Opinions on whether makeup is good or bad aside, I come to you this week with a little history lesson on a few of the more precarious beauty practices of the past. Questionable ingredients have caused homicides, deformities, and other ailments.
To show their pale pride, many men and women as far back as the first century relied on mercury and lead-based powders to make their beauty mark on the world. Centuries later, a French courtesan by the name of Kitty Fisher became a well-known example of lead poisoning after she died from using it a bit too frequently.
Unfortunately, that did not stop its usage. Areas in Asia also practiced these deadly habits. The white makeup Geishas used originally contained lead as well. They, along with European users, often experienced nausea, hair loss, blindness and other rather undesirable effects.
Ingredients like Arsenic were effective but not in quite the way users were anticipating. Signora Toffana had an infatuation with beauty products while living in Italy during the Renaissance. She created a substance known as Aqua Toffana, a type of facial powder that contained a generous amount of Arsenic (cr.middlebury.edu). She told her buyers to put it on immediately prior to seeing their partners. Hundreds of deformed women and 600 dead, Italian husbands later, Signora Toffana was sentenced to death for her crimes of beauty.
Atropa belladonna, a plant known for being severely toxic, was used to dilate women’s pupils. According to botanical.com, this plant was widely distributed and used mainly by Italian women for luminescent eyes. For some reason, it was seen as extremely attractive to have glossy eyes overtaken by one’s pupils. It also increased the heart rate and made focusing nearly impossible. Eventual blindness was inevitable. They knew it was poisonous, but they willingly blinded themselves, drop by drop.
So, why did these men and women put themselves through pain, deformities, and even death for the sake of beauty? Good question. I have no idea. Plautus, a Roman dramatist and philosopher wrote, “A woman without paint is like food without salt.” In my opinion, that’s a little harsh. However, all throughout history people have gone to extreme lengths to look attractive.
Today’s version of painstaking beauty would, I suppose, mainly deal with plastic surgeries and injections, but reports of tattooed makeup causing infections have also been recorded. Some victims of the harmful effects of these toxic, so-called beauty aids may not have known what they were getting themselves into. Sadly, many were informed of their morbid futures yet continued to harm themselves due to their obsession with appearances.
Makeup should be used to express creativity and to enhance our already beautiful features, not to hide them or harm our bodies. So please, if you haven’t stopped your nasty little habit of wearing poisonous berry lipstick or your constant use of toxic eye drops that you brewed in your basement, stop now. There are much safer products made by people who somewhat care. Find them.
(Column published in MSUM’s campus newspaper, The Advocate)