“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or so they say. But, honestly that’s just not true. For all of known history beauty has been defined by society, not the beholder, and the standards have been set unattainably high. Pale and plump, tan and thin, long hair, now short hair, curly hair, straight hair, big hair, no hair, thick eyebrows, thin eyebrows, thick again, thin again, short, now tall, black teeth, no white teeth. Ever changing, swinging like a pendulum, back and forth, and ever harder and harder to actually achieve. But did you know our desperation to somehow reach these impossible standards has led us to, quite literally, poison ourselves throughout history? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week we’re examining toxic beauty trends throughout the ages. And I mean toxic in the literal sense, like actual poison, although I suppose the figurative meaning of the word also applies here.
I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by beauty and fashion trends, not like I’m any good at following them, I’m more clumsily stumbling behind everyone else. Like this ill fitting cut off mid calf pants thing everyone’s doing right now, I just… can’t. I have weirdly long legs, I’ve spent my whole life battling highwaters and feeling self conscious about the fit of my pants. I remember crying in a dressing room as a middle schooler after trying on no less than 50 pairs of jeans. Not one of them came close to my idealized vision of how pants should look. But now that vision is totally different. So who decides? Who sets these standards? And why do we all buy into them? Pants are pretty harmless and easily updated, but when society’s ever changing beauty expectation is a feature of your actual body, as it so often is, that presents a problem.
As far back as ancient Egypt we see makeup used to alter one’s appearance. Just picture an ancient Egyptian and you likely see that thick line of black eyeliner, slightly cat-like. Both men and women painted their eyes with a black and sometimes green substance known as kohl. Kohl was ground up galena which is a black-ish mineral. They ground it into a powder and mixed it with oil or animal fat to create a paste. Then they used a tool called a kohl stick to line their eyes with it. Kohl was stored in fancy little vases and jars and we know about it because these makeup vessels were often buried in tombs with their deceased wearers. Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife in which the dead would still need their Earthly possessions. How dare your spirit not have a perfectly lined cat-eye when you meet your maker. No, it was absolutely essential.
Egyptian kohl was used for practical reasons, it protected their eyes from the sun in much the same way those black lines under a football player’s eyes work. Black absorbs light so it reduces glare. It was also thought to ward off other eye issues - dust, insects, bacteria that caused eye infections. It also had spiritual purposes. Eyes were important in Egyptian culture. They believed eyes could reflect evil back into the evil-doer. Sailors painted eyes on their ships for protection and pharaohs were buried with charms shaped like eyes to ward off evil. Egyptians believed an eye without kohl was vulnerable to the evil eye. And of course it was used to denote rank and status as beauty so often is.
In 2010, French researchers argued that Egyptian kohl did in fact serve a medicinal purpose because it contained salts that would increase the wearer's production of nitric oxide. This would boost their immune system thus preventing eye infections. So great, right? It looks cool, it keeps away the eye funk, the pink eye or whatever, doesn’t seem toxic at all. Welllll, remember when I said it was made of that mineral? Galena? So galena is the mineral form of lead sulfide. It’s the main ore of lead. So it’s like the rock that lead comes from. And little to the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians, lead is quite toxic and lead poisoning causes a whole range of horrifying medical ailments. Now, ancient Egyptians rarely lived past their 30s anyway, but if they had lived longer, they probably would have experienced health problems from prolonged lead exposure. Or, I don’t know, maybe the lead seeping into their eye holes is the reason they only made it to their 30s.
But honestly, people have been smearing lead on their faces for like ever. I had no idea it was so versatile. I mean I know it used to be in paint and then like the fishing line sinkers are lead right? I just knew I wasn’t supposed to touch those. Honestly I don’t even know if that’s true. Are those really made of lead or did my dad just not want me touching his fishing poles. Have I been lied to my whole life, I don’t know…. No they are actually made of lead. They are straight up solid lead. That seems super unnecessary but okay, geez, thanks dad. Good looking out.
