Editor's Note
Dr. Elizabeth Graham
Foot-Binding Heels
Stacie Zollen
The Perfect Body
Esther Baum
Female Body Modification
Aynsley Hyndman
Females in Children's Lit
Teya Cherland
Body Image & Well-Being
Jennifer Oakes
Young Girls and Body Image
Susan Burns
Unachievable Standards
Melissa Mason
Objectification and Well-being
Heather Tornblom
Intimate Partner Violence
Celeste Taylor
Sex Trade - The Case of Thailand
Courtney Wielenga
The Perfect Body - A comparable study of modern Western and ancient Egyptian women
Esther Baum

Personal Statement:

The day that I realized that I am a girl and not a boy, my struggle for bodily perfection began. It was an important part of my childhood, and even moreso of my adolescence, even though I was raised to be independent and not to judge people according to their looks. Last year, I had interesting discussions with other young women on body image issues. Although I grew up in a quite different society from the others, all of us have felt this strive for beauty in varying degrees at some point in our lives. All of us attend university to become strong and independent women, yet we still place so much emphasis on our appearance. Why? I believe it is too easy to blame men. Women judge other women's looks much more strictly than men do.

Around the time of our discussions, and for the first time in history, one of the prospective candidates to become chancellor of my home country, Germany, was female. Her name is Angela Merkel. She holds a doctorate degree in physics, and she looks and dresses like a man. Very interestingly, she was ripped apart by the press for her appearance, not for her political views, which is never done to such an extent to her male colleagues. Why do people believe that is more important for her to be pretty than to be a good politician?

To answer my questions, I felt that I must first find out where this female beauty struggle began. I studied historical literature to go back in time, and I found the most striking similarities to our Western beauty ideals in the culture of the Ancient Egyptians. Their society greatly shaped the societies of Ancient Rome and Greece, which formed the base for our modern Western societies. Also, Ancient Egypt already had powerful female leaders, and women seem to have been equal to men. Those women who lived about 5000 years before our time struggled with the same problems our women's magazines try to help us with: a perfect body, perfect hair, and a perfect face. In studying the reasons that Ancient Egyptian women worked so hard on body perfection, I hoped to find out why women nowadays might still do so.


For this study, I researched the ideal body image of women in ancient Egypt. I used literature and images to study the importance and look of different body features of ancient Egyptian women, and I compared my findings to the ideal body type of modern Western women. To study body image, I focused on aspects such as age, hair, weight, use of cosmetics, jewelry, and clothes. Furthermore, I studied the social standing of ancient Egyptian women, and how this could have related to their body images.

Ancient Egypt was a huge and wealthy empire which developed around 3000 BC and lasted until about 400 AD. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great occupied Egypt, which enabled the Egyptian culture to be absorbed first by the Greek and then by the Roman Empire (Ruffle, 1977: 100). Both succeeding empires were fascinated and inspired by the beauty of Egyptian women (Tyldesley, 1995: 17). In the 19th century, Napoleon made an expedition to Egypt, and he was so fascinated by the ancient Egyptian culture that he "brought the monuments and people of the Nile to the European public" (Brier, 2004: 16). The culture was very accessible because of the preponderance of Egyptian art. This interest in Egyptian culture was taken over to North America and expressed through many movies and buildings, such as the Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, the Muvico's Egyptian 24 Theatre, and the Luxor casino in Las Vegas (Brier, 2004: 18-22). Furthermore, fascination with Egyptian culture is reflected in the fact that Egypt sells. It is used in many forms of advertisement. Palmolive, for example, claims that when using its product women could achieve the "re-incarnation of beauty" because its soap is "made from the same rare oils used as both cleanser and lotion in ancient Egypt" (Brier, 2004: 20). Therefore, it is interesting to find out the extent to which the ancient Egyptian images of beauty parallel our modern beauty ideal.

Our society idealizes women's bodies to such an extent that only very few can achieve this perfect image. However, most women seem to participate in the struggle for perfection. I tried to find out if and why ancient Egyptian women might have put a similar emphasis on their bodies. The goal of this study was to research and compare the possible reasons behind the behaviours of modern Western and ancient Egyptian women, who are trying to achieve their beauty ideal. I examined the existing literature using the symbolic-interaction paradigm, which I found very useful because my main focus was on how and why the interactions of individuals in both societies shaped women's sense of beauty.

