‘In portraying ideal types of beauty…you bring together from many models the most beautiful features of each.’
I had an afternoon free a week or so ago in central London and, on a bit of a whim, decided to walk up to the British Museum. Although the hoards of tourists often overwhelm me, I love the British Museum for its temporary exhibitions, which have been some of the best I’ve been to in a long time. Currently, the highlight is Defining Beauty – a look at how ancient Greek sculpture defined beauty ideals. I would definitely recommend it and, as it’s open until 5th July, there’s plenty of time to catch it!
I was particularly interested in this exhibition because the version of beauty portrayed in Greek and Roman sculpture, and in later art depicting that period, really appeals to me. On a purely visual perspective, it has always seemed to be a much more achievable and realistic beauty than what is presented in mainstream media. I was an early teenager at the end of the reign of heroin chic when being super-skinny and near emaciated was considered beautiful and, well, I was never that shape. Almost nobody was! It is perhaps unsurprising that a few of my friends had pretty serious eating disorders when that was the standard of beauty against which we compared ourselves. It was unhealthy and unachievable, and just didn’t feel beautiful to me.
My idea of what is beautiful does stem from my relatively old-fashioned upbringing and that saved me from idolising these rake thin women. My father is a classics scholar and I was brought up surrounded by myths and legends of antiquity, being regaled with stories of heroes and heroines, and gods and goddesses. In the pre-internet age, my parents had much greater control over my exposure to modern culture and so, until I had enough desire and pocket money to seek out films, magazines or posters myself, these stories had a much bigger impact on me than anything that I was allowed to watch on TV. This, combined with a commitment to museum geekery that I haven’t yet lost, meant that from a very early age I *knew* that Aphrodite was the most beautiful woman in the world. I had seen sculptures and paintings of her as a real, familiar woman and knew that she was beautiful, even if she did look different from the models gracing the covers of magazines. She had curves with wide hips, quite average sized breasts and realistic creases in her body, like a real woman. Despite or maybe even because of this, she was still viewed with reverence and awe, and that had a powerful effect on me. Yes, of course, when I was 16, I wanted to be thinner with bigger boobs, smaller hips and bigger hair…but there was a quiet voice in the back of my head that still told me that I looked like a goddess.
Revisiting these sculptures in the exhibition, I was again amazed by the realism of the portraits of the women but was also fascinated by the representation of women in general, the beauty that went beyond what they looked like. The Greek women in the sculptures were wild, passionate and seen as a threat to the stable male society, in comparison to the rational but somehow flat men. Such was the power of their naked bodies that only Aphrodite was ever shown naked. As the goddess of love, she was allowed to ‘arouse sexual desire even as (she) inspired religious awe,’ to quote from the exhibition notes, but all other women had to be fully clothed. I love this! I love that women were thought to be so beautiful that their nakedness is seen as a weapon hidden under their clothes, just waiting to lure men away from their heroic path. It’s deliciously wanton and powerful.
I also love that, even in sculpture, trying to clothe women to reduce their beauty spectacularly backfires as they end up looking more beautiful and sexy through the effect of the draping. While the men had their genitals ‘understated to reduce the erotic charge,’ the women’s bodies are highlighted through their clothing instead of hidden. Their shape and movement is emphasised in the stretch and fold of the fabric, and it’s mesmerising. As I strolled around the exhibition, I frequently ended up standing behind two particularly amazing elderly women. Their irreverent comments were almost more entertaining than the exhibits themselves, and I especially loved their thoughts on the differences between the exposed male figures and the clothed women. ‘Look at their shape,’ said one of them, pointing out the feminine curves showing through the stone clothing. ‘It’s so sexy, even if they are self-conscious enough to cover up.’ ‘They’re not self-conscious!’ scoffed her friend, ‘They reveal much more this way, and it allows them to show off in public.’
Although there are clearly negative aspects to this representation of the tempting and sexually devious woman, if only that it can excuse men from inappropriate behaviour by allowing them to claim to be bewitched by the feminine form, I do find the version of women in the myths and legends to be much more empowering than the damsel in distress of later centuries. The sirens and nymphs are strong and ravishing, and I much prefer that to the weak and dependent women of fairytales and Romantic literature. I look at the images and sculptures of Aphrodite or Athena and I can see more than their physical form. I see their passion and their experiences, and that makes them much more beautiful and much more real. This definition of beauty, which combined realistic bodies with extraordinary personalities, is exactly what I think beauty should be.
In comparison, I fear that men did not fair as well in the creation of an image of idealised male beauty! Everything that I love about the women in Ancient Greek sculptures is missing with the men – they have no depth, no energy. The men portrayed in these sculptures may be heroes and athletes and gods but they did not often have the same palpably fierce spirits or beguiling personalities, they are just eye candy! Whereas I look at the women and goddesses and see a relatively achievable beauty that is in contrast to the current photoshopped ideals, the ideal image of man has not changed. Current athletic figures are still referred to as being ‘sculpted’ in reference to these muscular bodies carved into marble. The men in the statues were also not allowed individuality in the same way as the women. As well as their understated genitals, their facial features were underplayed and unimportant when compared to their glorious bodies, creating a uniform and literal beauty ideal. When discussing a particularly striking wrestler, Charmides, Socrates is told that ‘if he took his clothes off, you would think him faceless, so perfect is his beauty.’ This male beauty ideal is visual and perfect, but doesn’t feel real. It is not supposed to be achievable or mobile, and I don’t think it’s beautiful. The old idiom that beauty is more than skin deep is not held up in representation of men in classical art, and I think it’s a shame.
Thinking about this exhibition, it is the Socrates quote at the top of this post that has stayed with me, more than the individual sculptures. There is no one beauty ideal, just a compilation of these ‘most beautiful features.’ I have taken a small part of everything that I have seen and enjoyed and fashioned them together to create *my* beauty ideal, and this is constantly changing as my own experience changes. My early exposure to them means that the curvaceous goddesses of legend have formed the backbone of this model but I know they are not beautiful because of their looks alone – it was their stories that really attracted me, and their spirit set them alight and separated them from the vapid and untouchably delicate beauty of the Renaissance or Victorian eras, or the starved and impossibly smooth modern women.
I wonder sometimes if this is why I am fortunate enough to have only ever had to deal with the ghosts of body issues. Whether I am fatter or thinner, that voice still tells me that I look like a goddess. My insecurities have always been more intangible – am I smart enough? Am I good enough? Is my life interesting enough? Are my achievements great enough? Am I…enough? How I feel about how I look is inextricably tied up in how I feel about myself. I cannot feel beautiful if I feel like crap, just as I cannot feel ugly when I am happy. What I actually look like is almost completely irrelevant. And, whether that was the intended message or not, that was the definition of feminine beauty that I take from the art of the Ancient Greek period and from the Defining Beauty exhibition – that the women look real but are beautiful because of everything else that they have within them, and these sculptures work so wonderfully because that inner vitality is visible. The carved male figures may be extraordinary, but it is the women who shine!