But apparently lead also makes for some pretty perfect makeup. I know white people at least are all about that tan sun-kissed look now to the point of giving themselves full body first degree burns and possibly terminal skin cancer, but for most of history people wanted to look super pale. And actually lighter skin is still sought after by many people of color today. In the past, tanned skin was a sign that you belonged to a lower class. If you spent time in the sun, you likely did manual labor outside which is so not fancy. The upper class could avoid the sun as they sat fanning themselves daintily in their pretty parlors, sipping their tea, and admiring their own milky white pallor. But of course they still took it to the extremes because natural never seems to be good enough for contemporary beauty standards.
In Elizabethan England, a white lead based makeup called Venetian ceruse became very popular, mostly because Queen Elizabeth I was known to use it to cover up her smallpox scars. It was white lead powder mixed with vinegar to form a paste, a concealer really, that they smeared all over their faces to make them smooth and white. If you look at portraits of Queen Elizabeth, you can see the Venetian ceruse, like clown makeup basically.
But this makeup was super toxic. It was mostly just lead powder which was absorbed into the skin causing dried out discolored skin, gray hair, severe abdominal pain, constipation, and rotten teeth. Pretty, right? Not to mention, prolonged lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system leading to all kinds of mental problems including decreased intelligence especially if children are exposed.
Actually, this is kind of crazy, and absolutely terrifying but a study was conducted by Duke University and Florida State University jointly in 2015 analyzing the lead exposure of all living Americans and they determined that it was BAD. More than half the US population, over 170 million people, had clinically concerning levels of lead in their blood when they were children which lead to a collective loss of an estimated 824 million IQ points. So yeah major lead exposure which means lower IQs, reduced brain size, greater chances of developing a mental illness, plus cardiovascular disease later in life.
How? How is this even possible? No, it’s not the lead paint or the fishing line sinkers. You see, starting in the 1940s, lead was added to gasoline because it was good for car engines or whatever. But then anyone breathing in the exhaust fumes from those cars which is everyone in the developed world, is breathing in lead. The lead gets into your bloodstream and passes into your brain at which point it starts to erode your brain cells. Lead use in gasoline peaked during the 60’s and 70’s so researchers determined that anyone born in those two decades would have the highest levels of lead exposure and damage. Now, they don’t put lead in gasoline anymore, thank the Lord, but it was used that way until 1996. So anyone born before 1996 had gasoline exhaust related lead exposure, so yeah that’s me, cool.
And this is why Gen Z is so freaking with you guys. Gen Z officially starts with people born in 1997, right after we stopped inhaling lead fumes in car exhaust. Out with the boomers. Sorry, I love you guys too but ya brains are all addled by the leaded gasoline fumes. I mean, I guess mine are too but whatever.
Anyway that has nothing to do with beauty but it is horrifying and worth mentioning while we were on the topic of lead. What was interesting about the lead makeup though, the Venetian ceruse, is that it covered stuff up but, while doing so, it basically destroyed your skin. So once you started using it, you had to keep using it. It was like a vicious cycle.
Mercury is another fun one that was often used for skin lightening. It suppresses melanin production in the skin and also just makes you super sick so you get that nice pale, clammy look. But, like lead, mercury can be absorbed through the skin and it’s super toxic. It causes birth defects, kidney and liver problems, eye damage, breathing difficulties, nervous system damage, fatigue, irritability, tremors, depression, a metallic taste in the mouth, and eventually death.
I know I said mercury was used for skin lightening but I really should have said is used for skin lightening. Yikes, yeah. Very recently, researchers from the Zero Mercury Working Group or ZMWG analyzed over 100 skin lightening products on the market today and found that almost half of them contained levels of mercury above the legal limits. While the pallid complexions of Elizabethan England are not really sought after by white people these days, people of color tend to want to lighten their skin. Plus some of these products are advertised for evening skin tone by lightening the appearance of freckles, age spots, that sort of thing. It’s very appealing, especially to an aging population of already lead exposed people. But, mercury, yeah, no it’s real bad. Pretty blown away that it’s still showing up in cosmetics to this day.