Literature Review

The words woman and beauty appear to be inseparable in our culture. Our world is full of pictures with beautiful women, such as in advertisements, movies, and magazines, and many researchers have studied the impacts those images have on women's lives (Baker, 2005; Sypeck, Gray, 2004; Oliver, 1999). However, little has been written about where this intense search for beauty began, and why it arose.

The culture of ancient Egypt was quite similar to our current Western culture, in that they placed a strong emphasis on images. The knowledge we have from this time relies heavily on visual representations, in the form of statues, reliefs, and wall-paintings, and on very few literary sources (Watterson, 1991: 2; Tyldesley, 1995: 18). Pictures of women outnumber those of men (Watterson, 1991: 2), and even if images make it difficult to assess women's position in society and the attitudes towards them, they clearly show the ancient Egyptians' ideal of beauty.

In our society, girls also learn early in life that they have to look right in order to be accepted by others, and thereby feel good about themselves. I strongly agree with Oliver (1999) in that "the emphasis on women's appearance is an ancient, yet ongoing, cultural story" (Oliver, 1999: 220). Our culture dictates standardized ideals of beauty, which include youth, healthy looking hair, a perfect body shape, fair skin, nice clothes, and an overall femininity (Oliver, 1999: 230-238; Baker, 2005).

This ideal is very similar to that of the ancient Egyptians. In sculptures, paintings, and poems, women are stereotyped as "graceful and slim, with a small waist and small, firm breasts, a long neck, a pale skin, and blue-black hair" (Watterson, 1991: 9). Body size seems to be very important because women are always pictured as slender. "Pregnancy itself, and the fuller figure of the older woman who has born a number of children are not shown" (Silverman, 1997: 82); whereas some male figures are "represented fuller, with enlarged breasts, or explicit rolls of fat under the chest" (Robins, 1993: 180; Watterson, 1991: 101-102; Roberts, 1979: 290). Silverman (1997) provides an interesting explanation for this phenomenon. He points out that women might not be portrayed as mature because it implies that they are too old for childbearing (Silverman, 1997: 82). For men, however, maturity had a different connotation and "age was seen as a desirable quality in a man" (Watterson, 1991: 5). Male figures always conform to one of two ideals. The first one is a young man, and the second is a mature and fuller man with rolls of fat. "The latter image represents the successful bureaucrat who had juniors to do the active work, and whose salary paid for him to eat well" (Silverman, 1997: 83). In my opinion, maturity and body size have similar connotations for the sexes in our Western societies, and Silverman's (1997) explanation is still applicable.

In addition to body size, hair was very important for ancient Egyptian women. Many reliefs show scenes of hairdressing and of wig making (Watterson, 1991: 113). Several recipes have been found which are believed to prevent hair from falling out and to help new hair to grow. Additionally, several methods were developed to make hair thicker and to prevent greying hair, such as applying "the blood of a black bull that has been boiled in oil" (Watterson, 1991: 111-112; Illes, 2000), and the use of henna as a hair dye (Ruffle, 1977: 147). Furthermore, pictures reveal that "both men and women wore wigs, and women sometimes wore hairpieces to supplement their own hair" (Watterson,1991: 102). Egyptian artwork consistently depicts hair as shiny and black unless it is the picture of a foreigner, which might show that they did not conform to the Egyptians' ideal of beauty. Nowadays, women use slightly different methods to care for their hair, but the goal is the same. Healthy looking hair signals youth and like us, "the Egyptians were anxious to preserve youth or at least a youthful appearance as long as possible" (Illes, 2000).

