Most females, myself included, are willing to suffer for beauty. Women of today endure high heels, tight pants, fasting, waxing, and even plastic surgery. We should thank our lucky stars though – even the torture of a Brazilian can’t compare to the cosmetic rituals of our ancestors. In school, we learned about the dangers surrounding lead face powder, kohl eyeliner, and corsets – but the treatments below are a shade darker and a lot grosser. Below are six beauty practices that might have caused your fore-mothers their lives:
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Crocodile Poop Baths
Ancient Greeks and Romans might have enjoyed the spa even more frequently than modern women do. They had one treatment, though, that all but the most adventurous of beauty mavens would probably opt to skip out on today: bathing in crocodile excrement. Bathtubs were filled with a mixture of dirt and crocodile feces, a concoction meant to firm and tone the skin. Crocodile poop was also used to make anti-aging face masks.
Many women of high society in the 16th and 17th centuries lusted after the same strong brow that is popular today. However, many of their cosmetics were lead-based, which led to hair loss (and sometimes death). This effect was most visible in their eyebrows, which they, like the modern woman, struggled to maintain. To help fill them out, mouse fur was often formed into small pelts and then stuck to the brow bone with glue. Because early glue technology was not very advanced, these brow-toupees were known to fall off, which must have been incredibly awkward.
Arsenic for the Face and Legs
Until the 1920’s, arsenic was widely used throughout the beauty world, primarily to improve and whiten the complexion. Women could even take their arsenic as a treat, in products like “Dr. McKenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers.” Renaissance beauties also used arsenic to remove unwanted body hair. Exposure to arsenic is now known to cause headaches, confusion, diarrhea, drowsiness, and even death.
Make-Up Mixed with Spit
In ancient Rome, a wealthy, high-society woman would likely have slaves who were called Cosmetae. These slaves were essentially the professional make-up artists of their time – except that they didn’t get paid. For their make-up kits, Cosmetae were given the ingredients to produce their desired color and effect, and then asked to dissolve the chemicals in their own spit. After that, the slave would spread the mixture, and whatever diseases were contained in it, on the now-beautiful lady.
Mercury as Facial Powder
During the Renaissance period, pale skin was a sign of high class and privilege. The women of this time soon found that mercury would give the wearer’s complexion that enviable pasty glow. It also removed smallpox scars, as well as freckles, which were considered to be low class. Most failed to realize that this practice actually aged their skin at an alarming rate, and might have even killed them.
As soon as Madame Marie Curie discovered radium, many radium-based beauty products began to spread throughout Europe. “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,” says a 1915 advertisement for Radior Chin Straps. Within just a few years, these women began to suffer the consequences of radium exposure – including horrible physical deformities and impaired fertility.
You may think that you are suffering for beauty when you wear six-inch heels and Spanx – but it could be much worse. Hopefully our society continues this trend of (slowly) letting go of dangerous cosmetic practices, and tomorrow’s beautiful woman will also be comfortable and safe. What will they say about our modern beauty rituals when they write the history books five hundred years from now?