely unnamed in the quotation below) that thought they had a hip/edgy way to package their holiday fat-bashing as an interactive experience.

Marilyn Wann, author of FAT!SO? and creator of the Yay! Scale™, which gives compliments instead of numbers, has used the iconic Willendorf statue before. I still fondly remember the paper doll version with cute outfits to cut out for her to wear.

This time Marilyn once again invoked the goddess for cultural healing, as she writes in an SF Weekly blog post:

Yes, Virginia, there is a fat Santa joke on Valencia Street. And it doesn’t bring good cheer.

It’s in a shop that won’t be identified here: No publicity under the tree for naughty shopkeepers.

Their seasonal window display is a grotesque, larger-than-life, three-dimensional, beer-can-in-brown-paper-bag-accessorized Santa with a lower half shaped like Jabba the Hutt. (Because negative depictions of fat people go with cruel stereotypes about poor/homeless people who have mental illness or substance abuse issues, like rotten egg goes with groggy nog.)

You are a kind-hearted child, Virginia. I see you’re not laughing or rushing to have your photo taken on Santa the Hutt’s lower belly folds. But many of your fellow San Franciscans are.

Marilyn’s fat activist response involved taking ten dollars worth of art supplies and creating a Willendorf Selfie Station:

My friend, artist Mark Obermayr, helped me assemble it and try it out. It worked!

One of the shopkeepers found out about our event on Facebook and posted a defense/non-apology that closed with, “Whatever your opinions may be, we’re not solely motivated to make fun of people.” Thanks!

The shop’s website says they want to “poke fun at holiday excess.” While they sell $168 executive hoodies!?!

In his Facebook comment, the shopkeeper said they weren’t mocking fat people because “Santa isn’t a person.” If you buy that, I’ve got a hoodie to sell you.

This event reminded me of how I gradually became aware of the Venus of Willendorf, at first in passing as a plate in an art history book. Later, she was the target of gratuitous insults, such as the author describing different body types who essentially said that the ancient statute showed a body type that could still be observed in women sitting on sofas, watching TV and eating bon-bons. His suggestion was that (1) only gluttony could explain that degree of fatness, and (2) only “primitive prehistoric” people would find it worthy of sculpting. I have mercifully forgotten that author’s name.

Another visual encounter from the 1980s came in the film The Witches of Eastwick. I didn’t like the film, despite the wonderful actresses, but what I mainly remembered was an image that didn’t find its way onto the internet. I couldn’t find it anywhere, or I’d share it. The film was made from a novel by John Updike, who describes the small statues as:

…little ceramic “bubbies”–faceless, footless little female figures. …miniature women, their vulval cleft boldly dented into the clay with a toothpick or nail file held sideways…

I have no idea whether the bigger version of statues are in the book; Updike’s palpable mysogynistic contempt in the sample available rouses no interest in reading further. But the giant goddess figures in the movie were supposed to be big and scary. They didn’t register for me as an expression of woman power.

Years later I found the Willendorf Venus being used as a positive icon for fat acceptance. My reaction was cautious, gradually warming into respect and affection. It takes time for some of us to let that thought filter into the media-brainwashed, narrow, modern mind–including my own. I was working on reclaiming this goddess when I told a friend that my own figure closely resembled the ancient statue, her instant response was, “Oh, no, you’re not that fat!”

I am, and it isn’t the end of the world. But I won’t lie and say that I now worship this body type just because it might have been worshipped tens of thousands of years ago. I’ve managed to achieve a posture of respect, together with a firm intolerance of disrespect from anyone.

One day at a time.

The Willendorf Venus and her sister statues are all essentially hand-sized, 4-3/8 inches, which would suggest an intimate, possibly even a tactile (although unknowable) relationship with the viewer.

In a 2009 post on the academic blog, Philosophy on the Mesa, Nina Rosenstand, a professor of philosophy at San Diego Mesa College,discusses the Willendorf Venus and other comparable artifacts:

… we need not take sides about patriarchy and Goddess worship to see an additional significance to the little figurine [referring to a comparable but older figurine which had recently been discovered]: As a work of art, which it indisputably is, it speaks to us from across 40,000 years about the human capacity for symbolic thinking: Our language, our gestures, our artifacts, and the very ways we think utilize images and expressions to signify other images and expressions. The little headless figurine is probably intended to symbolize something: maybe Woman as such, maybe Fertility, maybe Mom, or Sweetheart, maybe the Goddess who Gives and Takes Away—we don’t know.  What we do know is that she has meant something—to he or she who carved her, and to the generations who kept her in their tribe. The little statuette has reached out, beyond the lifetime of the artist, to the future—which is what good art does.

And now, on Valencia Street, thanks to Marilyn Wann, the fertility goddesses are reaching out again to turn an offensive Santa fat joke into a tool for change.

2 Responses to “Who’s Afraid of the Willendorf Venus?”

  1. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    I take the Willendorf statue to signify all good things: rare beauty, wealth (a woman noticed the elaborate braiding for the hair and the string skirt), fertitlity, extravagant amounts of food). I think she’s a good luck token, though as you say, it can only be a guess.

    She may also be one of the earliest known naturalisitic images of a human– she’s clearly the result of careful observation, and (I’m betting) of one individual.

  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    Good points, Nancy, the Nina Rosenstand piece (at the link above notes that a similar statue from 40,000 years back is “older than any other three-dimensional depiction of a human” so, here’s a role model that endured for tens of thousands of years. That in itself is worthy of respect. That we cannot see the beauty (or in my case have to learn) says more about our own imbalanced culture than about these infinitely inspiring statues.

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