Cosmetics are widely used nowadays as another mean to keep up a youthful appearance. Also in ancient Egypt, "women used cosmetics as an aid to nature" (Watterson, 1991: 115). Cosmetic equipment was discovered in a vast amount of tombs of women, including bronze mirrors, short-toothed combs, hairpins, broad-bladed razors, inlaid wooden jewelery boxes, and bronze curlers (Ruffle, 1977: 147). Watterson (1991) explains that the medical papyri found present in great detail "recipes for curing spots, pimples and freckles; and for removing wrinkles from the face using a paste made of finely-grounded rubber from the terebinth tree, wax, bhn-oil, and grass from Cyprus" (Watterson, 1991: 117). Other papyri outline recipes for lipstick or face paint, such as "specimens of ground red ochre mixed with oil" (Ruffle, 1977: 147). "Mixtures of chalk and oil" (Ruffle, 1977: 147) might have been used as cleansing creams. In addition, every Egyptian woman, independent of her status, seemed to have used eye make-up. They used Udju, which was made from green malachite, as eye shadow and Mesdemet, made from galena, as eye liner. Interestingly, those products must have served more purposes than just beauty because they also appear in medical papyri. For example, galena is believed to protect the eyes from the intensive sun (Illes, 2000; Watterson, 1991: 115). Furthermore, because eye liner served as a type of amulet which protects the wearer from the Evil Eye, make-up provided a form of psychic protection (Illes, 2000).

Amulets were not only worn in the form of makeup, but also as jewelry. Contemporary women also wear jewelry in many different forms and for several purposes. "Virtually every type of jewelry that is familiar today existed in ancient Egypt" (Silverman, 1997: 227), such as necklaces, bracelets, ear- and finger-rings, anklets, and also wig ornaments (Watterson, 1991: 108). Jewelry was worn, especially earrings, by both sexes; researchers discovered pierced ears on various mummies (Ruffle, 1977: 148). Similar to the symbolic meaning of eye makeup is that of jewelry. It was not only used as decoration, but as "charms to ward off evil" (Watterson, 1991: 104). In modern Western societies, jewelry is mainly considered as decorative, with a few symbolic exceptions, such as the wedding band.

Contrary to the excessive amount of jewelry worn by ancient Egyptian women are their rather simple dresses. "It has been estimated that ancient Egyptian men wore over 40 different types of costumes" (Watterson, 1991: 97), while women of all ranks wore a monotonous uniform dress. "A woman usually wore a straight, tight, white linen slip that stretched from just below the breasts to the ankles, the breast being covered by the shoulder-straps that held up the dress" (Watterson, 1991: 98-99). Men were able to move much more freely in their kilts than women in their sheath dresses (Robins, 1993: 182). In our modern society, women are able to choose from many more types of clothes than men; however, I believe that the idea behind the style did not change much. The sheath dresses of the Egyptians "display every curve of the body, including the erogenous zones of stomach, buttocks, tights, pubic triangle and breasts, thus putting emphasis on the sexuality of the figure" (Robins, 1993: 182). Mazur (1986) points out that the clothing for women in our society has become increasingly revealing (Mazur, 1986: 284), which indicates that femininity is also strongly judged by sexual attractiveness.

The way in which women were depicted in ancient Egypt clearly shows that it was a patriarchal society; however, women are very frequently portrayed alongside their husbands and sons, which indicates that they were recognized as playing an important role within society (Silverman, 1997: 83). Tomb scenes show women as playing many roles, whether in the household, the temple cults or the economic realm, which signifies a certain degree of respect towards them (Lesko, 1991: 5). Personal letters from that time reveal that women enjoyed freedom of movement and association; they were able to engage in commerce, and they could exercise authority over others in the workplace or temple (Lesko, 1991: 6). Furthermore, court documents indicate that women were equal to men under the law (Watterson, 1991: 24) and that they had the same expectations of a life after death (Watterson, 1991: 1). An ancient Egyptian woman enjoyed her own independent legal identity: she could act as a witness in court, adopt children in her own name, marry and divorce at will, be a partner in legal contracts, inherit property and administer or dispose of it at her own wish (Watterson, 1991: 25-28; Lesko, 1991: 6). That independence gave women a fair amount of social freedom, which women in other ancient societies did not have. Furthermore, a married woman had the same rights as an unmarried woman. Her property did not automatically fall into her husband's hands, which is "a state of affairs not matched in modern England until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882" (Watterson, 1991: 31). In general, it appears to me that the rights of ancient Egyptian women were very advanced and quite similar to those of modern Western societies.

