On constructing the “ideal” woman

This morning I started my day by treating myself to a long read with my cup of coffee. In this case, the long read in question was Emily Ratajkowski’s excellent, disturbing, and important “Buying Myself Back”, an excerpt from her upcoming book of essays printed in New York Magazine. It is in many ways a harrowing read (Content Warning – it recounts a sexual assault), but I bring it up because Ms. Ratajkowski so deftly describes the personal experience of something that I have been writing about a lot lately: the male gaze and women’s ability, or indeed inability, to assert themselves against a constructed “ideal”.

In particular, a chord was struck with me when Ratajkowski recounted the experience of having one of the pictures of herself which she had posted on Instagram turned into a painting by Richard Prince as a part of his “Instagram Paintings” series. He painted two pieces of her, and as a part of this he took publicly posted images from Instagram, but added his own captions below. The first image she saw of herself included his caption, “Were you built in a science lab by teenage boys?”

I know.

This particular sentence, billed as a compliment, reminded me very much of medieval conceptions of beauty and the ideal body. Of course, I have written before about the female form, and there is little doubt that we would say that Emily Ratajkowski certainly adheres to our modern ideal of that, if decidedly not the medieval. But what Prince let slip here is a very honest to God medieval sentiment: the idea that beauty can be constructed or ticked off the list by the men observing it.

For medieval people the idea of what was beautiful was not just objective, it was quantifiable. Much in the way that medieval people checked with the ancients on, like, every other thing before they committed to it (because there is no such thing as the Dark Ages and people continued to have access to Greek and Roman texts throughout the medieval period), medieval thinkers were pretty sure that the best way to decide who was hot was to go back as far as you could into the literary past and see what people there were jacking it to.

What they managed to find was De Excidio Troia Historia, a history of the Trojan war that was  attributed to Dares Phrygius (d? A long-ass time ago, OK?). Dares Phrygius, they were led to believe, was a big deal because the poet Homer (you know, your man who wrote the Odyssey. We don’t know when he was alive or if he was either, OK? Let it free you.) told us about him. Homer said that Dares Phrygius had lived before his own time, and had witnessed the Trojan War first hand as a priest at the temple of the smith god Hephaestus in Troy. Anyway, this meant that he was able, in theory, to report on not just the warring antics in question but who, exactly, the hotties watching it were.

Detail of a four-part miniature including a number of hotties, from the ‘Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César’, France, N., 1250-1275, British Library Add MS 19669, f. 84r

Sadly for the medieval pervs, there wasn’t a whole lot to work with here. We mainly find out from Dares that the chicks he was ogling had white skin (described as candida) and were blonde (flavis), and had pretty sexy monobrows. Also some were tall, but others were “not tall”.[1] Hot.

As that wasn’t a lot to work with, medieval dudes went looking for the next oldest writer they could find for his views on the subject of hotness. This was Maximianus who wrote in the sixth century. While this wasn’t ancient, it was still pretty old, and since he gave them what they wanted – a description of a hot babe – they were willing to look at him as an authority. This description went a lot further and let everyone know that a hot chick has: blonde hair, a milky neck, black eyebrows with a high free forehead, bright white skin and swollen lips. So … pretty much like the older descriptions, but this time no monobrow.

With a more complete list of features in hand, medieval poets set about doing what medieval people thinkers loved best – systematising. The Parisian poet Matthew of Vendôme used this description to make his own in his Ars Versificatoria, or The Art of the Versemaker. Here he informed readers – explicitly – that if you wrote about a hot woman she had to be described in one particular way. She should have golden hair and thin black eyebrows on a paper-white forehead. Her forehead and the space between her eyebrows (sorry monobrow enthusiasts!) should be “white and clear”. The skin of her face is bright and pale but rosy, giving a “red and snowy-white countenance”. Her nose is not too big or too small (helpful!) and her teeth are like ivory. Her lips are swollen, her breath like honey, and she “pants for kisses”.[2]

Anyway this was later picked up by a number of other medieval poets and codified to the point that if a medieval writer wanted to commit pen to paper to describe his dream girl he would simply be repeating exactly the same features as everyone before him and in a specified order:

1. The hair
2. The forehead
3. The eyebrows and the space between them
4. The eyes
5. The cheeks and their color
6. The nose
7. The mouth
8. The teeth
9. The chin
10. The throat
11. The neck and its nape
12. The shoulders
13. The arms
14. The hands
15. The breasts
16. The waist
17. The belly
18. The legs
19. The feet

Over and over again, anyone reading medieval European literature will find blonde women with a high white forehead, black eyebrows, bright grey eyes, cheeks like roses, a “not too” nose, a pert mouth, teeth like ivory, a cleft chin, a white throat, a neck long like a swan, small white shoulders, long graceful arms, hands with long fingers, high small breasts, a small waist, a pot belly, ample thighs, long legs and dainty feet. Some of these features may be left out, for example the chin comes and goes a lot, but otherwise this is the way to write about beautiful women in medieval literature.

Zeuxis and the nude models from the Roman de la Rose, British Library Harley MS 4425, f. 142r.

