Women and Beauty: Part One
Did you know that I’m a cartographer now? Oh yeah, I’ve been studying and mapping the lines on my face. My laugh lines and future crows feet are worrying me. And by the way, is there a more technical term that I can use in place of crow’s feet because there’s not too much more that can make a person feel bad about their condition than giving it a hideous name. I hear crow’s feet and I’m automatically transported to some dark forest full of tangled tree branches, there’s definitely fog, definitely a chill in the air, and definitely a hunchbacked old woman trying to get me to do something. It’s enough to make that one hair that grows in the middle of my neck stand on end. I don’t like it.
At 35, I’ve heard talk of these things for many years, but my experience has been limited. Some of you might be mumbling ‘lucky bitch’ under your breath. Although there is this, I’ve had a good run. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m not ready to graciously step aside and let nature take it’s course. This isn’t pre-1920s America, after all.
Gail Collins, in her book, America’s Women, states: “In the past, women regarded aging as inevitable and believed that if they stayed youthful, it was a special blessing from God. Now it was an act of will. Hair could be dyed, cheeks made artificially rosy, and skin moisturized until it sloshed.”
This isn’t to say that no one cared about preserving their beauty before the twentieth century. Women cared a lot. When your currency in the world is primarily based on your beauty and ability to reproduce, it’s no wonder arsenic was in high demand. For the record, there’s only one kind of arsenic– the deadly kind. But God help you if you were found to have any amount of tint to your skin. The goal was to be as translucent as possible. Women used arsenic as a beauty powder knowing full well that it was also a preferred method for murdering people.
An 1898 advertisement for Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers. (Photo: Jussi/flickr)
The cruel joke with arsenic is that the more a woman used it, the more she needed to use it to cover up the skin destroying effects of the arsenic. The ad forgot to mention that.
And if you caught my Instagram Live episode on American Women Before the Civil War, you’ll recall that a woman looking like she had consumption (tuberculosis) was the beauty goal of the age. Pale, frail, watery eyes. If you happened to be cursed with normal, healthy eyes that didn’t water for no good reason, there was a solution to that– belladonna drops, also known as… wait for it, deadly nightshade.
This plant had been used for centuries as a fucking deadly poison added to tips of arrows and goblets of enemies. Women would take drops of this stuff straight up in the eyes to dilate their pupils, giving them a sexier look. If you had no belladonna on hand but still wanted too keep up with the watery eyed beauties of the time, there was also citrus juice and perfumes. Belladonna leads to blindness, so I’ll have the orange juice, please.
In Victorian times, wearing makeup was still considered a bit scandalous. There were two groups, as there seem to be in our day. There were the “natural women” and the “painted women.” The natural women would nibble arsenic wafers from the comfort of their boudoirs and watch their skin grow paler from the inside out. The painted women, those who didn’t give a turd, would powder it onto their skin. It was a bold statement to say, I want to look more beautiful and I don’t care if you know it.
Of course, we cringe at our ancestors and their vain and deadly practices. It’s madness, we say, madness. And yet, it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that the beauty industry really took off. Yes, ladies, the beauty industry was still relatively small. Arsenic powder would do nothing for crows feet or laugh lines except that women who wore it were forbidden to crack a smile because the powder would crack and emphasize lines. Resting bitch face, anyone?
When it comes to beauty, there’s so many fascinating points to discuss, and this is really a tiny introduction to the topic. As I started writing, I realized there’s just no way for me to talk about everything there is to talk about, so I’m going to make this into a multi-part thing. Are you excited?! I am. Because it’s been on my mind and on my face, I thought I’d open up a discussion.
How much have you thought about beauty and aging? Are you seeing any signs of aging, and how do you handle it? Do you feel embarrassed that it bothers you? Talk to us!
Also, here are some recommended books if you find this subject as interesting as I do. These are affiliated links, but trust that I won’t steer you wrong. These books are full of history and insight, and I could use every dollar or penny I get.
And lastly, one of my favorite books ever.
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and continue this exploration of women’s beauty into the future.
Footnote: This week’s Instagram Live Literature discussion will happen on Friday 7:30pm instead of the usual Thursday. My apologies for the change. Check my Instagram stories for the selected text!