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Look like a Greek statue: why we aspire to the sculptured beauty of the ancients

Posted August 20, 2013

“Yes, the Greeks gave us democracy, but they also gave us waxing salons, tanning booths and anorexia,” said Dr Alastair Blanshard, who will dissect the origins of modern beauty in a public lecture at the University of Sydney this Thursday.

“Certainly things like hair removal and the idea of the hairless body absolutely stems from Greece.”

In his talk ‘Beauty and the Greek’, Dr Blanshard will trace a trajectory from ancient gymnasiums to modern bodybuilder regimes to decode our modern obsession with physical perfection. Among the questions he will raise are: Why do we desire to look like Greek statues? Where do our modern notions of beauty stem? And what are the dangerous consequences arising from our pursuit of bodily perfection?

Despite the proliferation of bulky figures gracing the covers of men’s magazines, few ancient Grecians themselves could realistically hope to embody such ideals, Dr Blanshard will argue.

“For the Greeks, they always had a sense that such bodies were always beyond their reach,” he said. “They knew that it’s almost impossible to look like that.

“Now through just our sheer determination, in the 21st century you can look like a Greek statue, but you have to do it through the most extraordinary regimes. You have to eat so lean but with such high protein that actually it’s a diet that you could never replicate in the ancient world.”

Dr Blanshard will suggest this desire for the perfect body has spurred such modern malaise as ‘bigorexia’ or the ‘Adonis complex’, with young men in particular paying a hefty physical and mental price in their attempts to build a Grecian body through steroid supplement use.

Ironically, the idealised images of beauty so revered in contemporary Western culture were both a source of admiration and fear for the Ancient Greeks, according to Dr Blanshard.

“Every parent wanted to have an attractive child but they didn’t want to have a child that is so attractive that the gods notice it,” he said. “If you’re too beautiful the gods notice you and disaster happens.”

Dr Alastair Blanshard is author of such books as Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to ModernityHercules: A Heroic Life and Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film, co-authored with Kim Shahabudin.

Source: University of Sydney

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