Rage Against the Unnatural. And a Challenge.

The first thing I did when I decided to write this post was type “beauty in the 17th century” in Google search. Then I expanded the search to a couple of centuries earlier, and a couple of centuries later. I kind of knew what I was going to find, and I knew it would possibly serve as a counterargument to my position. But if I cannot debate myself, how can I expect to debate them, the worshipers of artificial beauty?

A few days ago I stopped by a dermatologist’s office* and picked up a copy of New Beauty. Two hundred pages filled with editorial and advertorial pushes for rejuvenation and natural beauty restoration. It would appear that the issue of beauty in the 21st century (or should I just call it “new” beauty as it seems to be the thing now?) bothers me a lot. I wonder… could it be because I am too lazy to compete with the beauties out there who do spend their time and money on being gorgeous 24/7? I mean, I’d rather sleep in 20 more minutes than spend that time applying foundation primer, foundation, powder and bronzer, and choosing my shades for the day, and lipstick. That time allows me to squeeze in another dream or two… (that is if I am lucky to have Hubbyloo watch Copiloo… otherwise, that time would be spent scrambling a couple of eggs and five minutes later picking said eggs off the floor). And I would never (ok, never say never, but with the common sense I at this time possess, I would never) subject myself to injections or (Jesus, Mary and Joseph!) surgery for cosmetic reasons. Since when have the symmetry of my face, size of my nose, or non-droopiness of my eyelids been more valuable than my life?

This brings me back to my initial research. Beauty has always been on our mind; girls have always wanted/felt the need to sway with their appearance, boys have always turned heads for the most aesthetically pleasant figures. My brief desk research confirms that since the dawn of time, we, women and men alike, have tried to enhance our looks. I will briefly mention the BC era, when the Egyptian, Babylonians, Persians, Chinese are known to have used make-up as far back as 6000 years ago.1

Then I’ll jump right into the 17th century when it was the pale complexion that was fashionable, and you were very likely to use a cream mixture made from white chalk or white lead, egg whites and vinegar. You know why everyone was so serious back then? Because once this cream dried on your face you did attain that beautiful shinny, pale complexion, but at a cost: you could not laugh, otherwise your “skin” would crack.2

Anna Margareta, an impoverished German noblewoman embodies the 17th century beauty ideal well. With nothing but her looks she didn't have much of a prospect, until she met and wed Count Carl Gustaf Wrangel, the richest man in Sweden. A mutual love match and a very happy marriage.

Detail from a portrait of Anna Margareta von Haugwitz, by Anselm van Hulle, 1649.
Source: http://madameisistoilette.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-beautiful-visage-17th-century-female.html

This trend continued through the 18th century when make-up usage became wider spread and available to those in the lower class. Along with the increase in usage, the risk posed by the lead- and mercury-based masks and ointments grew as well. In an attempt to preserve (apparent) youth, women would lose their natural beauty to the effects of acid on their skin, and even die by lead and mercury blood poisoning. This was the time the first “victims of cosmetics” were recorded.3

Francis Cotes Portrait of Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, 1751

Francis Cotes Portrait of Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry, 1751 Source: http://nationalgallery.ie/en/aboutus/ThisWeek/ Womens_Day/Maria_Countess_of_Coventry.aspx

The ultra-pale look was still fashionable at the beginning on the 19th century: “it became fashionable to look as though you were suffering from TB. […]To make their eyes bright, some women ate small amounts of arsenic or washed their eyes with orange and lemon juice—or, worse yet, rinsed them with belladonna, the juice of the poisonous nightshade.”4

It was around mid-19th century that excessive make-up was denounced as the mark of women of questionable morals. It was even suggested that instead of using any products, women bit their lips and pinched their cheeks to enhance their appearance. In spite of the general knowledge of the dangerous cosmetics, they continued to be used.5

Then came the 20th century with its larger scale commercialization of cosmetics and beauty products. The only positive change was happening at the beginning of the 1900s, when doctors began working with cosmetic companies in an attempt to make beautification a safer process. Oh, also women realized that the pale color of the skin denounced a boring existence, and decided to engage in outdoor leisurely activities – that’s when tanning became huge.6

