Representing Women – Dr Freya Gowrley

In this wonderful piece Dr. Freya Gowrley reflects on representation, fatness and body-shaming.

When asked what Women’s History Month meant to me as the prompt for writing this blog post, my mind immediately went to issues of representation. For me, the month highlights the excellent work being done to make history more inclusive by finding and reintroducing women into the historical canon, whilst unpacking the systems of oppression that have kept women from it. By identifying their previously overlooked contributions, the gendered issues affecting them, and the forms of their representation, or lack thereof, throughout history, this work is vital to women’s history as a discipline.

This binary of represented versus unrepresented women (and their bodies) has been at the forefront of my mind as I’ve begun work on a new project, on the visual and material culture of the fat body in the long eighteenth century, a period in which body size took on unprecedented cultural currency. This was a time in which the the corpulent bodies of the nobility were lampooned in satirical prints, and famously large people were commodified in portraits, prints, and decorative consumable goods. At the same time, those bodies marked by unusual corpulence were put on public display as spectacular objects, while the clothing that evidenced their former owners’ size, and furniture made or altered to accommodate fat bodies, became desirable items and objects of renown. A key example of how fatness was visualised during this period, is that of Albinia Hobart, Countess of Buckinghamshire (d. 1816), whose body was consistently subjected to ridicule in contemporary graphic satire, as shown below.

James Gillray, Enter Cowslip, with a Bowl of Cream, 1795
National Portrait Gallery, London.

Hobart was a prominent celebrity at this time thanks to both her position as a political hostess, as well as her apparent enjoyment of gambling, parties, and amateur dramatics, all of which resulted in a notably public reputation, ensuring her constant appearance within the satirical print. Yet despite her cultural proliferation, Hobart is largely absent from critical literature on the eighteenth-century body, other than briefly appearing in discussions on exaggeration in visual satire. Furthermore, Hobart’s subjectivity as a fat woman on a public stage is entirely unrepresented in these accounts. At once publicly present, yet historically absent, Hobart’s case is a complex web of too much and too little representation operating over several centuries.

Yet issues of representation remain crucial in current attitudes towards obesity. Although 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of Susie Orbach’s vital feminist manifesto, Fat is a Feminist Issue, negative attitudes towards the fat body and its representations remain prevalent. This was exemplified by reactions to the October 2018 UK edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, which featured the plus-size model Tess Holliday on its front cover, a choice that drew vicious criticism. Showing Holliday as an unapologetically fat woman, the cover represented a deliberately visual intrusion into a space usually reserved for representing conventionally-attractive bodies. Both Hobart’s and Holliday’s figures then, functioned as subversive public manifestations of the fat body, whose representation was perceived to threaten cultural norms of femininity.

By placing such images in relation to their long and complex history, we can therefore think about the fat body as a cultural and historical construction with a powerful and enduring inheritance, whilst considering the role played by history as a discipline in rendering these bodies both unrepresented and unpresentable. Paying attention to the issues of representation that surround these women, whether through visual culture; their presence within the public sphere; or their complete lack of representation (specifically, their absence from historical discourse), can therefore help us to better understand the regimes of value that both historical representation and visual representation alike, have enacted upon women’s lives and women’s bodies throughout history.

Freya Gowrley is a Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Lecturer in the University of Edinburgh’s History of Art department, where she also received her PhD in 2016. For more about Freya see: https://flgowrley.wordpress.com/about/