gender and corporeal aesthetic in the past

Beautiful Bodies

Body aesthetic is increasingly understood as much more than just ornamentation. How we treat our bodies, dress our hair, inscribe our skin, apply make-up and fragrance as well as how we clothe and adorn ourselves is highly informative about how we see ourselves and how we would like others to see us. But how to approach this sense of self for past societies? Beautiful Bodies explores how archaeological studies may shed light on both beauty and gender, two highly discussed topics.

Beautiful Bodies is a series of articles resulting from a conference session on the same topic. As such, this is an academic read, that will bring you up to speed with current theory and thought about the relation of gender and body aesthetic, explored through archaeological material. Archaeology uses things and how they were found to attempt to explore the past, and this is also very applicable to grasping past notions of concepts like beauty and gender. Because, as the editor Uros Matic explains in the introduction, ‘beauty’ is achieved by doing something: putting your hair up in a certain way, applying make-up, wearing a certain outfit. For doing, you will need materials and tools, and those are what archaeologists ultimately find. The introductory chapter, like the last chapter, serves to provide context for the case studies in this book, and as such covers a few basics. It goes over how the social construct of ‘beauty’ is inevitably indicative of a class society, how it may be achieved in gendered spaces or through gendered acts, and how it can lead to racism and excluding: whoever does not conform to socially accepted beauty standards is often an outsider, and that sadly still holds true today.

The nine chapters that follow are in chronological order, starting out with an examination of aesthetic leadership by Queen Puabi in ancient Mesopotamia. Its author Helga Vogel considers not only the materials and colours of her jewellery and dress, but also their weight, as presented by Kim Benzel in her PhD-thesis. That weight (imagine up to 4 kg of jewellery) might have had ‘a significant impact on the physical embodiment of queenhood and her self-perception of being queen’. (p. 38) There is much to ponder about Puabi’s physical appearance and the significance attributed to her dress and adornment, which reminded me of the essay by Josephine Verduci in the Routledge Handbook of the Senses of the Ancient Near East: she points out how ‘multiple modes of experience can be working in unison’ (p. 137), and I imagine the sensory overload of Queen Puabi’s presence to do just that.

Pharaonic Egypt is presented in two chapters. Uros Matic considers how grooming activities for men were carried out in public places, for all to see, while women seem to have preferred their body-care to be carried out in private. While that points to a gender system behind beauty treatments (p. 62) and the use of gendered spaces, it got me thinking about what else this gender-defined time was used for: grooming, obviously, but how did that activity set the scene for others? What did women talk about in private, what was the point of men grooming in public? Could a point be made that female grooming acts might not just be beautification, but constituted a transformation, a rite de passage of sorts in themselves? His observation that Egyptology tends to create an image of ancient Egypt, populated by beautiful people (p. 58) is particularly noteworthy, as this adds another layer to our view of gender and beauty in the past: our own filters. The next chapter by Kira Zumkley focuses on a mystery grooming tool found in burials of both men and women, in elaborate and simpler contexts. She proposes this to be a tool for wig maintenance, and that is fascinating to me in relation to recent research on hair in ancient Egypt: excavations in Amarna have revealed the dressing of the hair of the dead by means of extensions and with head cones. Could bringing such a tool along with you have a particular agency in the context of an afterlife?

Hairstyles also are discussed in the chapter on the Aegean, where Filip Frankovic demonstrates that during the Bronze Age, social affiliation was based on age, before it shifted to gender: changes in hairstyle reveal a changing self-perception. Another layer of identification is explored for ancient Athens by Isabelle Algrain, which I found to be intriguing. Besides heteronormativity, she argues, politonormativity was a determining factor: status associated with male or female values mattered first and foremost in the context of citizenship (p. 173). Here, society defines who we are, before gender does.

Wanting to belong to a different social group is reflected in the use of mirrors, found in burials in the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Vladimir Mihajlovic argues that mirrors have been found with both male and female individuals, who were not necessarily Roman citizens. In self-fashioning themselves as such though, they attempted to perform their desired status into being: an ancient equivalent of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’. Exactly the opposite seems to have been the case in Viking-age Scandinavia. Bo Jensen makes the interesting point that ‘beauty’ was not something to achieve or generate: beauty was something everyone apparently possessed as long as there were no flaws, such as scars or marks. The last chapter deals with beauty ideals in Qajar Iran, where Maryam Dezkhamkooy takes us through the varying beauty ideals from genderless beauty to notably gender-differentiated preferences: an enriching read.

Beautiful Bodies is an exploration in both objects and ideas in the context of past gender norms. Not all chapters include all elements, but this entire book provides plenty of food for thought on how we might approach the past by carefully going over some of the most personal objects that have survived: those with which we create who we are and that in turn shape our world. It will get you thinking about how fashioning the self is related to the gendered structures of any given society, sometimes even shaping those, to manifesting our wishes and aspirations, and even to creating a particular afterlife – definitely a recommended read!

Beautiful Bodies. Gender and Corporeal Aesthetics in the Past. by Uros Matic (ed). Oxbow Books, 2022

 305 pages, with B/W illustrations, in English. Available with the publisher and online.

The book was received as review copy by the publisher.