Day Thirty-Four: Body Image in Ancient Rome



I've always heard stories about how Rome was so much better than we are at this entire deal with body imagine. After all, don't all of the famous classical paintings portray Roman women as voluptuous and -- shall we say -- thicker-skinned figures than the super models of today's society? Wasn't being larger and curvier cherished as a sign of wealth and fortune, because only the rich could afford to dine in gluttony? Wasn't there even a portrait of Venus -- the goddess of love and beauty -- emerging from the sea, a pleasantly plump figure with golden locks, the epitome of beauty?

This may be true, but surprisingly, historians have uncovered an unsettling fact: Early Romans did have an obsession with body image.

Yes, they may not have had a culture that was so obsessed over starving our women until they were more like drug-addicted alcoholics than the beautiful healthy women of a past era, but there is certainly evidence that men in ancient Rome weren't so nonchalant. They may have been the minority, but there was certainly a voice in the population that called for much of the same standards that people call for today.


A letter to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published in 2000 reports the following entry:

Garner et al. (1985) wrote about the present unprecedented emphasis on thinness and dieting‚ which is one factor responsible for the increase in anorexic and bulimic disorders. It is generally believed that dieting in pursuit of a thinner shape and slimness as a standard for feminine beauty are modern attitudes. However, a clear account can be found in the ancient comedy Terence Eunuchus. 
Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) (c. 190-159 BC) was a Roman comic poet. His 6 surviving comedies are Greek in origin but describe the contemporary Roman society. Eunuchus was probably presented in 161 BC. In this comedy, a young man named Chaerea declares his love for a 16-year-old girl whom he depicts as looking different from other girls and he protests against the contemporary emphasis on thinness: 
"She is a girl who doesn't look like the girls of our day whose mothers strive to make them have sloping shoulders, a squeezed chest so that they look slim. If one is a little plumper, they say she is a boxer and they reduce her diet. Though she is well endowed by nature, this treatment makes her as thin as a bulrush. And men love them for that!"
 Then he describes the girl he loves: "Unusual looks . . . a natural complexion, a plump and firm body, full of vitality."
So he opposes vividly the typical thinness of the girls of these times to the blossomed body of the girl he loves.
This Roman pressure on girls to diet to meet the social expectations for thinness represents a clear precedent for the current emphasis on thinness. It is clear that in Ancient Rome, as in today's society, there were multiple factors related to the development of body image concerns which today are often a precursor to eating disorders. These include cultural pressures to strive to develop and maintain a particular body shape in order to be considered attractive and then valued as a woman. Here, Terence mentions Chaerea's preference for a plumper girl, while mothers usually wished their daughters to be thinner. Although the media influences that today are critical in influencing images of a perfect body were not present in Ancient Rome, it is clear from this part of the text that pressures concerning appearance existed long before the 20th century.

How unsettling is it that mothers would have expected their daughters to remain slender? I can only imagine the reaction of the men, who -- even today -- could not care less whether a girl was 120 or 125 lbs.

Breakfast: Kashi cereal, milk, peaches
Lunch: Turkey sandwich, pineapples
Dinner: Cucumber salad, figs

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