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What Were the Beauty Standards in Ancient Rome?

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Back in college, we often hear female schoolmates complaining that they were not pretty enough. They usually make this rant after breakups with their boyfriends, or as an aftermath of being ignored by their crushes. Years later and I got employed, and not living up to the standards of female aesthetics is still a problem among female employees (particularly younger ones). Thankfully, there is always someone out there to remind them to keep their heads up. Going back to college, I know this girl who was good at offering advises to her broken peers. And in the office, more mature female employees acted like big sisters to their less confident co-workers. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence, but they offer the same words of wisdom.

You’re not ugly, you are just in the wrong group.

Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree! Because that’s human perception of beauty in a nutshell. Different timelines, cultures, nations, and fads have impacts on the humanity’s views on aesthetics. In ancient China, double chins were considered a thing of beauty among women. And ladies in Heian period Japan also followed suit by striving to be a plump. Fast forward today, one will be surprised that men have their own individual taste for women. Some like slim girlfriends. Other stick to athletic type. While there are those who are attracted to rounder female figures.

With that said, one might wonder how the Ancient Romans prefer their women. But looking at the idealized female figures in arts, beauty standards were far different back then.

The Female Form

The Mazarin Venus.

The Mazarin Venus.

There is a running gag among my friends that modern beauty pageant contestants would lose if they compete in Ancient Rome. People have their own definition of being pretty back then, and some seems to contradict the modern standards of modeling agencies.

To begin with, modern female aesthetics differ according to fads and fashion. Hence, don’t be surprised if grandma will frown at what people see as pretty nowadays. But a study on 2020 reveals that the idealized American woman would be 5’5” in height, weighing 128 pounds and with a small 26-inch waist (a beauty standards that critics found to be unhealthy).

And that’s the American beauty standards.

East Asians opted for a more innocent and youthful look paired with a slim frame. Curvier bodies aren’t that preferred. And expect more contradicting perceptions of beauty in other areas of the globe.

As for the Ancient Romans, they inherited their standards of female aesthetics from the Greeks. People would refer to the Roman statue of Venus to get an idea on what was considered as pretty or sexy. But the figure of Venus may not represent the common form of Roman women. In fact, the Venus figure is an idealized form. It does help an observer get a glimpse of the Roman beauty standard, while other sources come from preserved frescoes, mosaics and paintings. From there, we know that the beautiful Roman woman wasn’t exactly tall. The figure was slim, but stronger. The hips were wide and the shoulders small.

And as the Kardashians flaunt larger bust, Roman women prefers smaller breasts.

Smaller Package

Ancient Roman women doing physical recreations.

Ancient Roman women doing physical recreations.

Nowadays, we hear women racing to clinics to get implants. But Ancient Roman women never had problems with smaller boobs. In fact, one could even be ridiculed back then for having larger knockers.

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Surprisingly, small breasts were considered sexy in Ancient Rome, and men found them attractive. Statue of Venus carved in those time period showed exactly like that. Though still round and full, the statues of Venus flaunted smaller assets, especially when compared to what the modern socialites possessed. For one thing, women’s breasts received less attentions in erotic arts, and they were associated more with motherly roles such as nursing infants. And flashing one’s breasts was not exhibitionism, but an apotropaic gesture, like mourning. As for large breasts, people saw them as humorous, even less youthful. Hence, young girls in Ancient Rome would strive for a less curvy figure by wearing tight fitting strophium (an ancient Roman version of strapless brassier). They believe that the snug fit would inhibit the growth of their boobs. And to prevent sagging, young women applied hemlocks to their assets.

So basically, women were deliberately flatting their chests. A stark contrast to what some modern women were doing. It was interesting to note how the Ancient Roman women will react, upon knowing that their modern descendants have contrasting opinions about boobs size. One thing is for sure. The Kardashians will be laughing stocks in the Roman Republic.

Shoulders, Hips and Tummy

The Townley Venus, illustrating the idealized Roman beauty.

The Townley Venus, illustrating the idealized Roman beauty.

Together with smaller, but firmer boobs, Ancient Romans have preferences for wider hips. It was one of the aesthetics the Romans inherited from the Greeks, and was a representation of a well-known female trait. Fertility. Back when Venus was Aphrodite in the Ancient Greece, she was sculpted in arts as a woman with pronounced thighs. The Romans then followed, and wide hips became the sought-after traits for their women. The size of the shoulders also mattered, and smaller was better. And as for the overall build, slim and strong frame were considered as sexy.

But how about the abdomen

Close-up of the Townsley Venus abdominal sculpt.

Close-up of the Townsley Venus abdominal sculpt.

Male figures of ancient Greece and Rome featured muscular frame, and their abs are an object of envy among modern gym rats. With so much emphasis on six packs among guys, Ancient Roman girls probably have the same strict standards on their tummies. Again, referring to arts and sculptures, one would be surprised to learn that overly muscular abs were never needed to be attractive. In terms of waist size, Ancient Romans were impartial to smaller waists, but portraits of Roman prostitutes showed them having fuller abdomen. In fact, the Augustan Period arts showed fleshier women.

Statue of Venus, with flabby belly rolls.

Statue of Venus, with flabby belly rolls.

The Face

Finally, is the facial aesthetics. Different races, different time periods, and different places have their own standards for pretty faces. The Ancient Roman women considered large almond shaped eyes, sharp noses and oval cheeks and chins as attractive. The mouths should be medium sizes, so were the ears.

References:

1. Beauty Standards Over Time for Women (n.d). Retrieved from https://thedermreview.com/beauty-standards-over-time-for-women/#:~:text=Beauty%20Standards%20Over%20Time%20For%20Women%20in%20America,a%20slim%2026%2Dinch%20waist.

2. Understanding Body Shapes Through History (2020). Retrieved from https://www.puregym.com/blog/body-shapes/

3. Yagos, Alberto (6 August, 2018). "What were the beauty standards of ancient Rome like?" Quizzclub.

4. Gardner, Jane F. 1986. Women in Roman Law and Society. Croom Helm

5. Hanson, "The Restructuring of Female Physiology," p. 259–260; Marilyn B. Skinner, introduction to Roman Sexualities (Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 11: The "notion of women as 'Same' as well as 'Other' presupposed a female body partly assimilated to the male constitution, one whose sex-specific functions, such as lactation or even pregnancy, did not constitute its entire raison d'être."



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