Another interesting aspect, which gave ancient Egyptian women a certain degree of power, is that "all landed property was passed down through the female line from mother to daughter" (Watterson, 1991: 23). Additionally, men usually described themselves by giving their mother's name, rather than the name of their father (Watterson, 1991: 23), which I believe is very atypical for patriarchal societies. This type of inheritance was practiced by average citizens and the royalties. Queens were often of purer royal blood than their husbands, unless the husband was the queen's brother, and it was she who legitimized the king's claim to the throne (Lesko, 1991: 10; Hill, 2002: 24). Furthermore, according to old narratives, "the queen shares the power of the king in ruling the land, participating, as he does, in the divinity that legitimizes the ruling power of ancient Egypt" (King, 1997: 223).

King (1997) explains that the study of Egyptian queenship is still in its infancy, because it lacks the long scholarly history of Egyptian kingship (King, 1997: 210), which I consider typical for contemporary research. However, three strong women stand out in the literature as powerful queens. Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, is depicted in poses similar to and even identical with those of the king, and Nefertari, the queen of Ramsses II "was honoured with her own temple at Abu Simbal" (King, 1997: 224). Nevertheless, the names of both women strongly indicate to me that their primary role was to be beautiful. In ancient Egypt, names were chosen with great care, because they were an important aspect of the personality. The names Nefertiti and Nefertari both mean "beautiful" (Silverman, 1997: 235).

Even more significant and powerful was Hatshepsut. She is the first woman whose name is mentioned in the annals of the past, as a woman who carried out the traditional duties of a man (Mertz, 1964: 164; King, 1997: 224). Her husband Tuthmosis II died while her son was still too young to reign; thus, she became the ruling power and succeeded in holding the throne for approximately twenty years (Mertz, 1964: 171). Interestingly, she appears to have taken on a male identity, even though I believe she acted quite female, because Egypt prospered under her reign without being involved in any wars (Hill, 2002: 24). Hatshepsut "cast off the trailing skirts of a woman and put on the kilt and crown of a king" (Mertz, 1964: 165). She is also portrayed with the false beard, which was an important part of the king's regalia (Ruffle, 1977: 111). Additionally, Hatshepsut is often depicted as the male god Osiris, with whom all kings were identified after death (Silverman, 1997: 89). Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians did not have a hieroglyph for a female monarch. The hieroglyph that is translated as queen literally means king's wife, so Hatshepsut was called a male king (Mertz, 1964: 167). Nevertheless, her sculptured body was always portrayed as slim and graceful like that of a goddess (Mertz, 1964: 165). In my opinion this is consistent with modern societies, in which powerful women are judged more strongly by their looks than their successes.

Goddesses and gods, and thereby religion, played an immense role in the life of ancient Egyptians (Robins, 1993: 76; Watterson, 1991: 17; Tyldesley, 1995: 19). Very interesting are the ascribed roles of the deities, because I consider them as opposite to the beliefs of people in modern societies. The creator deity was Neith, who was also the hunting or war goddess (King, 1997: 212), and the most popular role for female deities was that of protection. For example "Maat was the Goddess of justice, truth, and social order" (Watterson, 1991: 18), which may indicate that women were considered as forces for stability. Furthermore, "Seshat was the Goddess of writing and keeper of the royal annals" (Watterson, 1991: 18), which is ironic because "most ancient Egyptian women could not read or write" (Watterson, 1991: 18). Also contrary to modern belief, "the chief deities concerned with fertility were male—Min, Osiris and Sobek being the most important" (Watterson, 1991: 17). However, "ancient Egyptian mythodology gives many examples of the stereotypical faithful female" (Watterson, 1991: 22), because most goddesses were presented as devoted wives and mothers.

The strong religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians are reflected in their immense preparation for the after-life. For them, "the preservation of the corpse was fundamental to the continuation of life after death" (Silverman, 1997: 138). Furthermore, all of a woman's wigs, cosmetics, jewelry, perfumes, and seductive clothes were placed in her tomb upon her death, so that they could be taken with her into the after-life (Roberts, 1979: 298; Tyldesley, 1995: 19). Idealized images were an important part of the preparation because it was believed that "the spirit of the deceased might be compelled to live on in his or her painted image" (Tyldesley, 1995: 23).