That brings us to today. The plethora of beauty products out there was not enough to help with the altering of our physical appearance. Men’s eyes have become more selective, and therefore critical. Something had to be done. It was about 1923 that the first modern cosmetic surgery** was performed: a rhinoplasty. It took a whooping eight years before the subsequent cosmetic surgery: a public face lift, in 1931 (too lazy to research whether it was the same person).7

It seems that we’ve always been a vain species. I suggest we stop. Or at least dial it down a notch. I truly believe that without the pressure to look perfect and the expectation to match the photoshopped deities on the cover of Vogue, we would be so much happier. All that energy going to waste worrying that our complexion is blotchy, our crow-feet appear to be wandering off, our eyebrows could serve as a level, oh, and the tummy! always overflowing our low-waist jeans! Ay-ay-ay!

Apparently a woman spends about one third of her income maintaining her beauty.8 So many beautiful things you could do with that money, from investing in experiences that would enrich you and your life, to sharing it with the loved ones, to investing in your future.

Three hours and 19 minutes a week. That is the average amount of time a woman spends in front of the mirror.9 Yeesh! I could read half a decently-sized book in that time. I could join three yoga classes in that amount of time. Even Copiloo requires less time to be rocked to sleep. A recurrent complain of ours is that we don’t have enough time. Yet we fill our days with tasks that in the end bring no added value to our existence.

That’s only looking at the maintenance work we do in front of the mirror. Nowadays we have an army of make-over doers who, syringes-and-scalpel-in-hand, can Cinderella you overnight. I mean if we were willing to wash in our own urine to soften our complexion,10 why not allow ourselves to be injected with some Botox since it is readily available?

Although with difficulty, I can understand that some people do not grasp how precious of an asset time is. But what about good health and life? I am having troubles accepting that we can be so senseless as to give our health away for beauty. In 2013 there were more than 11 million cosmetic surgical and non-surgical procedures performed in the US, a 471% increase since 1997.11 What is more shocking is that in 2010 more than 200,000 surgeries have been performed on people aged 13-19.12 I expect some people are dumb and really do not look into it before jumping under the knife. What about those that do learn about the potential risks – unexpected bleeding, nerve damage leading to muscle paralysis, seroma, pneumonia, anesthesia risk, delayed healing, depression, death,1314 yet confidently let themselves be market and cut? If you are lucky to survive your procedure (unlike Solange Magnano or Betty Pino or Olivia Goldsmith or… or…), you may have run out of luck when time comes to see the results; you may end up looking like this

It’s true though, you gamble a bit of your life and you may hit the jackpot

My position is and has been for quite some time that we have to go back to a simpler way of living – not the life of the royals or courtesans of the 17th century, which was just a façade; but the life of the simple people who have always been the ones who truly lived. We have to recognize what is valuable to us; what is that brings us happiness and peace. When do we feel that our efforts and energy are better used? What part of ourselves or what part of what we do helps us to develop a clearer connection with those around us, and to have the relationships we long for? Appearances are important; but the physical impression is in the end a splinter of who you are in your life and the lives of others. Cleopatra is known to be of outstanding beauty; it is however believed that it was not her looks that electrified those who saw her,  “but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased…” 15

Aesthetics of beauty change over time and place. One thing is clear though – beauty on the inside, charm, and smarts remain a constant. We would be such a better bunch if all of us used those three hours and 19 minutes a week working on our inner selves, getting in touch with the souls inhabiting our bodies, asking questions and listening to the answers. Many of us would learn that unhappiness with the way we look is just a symptom of us being unhappy with our selves.

I challenge you, for the sake of our little ones growing up in this plastic world, join me in this exercise: let’s try to embrace the natural. A week without make-up. This would be much more meaningful and cause-altering than the social media meme of a couple of months ago that asked women to do the unimaginable – post a no-makeup selfie in support of #beatcancer. How would your guts to show your naked face make a difference in the lives of those affected by cancer or in cancer research, I do not know. But my guess is, going bare-faced to trigger a change in the way we perceive beauty and as an exercise to become more comfortable in our own skin may work. My make-up routine consists of concealer for my under-eye bags (I consider this a medical necessity – I know, I’m a hypocrite) and eyelash curler. I will surrender those for a week. Who’s in?


