Tag Archives: Venus of Willendorf

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.

The Willendorf Project: Brenda Oelbaum Goes National with the Goddess at Her Back

Lynne Murray says:

In August of 2010, I posted here about feminist artist Brenda Oelbaum’s work turning diet books into papier mâché models of the Venus of Willendorf.

Postcard Image by Daphne Doerr

Now Brenda is bringing her vision to the larger stage with “a national ad campaign to take down $66 BILLION Diet Industry.” She calls her project “DUMP THE DIETS! a Fight for Freedom from self-loathing.”

Venuses Left to Right: Fonda, Last Chance, Scarsdale, Stop the Insanity, Simmons

As Brenda puts it:

Think about how many diet ads you see on a daily basis, and see for yourself how much the diet industry is really spending on making you feel bad about yourself.

It’s time to invest in some positive messages!

We are tired of measuring our worth on a bathroom scale! We are not a number and neither are our children. We are beautiful and can be healthy at our current size.

We are all unique and valuable.



Brenda plans to post her message by purchasing ads in national publications right beside the ads and articles with product placement to sell the diets.

She can’t do it on her own, of course, one artist versus a billion dollar propaganda machine is too much of an unequal contest. But Brenda is now mobilizing crowdsourcing to help fund her Dump the Diet ads where the general public can see them. She reports:

I have already placed ads in several magazines that will appear the first two weeks on May in honor of “No Diet Day,” May 6th. Now I need you to turn this grass roots effort into a movement.

Part of what resonates with me and many others about Brenda’s work is her brilliant use of the physical substance– the paper that composes diet books–to build a mental structure to help us heal the deep hole diet books have carved in our souls.

My wounds from years of diet go so deep and are so constantly vulnerable to re-infection that they need to heal from the inside, one layer of healthy tissue at a time, in a process remarkably similar to ripping out the pages of the diet book and pasting them onto a paper-mâché sculpture.

The cult surrounding diet books, ads and programs builds its strength upon the American dream of changing oneself through hard work. The desire for success via self-improvement strikes such a chord in our national consciousness that it can be easily echoed and then evoked to twist personal goals into impossible dreams of magical physical transformation.

But no matter how much money we spend chasing the dream, change can only work if it is based on actual possibility. Dieting does change our bodies, but not the way we wish and dream for. Instead the result is the opposite! Weight cycling and eating disorders are the predictable and proven results for the vast majority of those who follow any and every diet plan. Ragen at Dances with Fat defines it well:

[L]et’s talk about what “dieting” means (so that we can avoid the “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change!” discussion.)  Dieting occurs when someone gives their body less food than it needs to survive in the hope that it will eat itself, thereby becoming smaller.  Call it a diet, call it a lifestyle change, if you are starving your body hoping that it will eat itself resulting in intentional weight loss, congratulations you are on a diet.  (You are completely and totally allowed to diet, I’m just saying let’s call it what it is.)

Turning a fat person into a permanently thin person is essentially impossible, which makes it the perfect scam for the con artist–a gold mine. Once the hook is set, the infinitely exploitable sucker will buy variations on one useless diet or another for decades if not for the rest of her/his lifetime. Those who engage in this Long Con have sold billions of copies of such “Create Your Own Eating Disorder” books, not to mention all the diet-oriented paraphernalia that accompany them.

Brenda’s use of the Venus of Willendorf as the sculpture made from diet books strikes at the very heart of fear and prejudice toward larger bodies. These statues once represented goddesses–abundance, fertility and largesse. Now they are objects of ridicule. And by extension, those of us whose bodies resemble the goddess have also become targets for abuse, commands that we starve ourselves (seriously, “just stop eating” is a popular insult often yelled at fat women), and sometimes even violence.

One of the beautiful subtexts and ironies in Brenda’s work is using the pages of diet books to create a fat figure, just as the dieting process itself is now proven to stimulate long-term weight gain–creating a fat or fatter figure.

Brenda’s work shows bravery worthy of a goddess–I adore the picture of her, resolute, nude, surrounded by towering walls of diet books. Passionate, committed individuals banding together can have a profound effect.

The Willendorf Project is a wise investment toward growing a wiser future.