Retrospective: Women beauty ideals in Art (2023)

part I

Dalia Sokolenko



14 min read


Jun 23, 2019

Retrospective: Women beauty ideals in Art (2)


What is beauty? You know it when you see it, but can you describe it? Can people agree on it, or is it purely subjective? Is our concept of beauty based in nature, or society? These are the questions that people have been asking themselves for thousands of years. It’s important to remember that beauty ideals are ever-changing. By looking at the past, we can see that at some point, just about everyone was considered the ideal.

We are going to learn a changeable women ideals of beauty throughout history in the pictures, sculptures created by those self-elected gods we call artists. History provides us a record, and from it one basic, inescapable, and ultimately unconscionable truth stands out: the ideals women are asked to embody, regardless of culture or continent, have been hammered out almost exclusively by men. This fact, more than any sort of evolutionary determinism, has meant that a fairly narrow range of attributes resurfaces across eras, returning every couple of decades.

Beauty, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “the qualities that give pleasure to the senses or exalt the mind.” But what exalts my senses, something that I find beautiful, may very well be considered average or even ugly to others. Hence, the constant debate throughout history about what constitutes beauty.

Nefertiti (1370–1330 BC)

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This representation of the pharaoh’s wife, Nefertiti, is thought to be the most beautiful by both modern and ancient Egyptian standards.

The kohl around Nefertiti’s eyes and her apparently rouged lips speak to a desire for enhancement and adornment that seems too much a part of being human to have a historical starting point. Trends in altering how we look through fashion and jewelry in all likelihood predates any culture-wide preference for a specific body type. The Egyptian example has proven especially influential in the West, particularly since the 1920s.

Goddess Isis (332–30 BC)

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For the ancient Egyptians the image of the goddess Isis suckling her son Horus was a powerful symbol of rebirth that was carried into the Ptolemaic period and later transferred to Rome, where the cult of the goddess was established. This piece of faience sculpture joins the tradition of pharaonic Egypt with the artistic style of the Ptolemaic period. On the goddess’s head is the throne hieroglyph that represents her name. She also wears a vulture head-covering reserved for queens and goddesses. Following ancient conventions for indicating childhood.

Cleopatra VII (69 BC — 30 BC)

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Cleopatra VII Philopator, contrary to popular belief, was more Macedonian Greek than Egyptian. Her family tree consisted of siblings who married each other (Yes, incest was the custom in the Ptolemaic Kingdom), descended from the Macedonian general Ptolemy I. When she was presented to Julius Caesar, she made a grand entrance by being rolled up in a carpet. It was said that her beauty impressed Julius Caesar to side with her against her husband(he was her brother, Ptolemy XIII). She allegedly gave birth to Caesar’s son, Cesarean. After Caesar was assassinated and the Roman civil war was over, she used her beauty again to charm Mark Antony to side with her, to the point of him donating Roman territories to her children and moving the Roman capital to Alexandria.

Cleopatra is a famous cultural icon of feminine beauty from far history. She was the Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt. Even today, she is portrayed in many media and literature like 1934 and 1963 films Cleopatra, William Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra.

She is a famous source of perpetual fascination in the Western culture. Cleopatra was the last known pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt. Even in the ancient world, she was regarded as a great beauty. A good deal of literature described and praised her beauty to a great extent. In Life of Antony by Plutarch, she has been remarked as “her beauty, as we are told, was in itself neither altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.”

Mummy Mask (60–70 AD)

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Plaster masks seem to have been particularly popular in Middle Egypt. They develop of course from Egyptian traditions, but appearances could be strongly individualized and Roman fashions of hairstyle, dress and jewelry were followed to varying degrees. The woman is represented as if lying flat upon her bier. She wears a long Egyptian-style wig made of plant fibers, a deep-red tunic with black clavi (stripes), and jewelry that includes a lunula (crescent pendant), and snake bracelets. At the lower edge of her tunic are two holes, which were used for attaching the mask to the mummy. Over the top of her head is a gilded wreath encircling a scarab beetle that represents the sun appearing at dawn, a metaphor for rebirth.


This relationship between beauty and youth is a very significant part of the concept of beauty in Ancient Egypt, women were encouraged in their independence and beauty. Ancient society promoted a sex-positive environment where premarital sex was entirely acceptable and women could divorce their husbands without shame.

Egyptian women were small in overall stature. In this era, the ideal woman is described as slender, narrow shoulders, high, symmetrical face. Women — used wigs, hair extensions, and hairpieces, as thick, long hair was highly valued.

Women of high rank wore makeup. The Egyptians are, of course, well-known for their opulent eye makeup, which was applied from the eyebrow to the base of the nose. What many do not know, however, the ingredients of the makeup had antibacterial qualities and helped to deter flies and protect against the hot Egyptian sun. Many tinted their nails with sheep fat and blood or henna. Tattooing, generally from henna, was considered erotic, and was heavily practiced among certain classes in Egypt.