In the 18th century women were still after that pale look but they also wanted to look somewhat alive so rouge became all the rage. This is what I would call blush today basically. Right? Like, “oh I’m actually not dead, I’m just rich so I don’t go in the sun, see my lifelike pink cheeks?” Vermilion red rouge was the hot color for the lady’s cheeks but vermilion is made from a mineral called cinnabar which is mercury sulfide. So 18th century rouge was just the mercury version of ancient Egypt’s lead eyeliner.
And then there’s arsenic, also toxic, also lightens the skin by just killing red blood cells. So literally killing ourselves in order to get that pale pasty look of an actual corpse. Like dead bodies were the beauty standard for much of history. Women would take arsenic complexion wafers to achieve this fair complexion and those who couldn’t afford the wafers just soaked the arsenic out of fly paper and drank that. But the arsenic often made their hair fall out and if they stopped taking it, their complexion tanked. So, like the Venetian ceruse, it was a vicious cycle. Once you started, you couldn’t stop or you’d be way uglier than you even were to begin with. These arsenic products were still around until the 1920s even though we knew arsenic was mega toxic at that point. People still took them cause that, I’m dying complexion was so darn worth it, apparently.
During the renaissance, in Italy, women put deadly nightshade extract in their eyes to dilate their pupils which they thought was beautiful, I guess. They called this poisonous plant belladonna which means beautiful woman in Italian. But deadly nightshade isn’t called deadly for nothing. If ingested, it causes blurred vision, a rash, headaches, slurred speech, hallucinations, convulsions, and eventually death. So it's just straight up poison. They put straight up poison in their eyes and it eventually led to blurred, distorted vision and even possible blindness.
When Marie Curie and her husband, whatshisname, discovered radium in 1898, a whole new level of toxicity hit the beauty market. Radium was new and super cool, at first, because no one knew how incredibly deadly it was. It was used for all kinds of things. They painted watch faces with it because it glowed with this crazy green glow in the dark light that must have seemed like magic at the time. It also popped up in all sorts of skin creams. A 1915 advertisement for Radior Chin Straps reads “If placed on the face where the skin has become wrinkled or tired the radio-active forces immediately take effect on the nerves and tissues. A continuous steady current of energy flows into the skin, and before long the wrinkles have disappeared.” So this was meant to get rid of wrinkles, and also double chins. But radium is radioactive. It kills your cells causing ulcers and skin lesions. It also leads to all kinds cancer and affects your blood causing anemia. That’s actually how Marie Curie eventually died, her body just stopped producing blood cells. According to nobelprize.org quote “both Curies were constantly ill from radiation sickness, and Marie Curie’s death from aplastic anemia in 1934, at age 66, was likely caused by radiation exposure. A few of her books and papers are still so radioactive that they are stored in lead boxes. It seems fitting that Curie left a scientific legacy that is literally untouchable.” end quote. Luckily the radium beauty craze was pretty short lived because it became apparent quite quickly that radium did not in fact make you beautiful it actually just made you dead.
But Marie Curie affected the beauty market in a second, unintended way through her work with x-rays. She didn’t invent x-rays but she did help make them better, more accurate, and the machines smaller and more portable. She’s credited with saving countless lives during WWI by making portable x-ray machines available to help diagnose and save injured soldiers on the battlefield to the extent that the machines were referred to as “little Curies.” She even offered to melt down her two gold Nobel prize medals to pay for more x-ray machines during the war.
People soon realized that exposure to x-rays caused hair loss and before long it was marketed as a permanent hair removal procedure, an alternative to daily shaving. Basically like laser hair removal today. People receiving these treatments were exposed to x-rays for up to 20 hours which achieved the hairless look they were going for but also led to skin thickening, muscle atrophy, ulcers, and eventually cancer. Cancer research conducted in the 1970s uncovered that 35% of radiation based cancers in women were connected to x-ray hair removal. So this practice was banned in 1946 but that still didn’t stop some women from seeking it out. They hit up back alley salons, yes back alley salons, to have the procedure done even though they knew it could lead to a horrific death.
