Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and countless other celebrities have become famous on social media for the “belfie” (AKA the “butt selfie”). While this pose seems like a modern trend, it has actually been used as a symbol of femininity for thousands of years. When people today transform their bodies with surgery and spanx, apply filters on Instagram, or airbrush blemishes away, it can promote unrealistic images of beauty, while pretending they are “au natural” online. This obsession with perfection – and much of our contemporary understanding of beauty in life and art – is actually all thanks to the ancient Greeks.
One of the best known Greek sculptures of classical antiquity is ‘The Doryphoros’, which shows a male model posing candidly.
This sculpture was created in the 5th century BCE by Polykleitos, who rejected the formal style of the previous century and create a male figure that almost seems real.
Previously, the common style of Archaic Greek sculpture from the 6th century BCE was kouros, which was typically a statue of a young male standing upright with both feet firmly planted on the ground.
In contrast, ‘The Doryphoros’ seems like he could walk off at any moment, as Polykleitos sculpted him in a pose with his hips at an angle, standing on his right foot with his left leg relaxed.
The left arm would have been holding a spear, if it was still attached to the body.
The Doryphoros by UnknownMinneapolis Institute of Art
However, to 5th century BCE Greeks, the Archaic Greek statues from the 6th century BCE were considered inferior. In Plato’s Hippias Major, Socrates says: “If Daedalus were around now, and producing those old-style statues of his, everyone would laugh at him.”
Just like a photograph that has been digitally edited to remove a few inches off the waist, the more natural-seeming statues of the 5th century BCE were more idealistic than realistic. For instance, the lower abdomen of ’The Doryphoros’ is enhanced to look more athletic. Polykleitos’ sculptures were also created to be more proportional and symmetrical than a typical human body would be.
This method of enhancing the body was also used by the 5th century BCE painter Zeuxis.
Zeuxis would choose the most desirable parts of the body and ignore the natural figure in pursuit of perfection.
Francois Andre-Vincent even painted a scene which shows Zeuxis using five different models to create his vision of the great beauty Helen because he didn’t think one woman was good enough.
Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the Image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton by François-André VincentCantor Arts Center at Stanford University
Although Hellenistic Greek art moved towards using more natural poses, sculptors continued to emphasize certain body parts. The ‘Venus Callipyge’ is a Roman copy of the original Greek sculpture ‘Aphrodite Kallipygos’, which was also known as “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks.” Aphrodite’s pose, which is similar to the modern day “belfie,” was rediscovered in the 17th century CE and continues to be popular to this day. Models on Vogue covers and celebrities on their Instagram accounts can frequently be seen in this pose – perhaps the original model behind “Aphrodite of the beautiful buttocks” should have considered insuring her own bum, as many celebrities have allegedly done today.
Much like the “belfie,” these perfectionist representations of beauty online can be seen in the earlier work of Polykleitos and his contemporaries. Our current obsession with fitness and celebrities showing off their figures on social media mirrors the ancient Greeks, who also valued athleticism and often displayed athletic heroes in their art. Art often reflects the changing values of society, however, our 21st century habits have created idealized versions of ourselves on social media. Whether digitally or surgically, these enhanced bodies provide many similarities to the perfectionist practices of sculptors and artists that can be traced back to ancient Greece.
Words by Erica Aris