|With kind permission of Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, on loan to the University of Delaware Library|
Doesn't she look fat?
This week I have also had my attention drawn to Lady Gaga, that multi-talented musical artist who has redefined the notion of femininity in pop music...
Doesn't she look fat?
It's not often that I get to mention Lady Gaga and Fanny Cornforth in the same breath, but this week I began to get them mixed up due to the very similar media coverage both have received. Thanks to the increased publicity that Pre-Raphaelite art has received, due to the Tate exhibition, Fanny has been mentioned in Press, Blogs and the such like, and time and time again she has been described as 'fat', 'plump', 'portly' and all manner of other words meaning the same thing. Did the writers of these pieces call Jane or Lizzie 'skinny'? Possibly once or twice, but on the whole their names could be mentioned without prefixing them with an adjective. What is wrong with us?
This young lady is Catherine Walters or 'Skittles' as she was known to her friends and clients. She was a courtesan (that's a nice word for prostitute, isn't it?) (maybe that's when they buy you pudding as well as your stew before you sleep with them) for some very important types and became a trendsetter when she rode around in this rather neat get-up. In order to achieve that astonishingly small waist she was corseted in, then sewn into her 'Princess' riding habit. I think we know who Fanny stole her two extra waists from...
|I'll breath out when you've all left...|
She wasn't the only one. Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal, Alexa Wilding all assumed a more rational way of dressing, and all of Rossetti's muses dress in long flowing gowns, not tight corsets. Take this image of Jane from the middle of the 1860s...
But not fat, so that's alright.
|The Battersbys: She weighed 631 pound more than him, apparently|
I've always thought that the permanent labeling of Fanny as fat started with the rebirth in interest in Pre-Raphaelite art in the 1960s. I wonder if it has any connection at all with the utter crisis that seems to occurred in female body image, springing from the decade that gave us supermodels with figures that rejected any notion of traditional feminine curves. Fanny, through her nickname 'Elephant', became the fat muse. We never for a moment consider that Rossetti called her Elephant because she never forgot. No, it's because she's fat.
How many meals did Lizzie and Jane consume in that excellent documentary Desperate Romantics? How often was Fanny seen with something in her mouth? Okay, I'm being basic because we know a few things for certain about Fanny and food. Firstly, she loved to eat. This sounds stupid at first because who doesn't love food? In a landscape of women who were unwell and missing meals, Fanny's love of eating out is documented in George Boyce's diary, and her love of cooking is apparent in Rossetti's letters, where he bemoans that a pudding made at his friend's house where he was staying was not a patch on hers. While I have been writing my Pre-Raphaelite novel, I have Fanny eating quite a lot of the time. Mind you, everyone eats quite a lot of the time in my book, it's that kind of book.
Is there a male equivalent to calling a woman 'fat'? I was trying to think of one because Rossetti, who undoubtedly got fat during the 1860s and 1870s, is rarely called it, or if he is it doesn't seem to carry the same weight, if you excuse the pun. I'm going to stick my broad neck out at this point and suggest that I don't think men care as much about a woman's weight as women do. For a woman, being called 'fat' is one of the most awful things you can call them because it carries with it such value-judgements. When we call Fanny or Gaga 'fat', that isn't what we mean. We mean uncontrolled, lack of care, greedy, consuming, selfish, incapable, possibly also stupid, ugly, useless and so on, down and down. It rarely seems to mean that you are larger in mass that an officially agreed amount.
Do we really want to draw the conclusion that a person's weight should carry any weight to how much we value them? If so, I'm very valuable indeed.
But worth every penny, obviously.