How the Venus de Milo Changed Female Beauty

More than just a pretty face, the Venus de Milo (rediscovered on this date in 1820) has changed ideas of female beauty ever since, often in surprising ways.

When Greek farmer Yorgos Kentrotas found some broken pieces of a statue buried in the ancient ruins on the island of Milos on April 8, 1820, he had no idea what he had found.  Experts later identified the statue as depicting the Greek goddess of beauty, Aphrodite.  Today, we know that statue better by the goddess’ Roman name—Venus.  The Venus de Milo quickly left Milos for Paris and the Louvre Museum, where it still resides today.  That (re)discovery of the Venus de Milo—nearly two centuries ago now—changed the idea of female beauty in the 19th century and ever since, for better and worse.  In the age of the selfie and its prime practitioner Kim Kardashian (above right), what does the Venus de Milo still say about female beauty?

  • Video: 3D reconstruction of Aphrodite of Milo, better known as the Venus de Milo.
  • We’re used to the Venus de Milo disarmed, but scholars believe that the fully armed statue (shown in the video above) depicted the Greek myth of “The Judgment of Paris.”  Eris, goddess of discord, pouting over not being invited to a feast, crashed the party with a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides upon which was inscribed “for the fairest one.”  Goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all staked claims. Zeus, smelling trouble, refused to act as judge, declaring instead that the mortal Paris of Troy would do the job.  All three goddesses tried to bribe the mortal judge, but Aphrodite’s bribe—Helen, the most beautiful woman on Earth (and wife of Greek king Menelaus)—won.  As Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships” and set the Trojan War in motion, Aphrodite/Venus admired her prize, as shown in the Venus de Milo

  • Image: Greek civilization, 2nd century B.C. - The Nike or Victory of Samothrace, marble, height 328 cm. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
  • It’s appropriate that the Venus de Milo depicts the results of a beauty contest, because it’s launched a beauty contest ever since in Western Civilization.  From the beginnings of Greek art, male nudity was as common due in large part to men frequently being seen nude in athletic competitions.  Female nudity, however, remained under wraps for centuries.  The Nike of Samothrace, another Louvre landmark, shows Greek art hinting at the female form through wet, clinging drapery—the ancient equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest.  Not until 350 BC did Praxiteles sculpt female goddesses.  The Venus de Milo comes after Praxiteles’ breakthrough, but still clings to the wet t-shirt days with her covered lower half.

  • Image: Greek civilization, 2nd century B.C. Marble statue of Aphrodite of Milos known as Venus de Milo, circa 100 B.C. Height 202 cm. From the Island of Milos, Cyclades, Greece. (Photo By DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
  • Why wait so long to unveil the female nude?   The Greek even coined a word, “kaloskagathos,” for how good looks equaled a good person, so showing off what you had was just part of being a good person, at least if you were a man.  Greek author Hesiod called the first woman “kalon kakon” or “a beautiful-evil thing.” The Greek double standard lets you look upon male nudes risk free, but, as anyone who’s read Greek mythology can tell you, it’s dangerous to look upon the nude female form, especially that of a goddess.  For example, when Actaeon caught a glimpse of a bathing Artemis, she turned him into a deer so his own hunting dogs would devour him.  When you looked at the nude Venus de Milo in her entirety, musing upon her prize and the Trojan War she started, you knew she was trouble.  The Greeks invented the concept of the irresistible “bad girl” long before Kim Kardashian.

  • Video: Women’s ideal body types throughout history.
  • But how did we get to Kim Kardashian as today’s Venus de Milo?  The video above showing women’s ideal body types throughout history starts with ancient Egypt and ends with KK as the epitome of “post-modern” beauty, stopping briefly in the middle to visit the Venus de Milo and ancient Greece.  In many ways, the Venus de Milo’s rediscovery in 1820 begins the politicization of female beauty.  A Greek may have unearthed her, but it took a Frenchman, Jules Dumont d'Urville, to recognize her value.  Like so many educated men in the 19th century, d’Urville knew the work of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.  “Winckelmann’s belief that Greek art flourished because of the political freedom in classical times became almost a mantra for orators during the French Revolution,” Gregory Curtis writes in Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. “And his belief that art can reveal the divine as well as or better than religion is still with us today.” The goddess of Greek religion thus became the new “goddess” of faith in modern democracy.

  • Image: Circa 1830: Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842), French naval officer and explorer of the South Pacific and Antarctica. In 1820 he recognized the Venus de Milo on an expedition to the Greek archipelago and secured its acquisition by the French government. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)
  • Following Winckelmann’s cue, d’Urville (shown above) and the French government purchased the statue and made her the “face” of their propaganda program.  Beauty became a commodity and political weapon like never before.  The old Greek symbolism of good looks equals good person transformed into modern political theory that possessing good looks (in statue form) equals good government.  Obviously, the American government doesn’t use Kim Kardashian for propaganda purposes, but who can argue that she’s not the “face” of contemporary America’s obsession with social media and reality television?  If our main export is our popular culture, we’ve been shipping a lot of Kim around the world lately.  The American Society of Plastic Surgeons used to have the Venus de Milo as part of their official seal.  How long before they put “post-modern” beauty ideal Kim Kardashian in her place?

  • Image: Topless activists of the Ukrainian women movement Femen protest against anti-women’s politics in front of the Venus de Milo statue where they hung a banner, at the Louvre Museum on October 3, 2012 in Paris. AFP Photo Lionel Bonaventure (Photo credit should read Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/GettyImages)
  • Although men have used the beauty of the Venus de Milo for two centuries now for their political purposes, women are starting to claim her as one of their own.  In October 2012, the activists Femen France protested ineffectual French laws against rape by posing topless in front of the Venus de Milo (shown above).  They placed a sign on the statue reading “Rape Me, I Am Immortal,” alluding to the statue’s missing arms, which they used to symbolize female vulnerability to sexual violence.  “We have hands to stop rape,” the protesters shouted in contrast, calling for female empowerment at the feat of the helpless goddess.  As ideas of female beauty and what that beauty means (and to whom) evolve, the Venus de Milo keeps getting rediscovered and reconsidered as a game changer in history’s great beauty pageant. 

  • [Image at top of post: (Left) The Venus de Milo at the Louvre Museum back after restoration on July 9, 2009. (Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images). (Right) Kim Kardashian on the beach at the Shore Club on July 14, 2007 in South Beach. (Photo by John Parra/Wireimage).]
  • [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]
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      Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

      "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

      Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

      Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

      The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

      Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

      In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

      It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

      Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

      Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

      The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

      It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

      In their findings the authors state:

      "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
      upholding First Amendment ideals.

      Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

      With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

      Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

      As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

      • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
      • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
      • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
      • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
      • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
      • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
      • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

      Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

      It's interesting to note the authors found that:

      "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

      You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

      Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

      • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
      • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
      • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
      • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
      • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
      • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

      Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

      Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

      • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
      • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
      • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
      • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
      • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
      • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

      Civic discourse in the divisive age

      Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

      There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

      "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
      dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
      the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
      These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
      putting our democracy in peril.

      Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
      immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
      become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
      Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
      The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
      re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
      building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

      We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

      This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.