“She craves attention, she praises an image
She prays to be sculpted by the sculptor.” – Scars to your beautiful, Alessia Clara.
In these lyrics, Alsessia Clara outlines a powerful message on the impossible standards society places on beauty. We as a society feel pressured to follow these rules, no matter how unattainable. Although is recognized as a modern issue, driven by the rise of social media and technology, it’s not. Through the discovery and examination of Ancient Greek art, experts have discovered that even 2000 years ago, Greeks had ideal beauty standards, many of which still exist today.
We can get a pretty good understanding of beauty standards by analyzing art. The start of the Classical era began a shift to a more realistic type of sculpture, as opposed to the tense figures seen in the Archaic period. The artists became much more skilled at creating movement in the absence thereof, and they were able to create mood and expression from a blank slate. With the introduction of naturalism, there was also the expression of idealism. Statues became a symbol for humans to look up to.
One of the most influential artists of the Classical Era in Greece was Polykleitos. Through his fixation with beauty, he devised the perfect ratio for human anatomy in his work The Canon (or Kanon in Greek) He used the measurement of a single body part, such as a finger or head, to design an entire figure. These specifications, although considered ideal, were not practical. Human proportions cannot be based off a mathematical equation. The reoccurring theme, however, is that the image that is idealized is not necessarily realistic.
Arguably Polykleitos’ most famous work is Doryphoros. Constructed from around 450 BCE, the original sculpture did not survive. However, there are many Roman copies that exist. In addition to his symmetria proportion, which for this particular work was a head to body ratio of 1:7, he also used contrapposto. This style allowed the statue to exhibit the essence of movement, by having one leg straight while the other is relaxed. His opposite arm is relaxed while the other is outstretched, originally holding a spear. The opposing structure of the statue created harmony and balance intended for the viewer to enjoy; it wasn’t just a fluke.
Plykleitos was well known for his depiction of male athletes. His idea of the male form was recognized and admired by many. During the Classical Period, the nude male figure was glorified because it was a symbol of heroism. Men would participate in the Olympics nude, and although there are many theories behind why, it was a sight that was enjoyed by Greeks. By today’s standards, it would seem that this act was sexualized, however, it was the opposite. In order to draw eyes from the male sensuality, most sculptors actually deemphasized their genitals. The representation of the nude male through art was not meant to be erotic, but instead, a sign of honour. While sculptors deemphasized the genitals, they accentuated the muscles. Again, athletes and warriors were highly respected, and muscles were a celebrated structure of the body.According to Aristotle, one of the keys to happiness was being athletically built. A beautiful face and body were also considered to be a gift from the gods, which in a society governed by gods, was something to be cherished.
The ideal male body, in most aspects, has not changed since the 4th century BCE. Men are still expected to maintain the ultimate fit figure. The same ideals depicted on statues from 400 BCE are seen today in men’s fitness magazines. In the same way that art would depict society’s standards, social media conveys today’s standards. By comparing the ideal body from then and now, we can find many similarities. For example, the Greeks idealized the “Apollo’s belt”, which is currently referred to as the “v line”, is a feature which exists heavily in both classical art and modern images. Although attainable naturally, it is extremely difficult. Both societies’ ideas represent standards that either requires extreme dedication or are completely unattainable.
Despite the similarities between Greek and modern society, there are some notable differences. Although the ideal forms are considerably similar, the context in which they are desired differs. In Ancient Greece, the male body was meant to be empowered, not sexualized. Today, however, the male figure is very sexualized, but still empowered. Most modern men would admit that they aspire to feel sexy. With images of half-naked men appearing constantly in advertisements and the media, men feel they need to match up with the images they see. In addition, small male genitals are certainly not desired today; in fact, society seems fixated on having the largest members. The term “sex god” is interesting because although it is a common description of fit men today, there is no evidence that Ancient Greek men used their masculinity in the erotic ways that men do today. Although muscles are still the main attribute of masculinity, modern men use this to depict sexual prowess.
Women had a different standard of beauty than men during the Classical Period. Sculptures of women exhibited a “venus pudica” pose, where they covered their private parts. While men were celebrated for their nudity, women’s nudity was very controversial, and they were expected to display modesty. However, there are very few sculptures of women that survived to this day, so much of the information available is speculation. We do know that according to Aristotle, women were not considered equal to men, with the exception of goddesses, which were worshiped mostly for their beauty.
