Susannah Frankel: We fetishise the female form, and then condemn the wish to 'improve' it

Velazquez’s tautly muscular Rokeby Venus and Ingres’s fulsome Grande Odalisque are exaggerated, hyper-real and not even remotely natural

Much has been made over the past few years of the return to favour of a more traditionally voluptuous body shape, as spearheaded by Mad Men's Christina Hendricks – that magnificent embonpoint; those curves – models Lara Stone and Crystal Renn, and the supposedly more realistic bodies of Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé Knowles compared with the waif-like A-list/catwalk norm.

How terrible it is, then, to read the story of 20-year-old Claudia Aderotimi, who died following an illegal cosmetic procedure to enhance her bottom. Aderotimi, her friends claim, had been turned down for work in music videos when it was discovered that she had auditioned in padded "booty pants". Such was her ambition that she travelled to the US and parted with upwards of £1,000 for injections which, it is now believed, were filled with industrial silicone – generally used in manufacturing as a sealant – and mistakenly introduced into a vein. Earlier this week, tributes flooded Twitter. "You were a beautiful person inside and out! You will be missed," said one.

Of course, anyone with more than a passing interest in body image will know that the roundness of rump that Aderotimi aspired to is no more easily achievable than the ideal of extreme slenderness that is still more widely upheld by the media – unless, of course, one is born in possession of either. Times may be changing – it is reported that buttock implants are almost as much in demand as breast augmentation – but the emotional impulse that lies beneath the desire to change one's body in any shape or form remains the same. And so, after years of women the world over wondering "does my bum look big in this?", will they now be asking: "Does it look big enough?" And if anyone were ever likely to miss the cruel irony that lies at the heart of this, then Aderotimi's story has driven it home.

In fact, it is only very recently that the slender-hipped, boyish-bottomed silhouette that the fashion industry in particular appears to embrace established itself. A brief flirtation with androgyny in the 1920s aside – as best exemplified by the Garçonne look that swept Paris at that time – it wasn't until the 1960s that a less rounded body established itself as the feminine ideal. Blame Swinging London. Teenagers were taking the hitherto bourgeois fashion establishment by storm and, they argued – and in retrospect this too seems a bitter pill to swallow – the so-called girl-next-door good looks of the likes of Jean Shrimpton and even Twiggy were easier to identify with than the hauteur of the aristocratic and considerably more statuesque fashion icons that preceded them. The appeal of Kate Moss was later presented in similarly misleading a manner. The young, flat-chested, snake-hipped Ms Moss, it was said, was much closer to the average female than her supermodel predecessors, with their gravity-defying breasts and gym-honed, muscular backsides.

Throughout history, a larger bottom has, for the most part, been considered more aesthetically appealing. One only has to look at Titian's nudes, themselves inspired by the classical ideal, or, most often cited, the voluptuous nudes that inhabit Rubens' exuberant world, to know that thin hasn't always been the holy grail. Velazquez's tautly muscular Rokeby Venus and Ingres's fulsome and languid Grande Odalisque, both captured naked from behind, are similarly exaggerated – hyper-real and not even remotely natural.

In the 19th century, long before cosmetic surgery, women resorted to bustles to accentuate their rears. Hugely weighty and stuffed with horsehair, these were far from pleasant to wear. Suffice it to say that the meringue-clad brides currently attracting millions of TV viewers as they struggle down the aisle in overblown confections in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have it easy by comparison. The corset, similarly, put as much emphasis on the slenderness of the waist as it did the fullness of breasts and buttocks. In the early 20th century, Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet went to great lengths to relieve women of such unwieldy underwear safe in the knowledge that, truly, it is advantageous to be able to move freely in one's clothes. All caused ripples despite – or rather because of – such an emancipated view.

Even now, it is not uncommon for designers, from Roland Mouret whose Galaxy dress is discreetly underpinned, to Alexander McQueen, pioneer of the bumster, to use clothing to transform the female form into something closer to their personal ideal and further from anything nature ever intended. Vivienne Westwood, the most famous British fashion designer by far, has long featured corsetry and crinolines and pneumatic models from Sara Stockbridge to Pamela Anderson to express what many see as a controversially eroticised form.

Whether the stick-thin silhouette promoted more widely by fashion actually causes physical harm to teenage women wishing to emulate it is the subject of much debate. But while compulsive dieting is clearly harmful, so too is potentially life-threatening surgery to augment any body parts. The bottom, by its nature, seen more often by others than its owner, is a potent symbol of sexuality. Any number of spurious Rear of the Year-type competitions – sponsored, not insignificantly, by unremarkable brands – are testimony to this. And so indeed is the media's obsession with the backsides of everyone from the aforementioned Lopez and Knowles – held up as icons for the fleshiness of their buttocks – to Kylie Minogue whose small, pert bottom, in gold micro-shorts for the 2000 video for "Spinning Around", was surely among the most leered over in history.

Today, an ample bottom, or booty, appears to be an integral part of hip-hop culture: it was this, on the surface at least, that led to Aderotimi's catastrophic experience. Bottoms are also big in Brazil, however, where small breasts and a rounded, toned behind is the desired body shape. In the early Noughties, Gisele Bündchen and her Brazilian contemporaries wowed the catwalk community, such was the honey-coloured perfection of their backsides. In their home country, augmenting one's bottom whether it be by silicone injection or implants, is commonplace, and women – and men – travel there for all types of surgery safe in the knowledge that surgeons are more experienced and techniques used more advanced.

Are those who choose to engage with cosmetic enhancement somehow duping their fellow men and women? Of course not, unless colouring one's hair, whitening teeth, or even wearing make-up is similarly disingenuous. Shouldn't we be grateful for good health, it is decreed, and not spend so much time worrying about our physical appearance? In this country, more than most, plastic surgery is still frowned upon, seen as somehow indulgent – or simply vain. We are a basically Protestant nation, mistrustful of everything from expensive clothing to face, breast and, now, bottom lifts. This is a dangerous position to adopt. The fact that Aderotimi told friends she was going to America for a holiday, or that the "doctor" in question was able to advertise online and under the radar of safety regulations is only facilitated by any disapproval, after all. Those masquerading as medically trained cosmetic surgeons are opportunists, exploiting society's refusal to acknowledge the desire of vulnerable human beings to "improve" themselves, whatever the cost. And that, not the wish to do so, is reprehensible.

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