Rachel Rodriguez: Italia America 2022

Female Beauty Standards in Ancient Rome and Modern-Day America

The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is often used to reference the idea that notions of what makes something beautiful is subjective. But where did these ideals come from? As women in the United States find power through a cultural revolution on beauty standards, the roots of these standards can be found on another road that leads back to Rome.

An Empire Under Venus

To the ancient Romans, beauty equated to power. This is made evident through Venus – goddess of love, fertility, and beauty. She became the symbol for Rome’s imperial power, especially when Julius Caesar and Augustus claimed to be descendants of her son, Aeneas. In this way, she was perceived as a model mother for women to look up to: a paragon of all that is beautiful in the mighty Roman empire.

Statue of Venus from the J. Paul Getty Museum website  (© http://www.pedicinimages.com)

It is interesting that an ancient society chose to show its might and power through a female goddess. In this way, by having Venus play a more active role in society as a prominent figure for imperialistic conquest, Romans are acknowledging the idea that power is beautiful. By that same token, beauty is power.

Throughout the empire, beauty becomes key for every citizen: standards emerge for both men and women. As a more matronly figure in comparison to her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite, Roman women have a public figure to look up to, thus giving power to women as beauty routines become essential to being a proper Roman lady.

However, ancient Rome is not the only republic that views the might of the beautiful. Introducing the United States of America. Or, in other words, “America the Beautiful.” Like in many other areas, America shares many similarities with ancient Rome. But no matter how much time has passed, many of the same beauty standards and practices for women still remain, even during a revolution for changing the perception of beauty in society throughout the 21st century.

Perfect Practices

Much like today, beauty to the ancient Romans was linked to health. Thus, many beauty routines and practices were created, some of which continue on to this very day. While Rome was not the first society to create beauty standards and practices for women, many of these traditions continue to live on in American society.

For example: shaving. Shaving was very popular amongst both men and women in Roman society. Focusing on women, shaving the body was a symbol of prestige and class: no hair meant nobility. In today’s society, the concept of shaving continues as women are expected to have smooth, bare skin. How fitting that the most popular brand of female razors is none other than Gillette Venus! The cycle continues.

However, despite the representation of Venus throughout the empire, Roman culture still demanded a conservative approach for women, much like today. Beauty standards still retain the same principle of displaying higher societal class, and women continue to be judged based on the beauty they display.

A similar concept comes from the idea of aging and blemishes. Much like today, beauty in a woman in ancient Rome was seen through pale skin that was unmarred and youthful. This led to women using a variety of skin creams and face masks to avoid wrinkles and rejuvenate the skin, a practice that is still being conducted by modern women today. However, the greatest similarities between ancient Rome and America are two things: the way a woman’s body should look and the use of makeup.

My Body. My Choice.

Of course, the biggest similarity between the two societies is men telling women how they ought to look and treat their bodies. Having pale, unblemished skin was the biggest contributor to beauty as it symbolized a woman who stayed mostly at home and was able to live in leisure as a noble with slaves to do work. By having this ideal of beauty, women will surely secure their husband’s love and affection.

In American society, this ideal unfortunately lives on as women are expected to fulfill changing notions of beauty in order to get respect. Whiteness is also a factor in beauty as many women of color have difficulties finding products that fit their skin color. While representation is slowly improving, there is still a clear preference for a certain “look” that women in America need to achieve in order to be deemed “beautiful.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 13: Kendall Jenner attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

Furthermore, a woman’s body in ancient Rome had to fit a specific mold, much like what is expressed to this day in America. In Rome, a beautiful, female body would be short, slim but strong, wide thighs and protruding hips, but with small breasts. This is very similar to today’s current look for women, which is a body that is almost unrealistic given how often the body grows over time.

While celebrities such as Kendall Jenner may achieve this standard, the standard itself is constantly changing over time. For example, the trend of women undergoing surgery for a Brazilian butt-lift to achieve the small waist, protruding hip beauty standard has led to many deaths due to the danger of the procedure. All to be deemed beautiful.

On the other hand, the Roman poet Ovid had much to say on the subject of female beauty in Medicamina Faciei Feminae. In his work, Ovid laid out many principles and guidelines for the expectations Roman women should uphold when it comes to projecting their beauty. Most interestingly, he mentions a sentiment that is shared amongst many modern American women: that women take care of their appearance for themselves, not for the enjoyment of others. This is the foundation of the body positivity movement in America today as many women take the idea of beauty to focus on what they feel is beautiful as opposed to what society says is beautiful.

Cosmetics of a Charmer

The principle of “natural beauty” was preached in ancient Rome as much as it is preached today. Going back to Ovid’s belief that women focused their appearance for themselves, makeup was used in order to enhance the natural beauty of a woman’s face.

Like today, women of all classes used makeup, though women of higher class had access to better quality products. However, also like today, women must be careful using too much makeup or else they may be mistaken for using the craft as a seduction tactic, thus tying them to prostitution.

