BEING CLEOPATRA: Finding the Beauty of Cleopatra

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Finding the Beauty of Cleopatra

Finding the beauty of Cleopatra
By Maggie Knowles
The Portland Daily Sun
Jul 13, 2011 12:00 am

I am looking at a marble bust of an ancient woman. Her profile looks like the “before” picture at a plastic surgeon’s office prior to a nose job, lip fillers and chin implant. Nothing strikingly attractive about her, yet this is Cleopatra, oft assumed to be the most beautiful woman the world has ever known.

Her beauty is a historical, if not accurate, theme. Shakespeare wrote of her in “Antony and Cleopatra,” “For her own person/it beggar’d all description: she did lie in her pavilion-cloth of gold, of tissue-O’er/picturing that Venus where we see/The fancy outwork of nature.”

Paintings of her likeness created in the 18th century depict her as a luscious blond with a curling mane and blue eyes (rather impossible given her Macedonian genes). Elizabeth Taylor played her and Angelina Jolie is slated to in an upcoming film as well. The Queen of Egypt represents beauty du jour.

There is nothing specifically documented about her physical allure in Roman writings and artistic depictions of her are rather masculine and homely. Plutarch, the Greek historian, wrote that Cleopatra’s beauty was not “the sort that would astound those that saw her.”

How did we, then, even come to assume she was this gorgeous creature floating the Nile on nothing but her golden looks?

I understand canning Jolie and throwing a wig on John Cleese would leave a weird taste in moviegoer’s popcorn coated mouths, but does Cleopatra need to be “beautiful” for us to believe she was not only a powerful ruler but also captivated the hearts of the powerful Julius Caesar and Mark Antony?

While poets who knew her did not mention her physical beauty (or lack thereof), they did give high accolades for her wit, intelligence and melodic voice. It was her character, her actual beauty, that captivated her kingdom. She didn’t need to rely on her physical appearance because she had so much more to offer.

Are you seeing the lesson here, ladies? Here is a woman who was a troll and had enough je ne sais quoi to seduce the world for over 2,000 years. She captivates us not because of her face, there are plenty of forgotten pretty faces, but because even in the first century she was a modern woman. She was powerful, brilliant, charming, charismatic, witty and by all accounts, not shy about her sexuality. Yet for all of her competence as a ruler, Cleopatra identified herself most with Isis, the goddess of life and magic — a goddess revered for her utter femininity.

No matter your generation or how much you spend on perfecting your façade, you need to reconnect with your inner Cleopatra. It is cliché, but looks do fade (or at least become buried under a maze of wrinkles and sun damage). It is cruel, but it is nature.

Who are you going to be when you are Age X? The person that says, “I used to look so good in a bikini before I had three kids…I used to…I used to…hey, where did everyone go?”

Or are you the Cleopatra of your circle, the one at the top of every party invite list, the one people fight to sit next to at dinner, the one people come to for advice because you are so wise — not because you have smooth thighs and pouty lips?

We all know stunning women that become as vapid and unappealing as stale Chinese food because all of their focus is on the external. On the contrary, haven’t you ever fallen in love with someone who wasn’t “your type” but once you got to know them became the person you couldn’t imagine a breath without?

Make your goal for the rest of the summer to boost up your Cleopatrian beauty. Put less focus on what you see in the mirror. Don’t cement over the inner radiance that comes from being delightful, clever and confident. I have been (trying!) to wean myself off of slathering on make-up before leaving the house, which makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and insecure; I have yet to take off my sunglasses when I don’t have mascara on. But it’s a step.

Instead of watching whatever crap is stored on your DVR, do something relevant. Buy a book featured on the NYT best-seller list, go see a lecture at a local school, study art at a gallery. Get in touch your feminine mystique: Take a belly dancing class, walk through a labyrinth, get a henna tattoo all over your tummy, the center of your life-wielding force.

When we sacrifice the powerful beauty we hold in our wit, charm and brains for surface beauty, we pull away from what it means to be a real woman. And to that, Cleopatra was indeed one of the most beautiful women the world has ever known. So are you.

(Maggie Knowles is a columnist for The Portland Daily Sun. Her column appears Wednesdays. See her blog at

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