Throughout history, female bodies have always been viewed as objects.
“Men had the power to represent themselves in art,” said Catherine Connors, a classics professor. “But they also had the power to control how women were presented.”
Women were represented by the male gaze in ancient Greek and Roman art – such as the lack of female genitalia on the carvings. For ancient men, women were incidental to the status of their husbands.
“Women have always been viewed in relation to a household,” Connors said.
In ancient Greece and Rome, women were valued for their reproductive abilities, with men seeing their sole purpose as producing an heir.
“The standard of beauty in ancient Athens was an appearance of health,” Connors said.
If a woman looked healthy, it was considered proof that her body’s reproductive system was working and therefore her goal was achieved.
“Women were held to a double standard,” said Sarah Levin-Richardson, associate professor of classics. “They were expected to be chaste and modest, while men could pursue whomever they pleased.”
It was myths such as ‘Pandora’s box’, which depict women as dangerous when left on their own, that pushed the misogynistic beliefs that are still entrenched in today’s society.
“Women weren’t entrusted to their own bodies,” Levin-Richardson said.
Even the Greek goddess Aphrodite, or her Roman counterpart Venus, was not exempt from the male belief that a woman’s body was their property. Aphrodite was first depicted at the Temple of Aphrodite at Cnidus (located in modern Turkey) – and with a naked appearance, even she was not honored with the honor a goddess deserved.
“Men used the statue as an object to consummate their desire,” Levin-Richardson said, describing the male gaze that defined female statues.
Women have never had control of their own narrative. Their representation within the classical arts highlights the lack of control they had over their image, a concept that remains true to this day.
In America, the rise of capitalism has created a new facet for men to dominate. The way they sold their products became a channel to sell perceptions of the female bodytheir actions echoing ancient Greek and Roman history.
“Beauty standards were most enforced by people of status in ancient and modern households,” Connors said.
Status has been a consistent player throughout history. Those with status have power, and those with power control what people see and believe.
In ancient civilizations, status defined what was beautiful, and in modern society, status remains the dominant factor in what defines standards of beauty.
With the introduction of digital media, we have a new platform to show status. Powerful people share their likes, dislikes and even their own thoughts – a new source of monetization. In doing so, the public buys a perception that is marketed to them.
“Companies seem to choose what’s considered attractive,” sophomore Sedona Cheloha said.
The capitalist economy has discovered that insecurity sells more than anything else. The tabloids are notorious for targeting women’s bodies, pushing a culture that acts as if certain body sizes are a trend.
“Women are presented as sex objects,” Cheloha said. “We are objectified, made into a prop for male attraction, and then used to sell products.”
Perceptions of beauty change over time. What was considered “healthy” in ancient Greece and Rome would be considered plus size by today’s standards. But unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, our representation of beauty is preserved in the media we consume, not in sculptures and paintings.
“Companies sell the male gaze,” said freshman Elsa Kopf. “What men consider beautiful is what is pushed by the media.”
Although the idea of body positivity has been circulating for decades, the movement has found its power circa 2012. Over the past 10 years, the body positivity movement has become a message to women that all bodies are beautiful – a message that many companies are capitalizing on.
“The media has historically been non-inclusive when it comes to body image,” Kopf said. “They don’t care about people, they’re just trying to tick a box not to be seen as non-inclusive.”
Unfortunately, women can be complicit in their own enslavement.
“There’s a passive-aggressive element to body positivity,” Cheloha said. “Women are often condescending, making off-the-cuff comments about a woman’s body.”
For centuries, women have embraced misogynistic ideals of what beauty should be. Men set standards that they wanted women to follow, and over time, these standards became entrenched in women’s lives.
“Misogyny is nothing new,” Levin-Richardson said. “It existed in antiquity.”
So why do we continue to adhere to misogynistic ideals when we have the power to create our own narratives?
With the resurgence of the body-positive movement, women have begun to take control of their own narratives. People are becoming aware of the sexism that shapes female beauty standards, and the packaged ideals that corporations under capitalism market to us are becoming less and less ideal with each passing day.
Our window to the past exists in artworks, busts and paintings from ancient civilizations illustrating the history that led to modern society. We can learn much from heavenly working bodies that have stood the test of time. These ancient societies we look up to are our future – hundreds of years from now we will be the ancient civilization that students study, their windows to the past being the media platforms we upload our lives to today.
Every day presents a new opportunity to undo the misogyny that has tried to dominate our lives. We are in a position that no population in history has ever been in before, where the perception of beauty can be changed simply by using our phones.
It is up to us to decide how we will be remembered.
Contact contributing editor Emma Schwichtenberg at [email protected] Twitter: @emaroswitz
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