By Angaelica LaPasta
My first reaction to seeing the Mona Lisa in real life was to think that it was a very small painting. A huge crowd clustered around it, snapping pictures, taking selfies. I sought to understand the depths of that elusive Mona Lisa smile as I strained on my tippy toes, trying to see over the crowd. Despite the uncomfortable crush of jostling bodies, I stood and tried to understand and appreciate. This painting did not particularly strike me or make me feel anything, but because it was famous, and because it was prized, I stood and tried to get something out of it. I gave up quickly and wrote it off as a disappointment.
I’m not the only one who was disappointed by the Mona Lisa. According to experimental psychologist Guy Kress, “The Mona Lisa is probably the single most disappointing piece of work in the entire world.” In fact, it is featured on many lists as one of the most disappointing attractions. But people still visit the Louvre in Paris simply to see the Mona Lisa, and to snap a quick picture with her.
Why does this one small painting get so much attention while crowds meander by so many others, barely glancing at them? If the Louvre has nothing else, it does have a ton of nice looking paintings. The massive museum is a treasure trove of paintings. White walls filled up with huge, gold framed paintings. So many paintings that the museum lacks sufficient security to notice and stop a small child from sneaking under a velvet rope and poking at a Renaissance landscape, returning to her mother triumphantly after crossing a line she was not supposed to.
Another taboo line, not mediated by a velvet rope and a scolding security guard, but rather by art historians, fame, and time, is the one between the beautiful and the ugly in art. The Mona Lisa is beautiful—right? We know that this is what we’re supposed to think. We know that we should marvel at her, pay €17 and push past strangers to catch a glimpse of her, and buy a magnet of her image in the gift shop to smugly stick to our fridge. Then again, there is also a Reddit thread on r/unpopularopinion with the title “Mona Lisa is ugly as fuck.”
Even the thread’s author doesn’t go as far as to bash da Vinci, but insists, “I’m talking about the girl, the painting itself is beautiful but man Mona Lisa is mad ugly.” Another Reddit thread called “Mona Lisa is Ugly!” still calls the Mona Lisa da Vinci’s “greatest work,” while questioning the hype. Even those who criticize the piece don’t go far, still clinging to convention despite the proof of their own eyes.
Perhaps society relates to beauty standards in much the same way. For example, I would say that I have a Botticelli bod. I’m round, plump. Things hang, jiggle, and roll. Although the movement towards body positivity has made me more loving towards my form, I still long to be skinnier. I want to lose the fat that hangs around my stomach, the bulges at my thighs, and what weighs down my arms instead of loving it. To ward off these negative thoughts, I remind myself that I am not the skinny perfection of this age, but the rounded glory of another.
The complaints that both Reddit rebels posted actually prove this point, although both are also objectifying of women and their appearance. Both of the users acknowledged that the painting itself was beautifully made, but that they didn’t find the woman depicted beautiful. One questions, “Why on earth would my man Leo choose a lady with no eyebrows, and no lips to speak of?” To that, I would reply that those characteristics were actually considered beautiful at that moment. Although of course these comments are also very objectifying to women, they exemplify the fact that beauty and fashion are not fixed, but fluid over time and throughout different populations.
A lesson in body positivity can be learned from the example of Ms. Mona Lisa. The line between what is beautiful and what is ugly is constantly changing. Even though I wrote this whole article about it, my final word on this subject is that it doesn’t matter! If the Mona Lisa is your favorite painting, if she’s your girl and you love her and you think she’s gorgeous, then I am so happy for you! And if you think she’s “mad ugly,” then boy do I have good news for you: you don’t have to look at her! We can all be our own version of beautiful, not someone else’s. I like my pudge and my thighs and my chub. So would Botticelli. And a modern modeling agent might not. Conventional beauty is only conventional now and only to a few people, and they probably don’t even understand why. With art as with our own appearance, it is most important to love what you love and embrace beauty where you find it. No expert can tell you where to find those fleeting glimpses of beauty, whether in a shining gilt frame in the Louvre, or in the bathroom mirror.