Does this toga make my gluteus maximus look fat?

The pressure to be thin is usually considered a fairly 'modern' phenomenon, but an interesting 2000 letter to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry demonstrates that even women in ancient Rome felt the pressure to diet and lose weight.

The pressure to be thin on adolescent girls in ancient Rome is a relatively short letter, and I've copied the text here:

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.

Of course, this little tidbit is making my epidemiologist's mind whirr. Was Terence's assessment of the thin-is-in culture in ancient Rome a universal female thing, or was it restricted to those in the upper classes, or those in urban areas? What were the rates of eating disorders during that time? What, if anything, is the relation between the pressure to be thin and the rate of eating disorders? Did those who developed an eating disorder have the same kind of personality traits that researchers so often find in today's sufferers? What does this say about how cultures in different times and places view women and women's bodies?

What a fascinating little tidbit!

via Mind Hacks

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Fiona Marcella said...

absolutely fascinating.

Cathy (UK) said...

Interesting article...

Carrie, you write "What, if anything, is the relation between the pressure to be thin and the rate of eating disorders?"

Having researched this question myself - in great depth - through available published literature, the suggestion is that there is a clear relationship between cultural pressure to be thin and bulimic or purging behaviours. However, restricting anorexia nervosa (from which I suffered - badly - for nearly years) is more closely related to asceticism.

I have never felt pressured to be thin - by anyone or anything else. In fact, the thought processes underpinning my anorexia nervosa were unrelated to a desire to be thin. To sum these thoughts up: restricting my diet made me feel in control of my body and my life, and it made me feel I was a better person. When I exercised really hard I felt 'pure' - and it was this sense of purity I craved. I actually hated my thinness. In my mind, weight gain meant 'undisciplined, greedy person' - i.e. the sort of person I didn't want to be. And so I didn't allow weight gain. My thinness made me look unattractive - something I was well aware of.

Tanya said...

Carrie, I found this really interesting. Especially in respect to considering how the Romans and Greeks and much of the mideval times era had huge feasts of gorging themselves and I once heard that they would then purge before continuing to the next course or to eat more whichever. I have no proof of this though its just something I heard someone say once when it was being discussed that Bulimia was really only a recent addition to mental illness though it has actually been around for much longer. Anyhow I thought you would find that interesting if you wanted to look it up. I would love to if I had more resources but I just don't have them available.

Anonymous said...

First of all, this might be the best blog entry title EVER. Well done! :-)

Feminist theorists such as Susan Bordo have actually been writing for quite sometime about how the thin ideal predates modern society and goes all the way back to ancient cultures. They argue that there are some crucial differences between then and now. In previous times, the thin aesthetic was generally attached to the creation of a "self" that would achieve "human excellence" (Bordo's words) in regard to health, morality, spirituality, etc. Obviously, I think we can see that that's still in operation. However, there are also many who strive for the thin ideal now purely because of what is thought to be aesthetically (i.e. the sudden panic over cankles) and thinness is often promoted in lieu (or in spite of) of health. Also, the "thin ideal" has extended to most social/economic classes (though to different extents), plus the extreme measures that people take to reach it and the fact that these measures are used on such a grand scale differentiates time periods.

Fascinating stuff, absolutely! And I think this recent finding complicates it and raised even more questions about the thin feminine ideal throughout history!

Carrie Arnold said...


I ponder that question much as you do. I think that relationship is unclear, really. It's not causal, and yet I'm not totally willing to write off any connection between society's thinness ideals and EDs if for no other reason than this is the culture in which we live. As our brains try to understand and narrate our lives, we use the terms that are culturally available. And since dieting and weight loss is a common preoccupation of so many, and since an ED involves a fear of food, it's a relatively short leap for our brains to connect the two.

I think of it this way: my OCD fears over AIDS arose in the mid-1990s, and though I don't think this hysteria in any way caused my OCD, I do think that understanding what was going on in society at that time helps others understand what my brain latched onto and how it interpreted it.

Like you, my AN had a lot to do with asceticism but also a LOT to do with perfectionism. And the cultural idea that you can't be perfect unless you're thin did provide some of the initial fuel for the eating disorder. It completely spun off from there and, in the end, had much more to do with avoiding food and exercise dependence than it did with just wanting to be thin. It soon became that I thought I was a failure if I ate at all, or didn't exercise from the moment I got home from work until I went to bed. I was just overwhelmed in this unbearable anxiety.

I wanted to be "clean" and "decontaminated" with the OCD, and those were real desires, but OCD isn't "about" striving to be clean, just as EDs aren't "about" striving to be thin.