It’s really frightening how compelling these trends are and how much people are willing to sacrifice to achieve these beauty ideals. We’ve got lead, mercury, arsenic, belladonna, radium, and x-rays all toxic and being used with devastating health consequences just to alter someone’s physical appearance into what society has deemed beautiful at the time. But there are even more harmful beauty trends, not necessarily toxic, but still harmful.
For example, Chinese foot binding. Eek. Have you seen pictures of someone who has had their feet bound? It’s crazy. I have some over on my instagram @historyfixpodcast if you’re curious. Supposedly the trend of Chinese foot binding began in the 10th century with a court dancer who had impossibly small feet. And I feel like that’s how all these trends start. One influential person with some extreme feature and everyones like “oh she’s a freak, I wanna be a freak too.” That’s how the tale goes anyways but we know Chinese women were binding their feet as far back as 1243. Archaeologists found the body of a woman buried that year with tiny feet, tied up with cords and placed into a miniscule pair of shoes.
So I’ll give you a quick play by play of how this works. When a girl was between 4 and 6 years old, yes far too young to decide to do this willingly, all of her toes, except for the big toe were broken. Okay, so already I’m like nope. I have major problems with this. Then the broken toes were bound against the sole of her foot in a triangle shape. So, broken, folded under, and tied up that way for 2 years until the grotesque alterations were permanent. The goal was to achieve a golden lotus foot with a length of only 3 inches. At 4 inches it was called a silver lotus and anything bigger than that was an iron lotus. Then the feet were shoved into tiny little shoes called lotus shoes.
It’s estimated that up to 2 million Chinese women had their feet bound this way, mostly upper class women. It was definitely a status symbol but also just for beauty. Chinese society deemed tiny feet beautiful so they broke their 4 year old daughters toes. It’s madness. Sorry, I try to be really accepting of other cultures and yada yada but this, I just can’t with this one. Not when you’re doing it to children. Foot binding fades out eventually but not until the early 20th century and the last factory that made lotus shoes didn’t close until 1999.
So when I look at the pictures of these little lotus feet, my immediate question is, can they even walk? And yes, somehow they could walk but their movement was definitely restricted. No one’s winning any footraces with these feet. And weirdly, that’s part of it. That’s often part of these beauty trends - the oppression of women. It’s so systemic and it always has been. Chinese women disfigured their feet into grotesque little stumps because men thought it was hot. Why did men think it was hot? Well subconsciously, they thought that because it kept women at home, sitting down, and working on their needlepoint. They aren’t out doing things, achieving things, changing things because they can hardly walk.
Let’s talk about hair. Hair has always been a major issue even long before back alley salons offering cancer causing x-ray treatments. For one, hair trends are just all over the freaking place. They change constantly and it’s impossible to keep up. Eyebrows, for example, ugh, the bane of my existence. I will never forget the time sitting in my seventh grade science class that a couple of the “cool kids” asked me “do you pluck your eyebrows?” Now I was 12 and clearly did not pluck my eyebrows as they were thick and bushy and unruly and super not in style but of course, I said “yes, I pluck my eyebrows” and they moved on. Now I know that seems like an innocent question… “Do you pluck your eyebrows?” But to a middle school girl, no. I knew exactly what that meant and it absolutely shattered my confidence for probably the next several years, as much as I hate to admit that now. Seriously, the power of one loaded eyebrow question aimed at a 12 year old girl is astounding. Now this was the year 2000 so the super skinny pencil thin eyebrows were all the rage and mine were the opposite of that. Now the thick bold Audrey Hepburn eyebrow look is totally in and I am rocking it effortlessly and you know what I will take that thank you, I earned it but seriously so frustrating that these trends come in and out, in and out like they do and then I happen to have the exact wrong type of eyebrows during my most impressionable years.
