Body ideals in Ancient times
Culture Empowerment Fashion & Style

Women’s Body Ideals Throughout History: The Ancient Times

‘The Ideal Body Shape’ for women has been constantly changing throughout history. Let’s explore bodies, naked bodies, edgy bodies, the ideal bodies of women in history. I have recently created a new series on YouTube exploring women’s body ideals from the Paleolithic era with the famous Venus of Willendorf up to the present day, but here we will break down all time periods and today we will talk about the Ancient times.

Ancient Egypt

Women played a vital role in Ancient Egyptian society and their contributions were significant in shaping the culture and history of this civilization. Despite the patriarchal nature of the society, women held important positions in both the household and the broader community. They were respected as mothers, wives, and daughters, and had access to education and employment opportunities.

Women were also allowed to own and inherit property, and some even held high-ranking positions in government and religious institutions. The lives of ancient Egyptian women were complex and varied depending on their social class and status, but they were undoubtedly an integral part of the rich cultural legacy of this civilization.

The Women’s Body Ideal in Ancient Egypt

If in previous eras, women were seen only as a symbol of fertility and motherhood, in Ancient Egypt their role became more complex.

Humans started to have complicated feelings, emotions, thoughts so not only that a woman had to be fertile, but she had to be desirable as well. She was slender and tall, with narrow shoulders and a high waist. Think about Queen Nefertiti (reigned between 1367 – 1350 BC) and later on, Cleopatra (reigned between 51 – 30 BC).

Cleopatra, The Charming and Political Savvy Queen

Cleopatra may have been charming and had a really great sex appeal, but beauty wasn’t her biggest asset. She was incredibly smart and political savvy; she spoke like a dozen languages, was educated in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, so darling, if you’ve got the smarts, you’ve got everything. A beautiful mind is sexy in any era. The ideal body changes, the level of intellect never. The smarter you are, the better chances of surviving you have got… even in the Paleolithic with a thin body. 

Cleopatra was able to use her personality and intelligence to maintain power and influence. Her relationship with the Roman general Julius Caesar is well-known, and she became his lover and bore him a son named Caesarion. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra aligned herself with another Roman general, Mark Antony, and became his lover as well. Together, they had three children.

Cleopatra’s relationship with Mark Antony ultimately led to her downfall. After their defeat in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Cleopatra and Antony committed suicide rather than face capture by the victorious Roman forces.

Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra’ (1963) / Credit: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group Editorial / Getty Image

Despite her controversial life and tragic end, Cleopatra is remembered as a powerful and influential leader who helped shape the history of Egypt and the Roman Empire. Her story has been told in numerous books, movies, and plays, and she remains a fascinating and enigmatic figure in history.

Eternity was in our lips and in our eyes.

Cleopatra in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by William Shakespeare

Unlike modern times, In Ancient Egypt, women were encouraged in their independence and beauty. Their society was a sex-positive environment and there was no shame for a woman if she divorced her husband and moved on to another or more.

Ancient Greece

Unlike Ancient Egypt, women played a limited role in Ancient Greek society. They were confined to the domestic sphere, responsible mainly for managing the household and raising children.

However, women were not entirely powerless and their contributions to the arts and culture of Ancient Greece cannot be ignored. From the legendary Amazons to the amazing goddesses of mythology, women were a central part of the stories and beliefs that shaped Ancient Greek society.

While their lives were often constrained by social norms and expectations, women found ways to assert themselves and make their mark on history.

Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea (1871), Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton / Credit: Wikimedia Commons /

The Women’s Body Ideal in Ancient Greece

In Ancient Greece a woman was not seen as beautiful as a man. They worshiped the male body as you can see from all the statues from those times. They were actually saying that women’s bodies are ‘disfigured’ versions of men’s. Can you imagine that? That would have made me so furious! 

It was also when the Greek philosopher Plato coined the ‘golden ratio’, a term used even today for judging how beautiful a face is based on its symmetry. I think they use this nowadays when they decide who is the sexiest man alive or the most beautiful woman in the world and they never really nail it, do they? 