The sculpture Aphrodite of Knidos was a surprising shift in the representation of women in art. Originally created in the 4th century by artist Praxiteles, it is credited as one of the first sculptures to depict a realistic nude female figure. Opposite to the deemphasized male genitals, Aphrodite boasted large breasts and coyly covered genitals, which only drew more attention to the area. Men experienced uncontrollable lust for her. Nanette Salomon, an author and history professor, suggests that we have a “history that sexually defines the represented woman by her pubis and, on that account, keeps her in a perpetual state of vulnerability.” Men wanted to see women nude, yet women were not supposed to be nude.
However, if we dismiss the context of oppression, and examine the statues physical body, we can see that her body is very realistic. Her breasts are not exceptionally perky, her stomach has a slight pooch, and she is not too slim. It is a very stark contrast to the rigid muscles of the male statues. Her body is naturally attainable for a woman, yet she still displays her hourglass figure, which is a standard today. Praxiteles sculpted her in contrapposto, but clearly, it was to accentuate her curves. Her skin is smooth, but her body is not contoured in the way that male statues were. It could be said that she’s flawless, but unlike the male counterparts, not perfect by today’s standards.
It is important to realize the difference in the depiction of the nude form between male and female during this time. While men were glorified in their state of nakedness, women were objectified. This has been the norm throughout history, and sometimes even still exists today. Men’s genitals were viewed as unimportant, and not the basis of his character. On the other hand, women’s worth was placed on their genitals. Men’s attractiveness was based on their strength, intelligence, and morals, while women were just admired for their physical beauty.
Women today are constantly reminded of society’s beauty standards. Women’s ideals differ from men in the sense that they exist in trends. 20 years ago, it was considered beautiful to be thin. Currently, it is considered beautiful to have a small waist and a large bum. Women’s beauty ideals are always changing, which explains why they are so different from the Classical Period to today. With the introduction of social media and plastic surgery, it is harder to keep up with today’s unrealistic beauty standards. Although male standards in Ancient Greece were also unattainable, ideals reflected through art suggested a preferred aesthetic. However, photoshop in the media has become somewhat of a dilemma because sometimes it can be impossible to tell whether an image is real or enhanced. Women (and men) are tricked into believing that a human body can look a certain way when in reality, it is impossible. However, now that women and men are considered equals in society, they have the freedom to pursue whatever they want, without social restraints. Many women go to the gym to achieve their ideal body, and they do not have to feel ashamed about it.
It is important to note that values themselves do not exist, they are merely objectifications. Though we as humans strive for perfection, the ideals only exist through an idea, which is put in place by society. So, although there are similarities and differences in beauty standards between the Classical Era of Ancient Greece and modern society, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
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2. BBC News. Would you be beautiful in the ancient world? (2015, January 10). Retrieved December 4, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30746985
3. Unknown. (n.d.). The Nature of Women in Plato and Aristotle. Retrieved December 4, 2017, from https://www.classicsnetwork.com/essays/the-nature-of-women-in-plato-and/786
4. Salamon, N. (1996). The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history’s ‘hidden agenda’ and pernicious pedigrees. Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings. Retrieved December 4, 2017.
5. Demiralp, D. (2008). Reflection of the Social Values in Ancient Greek Art.Ekev Academic Review,12(35).
Stokstad, M. & Cothren, M., Art: A Brief History. Pearson: 2016.
Feng, C. (December 6, 2002). Looking Good: The Psychology and Biology of Beauty. Retrieved December 04, 2017, from http://legacy.jyi.org/volumes/volume6/issue6/features/feng.html
Lee, M. M. (2015). Other “Ways of Seeing”: Female Viewers of the Knidian Aphrodite.Helios,42(1), 103-122.
Image of Doryphoros: http://ancientrome.ru/art/artworken/img.htm?id=6967
Male model image: https://mattsko.wordpress.com/2017/02/10/model-alexander-yunayev-by-david-vance/
Aphrodite of Knidos image: http://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/aphrodite-knidos
Female image: https://www.pinterest.ca/beautyhipster/workout/?lp=true