The use of cosmetics has changed dramatically for women. Ancient Roman women would apply white chalk to create the idealized standard of pale skin, followed by an eyeliner made by soot, kohl, or ash to create a smoky eye, popularized by Egyptian makeup practices. Due to the empire having access to a variety of resources, Roman women were able to have bright pigments for eyeshadow, such as a vibrant blue. Finally, a touch of red clay would be added to the cheeks to give them a soft, rosy hue. Finished with a braided hairdo, the beauty standards of ancient Rome have been met!

However, women in modern-day America do not have such a routine. While a smoky eye is still in fashion, the modern woman prefers to use eyeliner to create a bold wing that accentuates the eye further. The biggest difference is the shift from pale skin to tanned skin. In Rome, pale skin symbolized luxury since staying indoors meant not having to do tedious work.

However, in modern America, having a tan became synonymous with luxury as it is tied with vacation and travel, which requires money to do. Ironically, this doesn’t apply when it comes to racism within the beauty industry as mentioned previously. However, a part of the tanned complexion comes from the popularity of contour in an American woman’s routine. A face that has sharp cheekbones and angles became a beauty standard, thus using using products like bronzer and highlighter to create these sharp features is what sets American beauty apart from ancient Roman beauty as women can now change the very structure of their face with makeup to meet these beauty standards.

An Ancient Roman Woman’s Makeup and Hair in comparison to a Modern American Woman’s Makeup and Hair by Rachel Rodriguez

Interestingly, while the sentiment of using makeup for a woman’s own personal sense of beauty still remains, the modern makeup routine is more produced than the ancient Roman woman’s routine for achieving a “natural look.” While both styles attempt to use makeup to enhance one’s own features, the American modern woman’s routine become hypocritical when contour is used since changing one’s facial structure should go against the belief of natural beauty. This paradox between self-satisfaction and meeting the standard of beauty creates this hypocrisy. The only way it can be solved, however, is by the woman who makes the judgement by her own accord.

However, a major shift between modern beauty and ancient Roman beauty is the fact that makeup is no longer just for women. In 21st century America, growing tolerance has paved the way for anyone to use makeup, especially as notions of gender and sexuality have shifted to be more inclusive. This is heavily influenced by social media as many “beauty gurus” are men who review makeup products and even teach tutorials for certain looks. Now, given new attitudes regarding beauty through gender identity, sexuality, and body positivity, tolerance is now playing a bigger role. In this way, Ovid’s notion that women focus on their appearance for themselves is shifting — now everyone can do so.

The preservation of tradition is usually the reason as to why things stay the same. It is fascinating to see how many beauty practices for women in ancient Rome continue to exist today as they become rituals for the modern American woman. However, combating the brutal beauty standards of the two societies is a fight modern women carry as society shifts towards progression and tolerance. As the ancestral line of ancient women look on at this progress, the words of an empire ring out to motivate the modern movement: beauty is power.

Works Cited

  1. “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love.” Aphrodite and the Gods of Love: Roman Venus (Getty Villa Exhibitions), The J. Paul Getty Museum, https://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/aphrodite/venus.html.
  2. Ferlei-Brown, Nicole. “Ancient Roman Beauties and Their Makeup Bag.” ITALY Magazine, Italy Magazine, 4 Mar. 2014, https://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/ancient-roman-beauties-and-their-makeup-bag.
  3. Hayward, Laura. “Ovid’s Guide to Sex and Relationships in Ancient Rome.” TheCollector, The Collector, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.thecollector.com/ovid-love-ancient-rome/.
  4. Jasiński, Jakub. “What Beauty Was Appreciated by Romans?” IMPERIUM ROMANUM, Imperium Romanum, 21 Feb. 2022, https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/article/what-beauty-was-appreciated-by-romans/.
  5. Nelson, Georgia. “A Brief History of Female Hair Removal.” Medium, PERIOD, 23 July 2018, https://medium.com/periodmovement/a-brief-history-of-female-hair-removal-5ec6d0a92dac.
  6. North, Anna. “The Past, Present, and Future of Body Image in America.” Vox, Vox, 18 Oct. 2021, https://www.vox.com/22697168/body-positivity-image-millennials-gen-z-weight.
  7. Sokolenko, Dalia. “Retrospective: Women Beauty Ideals in Art.” Medium, Medium, 24 June 2019, https://medium.com/@daliasokolenko/retrospective-women-beauty-ideals-in-art-b6883738fb8d#:~:text=Roman%20men%20liked%20women%20with,keep%20their%20%27natural%20beauty.

Author: rachelrenae603

Rachel Rodriguez is a student at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a certificate in pre-law. After earning her bachelor's degree, she has aspirations to go to law school. Rachel enjoys singing, reading, cooking, and travelling.

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