Vanitas is a term originally used to describe 17th-century Dutch still-life compositions of rotting meat and game, guttering candles, and skulls. These paintings were intended as meditations on the fleeting nature of life, the inevitability of death, and the necessity for a spiritual life. By calling this work Vanitas, Sterbak points the viewer toward ideas that animate her work: the alienation humans feel from their own flesh, aging, and mortality. Here, the natural aging process takes place before our eyes as the meat passes from a raw to cured state.
The work also addresses issues concerning women, fashion, consumption, and the body. The equation of women with meat and the notion that “you are what you wear” are common ideas in Western society. In the United States, statistics have pointed to a growing number of young women with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa (referred to in the title), because their body types do not match the prevailing fashion or “look” sported by the tall, thin models populating the media.
The dress was stitched together from 60 pounds of raw flank steak and must be constructed anew each time it is shown. Following a centuries-old method of food preservation, the meat is heavily salted and allowed to air-dry. Over the span of the exhibition, the aging process drastically changes the appearance of the work.