Were Women in Ancient Egypt More Concerned About Beauty Than Modern Day Women?

Women in Ancient Egyptian Art | Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Egyptians, along with the other ancient civilizations, were complex societies. Their culture has many similarities with modern societies, one of which was their concern for beauty. Egyptians went to great lengths to ensure that they were portrayed as flatteringly as possible, rarely depicting their true age. Youth was seen as central to their concept of beauty.

Ranofer Statue, Courtesy of | Egyptian Museum of Cairo
Ranofer Statue | Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo

When one looks at human depictions in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, one may notice the black lines around their eyes. Upon closer attention to detail, one notices that it resembles the way girls today apply eyeliner. This is what was intriguing enough to spark questions about the Egyptian society’s views on cosmetics. Was it a statement of beauty? Of power? Did it relate to their status?

There is evidence to support the generalization that Egyptians may in fact have valued beauty even more than we do today. They expressed their fondness for beauty in their artwork. Their sculptures and paintings provide evidence for how they valued beauty. The value they saw in beauty is depicted in their paintings and sculptures, such as the bust of Nefertiti, which was made to make her look flawless. They also used eye paints (similar to today’s eyeliner), and it was typically made from malachite and galena. Eventually galena became the country’s primary eye paint, and both are found in tombs on pallets and stones that are believed to have been used in preparation of the paints.1

The image to the left is a statue from the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. This statue gives us a visual representation of the ideal form of a male. One may notice the square, wide shoulders, a slim, muscular figure, and a very defined face shape.

Bust of Nefertiti, Courtesy of | The Egyptian Museum of Berlin
Bust of Nefertiti | Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum of Berlin

The image to the left is a bust of Nefertiti, the great Royal Wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It is believed to be sculpted by Thutmose, who is believed to be the official court sculptor of Pharaoh Akhenaten.2 It was recovered in his workshop and is believed to have been sculpted in 1345 BCE. Nefertiti was a staple for beauty in her time, and her husband strove to make her co-equal with himself, making her one of the most powerful women ever to rule. Nefertiti was universally portrayed as beautiful, and her beauty can still be appreciated today. As one can see in this bust, the queen was sculpted to depict an exemplar of beauty, with a slim face, painted lips, long neck, and adornments on her head and clothes.3

It seems that maybe the Egyptians were more beauty crazed than people of our generation. It is apparent that the ancient Egyptians did not find pride or beauty in older ages. They preferred to alter the way they looked, instead of having themselves accurately represented. It gives us the impression that maybe this ancient culture is not as different from ours as we may have initially assumed.

  1. A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. 1/2 (1930): 41.
  2.  Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 2003. s.v. “Thutmose (c. 1352 – 1366 BC), ” by Michael Rice.
  3. Thutmose. Bust of Queen Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum Berlin, n.d. http://www.egyptian-museum-berlin.com/c53.php.

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This Post Has 59 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I do not think I ever really noticed how the desire to look beautiful can be seen throughout history in all cultures. It is interesting how we have kept up some of the same techniques to look beautiful, dark eyeliner comes to mind. It is kind of crazy to think that people even in the ancient world had a desire to sustain such a high-level image of beauty. What is even crazier to think about is I personally do not think this trend will ever truly die off, even with the self empowerment movements happening today. Take that any way you want it, but I think it just goes to show you that we are all the same no matter where we come from, and we are beings of habit.

  2. Avatar

    It’s interesting to read that women in Ancient Egypt were just as concerned about their looks as the women in today’s society. It just goes to show that many women, no matter the time period, care about their appearance. I wasn’t aware that sculptures and paintings were made to make Egyptians look flawless, and I also didn’t know that eye paints were made from malachite and galena. Nerfertiti was one of the most powerful and beautiful woman to rule alongside her husband who made sure that they were equal. This article was interesting because I got to learn a couple new things, and it’s something that many women can relate to.

  3. Avatar

    I knew that there were some eye makeup looks shown in pictures, but I didn’t know that the eye paint they used was malachite and galena. Queen Nefertiti had been made the “beauty icon” since she wanted to be seen as flawless and the representation of beauty itself. Some people still appreciate her beauty today since she had a slim face. It’s interesting to think that there was something before we developed the idea of what is considered beautiful.

  4. Avatar

    Nice article. I had no idea that the Ancient Egyptians were so concerned with beauty, but I guess that makes sense because they took their appearances very seriously. It is cool that this article also seems to relate to some of the other articles written about ancient Egyptian , society. Many of them are related to topics of beauty and sexuality, which leads me to believe that the Egyptians were quite a sensual society.

  5. Avatar

    Even back in ancient times, people were worried about their appearance which is interesting to read about honestly. Now I am no makeup guru so I don’t really know that much about this kind of stuff but the fact that in ancient times they would use cosmetics similar to what people use today is actually really neat. People are still facing the problem of if they are considered beautiful because of societies standards but everyone is beautiful in their own unique ways.

  6. Avatar

    Although beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, it seems that the Egyptians cared much about how the public, in general, view them in terms of the looks and youth. It’s quite fascinating how cosmetic trends such as the use of eyeliner have remained consistent and are actually part of today’s society. Additionally, it is interesting how the Egyptians focused so much on the concept of beauty that it exuded from their beliefs through their artwork and writing. When this article referenced Nefertiti’s bust as an example of Egyptians view of beauty, it seemed more than accurate. Furthermore, the writer expressed The keen observation that many of our beauty trends may have originated in ancient Egypt.

  7. Avatar

    It is weird to think that the ancient world had the same issues that our modern world has today in regards to trying to portray themselves as beautiful. They had statues and portraits to work with but today we have social media and Instagram to work with. It can be kinda sad to think that they struggled with the same things that we did as it has been thousands of years but we are still in the same place. This is just an area that humanity needs to work on.

  8. Avatar

    What a fascinating comparison. Mentioning the use of eyeliner got me thinking, we didn’t really see it resurface in a big way until the 1990s. I wonder if it was one of the many things brought to use because of mercantilism or early cultural diffusion, or because of the introduction to television in the last century. I definitely think, as the writer mentioned, that there are comparisons. However, I also believe that beauty is a big staple in our modern day lives.

  9. Avatar

    It makes sense that the ancient world had similar cosmetics to today, but I am surprised by the extend of how beauty focused it may have been. Though such desires can be considered base and have worked its way to becoming a common theme among human behavior, the shear amount of similarities seen between our societies is staggering to say the least.

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