In other words, this is the literary lab in which metaphorical medieval teenagers constructed their ideal beautiful woman. Not only was there an ideal woman, but she could be intricately put together without the need for any input from an actual woman. She was simply a series of physical attributes to be selected and put in place in a specified order. Moreover, because this was the “ideal”, something which had been decided in the infinite wisdom of a bunch of horny dudes, there was no way to refute it. Didn’t meet the standard? Well you are just one of those bitter twisted spinsters. Meet it and object to being taken apart feature by feature by a bunch of creeps? Well really you are just trying to draw attention to yourself and how hot you are. You love it really. Smile more and complain less, sugar.

Indeed, one of the reasons why these poetic constructions were “ideal” is that they couldn’t and didn’t complain. They could be projected on to and turned into a passive and perfectly acquiescing woman. Here she is, pleased that you noticed how hot she is. Existing solely for you, waiting to be fed the lines you want her to repeat in your imagination, your poem, your bawdy tavern story.

Even if we have completely changed our opinions on what makes a hot woman, we have kept that particular proclivity. Ratajkowski recounts that while the first Prince print, with the “created in a lab” comment was sold to a big-time art collector for around $80K, she managed to buy a second portrait. This, an image from a Sports Illustrated shoot that she didn’t particularly enjoy sported a more intimate caption, “U told me the truth. U lost the [anchor emoji]. No hurt. No upset. All energy bunny now that it’s sunny”.

Here, Prince completes the medieval poetic construction of a literary beauty. He has painted his muse, who is his to own, and with this caption he has now given her a whole imaginary life with him. They experience sunny days at the beach. She is endearingly clumsy, unable to tackle simple tasks like keeping the boat anchored, but truthful about her shortcomings. She is a manic pixie “energy bunny”, all sweetness. A sexy childlike girlfriend living in his head and the painting he has made, apologetic and whimsical. His.

That in order to make this image, and this imaginary relationship, he took this image from Ratajkowski is moot. He needn’t ask for her consent or trouble himself about how she feels when he sells her image and this story to others for his own profit. She exists in his head and on his canvas and after all, shouldn’t she be pleased that a great artist like this bothered to immortalize her? In this way Prince is a sort of a reverse Pygmalion: the artist fell in love with a woman and so has turned her into a piece of art where he can have a relationship with her.

Pygmalion carves a female statue that later comes to life, British Library Egerton MS 881, f. 165v.

The thing about women, even those who meet (or even exceed, in the case of Ratajkowski) the ideal is that we are not convenient. We are people. We aren’t energy bunnies. We can take care of the anchor, and we’re offended when you act like we can’t. We are aware of the male gaze, how it attempts to turn us into a list of attributes and strip away the “us” at our core as it does. The opinions, the flaws, the objections to profit from our own work – all of these things have no place alongside the ideal and so when they emerge they are attacked as proof of our own unworthiness, an example of how we can never really be “perfect” and why constructions are preferable.

Women have for centuries been pleading to be taken seriously alongside the constructions of ourselves which live in men’s heads, and against which we are all constantly and exhaustively measured. To see Ratajkowski argue for her humanity is heart-rending, but nothing new. What I like about her piece is seeing her take control of the narrative and assert herself as a fully-formed human onto the images of herself mediated by men, for an audience of other men, at times explicitly against her consent.

In her essay, Ratajkowski speaks of buying back her image from the men who, one after the other, have expropriated it and claimed it as their own in a number of ways. I would argue that what she has done in this piece of work is even more powerful: she has created a true likeness of herself. It is one who thinks, feels, and reacts. It is the exact opposite to the medieval and modern pliant images created by men for their own satisfaction, and it exists on her terms.  

Work like this is painful, and I regret deeply that in order to assert her own control and humanity Ratajkowski had to make her pain and discomfort known to the world. I am also grateful that she had the fortitude to do so and that she could shine a light on every muse across time. She isn’t your fucking dream girl; in fact she isn’t yours at all. You want a construct? Go read some medieval poetry. Leave her and every other living woman out of it.

[1] Fredinand Otto Meister [ed.], Daretis Phrygii De excidio Troiae historia, Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana, (Leipzig: Teubner, 1873), pp. 14, 16-17.
[2] “Dispensare iubar humeris permissa decorum
Explicat et Melius dispatiata placet.
Pagina frontis habet quasi verba faventis, inescat
Visus, nequitie nescia, labe carens.
Blanda supercilia via lacteal separate, arcus
Dividui prohibent luxuriare pilos.
Stellis preradiant oculi Venerisque ministry
Esse Favorali simplicitate vovent.
Canfori socio rubor interfusus in ore
Militat, a roseo flore tributa petens;”
Matthew of Vendôme, Ars Versificatoria, in Franco Munari, Mathei Vindocinensis opera, (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1977), p. 83

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on women in the medieval period see:
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Women and Work
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
On the Ideal Form of Women
On women and desire
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa
Talking medieval women on History Hack

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

4 thoughts on “On constructing the “ideal” woman”

  1. This articulates why I find sex dolls so incredibly creepy! The more ‘realistic’ the worse. I never could put words to it, in fact, it’s still hard to unpack it all.
    It’s the ultimate compliant ‘woman’, completely passive. No personality, an empty vessel, no wants, no needs, just a canvas for some fantasies.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. i am very late to this, but i could only think of my late wife while reading it. in her younger life, before i knew her, she was this “ideal woman”. her mother and her ex-husband (and of course others), expected physical impossibility from this brilliant woman. there’s more to this i can’t begin to express… but she never escaped it, and her life was… compressed
    i’ll always be sad about that


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