During the Renaissance so we’re talking the 1400s, 1500s… people plucked their eyebrows out completely and their eyelashes and even the first few inches of their hairlines to achieve this crazy big forehead look. Like five heads were in. The Mona Lisa, yeah look closely, she doesn’t have any eyebrows. By the 1700s the trend had shifted in the complete opposite direction and super thick eyebrows were in. They would even stick on fake eyebrows if their own natural look was too sparse. Actually, there are rumors that women glued mouse hair to their faces to achieve this bushy brow look but that was mostly just mentioned in a handful of 18th century satirical poems and I don’t know if there’s any truth to it. Although I would put money on betting that someone, somewhere, at some time has glued on mouse hair eyebrows. I’m not, that’s not even that crazy as far as beauty trends go.
Hair styles change just as much as eyebrow styles, one of the most memorable of course being the big voluptuous hair of the 1980s. But that’s certainly not the first time big hair was in. Picture Marie Antoinette, so late 18th century, with her massive elaborate updos. Well turns out, that hair was typically just a wig. Even men wore wigs during this period, the macaroni wig, which is like that white curled wig that British guys wore during the Revolutionary war period, like a judge. Actually judges and even lawyers in the UK still wear these silly white curly wigs. The tradition is supposed to bring a sense of formality, power, and respect to the courtroom but y’all I feel like it does just the opposite. It’s the silliest little wig. I do not think I could keep a straight face in a British courtroom.
Okay but back to Marie Antoinette style wigs. These bad boys were typically crafted with a wood frame, which is how they achieved such height. Then, they would attach hair to the frame, usually horse hair, curl it, and coat it in lard so it kept its shape. Yes, lard, as in rendered animal fat. Then they’d finish it off with a nice dusting of lead just to go ahead and get a bit more of that into the bloodstream. But the lard really ended up causing problems. Not only did it eventually smell really bad as it essentially rotted on their heads, it also attracted all kinds of vermin - rats, mice, and bugs which then took up residence inside the wigs. Can you imagine, you’re at a fancy dinner party, a ball, just having a gay old time and suddenly you feel the tickle of a mouse nibbling on your scalp, a mouse that lives in your hair. Women even started wearing cages around their heads at night to keep mice and rats out of their wigs.
By the Victorian era hair tonics which were basically dry shampoo were all the rage except they had gasoline in them which is, obviously very flammable. An 1897 newspaper article reports on a woman named Fanny Samuelson whose hair caught on fire after she treated it with a hair product containing gasoline and then rubbed it with a towel. The friction ignited the gasoline, engulfing her head in flames and she died. A late 1890s actress who was also having her hair styled with a gasoline infused product died after a drop fell on a nearby stove, catching her clothing and hair on fire. So gasoline, not a great choice for your hair. Today many hair products are not as combustible but definitely still toxic, often producing harmful vapors and fumes. The CDC reports that several studies suggest pregnant hairdressers are at a higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and miscarriage because of all the chemicals they come into contact with daily.
And finally, eyelashes. We know the Renaissance ladies were plucking them out altogether but in the late 1800s they went the other direction with it and started getting eyelash extensions. And that’s not like the stick on eyelashes we have today, they didn’t have fancy adhesives like we do. This was more of a surgical procedure. They used a hair from the person’s head and sewed it into their eye lids with, essentially, a sewing needle. Like, horror movie stuff.
I know it’s easy to think about all this crazy stuff people used to do for beauty and just be like “whoa, what a bunch of dumb dumbs, can you believe they did that? Can you believe they took it that far?” But, guys, it kind of hasn’t gotten any better. Our beauty regimens are just as toxic as they ever were. I mean, we’re not slathering our faces in lead paste anymore, although mercury was found in half of skin lightening products so there’s that. But we are doing some pretty whack stuff in the name of beauty.
Our cosmetics usually contain tons of chemicals that we know to be harmful such as phthalates, parabens, talcum powder, nanoparticles, formaldehyde, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even pronounce. One recent trend is micellar water which is basically a facial cleanser used for removing dirt, oil, and makeup to leave cleaner, blemish free skin. But micellar water contains nanoparticles which we know can be absorbed through our skin and into our internal organs and no one even knows the long term effects of this. What we do know is that nanoparticles used in house paint can cause health problems when inhaled. Are nanoparticles the new lead? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I think I’ll be avoiding micellar water.
