The History of Vanity



I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
― William ShakespeareShakespeare’s Sonnets

“The air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war. There are video screens on which flawless complexions turn, preen, sigh through their parted lips, are caressed. On other screens are close-ups of skin pores, before and after, details of regimes for everything, your hands, your neck, your thighs. Your elbows, especially your elbows: aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes. 

This is religion. Voodoo and spells. I want to believe in it, the creams, the rejuvenating lotions, the transparent unguents in vials that slick on like roll-top glue… But this doesn’t deter me, I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am.” (Cat’s Eye p113), Margaret Atwood

The history of vanity is as old as time, and for thousands of years cosmetics have been a big part of the vanity toolbox. Cosmetics provide a plethora of social signals designed to enhance beauty, indicate status and advertise sexuality. For centuries, they were the palate of the privileged class (and the oldest profession). For example, Cleopatra’s day would have commenced with slaves applying emollients composed of beeswax, olive oil, castor oil and fragrance to soften her skin. Kohl, a mixture of lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds, was applied to encircle her eyes to give the cat – like look so coveted in her time (and in the 60’s as well).

Flash forward to the 1600s when the pale face symbolized ultimate beauty. The highest class of European women responded by sun avoidance and to best their competitors, many resorted to bloodletting. The voluntary loss of a pint or two would achieve the desired pallor. The pale face became even paler in the 1700s when Ceruse, a white paint composed of lead and arsenic, became available at a time when smallpox scars were ubiquitous; the plaster- like substance could fill the depressed areas and hide imperfections. The downside to ceruse, however, was deadly.  Lead and arsenic caused eye swelling, rashes, tooth loss and even death. Another poison, belladonna, was placed in the eye to mimic the enlarged pupil of sexual arousal. The quest for beauty accelerated in the 1800s with the increased accessibility to the mirror and the invention of the photograph. To present a beautiful complexion for the camera, 17th century women ingested Fowler’s solution, a dilute concoction composed of arsenic to improve the skin.

The driving force behind the cosmetic boom of the 20th century was the movie industry. Cosmetic enhancement became mainstream and entrepreneurs like Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and many more delivered what women of ancient times dreamed of, a whole constellation of products guaranteed to enhance the female face and body at an affordable price. Coco Chanel, for better or worse, convinced the modern woman that a tan was the new fashion accessory. At the start of the 20th century the average life expectancy of a woman was only 42 years. As advances were made in public health and medicine, people lived longer and the demand for cosmetic product to fight the visible signs of the aging process became big business.

In the 21st century the cosmetic industry became a multibillion-dollar industry and it keeps growing. Cosmetics, however, could only enhance ones features or hide imperfections, but as women lived longer, cosmetics fell short of the mark. Older women needed more. The movie industry and its aging leading ladies led the charge towards antiaging surgery and the niche of the cosmetic surgeon was born. The arms race towards youth and away from the grave escalated with the proliferation of plastic surgery procedures. Now a tighter face, flatter stomach, larger breasts, slimmer limbs and designer vaginas were only a nip and tuck away.

For those unwilling to go under the knife, Botox and tissue fillers opened up a new world of possibilities. Now for a price, anyone can have a wrinkle free face, plumper lips and look years younger.

Some may ask; When does the madness end?  My answer is that it doesn’t. As long as men and women are still breathing, there is a desire to be relevant in a culture that values beauty, status and sexual attractiveness.  Some may be shocked by the voluntary exsanguination by women in the 15th century to achieve pale skin, but today’s woman is willing to to do far more. Lest we think derisively about our ancestors, we should look at the behaviors we sanction today, before casting the first stone.



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