Updated: May 15, 2022
"Beauty, n: the power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband."
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911
Recently, model Linda Evangelista, who rose to fame in the 1990s, disclosed that she was suing the company behind a technique used in plastic surgery. The non-evasive process involves locally freezing fat cells. Evangelista claims she suffered from a rare side effect that produced the opposite outcome, and thus it left her disfigured. She claims she wasn't advised of this particular side effect, and subsequently, she has been unable to obtain work. The case highlights the risks involved in undergoing any kind of plastic surgery. For some, it is necessary, but for many, it is an elective procedure done in the pursuit of looking beautiful. Nor is it confined to models and celebrities. Every day, women from all walks of life purchase a plethora of products promising to make them look more youthful, more attractive, and closer to perfection. Standards of beauty change over time and across cultures. Yet, there is a consistency in how women strive to achieve these ever-changing standards.
For much of history, especially in the West, the ideal female form was full-figured with ample hips and bosom. This not only signified that a woman was fertile but also wealthy. Only the upper classes could afford to eat well. Pale, smooth skin was a mark of leisure, whereas working-class women were tanned and rough from hard labor. Until the mid-19th century, with industrialization and the rise of a distinct middle class, beauty products were limited to women of means.
The use of cosmetics can be traced back to the early Ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians and then the Persians and other cultures of the Middle East used a black powder obtained by grinding up the mineral stibnite ( a source of the element antimony). Other ingredients contained lead and copper compounds. This powder was used as eyeliner and as a mascara for eyelashes. The dark contours around the eyes pervades Egyptian art and were worn by both men and women. Generally, cosmetics were used for religious ceremonies and rituals and then later on in the theater.
Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, pale-looking skin was something to strive for both men and women. 16th century Europe saw the beginning of the widespread use of cosmetics. Several different face powders and creams had been developed to achieve the desirable pallor. Some were borrowed from the theater, and others were homemade concoctions. A popular product was called Venetian ceruse. It was known to have a smooth finish and superior coverage of the face. The cream was used to lighten the skin tone and hide blemishes and imperfections on the skin. Smallpox was prevalent during this time, and survivors were often covered with scars they wished to disguise. Venetian ceruse was made by mixing white lead powder and vinegar. Extensive use of the makeup would lead to lead poisoning with the attendant skin discoloration, hair loss, and illness. Some believe that Queen Elizabeth I was an avid user of Venetian ceruse, though others think she didn't use the product as often as previously thought.
Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, offers a cautionary tale of what happened when one overused ceruse and other white lead-based cosmetics. The Countess was born to a struggling Irish family, and she used her reputation for beauty to become a courtesan at the court of King George II in the mid-18th century. Not unlike Linda Evangelista, she understood that her looks were crucial to her advancement at court. Whereas most aristocratic ladies wore makeup for special occasions, Maria Gunning became obsessive in using ceruse and other cosmetics such as cinnabar, a form of mercury, as rouge. These cosmetics created their own pockmarks on the skin, which prompted their further use. Maria's official cause of death was consumption or tuberculosis. No post mortem was ever performed, but there is a strong case that Maria slowly poisoned herself. Her blood would have been filled with mercury and lead, resulting in a severely weakened immune system. It is believed that this suppressed immune system was the cause of her contracting TB. The Countess of Coventry was only 27.
White lead wasn't the only toxic material that comprised many beauty products before the 20th century. As we saw with Maria Gunning, mercury was applied as a rouge to give color to the cheeks in the form of cinnabar. Mercuric chloride has been used in wood preservation, rat poison, and pesticide. It is highly toxic to humans. It's not only poison but also a corrosive agent. Once referred to as corrosive sublimate, like white lead, it was a leading ingredient in many makeup recipes. Since Spain was the largest producer of mercury in Europe, these products were known as "Spanish White." Creams, lotions, and soaps such as "Laird's Bloom of Youth" advertised themselves as "delicate corrosives." They were intended to lighten the complexion, cover freckles and other blemishes, and give one smooth skin. Ammonia was used not only for bleaching hair but also for bleaching skin. Victorians nibbled on arsenic wafers. Arsenic caused pigment loss in the skin, but it was addictive. Ammonia was used to bleach skin. One contemporary Victorian beauty expert recommended covering one's face with opium overnight and then in the morning doing a wash with ammonia.
By the mid-19th century, heavy use of makeup was frowned upon. Such women were of dubious moral character. Despite this, women still sought to create a "natural" pallid skin tone. Beauty was still the luxury of the rich. This opened the door for hucksters and frauds. In London, many establishments offered discreet treatments for society ladies. In the 1860s, Madame Rachel became famous among the elite for a procedure called "enameling." She promoted this "exclusive" treatment as beneficial to health, beauty, and grace. Women on both sides of the Atlantic flocked to her establishment. The procedure involved unsightly hair removal, applications of body washes and lotions, filling wrinkles with paste, and a dusting of rouges and powders to cap it off. Eventually, Madame Rachel was exposed as a fraud accused of malpractice, blackmail, and even prostitution. She served two prison sentences and died in prison in 1880.
Into the early 20th century, an expanding Middle Class with increased disposable income wished to emulate the fashions of upper society. This created a brand new market for cosmetics which were now being mass-produced. Like patent medicines, makers of cosmetics and other beauty products were not obligated to reveal their ingredients. Many held onto secret recipes that often contained toxic materials. In the United States, the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the first step in protecting consumers. Manufacturers were now required to place labels, listing ingredients, on their products. This included cosmetics. At this point, there was little regulation limiting the types of substances that products could contain.
The 1930s saw a heightened interest in protecting consumers from unsafe products. Lash Lure was a popular product that advertised itself as lasting longer than mascara or eyeliner pencils. The problem was that it contained aniline - coal tar. This caused eye irritation, loss of eyebrows and eyelashes, and could lead to blindness. Lash Lure was one of several products highlighted in a 1933 exhibition. The exhibition's purpose was to educate the public on the limits of the 1906 Food and Drug Act and push for stricter enforcement of consumer safety. This helped garner support for the creation of today's Food and Drug Administration in 1938. FDA was tasked with regulating medical devices, drugs, cosmetics, and food standards.
Since the establishment of the FDA, consumers can be reasonably assured the products they use are safe and contain no harmful chemicals like lead, mercury, or arsenic. While there are many reputable and highly recommended companies, even today, there are those who hawk products of a dubious nature to take advantage of people's desires to attain beauty ideals. The case of Linda Evangelista once again has raised the issue of how society pressures women toward unrealistic beauty expectations and the messaging in popular culture.
Beautiful For Ever: Cosmetician, Con-Artist, Blackmailer: Helen Rappaport
Painted Faces: A Colorful History of Cosmetics: Susan Stewart
Face Paint: The Story of Makeup: Lisa Eldridge