Beauty Through the Ages

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Beauty Extremes
LaNae Valentine, Ph.D.

Over the centuries, women have mauled and manipulated just about every body part – lips, eyes, ears, waists, skulls, foreheads, stomachs, breasts and feet – that did not fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of a particular era’s ideal of beauty and perfection.

What woman doesn’t want to be beautiful? Women want to please and will go to extreme measures to achieve the beauty ideal. Over the centuries, women have mauled and manipulated just about every body part – lips, eyes, ears, waists, skulls, foreheads, stomachs, breasts and feet – that did not fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of a particular era’s ideal of beauty and perfection. Women have suffered, sacrificed and punished themselves under the tyranny of beauty.

For example, during the Renaissance, well-born European women plucked out hairs, one by one, from their natural hairline all the way back to the crowns of their heads, to give them the high rounded foreheads thought to be beautiful at the time. Those who didn’t want to resort to plucking used poultices of vinegar mixed with cat dung or quick-lime. The latter often removed some of the skin as well as the hair.

During the Elizabethan age many women, in search of porcelain like skin, whitened their faces using ceruse, a potentially lethal combination of vinegar and lead. Queen Elizabeth herself used ceruse so consistently that it ultimately ate pits into her skin, causing her to pile the pain on in thicker and thicker layers in hopes of camouflaging her growing imperfections. This in turn, led to more corrosion. The Queen’s face was ultimately so ravaged that she ordered all mirrors banned from the castle.

During the 1800’s face paint was conserved to be cheap and tawdry, so ladies who wanted to achieve the porcelain look “naturally” took to swallowing whitening potions made of vinegar, chalk, or arsenic, the latter of which is poisonous even in tiny amounts. These solutions gave a translucent tone to the skin.

Women unwittingly courted blindness too, in their quest for beauty. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and Persians tried to make their eyes glitter by using drops of antimony sulfide. The drops often dried up the tear ducts, and evenly destroyed their vision. In the 16th and 17th centuries, women used eye drops made of belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade) to dilate their pupils. While it had the desired effect of making their eyes look dewy, interested and excited the drops also robbed them of the normal pupil-shrinking reflect that keeps bright light away from the delicate retina. Modern experts believe that by continually dilating their pupils, these women might have predisposed themselves to the potentially blinding condition of glaucoma.

Consider also the highs and lows of fashions regarding a woman’s breasts. In ancient Greece and again in 14th century Europe, breasts were hidden and tightly bound. The ideal torso was a flat torso. In some cultures, a young girl was sheathed tightly in leather garments from before puberty until the day she married. On her wedding night, the bridegroom ritualistically cut apart the leather with his hunting knife. After that, the breasts were allowed to grow, if indeed they were still disposed to. What was cheerfully ignored was that many women became anemic, frequently consumptive and that a great many died.

By the mid-1800’s curves were back in style. A well-rounded bosom was something to be proud of and something to be artfully created with some clever undergarments. In the late 1950’s women began injecting plumping substances directly into their breasts such as silicone, collagen, and paraffin or have their own fat cells taken from their hips and rump. However, the enthusiasm for these methods waned when it was discovered that paraffin or silicone injected directly tended to migrate to other parts of the body causing cysts and necrosis of the skin. Yet, breast augmentation surgery is going strong today. It is the 2nd most frequently requested cosmetic surgery.

In China, right up until World War II, upper-class girls had their feet bound, crippling them for life but ensuring the three or four inch long feet were prized as exquisitely feminine. Beginning at about the age of five, a girl’s foot was virtually folded in two and a 10 foot long bandage was wrapped tightly around it to force the toes down toward the heel as far as possible. The child could not move without doubling over into a graceless and largely futile effort to walk without putting any weight on her feet. Many women put up with the agony of this procedure convinced that no one would want to marry a woman with “big feet.”

In central Africa, the Mangbettu tightly wrapped the heads of female infants in pieces of giraffe hide, to attain the elongated cone-shaped heads that were taken to be a sign of beauty and intelligence.

Just as painful as stunting the worth of one part of the body is exaggerating the growth of another, a practice that has been widespread in Asia and Africa. Many African tribes have inserted plates into young women’s lips to enlarge them, or weigh down their earlobes with heavy hoops so that the lobes eventually brush the shoulders.

Among the Padaung people of Burma earlier this century, the ideal of female beauty was a greatly elongated neck, preferably 15 inches or more. This was accomplished by fitting girls with a series of brass neck rings. At a very young age, girls began with five rings – by the time they were full grown, they were wearying as many as 24. Even today, Burmese refugees in northern Thailand continue to stretch their daughters’ necks.

Body piercing and tattoos have always been popular. The pain of tattooing is inescapable and there is also danger of infections from unsterile equipment and harmful dyes. Once the job is done it’s difficult to get rid of them. With body piercings, there is the risk of getting and/or spreading a serious infection (including HIV), if the piercing equipment hasn’t been sterilized properly.

Over the years women are known to drink urine for its beautifying properties. Others drink pigeon’s blood for the same reasons. Some have ingested tape worms to lose weight. All of these procedures have potential health consequences.

Corsets have existed for centuries. Stories of figure training have been reported, with girls being laced into tighter and tighter corsets in order to achieve the figure that was demanded by society. Anecdotal stories abound of women being so tightly laced that they fainted, and in addition there are stories of women having ribs removed surgically so that their corsets could be fastened even tighter. Apparently the rule of thumb was that a girl’s waist measurements before she was married and had children should be the same as her age in years. During the 1950’s corsets and girdles became the obligatory underwear of all well-dressed women. They were used to press, lift, pull, and support the body in all the right places to give a smooth, flat figure. In spite of their discomfort, advertisements of these garments promised women a new lease on life.

Today, women continue to engage in extreme measures to achieve the beauty ideal. In addition to contributing to the booming cosmetic, diet, exercise and fashion industry – more and more women are having surgical procedures to obtain that perfect look. In the past, liposuction and breast augmentation were the most sought after procedures. Today women are getting face, neck and eyelid lifts, nose reshaping, chin augmentations, brow lifts, thigh lifts and tummy tucks. Some go so far as to have injections of fat to have shapelier bums and calves. Others have their toes removed to be able to wear ultra pointed shoes.

Would you ever go to these extremes to achieve the beauty ideal? Can you see how the definition of beauty shifts and changes over time? Who decides and defines the beauty standard? Why do we let them? What would happen if women rebelled against the tyranny of beauty and we came up with our own standard? What if it were a standard we could all achieve without having to manipulate a body part or put our lives in danger? What if we’re already beautiful, but can’t see it because we’re blinded by all the lies that tell us we aren’t? What if we decided to see the good and the beautiful in all of us instead of competing for some arbitrary standard set by someone trying to make money?

Originally posted on Brigham Young University Women’s Services and Resources

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