The Vitruvian Man – Perfect Form in the 21st Century


Originally published in Edition One 2023. 

Content warnings: Mentions of childbirth, nudity and genitalia; derogatory language ('slut’); descriptions of and references to unwanted pregnancy


“The length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man; from above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man; the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.” 

And the maximum width of the waist is an eighth of the woman.


“The foot is one-seventh of the height of a man; from below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man.” 

From the knee to the hip of the woman is to be covered by cloth at all times. From knees to ankles is to be covered by stockings.

“The root of the penis is at half the height of a man.”


Her breasts, not smaller than both hands clasped together.    

It is well into the 21st century. Let us begin.

First, the Vitruvian Man would be a woman. In this permutation, we have dispensed with the typical, nude masculine subject (with its vulgar depiction of an unapologetically erect penis, like those found in Michelangelo's painting, The Creation of Adam, and his marble sculpture, David). As to the nature of this depiction, is it oil on canvas? Watercolour? Decidedly, it is a picture with a filter, perhaps of exaggerated eyes and rosy cheeks. Let us determine the details. Is she clothed? How much? Is a woman who wears clothes a woman empowered, or is it one who is wearing none at all? Does makeup perpetuate unreasonable presentation standards, or is it a weapon of self-esteem? Will she keep her hair short or long? Shave it? 

“The distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows… are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.” 


Her eyebrows, symmetrical and even. The length of her eyelashes, not shorter nor more sparse than those of a giraffe’s.


Will she groom herself this way? Nonsense. Let her choose what she wants, and it will be the right choice.


But what if those choices and judgements are not her own? Impossible to choose for herself, when women's shirt sleeves and necklines are eight centimetres shorter than men's; tighter, smaller, higher. Delicious skin. But then again, what if it gives her satisfaction, power and confidence to wear a crop top and short shorts that may or may not fully cover her derriere? Even if she chooses not to do so, finding clothes that align with your values is difficult, especially when there are 20 different types of short shorts in the trendiest fabrics and colours, and the ones with the length you’re looking for are just too plain and never on sale.


Accompanying his drawing of the Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci writes, “… the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner, that is four fingers make a palm… four cubits make a footstep, 24 palms make a man and these measures are in his buildings.” 


And these measures are in every TV show, Instagram reel and clothing store. 

Why does this Vitruvian figure have to be a man or a woman; one or the other? Does it matter what gender they are? I guess not—but what about the stretching and tearing of childbirth of womanhood; the feeling of vulnerability in dark and deserted places and streets; the incomparable, mortal fear of a singular sperm making its way deep into her body and undiscovered until it’s too late? And not to mention the 18 years of labour, taking care of a being whose cries and needs will be uniquely hers to bear, for who shall stay home and take care of the kids? Is it the father who will be denied financial independence, personal growth and appreciation for their work; who shall miss out on professional success and a thriving career? 


I cannot stand by and let these exclusively womanly pains and struggles be erased. And right now, the label of ‘woman’ is the only thing that gives these trials existence and validation, as meagre as its provision is.

And now, back to the question of whether the Vitruvian woman is dressed. Ladies, why are you complaining? Isn’t it a freedom to wear little clothing? As little as you want. You no longer have to cover up with long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Not too little clothing, however, because then you would be a slut. 

You know what? Fine. Maybe men should have this right too—to wear little clothing. I’m sorry you have to wear long pants and business shirts all the time. I'll just have to get used to the hairy legs and stripes of pubic hair peeking from your waistbands. For the sake of equality. Hang on, why aren’t you expected to wax too?

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