*Disclaimer: I never claimed I have no vain habits. I am human after all, a girl living in the age of “new beauty”. But I want to believe the maintenance of my looks happens within the limits of reason. My reasons for going to a Dermatologist’s office: laser hair removal.

**Cosmetic surgery dates back to 600BC; in the 18th century it had been coined “plastic surgery” and it was performed with the purpose of repairing facial deformities. The two world wars brought plastic surgeons the practice they needed for the demand of contemporary cosmetic surgery that was about to hit them.16

  1. History of the Cosmetics. Wikipedia. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cosmetics []
  2. Beauty in the 17th Century. Royal Museum Greenwich. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house/history/fact-files/beauty-in-the-17th-century []
  3. Maria Gunning, Contess of Coventry. Erasmatazz. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.erasmatazz.com/library/people-through-history/maria-gunning-countess-of.html []
  4. Modes in Makeup. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.vintageconnection.net/ModesInMakeup.htm []
  5.  Modes in Makeup. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.vintageconnection.net/ModesInMakeup.htm []
  6. Brian Palmer. When Did Tanned Skin Become Fashionable? October 25, 2012. Slate. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/10/romney_s_spray_tan_when_did_white_people_start_deliberately_tanning_themselves.html []
  7. Martin Donohoe. Women’s Health in Context: Cosmetic Surgery Past, Present, and Future: Scope, Ethics, and Policy. Medscape Ob/Gyn. 2006;11(2) Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/542448_2 []
  8. Dale Archer. The Psychology of Beauty. Psychology Today. June 29, 2012. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201206/the-psychology-beauty []
  9. Kate Randall. That’s a Lot of Slap! Women Spend a Year and Three Months of Their Lives Applying Make-up. February 20, 2014. Mail Online. Extracted on April 17, 2014 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2281621/Thats-LOT-mirror-time-Women-spend-year-lives-applying-make-up.html []
  10. Beauty in the 17th Century. Royal Museum Greenwich. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house/history/fact-files/beauty-in-the-17th-century []
  11. American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Press Release. March 20, 2014. The ASAPS Reports Americans Spent Largest Amount on Cosmetic Surgery since the Great Recession of 2008. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.surgery.org/media/news-releases/the-american-society-for-aesthetic-plastic-surgery-reports-americans-spent-largest-amount-on-cosmetic-surger []
  12. The Dangers of Plastic Surgery. March 20, 2012. International Business Times. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/315698/20120318/plastic-surgery-evils-skin-damage-risks-asymetry.htm#.U1AbMV64rLQ []
  13. The Dangers of Plastic Surgery. March 20, 2012. International Business Times. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://au.ibtimes.com/articles/315698/20120318/plastic-surgery-evils-skin-damage-risks-asymetry.htm#.U1AbMV64rLQ []
  14. Miriam Marcus. Ten Plastic Surgery Risks You Need to Know. Forbes. October 10, 2007. http://www.forbes.com/2007/10/09/health-surgery-risks-forbeslife-cx_mlm_1010health.html []
  15. James Grout. Was Cleopatra Beautiful? Enciclopaedia Romana. Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/miscellanea/cleopatra/bust.html []
  16. Martin Donohoe. Women’s Health in Context: Cosmetic Surgery Past, Present, and Future: Scope, Ethics, and Policy. Medscape Ob/Gyn. 2006;11(2) Extracted on April 17, 2014, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/542448_2 []

3 comments on “Rage Against the Unnatural. And a Challenge.

  1. Pingback: My First Blogging Award Nomination | It's Been Delicious

  2. I look at all the plastic surgery celebs and I think it is gross! I go make-up less every weekend and definitely on vacation too! I am low maintenance, 5 minutes for hair, five minutes for make-up and 5 minutes to get dressed. I just can’t be bothered with all the gunk, I don’t even use lotion (except sunscreen when I am in the sun)! Simple, simple, simple! Don’t even get me started about weight…. 😉

  3. Geesh – lightening hit while I was writing a comment, and now I don’t know if it went through. Just in case – I said that ya learn something new everyday and that I had no idea about the history of makeup. I also mentioned that even with the risks, if I could afford a facelift, I’d go for it. I hate what I see in the mirror…absolutely hate it. For me, if I did my research on the hospitals and surgeons track record, I would elect to have some surgery. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s the truth.

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