Until in the century of Pericles, fifth century BC, when Athens won a significant development, becomes the cultural, political and economic center of Greece, there was no clear definition of beauty. Before painting and sculpture to develop great beauty was attributed to other virtues such as truth, loyalty, harmony. However, when artists began to paint or write, began to outline some features that, if a person or an object had, they deserved to be called “beautiful.”

Greek philosophers were the first people who asked what makes a person beautiful. Platon, who saw beauty as a result of symmetry and harmony, created the “golden proportion”, he found that in order to be considered “beautiful”, women’s faces should be two-thirds as wide as they are long, and both sides of the visage should be perfectly symmetrical.

But the Greeks were not just obsessed with symmetry, but also long blond hair that is associated with youth and fertility.

Helen of Troy (1300–1200 BC)

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For 3,000 years, the woman known as Helen of Troy has been both the ideal symbol of beauty and a reminder of the terrible power beauty can wield. Helen of Troy and the Trojan War were central to the early history of ancient Greece. She is the object of one of the most dramatic love

stories of all time and one of the main reasons for a ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, known as the Trojan War. Hers was the face that launched a thousand ships because of the vast number of warships the Greeks sailed to Troy to retrieve Helen.

The poems known as the Trojan War Cycle were the culmination of many myths about the ancient Greek warriors and heroes who fought and died at Troy. With so many men were willing to put their lives on the line to go to battle for her, it’s clear even without a contemporary portrait that Helen had a very special type of beauty.

Aspasia (500 BC)

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Aspasia was an influential immigrant to Classical era Athens who was the partner and lover of the statesman Pericles. The exact details regarding the marital status of the couple are still unknown. Aspasia’s house became the center of intellectual teaching in Athens, attracting and influencing prominent teachers like Socrates.

Aspasia is known to have to become a hetaera in Athens, and she has displayed great physical beauty and intelligence. Aspasia’s role in history proves to be crucial to the clues for understanding the women of ancient Greece. In Athens, she was more than just an object of physical beauty and also she was noted for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser.

Phryne of Thespiae (370–316 BC)

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Phryne of Thespiae was a famous courtesan of Athens, best known for the court case she won by baring her breasts. Her actual name was Mnesarete (“commemorating virtue”), but she was called Phryne (“toad”) because of the yellow complexion of her skin.

Ancient writers such as Athenaeus praise her extraordinary beauty, and she was the model for many artists and sculptors in Athens, including chiefly posing as Aphrodite.

She was acquitted and went on living a life of luxury as one of the most beautiful and sought-after women of Athens. She became wealthy enough to live as she pleased and even offered to re-build the walls of Thebes, which Alexander the Great had destroyed, if the people would consent to her inscription reading, “Destroyed by Alexander, Restored by Phryne the Courtesan”, but the Thebans refused her offer. Phryne is a famous figure of beauty from the ancient world who is still admired through statues and paintings.

Aphrodite (200 AD)

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The Aphrodite exists only in copies of which there were many, because this Aphrodite represented the embodiment of female beauty for Classical Greeks. For us, she is the original Western model, woman as goddess, to be adored and feared. Her soft, rounded flesh bespeaks the power of her sexuality and advertises her life-giving potential. Aphrodite, the goddess who won the goddesses’ beauty contest that led to the Trojan War should be counted among the all-time world-class beauties.

However, this is a list of mortals, so Aphrodite (Venus) doesn’t count. Luckily, there was a woman so beautiful she was used as the model for a statue of Aphrodite. Her beauty was so great it brought about her acquittal when she was put on trial. This woman was the courtesan Phryne whom the famed sculptor Praxiteles used as his model for the Aphrodite of Knidos statue.


Ancient statues show us artists’ idealized form, which for women featured largish hips, full breasts, and a not-quite-flat stomach. But the Greeks were defining more than just “beauty” — they were nailing down the math of attractiveness.

Ancient Greece worshiped the male form, going so far as to proclaim that women’s bodies were ‘disfigured’ versions of men. In this time period, men faced a much higher standard of beauty and perfection than The Greeks were defining beauty literarily, thanks to 8th-7th Century BC author Hesiod, who “described the first created woman simply as ‘the beautiful-evil thing’. She was evil because she was beautiful, and beautiful because she was evil.”

The Greek idea of beauty was pale skin, golden locks and natural makeup. This is vastly different than that of the early adapters to cosmetics the Egyptians and soon we will find that to an extent this ideal is far less dramatic to that of the Romans.

In fact, I think we can conclude that most of the Greek and Egyptian makeup trends are vastly different. In Greece only rich women were able to use cosmetics due to their price.

When it came to Greek women and their hairstyles different lengths and arrangements meant different things. If one was a female slave she would wear her hair short, if a woman wasn’t a slave she would have long hair.

