On Valentine’s Day, Maria Mandic investigates the beauty fails of women from yesteryear
Everyone’s favourite day in February is here and whether you have a hot date or a hot water bottle and Bridget Jones’ Diary planned, heed the beauty advice from the ladies of the ancient world; you never know when it might come in handy. Whatever the culture, wherever in the world and whenever in history, women have gone to great lengths to enhance their appearances and keep up with the ever changing standard of beauty. On Valentine’s Day, a day where couples get together and spend an evening bathing in the luxury of each other’s company even more than usual, women will be pulling out all the stops to look their best.
Love is blind
The women of Renaissance Italy were well aware that the eyes were the window to the soul and employed the help of the plant Atropa belladonna, also known as the deadly nightshade, to help make theirs more enticing. The plant has a long history of various medical, cosmetic and poisonous uses. In terms of cosmetics, the plant’s diluted berry juice contained a muscle relaxant used in eye drops, which dilate the pupils to give the women a more seductive and alluring appearance. The name belladonna derives from Italian and can be translated as “beautiful woman”.
However, this hazardous act for the sake of beauty means the dilated eyes are much more sensitive to light and the vision can actually deteriorate. Belladonna contains atropine, an anticholinergic agent that blocks the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, causing the ciliary muscle of the eye to relax and the pupil to dilate. Prolonged use can cause permanent blindness whilst the short-term side effects are blurred vision, headaches and the inability to focus on objects in front of you. Still, at least you’ll look good and impress your crush, even though you probably won’t be able to see them.
A complexion to die for
In this day and age an overly bronzed complexion is more coveted than the porcelain look so valued in the Elizabethan age, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth. Women used white lead and vinegar in make up to achieve this pale complexion. White arsenic combined with chalk and vinegar was also used to rub onto the skin to give a pale glow and reduce signs of ageing and wrinkles, sometimes it was even consumed. Lead and arsenic are both very toxic and high accumulation in the body can cause severe illness and death so luckily this risky beauty tip is no longer in use.
If make-up didn’t achieve the paleness you desired, leeches could be used to drain the body of blood and give a more natural white glow. To fit into the tight corsets of the age, women pursued a short cut to a trim waist and found it in the form of tapeworms, swallowed by some desperate ladies to digest the food they consumed, instead of faffing around with diets.
A helping hand from Mother Nature
Across the world in ancient India, women were getting a helping hand from the animals they deemed sacred. Urine and dung from cows were considered to have medicinal uses in the shape of antimicrobial properties. They had a wide range of uses, from weight loss to battling acne. Meanwhile, the beloved geishas in Japan knew how to remove stubborn make up and still retain glowing skin. Nightingale faeces containing guanine were used as a make up remover; guanine cleanses, brightens and diminishes damage done by the sun, helping the geishas retain their coveted, pale complexion.
Beauty is pain and pain is second-degree burns
During the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan’s wives had to constantly be on their game, impressing their powerful husband with various beauty treatments. This included the use of one of the first depilatories, a mixture of caustic lime, which is highly corrosive, and orpiment, which is a by-product of arsenic. The resulting product was named Rusma and was smeared all over the body to achieve a smooth, hairless look before it was promptly rinsed off. It also gave the skin a white glow but if left on the body for too long it can begin corroding the skin, causing agonizing burns.
Although these beauty secrets may seem senselessly dangerous, in modern times women are still taking extreme risks to look good, with all the Botox treatments, liposuction and breast implants available it seems not much has changed. We will still go to extreme lengths to look good and impress our significant others, especially on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia
Images in article: Wikimedia Commons