Wrinkles in Ancient Egypt

I have sometimes wondered what women long ago thought when noticing their changing looks; whether it mattered to them, whether it was something that anyone would pay attention to, or maybe just a natural phase of life that would go unnoticed for the most part. I realize that in some societies the aged have always been revered but from a physical beauty point of view I have never heard of any concrete evidence of women trying to conceal their true age. What I did manage to come across though was an article entitled: ” Elder Women in Ancient Egypt” written by Deborah Sweeney from the Institute of Archeology in the Tel Aviv University in Israel. Dr Sweeny explains that in her findings there was very little information about women’s feelings or experiences of the different aspects of ageing.  Ancient Egyptian written sources describe the experiences of the literate male elite who were the ones to write these sources. The average life expectancy for a man was thirty four and for women surprisingly it was thirty—depending of course on wealth and other mitigating circumstances but nevertheless, the opposite of today’s modern life expectancy where women usually outlive the men.

In our modern society, according to the plethora of glossy magazines and television shows a woman is deemed “old” once her first wrinkle appears, while in Ancient Egypt one could infer from what the men had written that when they could no longer carry out their jobs they were deemed old.  Also, bearing children was considered to be the women’s main role in society so it could very well be that once a woman would begin menopause she would then be deemed as old but there is no written evidence of this either. What fascinated me was the way in which the Egyptians depicted ageing through art. The image that they produced was that of the way they looked while in their prime “in the height of their energy and beauty in order to be that way forever “ writes Dr. Sweeney. In many ways no different to how women of today like to view themselves as forever young, always trying to reverse the process.

In Egypt the elite women wanted to be depicted in this way in order to remain an attractive companion to their husbands in the afterlife. Dr Gay Robins says: “neither pregnancy nor the spreading waistline that many women must have had after years of bearing children is part of the image.” On the other hand men could be seen in Egyptian art represented more accurately. Women who were represented in their true form were servants, weavers and mourners. The images depicted sagging bosoms, overweight figures and deep lines on the face. In this case their advanced age emphasized their skill although this is not always the case. Elite woman appearing on their husband’s tomb would show very small wrinkles only at the corner of their mouths or running from nose to mouth. When they appear on a monument of their own they might show more pronounced signs of ageing, a gaunt body and drooping bosom, but this would only come to play when they were not required to fill the role of an attractive partner. Later on those images of ageing women had become a popular possession with the queen and her mother during the reign of  King Akhenaten (1352-1336 BCE). Even some of the statues of the queen and her mother show a downturned mouth and some wrinkles, sagging bosoms and a sagging stomach. It is believed that the true reason for this was for women to establish a little bit of equality to their male contemporaries.

This practice was slowly adopted by other women indicating that they were choosing to be depicted as older and wiser—perhaps a better image for their afterlife. However, this practice did not survive for long as outsiders and enemies were depicted as haggard and old, and nobody wanted to be associated with such images when portraying themselves. It became stigmatized even if their prime reasoning behind attributes of ageing was to exhibit their experience and authority.

A lot has changed since that period of time thank goodness; no more suffering of terrible tooth decay, women’s main purpose in life is not only for child bearing, and our average life expectancy has almost tripled. Nevertheless, in terms of our pursuit for looking young, the one common element we might have had with the Ancient Egyptians might be for different reasoning completely. Let’s see, in today’s society the average age of a woman getting Botox or a facelift is in her late thirties or early forties, and what for? Is it so her children or anyone else interested in her image after death would only remember her as young and flawless, or could it be that our ideas have molded into a culture that has a complete distortion of the physical aspects of ageing and a disregard for the beauty that could be found at every age.

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