While many women today would pluck a thick “unibrow,” women in Ancient Greece liked the look, and many used dark pigment to draw one in.

Both for women and men, Romans inherited the Greek standards about symmetry and harmony. Beautiful bodies were proportioned in shape, limbs and face. The ideal of beauty for women was small, thin but robust constitution, narrow shoulders, pronounced hips, wide thighs and small breasts.Smooth white skin was very important for Roman women. To keep it beautiful, they put at night a mask called tectorium (traditionally invented by Popea, Emperor Nero’s wife), which they would remove the next day with milk. They exfoliated their bodies by smearing olive oil and then applying calcium carbonate or with pumice stones. Then they rinsed the mixture with water or with scented oils (cedar, myrrh, pine, lily, saffron, quince, jara, violet or roses). Women in the aristocracy also took milk baths (although Cleopatra is famous for it, it was a usual solution).

By the 1st century AD in the city of Rome the obsession with white skin became very important. Many women used products like bean flour to appear the maximum pale but according to Galen some of them also used lead powder which is extremely toxic.

Women had to be careful with cosmetics because applying them too much was considered only proper for prostitutes. By Greek influence, the eyebrows were very thick, painted with antimony or soot to create almost a unibrow. This custom fell in disuse at the beginning of 1st century BC and they started trimming the eyebrows.

Long eyelashes were considered very beautiful, eyes were shaped as big as possible with black antimony powder. Only in very special occasions, and after Cleopatra went to Rome, some women shaded their eyes with greenish clays (rich in celadonite, malachite or glauconite) or with bluish earth containing zurita.

White regular teeth were very valued (both in men and women). For a long time they used pumice powder or vinegar to clean them. Hispani used urine and this was considered very funny for the Romans (Catulus made a poem about a friend using this method). In the 1st century AD Escribonius Largus, the physician of the Emperor Claudius, invented the first toothpaste based on a mixture of vinegar, honey, salt and heavily crushed glass. If they were lacking teeth, they could use false ones made from ivory, human or animal teeth, sewn with gold.

For centuries Roman women considered mahogany (or red) hair the most beautiful. When Julius Caesar brought so many Gaul slaves to Rome, blond hair became a new obsession (and probably blue eyes, too). Many women started dying their hair with vinegar and saffron, sprinkling it with gold dust (or using gold hairnets) to make it golden. Pigeon droppings, goat fat and caustic soap were also used at the end of the 1st century AD. If they didn’t have enough hair, they had wigs made with real hair from German slaves.

The Republican hairstyle was quite simple, parted in the middle and a bun. In imperial times the fashion were complicated creations with several layers. Even modest women used crossed braids over the forehead. Married women, like vestal women and priestesses, would wear a hairstyle known as sex crines (six braids).

About body hair, from the existence of slaves only dedicated to shaving, historians think that they shaved the whole body. The mosaics don’t show hairy women. The canon for the face was large almond-shaped eyes, sharp nose, medium-sized mouth and ears, oval cheeks and chin.

Bikini Girls (300- 400 AD)

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Part of a mosaic found in the early 4th-century Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, the “Bikini Girls,” as they are known, provide one of the few celebrations of the female figure performing athletic acts, other than dance, in the history of art. Thin without being wrought by exercise, their vivacious bodies would not be out of place in mid-20th century Italy or America. Which is to say, the present a “natural” ideal, formed by activity rather than training.


Roman men preferred modest women who do not use too much make up or ornaments, but still had their ‘natural beauty’. This didn’t mean that Roman men were against cosmetics, since there is a lot of evidence that showed that the cosmetic business was popular then, but Roman men felt that makeup should be done for ‘preservation of beauty’, not ‘unnatural embellishment’.

Natural beauty symbolized chastity and purity, values held up high in the Roman Empire. Women wearing too much makeup or jewelry were seen as seductive and manipulative. Roman men liked women with a light complexion, smooth skin, and minimal body hair. White teeth, long eyelashes, and no body odor was preferable as well. To maintain these standards, rich Roman women used extensive measures to keep their ‘natural beauty’.

Wealthy women like Cleopatra and Poppaea were known to have bathed in milk to keep their milky complexion. Many skincare products were sold in the Roman Empire. Examples are oil from sheep’s wool for makeup, chalk powder as a whitener, gum Arabic as wrinkle cream, and ash from snails as treatment for freckles and sores. Roman women shaved and plucked with resin paste and pumice stones. Perfume was to be strong enough to block off body odor, and not too strong to the point of reeking. As for things that couldn’t be taken care of such as oral hygene(oral hygene was backwards then), fake teeth made from bone and ivory were used. Romans may also have preferred light haired women, a tradition borrowed from the Greeks.

Greek and Roman women used oils, vinegar, and customized hats to keep their hair light. Hairstyles were important too. Young maidens had long hair, slave girls had shorter hair, and matrons had their long hair tied into a bun and adorned with accessories.


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