Then there’s Botox. Oh Botox, the real housewives love it so. Botox is a brand name but it’s short for botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin that causes paralysis by preventing the release of neurotransmitters. It’s also the same toxin that causes botulism which is a sometimes deadly form of food poisoning. So botox is straight up poison. We know this. We still willingly inject it into our faces of all places in order to paralyze our facial muscles to prevent and reverse aging. I feel like someone in the future is going to be just as shocked by that as we are by these toxic beauty trends of the past.
And then of course there’s plastic surgery which is just so far and beyond gluing mouse hair to your eyebrows with obvious life threatening risks involved, immediate life threatening risks just to obtain a certain look, just to feel good about yourself, to boost your self confidence.
And no judgement on anyone who does botox or gets plastic surgery, please don’t take this the wrong way. I totally get it and feeling good about yourself is important, self confidence is super important and if that benefits your life and your mental health then, you know, do it. Do you. I just hate that physical appearances carry as much weight as they do. I wish people didn’t feel like they needed to go to such lengths to alter their bodies to fit in and feel confident. I wish natural beauty was enough.
Now, we’ve entered this whole new extra dangerous age of unattainable beauty never seen before in history and that is thanks to social media, filters and photoshop. We can actually attain unrealistic beauty ideals by digitally altering images. Can you imagine what that’s doing to 12 year old girls today? I was shattered by a seemingly innocent eyebrow question in my 7th grade science class, shattered. This was 2000, I didn’t have a smart phone, we had an old Packard Bell dinosaur computer in our dining room with the slowest possible dialup internet connection and I mostly just went to the hamsterdance page. Please tell me someone remembers that. All I had to compare to was Jennifer Anniston’s razor thin brows on Friends, and at least those were real. My point is, there was no facebook, no instagram, no snapchat. When you saw a picture of someone the quality was such that they usually looked better in real life. Now girls are inundated constantly with these unrealistic images of perfect women. We thought it was unattainable before, now it’s literally impossible. Literally no one looks like that.
And yet we still strive for it. According to Forbes magazine, the beauty industry rakes in an estimated 532 billion dollars each year. That is a staggering amount especially considering much of what their selling is actually doing us more harm than good. We are killing ourselves to achieve perfection that doesn’t even exist. We made it all up and we change it on a whim.
I think what bothers me most about beauty is that it affects females so much more than males and it always has. Women harming themselves in the name of beauty is nothing new. It’s no wonder men have maintained social dominance throughout history. Women were half poisoned, weak, sick, and, honestly the most detrimental of all, self conscious and lacking confidence in themselves because of their inability to achieve unattainable expectations about how they should look. It’s hard to step up and take on a leadership role when you feel insufficient or lacking in the eyes of society.
I don’t know what to do about this. I don’t know how to fix this age-old problem. I do see it shifting, hopefully in the right direction. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more models in advertisements lately that are just actual normal people with normal bodies and that’s amazing, that gives me hope. And honestly you know what that is? That’s gen z getting old enough to enter marketing jobs with their pure lead free brains. So maybe it will get better, maybe we’ll someday fully emerge from the clouds of heavy metals and neurotoxins and realize that we are all born beautiful. That every freckle, every wrinkle, every scar, all of these flaws, whatever part of your body you feel self conscious about is beautiful because it’s part of you and you are a miracle. You’re the only you that’s ever existed on this planet, you defied all the odds simply to exist, an exquisite being and that is beyond beautiful, naturally. It’s time to own it.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this topic interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from the CDC, Duke University, nobelprize.org, redcross.org, Forbes magazine, thecut.com, National Geographic, a History Extra podcast episode about the history of beauty, a For the Love of History podcast episode called “Beauty to die for,” and some others but this has gone on long enough so I’m just gonna put the links in the show notes.