Monthly Archives: February 2014

Book Review: Nanny Knows Best over at FWSA



Anything for a free book! I’ve written a review of Katherine Holden’s Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland) blog, which you can find here

Considering how childcare has changed over the twentieth century, Nanny Knows Best is surprisingly topical and interesting – even for someone who has never watched Mary Poppins, let alone encountered a real nanny.

Shout out for the FWSA too: their website is always great and it’s well worth being on their mailing list for events and opportunities.

21st-Century Venus

Photoshop seems to be indispensable nowadays, not only to the production of beauty but also to the discussion of it. And here it is again: Anna Utopia Giordano’s Venus project photoshops classic nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino below, into contemporary standards of naked beauty.

But what I can’t help wondering, with all sincerity, is why?


Some of the altered paintings look (to me) more attractive, some look weird. Yes, our standards of beauty have become more exacting and less realistic, but we know this already. Glancing through the comments on the page, this seems to be the general reaction.

After all, the reworking of a traditional image is hardly new: Titian’s painting has already been reimagined in a variety of ways, Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife) being only two examples.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, the Venus of Paris, 1863 (


Paul Gauguin, Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife), 1896 (

Manet’s Venus, with her defiant gaze at the audience and the boldly outlined, textured rendering of her body, force us to question the nature of the sexuality being represented. Gauguin’s placing of a black nude in the traditional attitude of Venus offers a reminder that we still need, of the Western presumption that beauty is a white privilege – not to mention the fallen paradise references, with the serpent coiled round the tree.

Art has been questioning beauty for centuries, and sadly I think that Giordano’s contribution simply doesn’t stand up to the richness and provocation of its predecessors. But her Photoshopped Venuses do show us something important about 21st-century beauty. Giordano’s skinny, implausibly busty nudes have lost the dynamic relationship between flesh and fantasy that characterises the originals. The Renaissance paintings show a sublimation of honest, physical bodies into a realm of dreamlike beauty; because the Photoshopped bodies are already in the dimension of fantasy, the spark of reification is lost. The picture falls flat, having no connection to the flesh we are wrapped in, but floating free in the impossible. And that’s where the project falls flat too, as Giordano leaves it there without bringing it back to earth with some seriously critical questioning.

A Lesson in Fat-Shaming from The Guardian. Thanks Guys.

‘Big Ballet’? Yep, had to be a Channel 4 reality show. Feature in The Guardian? Had hoped for a thoughtful and sensitive critique but…

Big Ballet C4 Hannah Baines and dancers


As Helen Pidd in The Guardian points out today, a backlash is inevitable for a TV programme that gives larger women (what, no men? Sigh) the chance to dance: at least one person in the comments section dismissed it as a freak show, and more will follow. But I agree with Hannah Baines, one of the dancers (pictured front) who simply says, “I can dance. … Everyone who’s laughed at me, they’re going to watch and see what I can do.”

I suspect they will. Because, NEWS FLASH, people who wear a size larger than 10 are actual people who can do things like dancing. I know. Astonishing.

So I’m looking forward to watching this, for two simple reasons: I like watching dance, and I’m pleased that we get to see a wider range of people dancing. If only that was all that mattered!

Unfortunately, The Guardian has trouble with this larger-people-dancing-is-no-big-deal thing. They can get behind the larger-people-as-normal thing, but only in that really derogatory way when larger women are praised for being normal rather than, you know, spectacular or cool or anything else which is only possible at a size 8.

I have made a list of things in Helen Pidd’s article that I find Questionable:

  • “Baines is a size 18 and weighs 14 stone despite being just 5ft 3in tall.” Despite being just..? Oh right, being that weight at that tiny height is actually unacceptable. Disguised fat-shaming #1.
  • “Would viewers tune in to laugh and point at someone playing a role usually danced by a woman half her size?” That’s right half her size! She’s huge, right! And we’re really concerned that people will bully her for being so huge. Disguised fat-shaming #2. (I know this point has some value but I feel it could have been better made.)
  • Show choreographer Wayne Sleep “gave an interview declaring them “quite frankly fat. They’re too big to be dancers and they don’t mind me saying it.” Some of the women begged to differ”. I’m sure they did: even their choreographer thinks they’re “too big to be dancers”, not perhaps that the dance industry has very narrow standards that this programme is supposed to challenge. Disguised fat-shaming #3. They just couldn’t help quoting Sleep there.
  • There follows a section insisting (quoting Sleep and others) that the show is not intended either as a freak show or a diet show. This is good. But then: “Loughman is far more worried about the dancers’ fitness than how they look. “We’ve been plagued by injury. One girl tore a ligament in the very first rehearsal,” she says.” I.e. ‘we’re doing our best but they’re just too fat to move’. Disguised fat-shaming #4.
  • Dancer being fitted for her costume: “Her cheeks redden as a camerawoman pans up her size 20-body”. Ya think? The cameras just can’t help emphasising how fat these women are, and The Guardian just can’t help mentioning it. Again. Disguised fat-shaming #5.
  • “Early on, Sleep and Loughman decided to spare the women the indignity of wearing tutus”. Excuse me? Oh of course, they’re too fat for tutus. Disguised fat-shaming #6.
  • “The contrast between the dancers and the willowy [professional dancer] Loughman could hardly be greater”. Totally needed reminding of that. Disguised fat-shaming #7.
  • “Loughman says she and Sleep choreographed a 30-minute version of Swan Lake to “enhance the beauty of these everyday women”. Because ‘everyday’ is the best they can ever hope for. It’s a compliment, honestly! Disguised fat-shaming #8.

I’d like to emphasise that there was plenty of good stuff in Pidd’s article, and I’m glad this show is getting attention, but when reading it I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that between the lines it read FAT! FAT! FAT!

Am I overreacting? I’m willing to reconsider in light of other opinions, but I’ll stand by my list: this is a far too common way of talking about weight, and it is not OK.