The ideal body in Ancient Greece was plump, full bodies with ample bosoms, big backs, and thick thighs and arms – again – the ultimate symbol of fertility. 

Ancient Rome

The role of women in Ancient Rome was complex and varied, reflecting the changing social and political landscape of this civilization over time. Women were expected to be virtuous and obedient, with their primary role being to manage the household and raise children. However, women also had access to education and employment opportunities, and some were able to exert political influence and gain positions of power. From the legendary heroism of Lucretia to the scandalous excesses of Empress Messalina, women played a significant role in shaping the history and culture of Ancient Rome.

Hans Makart’s painting of Charlotte Wolter in Adolf Wilbrandt’s tragedy, Arria und Messalina

Messalina, The Promiscuous Queen

Empress Messalina was a prominent figure in ancient Rome during the 1st century CE. She was the third wife of Emperor Claudius and held significant influence and power within the imperial court. Messalina was known for her beauty, charm, and intelligence, but she also gained a reputation for her scandalous behavior and political maneuvering.

She exercised considerable influence over her husband and used her position to amass wealth and power. Messalina was known to involve herself in political affairs, often making decisions and influencing policies. She took advantage of her close relationship with Claudius to further her own interests and those of her allies.

However, Messalina’s extravagant and promiscuous lifestyle ultimately led to her downfall. She engaged in numerous affairs, including marrying and divorcing several men, while still being married to Claudius. These scandalous acts brought her under scrutiny and disrepute among the Roman elite and general population.

In 48 CE, Messalina’s most notorious and ill-fated act occurred. She organized a mock marriage ceremony with Gaius Silius, a senator, and proclaimed him as her new husband, even though Claudius was still alive. This audacious move, seen as an attempt to seize power, was met with swift and severe consequences.

Upon learning of Messalina’s actions, Claudius was enraged and ordered her execution. Messalina’s downfall serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked ambition and scandalous behavior within the Roman court.

Although Messalina’s reputation has been marred by her scandalous actions, she remains a fascinating figure in Roman history. Her story highlights the complexities and intrigues of ancient Rome’s imperial court, where power, manipulation, and personal desires often collided.

The Women’s Body Ideal in Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, the ideal of women’s body varied over time, reflecting the prevailing cultural and societal norms of different periods. However, some general characteristics and ideals can be identified.

During the early Roman Republic (around the 6th to 5th century BCE), the ideal female body was more robust and fuller in figure. Women were expected to have a larger physique, with ample bosoms, wide hips, and a round stomach. This body type was considered healthy, fertile, and indicative of a woman’s ability to bear children, which was highly valued in Roman society.

As the Roman Empire grew and interacted with different cultures, particularly the Greek influence, the ideal body shape for women started to shift towards a slimmer and more slender figure. The Greek concept of beauty, which emphasized harmony, balance, and proportion, began to influence Roman ideals. The female body was expected to have a smaller waist, narrow hips, and a high, firm bust.

women in Ancient Rome
Women in Ancient Rome

The Concept of Beauty

Roman women aimed for a well-toned and proportionate physique. Exercise and physical fitness were encouraged, and women participated in various activities such as dancing, swimming, and walking to maintain their bodies. They also used various cosmetics, oils, and perfumes to enhance their appearance.

Roman women’s fashion and clothing choices played a significant role in shaping the ideal body image. The stola, a traditional garment worn by married women, was designed to accentuate the natural curves of the female body. It had a high waistline, which created the illusion of an elongated figure and a smaller waist. Additionally, women used various undergarments like corsets and padded bodices to shape their bodies and achieve the desired silhouette.

These ideals were not universally applicable to all Roman women. The concept of beauty and body ideals varied across different social classes. Wealthier women had more resources and leisure time to dedicate to their appearance, while women from lower classes were more focused on practical matters.

It is also worth mentioning that while there were societal expectations regarding the female body, there was still diversity and individual variation. Not all women conformed to the idealized standards, and beauty was subjective to some extent.

Watch the first part of the series Women’s Body Ideals Throughout History

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