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Skinny Legs and All

With Its Collection as Evidence, the BMA Takes Girls on a Tour of How Women Really Look

The City Paper Digi-Camô
Beauty Call: BMA docent Miriam Arenberg leads the Feast, Famine, and the Female Form tour.
Emily Flake

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 3/12/2003

Every day, American women are confronted by unattainable images of beauty. As we get bigger and bigger as a nation, our idols get smaller and smaller; for young women in America, some amount of physical self-loathing has become the norm. But the Baltimore Museum of Art is trying to show teenage girls that there are other images of beauty besides rail-thin models with a tour of the museum called "Feast, Famine, and the Female Form." It encompasses paintings and sculptures, from the Old Masters to the contemporary collection, using these images to spark discussion about body images from far-gone times and faraway cultures to the here and now. For most of the year, the tour is only available to groups by appointment, but this Sunday, March 16, the BMA will open it to the general public, followed by a hands-on clay modeling workshop. It's an idea filled with good intentions. But can a one-hour museum tour really compete with a lifetime of MTV and Cosmo?

The tour was the brainchild of Beth Williams-Plunkett, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders. In the winter of 1996, she recalls, national Eating Disorder Awareness Week was fast approaching, and she wanted to participate. "One of the main focuses that people who specialize in eating disorders have is to try to help prevent them," Williams-Plunkett says. "I also have a passion for art. I actually majored in studio art as an undergraduate. So somehow those things melded in my brain."

She decided to approach the Baltimore Museum of Art, suggesting that they conduct a tour that would use paintings and sculptures to demonstrate different ideals of feminine beauty throughout history and across cultures. The BMA liked the idea and teamed her up with docent and fellow psychologist Miriam Arenberg, who had a personal connection to the topic--her sister nearly died of anorexia in college. Together, the two women selected pieces from the BMA's collection that illustrate three concepts: that thin is not the only body shape that is beautiful; that images of thinness can also be used to connote sickness, depression, or poverty; and that beauty can come from a body's functionality instead of just its appearance.

Originally carried out in tandem, with Williams-Plunkett focusing on the psychology and Arenberg concentrating on art history, the tour gained popularity and more docents were trained. A number of different docents now lead the museum walk, and every tour is a little bit different, tailored to its audience. While any group can take the tour, school groups and Girl Scout troops are the most frequent participants. "The format especially for children--I guess I should say students--is really to try to ask questions, as opposed to lecturing, and then work with the answers that you get," Arenberg says.

I recently brought two eighth-grade girls--Noelle, a 14-year-old Roland Park Elementary/ Middle School student, and Leairra, a 13-year-old Barclay Elementary/Middle School student--to the BMA to get their perspective on "Feast, Famine, and the Female Form." Before setting off, Arenberg got to know the girls a bit, finding out why they were interested in the tour and whether or not they had any experience with eating disorders. Noelle had a friend who was bulimic.

Then Arenberg led us to her favorite piece, a wooden headdress of a female figure made by the Baga people of Guinea in West Africa in 1938. It succeeded in getting everyone's attention from the start.

"I always get a thrill talking about her," Arenberg said. "She's very symbolic for me because she does speak to a different aesthetic." Arenberg asked the girls what physical attribute they noticed about the figure.

"Her breasts," Noelle said, pointing to the headdress' pendulous breasts.

"And what do they look like?" Arenberg asked.

"Sagging."

This elicited a bit of a giggle from us all and allowed Arenberg to make her point. In the Baga culture, she explained, "They like older women that have sagging breasts, because sagging breasts show that they've had a number of children . . . and those kids are now healthy, functioning adults within the community."

It's small exchanges like this, Williams-Plunkett feels, that makes the tour work. But at times, it also gets mixed results. The girls seemed less interested, for instance, in Aristide Maillol's bronze sculpture "Bather Fixing Her Hair." They walked around the figure with its soft curves and answered Arenberg's questions, but one of the girls was also busily text-messaging a friend, staring down at her cell phone as often as up at the sculpture. It took a while for Arenberg to get the girls to come up with the idea that the bather was comfortable in her body. They instead interpreted the sculpture's downturned head and blank expression as signs of some kind of indifference.

"Minerva as Patroness of Music," a painting from 1601 by Johann Rottenhammer, got a little more attention. Arenberg pointed out the pear-shaped women, asking the girls, "Why would the bottom part of women be celebrated?"

The girls were stumped.

"I don't know," Noelle said. "People say chocolate makes your hips spread, so people stay away from chocolate."

Arenberg explained that in Rottenhammer's day big hips and thighs were the feminine ideal, and that skinny women were seen as sickly or poor. Both girls were amazed to learn that larger women were once idealized. Noelle was surprised that society's obsession with thinness was a relatively recent development.

"You kind of think if it's like that now, it's probably been like that [always]," she said. "I wouldn't have thought that guys found overweight--not overweight but full-figured--women attractive. Because today they are made fun of."

Throughout the tour, there were times when the girls seemed to try to give the right answers, as if it were a pop quiz or they were trying to help Arenberg remember something she forgot. The girls seemed to understand what they were supposed to say, but it wasn't always clear whether they believed what they were saying. Even after the tour, when I asked Leairra what famous woman she thought had a beautiful body, she dutifully responded, "Queen Latifah." But when I asked if she wanted to look like Queen Latifah, she quickly changed her answer to Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Williams-Plunkett says teenaged girls have a particularly difficult time believing that today's beauty standards aren't set in stone. "At that age range, not that you won't get some people who are freer, but a lot of the girls then just really feel that this is a given law, that I have to be thin," she says. "Their minds are not free to think differently."

Despite their occasional disinterest, Noelle and Leairra seemed impressed by "Feast, Famine, and the Female Form." "The tour allowed me to look at the pictures a little bit more," Noelle said. "Because before I did see the pictures of women with full-figured hips and whatnot, but today it really got me to think, Did they really look like that? . . . [Arenberg] was saying before that they didn't really like skinny girls that much. Men really liked full-figured women. And I think that would help girls today to not look at their bodies so much as to impress so-and-so. To just be themselves or whatever."

Faced as they are by a daily barrage of advertising, television, and music videos, who knows if these ideas will take hold? But at least "Feast, Famine and the Female Form" seemed to have accomplished what Williams-Plunkett acknowledges is a humble goal. "What we are trying to do here is just plant the seeds of ideas," she says.

The Baltimore Museum of Art conducts a public "Feast, Famine, and the Female Form" tour Sunday, March 16, from 2 to 4 p.m., for ages 12 and up. For more information, call (410) 396-6322.

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