I analyzed the existing literature using the symbolic-interaction paradigm, which "is a theoretical framework that envisions society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals" (Macionis, Gerber, 2000: 20). The traditional assumptions of this paradigm are that all things, such as pens, religious thought systems and languages, are social objects. Humans act towards them on the basis of the meanings they attach to them, and those meanings arise out of social interactions. People modify those meanings through interpretive processes. Additionally, "everyday reality is socially constructed through the interactions that occur between self-reflective individuals in concrete situations" (England, 1993: 203). I believe that the symbolic-interaction paradigm is a good method for the analysis of my findings, especially because of its assumption that people evaluate images collectively (Pawluch, Shaffir, Miall, 2005: 11). This framework helped me to find possible reasons behind the behaviours of women in their quest for beauty.

In reading the literature and viewing pieces of art, it became clear to me that the collective ideal for ancient Egyptian women were the images of their goddesses. The ideal for women in modern Western societies does not have a direct religious background; here, it is embodied in images of actresses and beauty models. Those models set the standard for what women perceive as right and normal (Oliver, 1999: 231). I cannot know if the ancient Egyptian women actually used the images of goddesses as their standard for what was normal. As King (1997) points out, "the question of who produced the surviving artifacts or sacred texts must be kept in mind" (King, 1997: 379). However, because of the immense amount of standardized images of that time, I assume that women had to deal with pressures similar to those of modern Western women. In ancient Egypt, people were never depicted as individuals, but were made to conform to certain ideals. Every women is painted or sculptured as beautiful, and "even female workers are portrayed with grace and dignity" (Lesko, 1991: 4). Quite similar is the idealization of images in Western societies. Models on television and in magazines are often airbrushed through computer manipulation, which creates representations that most women in society cannot achieve (Oliver, 1999: 237).

In both societies, images appear to create, or at least reflect socially constructed rules and norms. The ancient Egyptians depicted not only women according to their ideals, but also everything else related to their life. For example, "the Nile flood is never depicted, only the ordered landscape once the Nile has returned to its bed" (Silverman, 1997: 92). In my opinion, both societies have used images to teach their citizens that any other form of behaviour or look is deviant, which "refers to any activity, appearance, or thought that some audience defines in negative terms" (Pawluch, Shaffir, Miall, 2005: 14).

Furthermore, members of both societies seem to view the terms "beauty" and "healthy" as equal. Women in modern Western societies learn that "healthy is a look they could create" (Oliver, 1999: 234). In ancient Egypt, any action women performed to conform to the ideal, such as treating their hair and applying make-up, was done not only for beauty purposes, but also to increase their spiritual and physical health. Another aspect relating to health is age. Both societies emphasize youth as a standard for beauty.

In my opinion it is very clear that every action of ancient Egyptian women was related to their preparation for the afterlife, because everything in the Egyptian culture can be explained by religion. Furthermore, I believe that modern Western women participate in the struggle for beauty for parallel reasons: they also follow the quest for immortality.


Women's struggle for beauty is an old and ongoing story. Surviving texts and artifacts from about 5000 years ago indicate the immense amount of time and effort women in ancient Egypt used for the perfection of their bodies. Interestingly, the crusade for thinness, healthy hair, smooth skin, and an overall youthful appearance is very similar between modern Western and ancient Egyptian women. Those women who are able to achieve the perfect image, or whose pictures are manipulated to conform, are idealized, while women who are unable to reach this level of perfection are considered deviant.

In both societies, beauty has the collective connotation of being healthy. Health implies living a long life and being able to reproduce. Furthermore, healthy looking, beautiful women are more likely to be depicted in some form, which implies that they will be remembered even after their death. People in modern Western societies strive for longevity, and hope for an afterlife, which is reflected in the Christian belief of the paradise. In ancient Egypt, every action people took during their lives was part of the preparation for the afterlife. Thus, I conclude that women's aspiration for a perfect body in both societies can be explained, at least partly, by their quest for immortality, whether it be through their entry into the afterlife, or the permanent depiction of their images in art.

Works Cited

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Oliver, Kimberly, L. "Adolescent Girls' Body-Narratives: Learning to Desire and Create a 'Fashionable' Image." The Teacher College Record 101, no. 2 (1999): 220-246.

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