Yes, I had heard of that. I keep thinking that my college ancient history class would have been much more interesting if my professor had stopped rambling on about Roman emperors (he was from South Carolina, had a moderately-thick Southern accent, and peppered his lectures with such tidbits as "Caligula was a few Froot Loops short of a full bowl") and started talking about EDs, but that's just me. :)


Thanks for your insights. I do think that this throws the whole thinness-ideals-are-a-modern-thing theory for quite a loop. It will be interesting to see how this is integrated into scholarship.

Cathy (UK) said...

Thanks for the feedback Carrie. I agree that the relationship is unclear. In essence, there is wide variation in people's experiences of EDs. There may be common brain mechanisms that sustain (e.g.) anorexia nervosa, but the 'meaning' of anorexia nervosa to a person, and the environmental and/or social issues that trigger and sustain the ED are often quite variable.

I guess that personally, I feel frustrated that cultural trends are so often blamed for causing anorexia nervosa, when in reality this illness is extremely complex, and largely determined by our neurophysiology.

SamiBTX said...

I believe alot of it has to do with the current state of the rich & poor. Poor now seems to mean obese & only able to afford dinner from Taco Bell, and rich means a grilled chicken breast with broccoli & a personal trainer.

Also, I do think that bulimia has been around just as long & most likely (as it is now) is statistically more comman that anorexia. But of course, anorexia is considered much more "glamourous" by modern society.

Carrie Arnold said...


I wholeheartedly agree with you. My ED is "about" an overwhelming anxiety if I had to eat more than crumbs and if I didn't or couldn't exercise. I don't think we can separate biology and environment or nature and nurture, but that's different than blaming EDs on cultural factors.

IrishUp said...

I do think there is a lot to the idea that beauty ideals for the upper-classes will typically be set in opposition to what 'everyday' women are able to manage: being fair vs having to work outside, being tan vs working inside, being curvy vs not having enough to eat, having bound feet vs having to harvest in the fields. The examples go across cultures and across the centuries. IIRC, that period of time was a relatively flush one in the Roman Empire, and so perhaps starving Roman peasants were become scarce. Food for thought, anyway ;>. Likewise, I'm sure that, as now, those Romans who aspired to and were privileged enough to imitate the upper-classes also adopted or mimicked such standards as they were able - or able to make their daughters. Let's not ignore that especially then (tho sometimes hardly less now) daughters were valued as tradable possessions or chattle. So just like grooming your horse so it looks best for the auction block, so might you groom your daughter to look her best, hoping to marry her off for political and personal gain.

Roman gorging/purging at banquets - specifically, the idea of Vomitoria for the Roman upperclass is a myth:

Lastly, here is my idea. It's virtually impossible that our cultural milieu changes the genotypic prevelence of any of the EDs one whit. It might be possible if cultural conditions lasted for long enough and conferred such a big selective advantage or disadvantage, as the case may be, but that would take sustained generations, and there is no evidence anything like that has happened across a big human population in recorded history.

BUT, whatever the genetic bases of EDs, it is certain that more than one set of genes is involved, and equally certain that (at least some if not most of) the genes involved do not behave in Mendelian dominant/ recessive patterns like we learned about in HS biology. This means that there is probably a huge amout of variability in the amount of penetrance and expression of ones genetic predisposition to ED. Which is to say, it's a spectrum from "Will only have clinical ED in the face of a full-on mass-starvation event" on the one extreme through to "No way ED's NOT going to happen" on the other.

This is where I think culture comes in. In a culture with a low baseline background of triggers, we're only going to observe the phenotypes that are closer to the latter. In a culture like the USA has right now, more and more phenotypes like the former wind up being expressed.

When we say the prevelance of an ED is X, all we're talking about is the prevelance of clinically significant phenotypic expression. We really don't know what the genotypic prevelance is, and we never have. Further, identifying the prevelance by phenotype is problematic when so many people have really disordered eating habits and behaviors, but don't have an eating disorder. I would whole heartedly agree that we are seeing more seriously disordered eating expressed. MOST of it is our chronic diet culture, but I am quite certain that some part represents individuals who, in a different time or place, might never have phenotypically expressed their ED genotype.

Carrie Arnold said...


I want your brain. Just sayin'.


IrishUp said...

Yeah, but would I get some of your brain back a la Young Frankenstein? Like the parts that would have me spell prevAlence correctly?

If so, you got a deal!

Sunny Gold said...

Wow, wow, wow! This is, as marcella commented, absolutely fascinating. Thanks to my friend @mims for bringing this to my attn--and thanks to you, Carrie! Would love to swap web info sometime--we probably know tons of people in common. My husband is a sci writer and so are some of my close friends!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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