Toxic Beauty - Sarah Woodbury

Toxic Beauty

The Associated Press reported this story two days ago:

A mistress of the French King Henry II died from her beauty regime which involved drinking liquid gold, designed to prolong her youthful allure.  The story reads:

  “The French court believed gold harnessed the power of the Sun, which would be transferred to the drinker. Alchemists often acted as apothecaries and prescribed solutions made up of gold chloride and diethyl ether.”

This, of course, is hardly the first instance of toxic beauty regimens.  The modern Botox injection or silicon breast implant are only two examples, but both women and men have harmed themselves–not always unknowingly–throughout history.   Galena, for example, or lead sulfide, a toxic substance, has been used in kohl since ancient Egypt.

This site talks about the use of lead in Ancient Rome:

“Lead was a key component in face powders, rouges, and mascaras; the pigment in many paints (“crazy as a painter” was an ancient catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters); a nifty spermicide for informal birth control; the ideal “cold” metal for use in the manufacture of chastity belts; a sweet and sour condiment popular for seasoning and adulterating food; a wine preservative perfect for stopping fermentation or disguising inferior vintages; the malleable and inexpensive ingredient in pewter cups, plates, pitchers, pots and pans, and other household artifacts; the basic component of lead coins; and a partial ingredient in debased bronze or brass coins as well as counterfeit silver and gold coins.”

And this page, is a succinct, yet fairly complete list of toxic makeup:

This passage is particularly lovely:

“In the late 18th to mid–19th century, the ultra–pale look persisted. A “lady” didn’t need to work in the sun, and therefore should be pale…translucent, even. Some historians even speculate that consumption was so common, it became fashionable to look as though you were suffering from TB. Indeed, the white skin, flushed cheek, and luminous eye of the illness was frequently imitated with white lead and rouge To make they 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.”

And I haven’t even touched upon foot-binding, neck stretching, tattoos, piercings, and other transformations of the human body, all in the name of beauty.

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