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Brittany Holloway-Brown
Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Learning Body Positivity From a 700-Year-Old Hindu Statue

In a sculpture of Parvati, the goddess of love, I found a rare reflection of myself

When I followed my friends into the South Asian section of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I fell silent. Until then, I had walked through the various rooms of the museum making jokes and playing games. The large display of jars triggered discussions on what flowers or tea leaves we'd put in them. We debated which of the many bottles carved or covered in intricate designs had once contained hand cream, perfume, or alcohol. We made up dialogues for neighboring statues.

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Among the stone deities of classical and late medieval era Hindu sculpture, though, I found myself retreating into my own mind. As I examined the female statues, I was too dumbstruck to voice my feelings: They're me.

That is, every statue of a woman revealed my own shape down to a tee: large hips and chests, small waists, rounded bellies, plump faces, dimpled chins, lips stacked like tiny, individual macarons. I felt ... not naked, exactly, but revealed. There I was, carved into stone for eternity, displayed as art. And it wasn't just one standout, an exception among many; I was the rule. My friends waited patiently outside as I lingered, drinking in the displays with my eyes. When I finally left, my head spun at the idea of being visually represented and reflected in a way that was simultaneously current and historical.

The same thing happened when I went to another Asian art museum across the country: the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C. I was again struck by the thirst I felt for seeing myself reflected in three-dimensional stone. I was almost embarrassingly excited, telling my friends before we went in and gesturing excitedly at them to look, look! at the statues. I didn't go as far as to stand beside them while gesturing meaningfully to them and then to myself, if only because my friends had already moved onto the next room.

There I was, carved into stone for eternity, displayed as art.

Many of the figures in both exhibitions resonated with me, but the one that looked most like me was a statue of Parvati, goddess of love, devotion, and divine strength. A sculpture in the Freer and Sackler exhibition also depicts her with her consort Shiva, the god of destruction.

Looking at them, I was reminded of the Hindu concept of darshan, which says that simply seeing the god or goddess in stone is enough for prayer. This is awfully convenient when my family and I go to a temple in India or a puja, a religious ceremony, in New Jersey. Pushing through the crowd, we can quickly back away once we've met the eyes of the statues of the goddess Saraswati, the god Ganesh, and so on, depending on the holiday.

In the book Human and Divine: 2000 Years of Indian Sculpture, the artist and author Balraj Khanna writes, "Indian sculpture is best understood in context for a full appreciation of what in essence is a means of communicating with the gods ... to enshrine the divine presence." Similarly, while it wasn't a religious connection I felt toward these museum statues, especially given the quiet, formal, anemic way they were displayed, they were sculpted to evoke charisma, and to leave a formidable impression.

According to Khanna, there were certain aesthetic guidelines for Indian religious iconography and art in the classical to late medieval eras of Indian history. A text called the Shilpishastra discussed the practicalities of sculpture, such as the balance between negative and positive shapes, body language such as mudras (gestures made by fingers and hands), and facial expressions meant to emulate total calm. The statues I saw were jutting their hips out and cocking their heads, so their bodies followed the curve of an "S." Some of them also sat with their legs crossed, with their bellies sitting on their hips, turning their torsos into teardrops. Their faces were serene, their smiles coy and compelling.

To my surprise, looking up the Parvati statue, I even found a note that read, "Parvati is shown with the large eyes, round breasts, narrow waist, and broad hips that were elements of ideal beauty for a woman in ancient India."

Ideal beauty — who, me?

I didn't suddenly see myself as the most beautiful woman in the room. I just felt seen.

I jest because I'm flattered, and yet it's true. Vidya Dehejia, a professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, writes on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, "In India, the aim of art was never to imitate nature or to recreate reality through illusionistic devices; rather, the goal was to produce an idealized form."

This form wasn't even supposed to be based on nature. "Following such models specified in ancient texts, sculptors invariably produced an idealized female form with narrow waist, broad hips, and high, rounded breasts," continues Dehejia. "The arms, shapely and elongated, were created to resemble the slender, pliant bamboo shoot. Eyes were modeled on the lotus petal or the fish."

My waist isn't as tiny as the sculptures depict, obviously, and my arms aren't bamboo shoots. Yet even an idealized version of my body type is hard to find in contemporary art, on television, or in movies and magazines. I often scour the media for my body type, my mind doing tiny calculations and comparisons as the Terminator might, but instead of looking for John Connor, I'm looking for signs of softness in form or thickness of thigh. But the police detectives on TV and the women featured in magazines all look similarly sharp, toned, and slim, with few instances of variation. It's as though an actual Terminator arriving from the future wouldn't even know someone such as myself existed, much less existed in multiple.

The body-positive vibe I got from my museum visits isn't limited to Hindu sculpture. Take the much-shared Tumblr post featuring a photo of a kneeling Aphrodite sculpture, and the caption, "If Aphrodite had stomach rolls then so can I." Another Tumblr user reblogged it, adding a story about how his wife had been feeling bad about her body until he had shown her a picture he'd taken of a sculpture of Aphrodite at the Museum of Modern Art Chicago.

There are others. The "Body Positive Statues" Tumblr pairs art with aggressively body-positive writing. One of my favorite entries is a painting of a woman kissing her own reflection. The epigraph is a quote from the children's book Girls Under Pressure, by Jacqueline Wilson: "If you were Giovanni Annolfini in the Middle Ages then your ideal pin-up girl had a high forehead and a tiny bosom and a great big tummy. A century later Titian liked large firm women with big bottoms. Rubens liked his women large too, but wobbly. Goya's women were white and slender, then Renoir liked them very big and salmon pink."

The thing about having a beauty ideal is that there will always be someone who doesn't fit it.

The Tumblr's archives contain paintings from throughout history and the world, covering a range of body types. I can't help but wonder if this blog was started amid the same rush of feeling I experienced walking into that room of the Asian Art Museum: the joy of seeing myself in art.

As appealing as it is to identify myself with a classic beauty ideal, it also gives me pause. The Parvati statues rang true for me in part because my parents came from the same country as these statues. The women carved in stone resemble my aunts, my cousins, my grandmothers. But when I visit India and view television commercials featuring brown actors, I also can't help but notice that they tend to be light-skinned, which is idealized in modern India.

The thing about having a beauty ideal, in other words, is that there will always be someone who doesn't fit it. While I might relate to the curvy statue of Parvati, the tall and slender Padma Lakshmi may not. And in turn, should I feel bad because Lakshmi fits an ideal that I don't? I'm reminded of the Buzzfeed video "Women's Ideal Body Types Throughout History," which has good intentions, but conveys a wearying message. It's as though we need sourced, historical references that tell us when our bodies were considered more beautiful than those of other women — because right now, by virtue of having any reigning body ideal at all, the majority of us aren't.

But the elation I felt walking through those exhibits wasn't the result of me suddenly seeing myself as the most beautiful woman in the room. I just felt seen; my body wasn't an anomaly in my own space and time. We live at a time when all these images, statues, paintings can be found alongside each other, different ideals appreciated simultaneously. Yes, my body type is best depicted in an ancient Indian statue. But I stood in a room with it hundreds of years later, and saw myself.

Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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