Size zero culture in Ancient Rome

We often think that pressure on young women to be thin is a modern phenomenon, but a fascinating letter to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published in 2000 noted that this is not a new development. The authors cite evidence from Ancient Rome showing a similar cultural pressures were widespread:

Garner et al. (1985) wrote about the present “unprecedented emphasis on thinness and dieting” which is one factor responsible for the increase in anorexic and bulimic disorders. It is generally believed that dieting in pursuit of a thinner shape and slimness as a standard for feminine beauty are modern attitudes. However, a clear account can be found in the ancient comedy Terence’s Eunuchus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) (c. 190–159 BC) was a Roman comic poet. His 6 surviving comedies are Greek in origin but describe the contemporary Roman society. Eunuchus was probably presented in 161 BC. In this comedy, a young man named Chaerea declares his love for a 16-year-old girl whom he depicts as looking different from other girls and he protests against the contemporary emphasis on thinness: “haud similis uirgost uirginum nostrarum quas matres student demissis umeris esse, uincto pectore, ut gracilae sient. si quaest habitior paullo, pugilem esse aiunt, deducunt cibum; tam etsi bonast natura, reddunt curatura iunceam. itaque ergo amantur.” (She is a girl who doesn’t look like the girls of our day whose mothers strive to make them have sloping shoulders, a squeezed chest so that they look slim. If one is a little plumper, they say she is a boxer and they reduce her diet. Though she is well endowed by nature, this treatment makes her as thin as a bulrush. And men love them for that!) Then he describes the girl he loves: “noua figura oris . . . color uerus, corpus solidum et suci plenum” (unusual looks . . . a natural complexion, a plump and firm body, full of vitality). So he opposes vividly the typical thinness of the girls of these times to the blossomed body of the girl he loves.

This Roman pressure on girls to diet to meet the social expectations for thinness represents a clear precedent for the current emphasis on thinness. It is clear that in Ancient Rome, as in today’s society, there were multiple factors related to the development of body image concerns which today are often a precursor to eating disorders. These include cultural pressures to strive to develop and maintain a particular body shape in order to be considered attractive and then valued as a woman. Here, Terence mentions Chaerea’s preference for a plumper girl, while mothers usually wished their daughters to be thinner. Although the media influences that today are critical in influencing images of a perfect body were not present in Ancient Rome, it is clear from this part of the text that pressures concerning appearance existed long before the 20th century.

Link to PubMed entry for letter.

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