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Jordan Peterson’s Critique of Voluptuous Women Is Misplaced

Sports Illustrated is making headlines for its annual swimsuit edition again. This year, the magazine featured Yumi Nu, described as “the first plus-sized Asian American model” to make the cover of the swimsuit edition. The decision has garnered a great deal of positive press both for Nu and Sports Illustrated.

Not everyone was impressed, however. Dr. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist, YouTube personality, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and bestselling author of several books.

Peterson is a complex character — brilliant and unafraid to stand up to the worst excesses of contemporary culture, a trait that has earned him both widespread respect and equally vociferous loathing. (He has also suffered from depression and crippling anxiety — no doubt exacerbated by his frequent forays into contentious debates on the most hot-button issues of our time.)

Peterson’s tweet about this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover ignited yet another of his famous firestorms. He wrote: “Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that.” The backlash was immediate. In response to his critics, Peterson elaborated in a subsequent tweet: “It’s a conscious progressive attempt to manipulate & retool the notion of beauty, reliant on the idiot philosophy that such preferences are learned & properly changed by those who know better.”

Peterson is entitled to his opinion, of course. In my opinion, his critique is misplaced.

His protests notwithstanding, there is plenty of evidence that historical “notions of beauty” included plumper, more rounded women, and that men have found such women very attractive indeed. Artifacts from antiquity, like the Venus of Willendorf and countless Greek and Roman statues, often depicted goddesses and other female ideals as full-figured. Seventeenth-century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted voluptuous women so often that the word “Rubenesque” was coined to describe them — flatteringly. Even as recently as the 1950s and early 1960s, Marilyn Monroe’s rounded hourglass figure was considered a standard of female beauty.

There are likely evolutionary reasons behind the preference for fleshier women; females with higher percentage of body fat would be better able to bear and nurse offspring (who would themselves then be more likely to survive) even during times of food privation.

The problem isn’t a full-figured model. Ms. Nu is lovely. But the swimsuit she wears on the cover is ugly and unflattering. A well-designed swimsuit would capitalize on her beauty and her build. But a suit that is both too small and flattens a woman’s breasts flatters no one.

Why does this matter? Because it reflects an accelerating cultural trend toward the ugly and vulgar.

The best designers (Charles Worth, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta) had a history of creating clothing that was beautiful and flattering to the female form (and male, for that matter), whether the wearer was tall or short, thinner or heavier. But many of today’s celebrated designers are talentless hacks competing in an attention-getting circus of sadism and starvation, appalling ugliness and absurdity. (And if the women’s clothing designers are bad, the men’s designers are worse. If that’s possible.) Yet the elites in the media and entertainment industries rave about their “genius” and “art.” The result is a race to the bottom — literally.

Even given an ill-fitted suit, the SI cover is modest compared with some of the vulgar extremes indulged in by our entertainers. Take Lizzo, for example, a very pretty but morbidly obese singer who likes to appear in public wearing little more than see-through mesh dresses or fabric floss between the halves of her impressively large posterior. (Including while doing such pedestrian things as attending a gala event or mounting the stairs to her private jet. Don’t we all sport thongs — and nothing else — while getting into our Lears, Gulfstreams and Bombardiers to attend (ahem) climate change events?)

Inevitably, any criticism prompts loud accusations of “fat shaming.” Nonsense. Objection to that behavior isn’t grounded in “lack of body positivity;” it’s a rejection of needless vulgarity. Yet again, there is ample evidence that the public can and does value the talent and contributions of female performers, for example, without regard to their body size or shape: Consider “First Lady of Radio” Kate Smith, opera divas Montserrat Caballe and Deborah Voigt, soul legends Aretha Franklin and Jill Scott, hip-hop stars like Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott and pop crooner Adele.

Some of these artists made decisions to lose weight. Others remained “comfortable in their own skin,” as it were. The point is that they are (or were) able to appear in public sporting their individual style, but properly clothed.

It’s not differently shaped bodies that the cultural elites want us to “celebrate.” That, within reason, would be of social value. (Ignoring the serious health consequences of obesity, which the COVID-19 pandemic amplified, is irresponsible.) Rather, it’s the complete breakdown of standards of decency in public behavior. And it is just as gross, artless and inappropriate when it’s done by the perfectly toned Madonna as it is when Lizzo does it.

Peterson says he has “quit Twitter” following the outrage over his latest tweet. We’ll see. Peterson’s personal taste may run to trimmer females, and that is his right, but if he weighs in again, his ire should be focused on the fashion, publishing and entertainment industries, not a woman with — yes — a perfectly normal figure.

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Laura Hollis

Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is a native of Champaign, Illinois. She received her undergraduate degree in English and her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. Hollis' career as an attorney has spanned 28 years, the past 23 of which have been in higher education. She has taught law at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and has nearly 15 years' experience in the development and delivery of entrepreneurship courses, seminars and workshops for multiple audiences. Her scholarly interests include entrepreneurship and public policy, economic development, technology commercialization and general business law. In addition to her legal publications, Hollis has been a freelance political writer since 1993, writing for The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit magazine, Townhall.com and the Christian Post, on matters of politics and culture. She is a frequent public speaker. Hollis has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education. She is married to Jess Hollis, a musician, voiceover artist and audio engineer, and they live in Indiana with their two children, Alistair and Celeste.

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