Over the past several months, I’ve had a some thought-inspiring exchanges about the language of the body – specifically, the slightly deviant body, bodies that skew from the ideal-that-is-and-is-not-an-ideal.
The first one happened at a workshop I was giving about burlesque personas. As part of this, I handed out an exercise sheet, full of adjectives and descriptors to help performers spotlight what made them special. A fast-reading attendee asked, “What’s this one mean? Jolie-laide?”
I said something like,”Jolie-laide is a French phrase that translates directly as pretty-ugly. Like a pug dog, or a sexy broken-nosed boxer. Imperfect but appealing. Like, I’d say that I’m jolie-laide rather than – ”
Instant denial from the person who’d asked! “Oh, no, no, no! You’re pretty! You’re beautiful!” I…what? I was touched, flattered and also baffled. There’s realism in admitting I don’t look like a model, and there’s a freedom to jolie-laide, as Susie Bubble writes. This New York Times article tries to talk Americans into appreciating jolie-laide. It’s disturbing how jolie-laide isn’t even part of our cultural dialogue anymore – no more movies called “Funny Face,” no more lyrics growling, “She ain’t so good lookin’, but she can lay that lovin’ down.”
The second one happened two weeks ago. A male friend of mine who admires the female form in all its volumes asked, “Is there something I can say, or should say, besides “curvy”? “Curves?” Is there anything women like better?” A good point, since, apparently, every single woman in America is now curvy. I set out to examine the state of this area of linguistics, and found myself upbraided at every turn.
In the US, there’s thick. Google swears that one of the more popular related terms is “want thick body”, courtesy of J. Lo, Coco, Buffie Carruth (who modeled as Buffie the Body and is now a fitness trainer), and the women of Love & Rockets. Thick, along with “curvy”, has quickly come to connote a specific figure type, an hourglass with some sand in it – a body type that is, oddly, becoming rarer. In the US, the term thick is contentious enough. When I mentioned the term to my Kiwi friends, I got yelps of denial, because, “In New Zealand, thick means stupid, first and foremost. You can’t call someone thick!!”
What about the Yiddish term zaftig? “No, no, I wouldn’t use that,” says a Jewish friend, her mouth downturned. “It doesn’t have good connotations.”
Romance languages to the rescue. The German term vollschlank, often translated as “chubby,” literally means “full-slim” and once denoted sex appeal. Everybody I asked liked vollschlank – a pity, then, that the Germans themselves don’t seem to, anymore. There’s rondeur (French for “curvy”) or being une ronde- see the Miss Ronde competition. Which sounds good, but France isn’t a curve-positive country overall.
There’s the language that women use to refer to our own bodies, and the language that our admirers use to praise us – which is what my male friend was asking about. This week, Roger Ebert’s death drew attention to his articulate, afffectionate, and admiring words about his wife and her “voluptuous figure,” which enticed him at first sight. (The writer Yvonne Taylor has more thoughts on this here.)
“Voluptuous” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue – at four syllables, it’s not a convenient signifier. But, since we live in a world where curvy, thick, zaftig, vollschlank rondeur isn’t treated simply, those extra syllables show that the body is considered; that it deserves more than a drive-by-shout of a compliment.
Your own thoughts on this are welcome!