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Women and Beauty: Part One

Women and Beauty: Part One

Did you know that I’m a cartographer now? Oh yeah, I’ve been studying and mapping the lines on my face. My laugh lines and future crows feet are worrying me. And by the way, is there a more technical term that I can use in place of crow’s feet because there’s not too much more that can make a person feel bad about their condition than giving it a hideous name. I hear crow’s feet and I’m automatically transported to some dark forest full of tangled tree branches, there’s definitely fog, definitely a chill in the air, and definitely a hunchbacked old woman trying to get me to do something. It’s enough to make that one hair that grows in the middle of my neck stand on end. I don’t like it.

At 35, I’ve heard talk of these things for many years, but my experience has been limited. Some of you might be mumbling ‘lucky bitch’ under your breath. Although there is this, I’ve had a good run. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m not ready to graciously step aside and let nature take it’s course. This isn’t pre-1920s America, after all.

Gail Collins, in her book, America’s Women, states: “In the past, women regarded aging as inevitable and believed that if they stayed youthful, it was a special blessing from God. Now it was an act of will. Hair could be dyed, cheeks made artificially rosy, and skin moisturized until it sloshed.”

This isn’t to say that no one cared about preserving their beauty before the twentieth century. Women cared a lot. When your currency in the world is primarily based on your beauty and ability to reproduce, it’s no wonder arsenic was in high demand. For the record, there’s only one kind of arsenic– the deadly kind. But God help you if you were found to have any amount of tint to your skin. The goal was to be as translucent as possible. Women used arsenic as a beauty powder knowing full well that it was also a preferred method for murdering people.

Arsenic Complexion Wafers 1896

An 1898 advertisement for Dr. Campbell’s Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers. (Photo: Jussi/flickr)

The cruel joke with arsenic is that the more a woman used it, the more she needed to use it to cover up the skin destroying effects of the arsenic. The ad forgot to mention that.

And if you caught my Instagram Live episode on American Women Before the Civil War, you’ll recall that a woman looking like she had consumption (tuberculosis) was the beauty goal of the age. Pale, frail, watery eyes. If you happened to be cursed with normal, healthy eyes that didn’t water for no good reason, there was a solution to that– belladonna drops, also known as… wait for it, deadly nightshade.

This plant had been used for centuries as a fucking deadly poison added to tips of arrows and goblets of enemies. Women would take drops of this stuff straight up in the eyes to dilate their pupils, giving them a sexier look. If you had no belladonna on hand but still wanted too keep up with the watery eyed beauties of the time, there was also citrus juice and perfumes. Belladonna leads to blindness, so I’ll have the orange juice, please.

In Victorian times, wearing makeup was still considered a bit scandalous. There were two groups, as there seem to be in our day. There were the “natural women” and the “painted women.” The natural women would nibble arsenic wafers from the comfort of their boudoirs and watch their skin grow paler from the inside out. The painted women, those who didn’t give a turd, would powder it onto their skin. It was a bold statement to say, I want to look more beautiful and I don’t care if you know it.

Of course, we cringe at our ancestors and their vain and deadly practices. It’s madness, we say, madness. And yet, it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that the beauty industry really took off. Yes, ladies, the beauty industry was still relatively small. Arsenic powder would do nothing for crows feet or laugh lines except that women who wore it were forbidden to crack a smile because the powder would crack and emphasize lines. Resting bitch face, anyone?

When it comes to beauty, there’s so many fascinating points to discuss, and this is really a tiny introduction to the topic. As I started writing, I realized there’s just no way for me to talk about everything there is to talk about, so I’m going to make this into a multi-part thing. Are you excited?! I am. Because it’s been on my mind and on my face, I thought I’d open up a discussion.

How much have you thought about beauty and aging? Are you seeing any signs of aging, and how do you handle it? Do you feel embarrassed that it bothers you? Talk to us!

Also, here are some recommended books if you find this subject as interesting as I do. These are affiliated links, but trust that I won’t steer you wrong. These books are full of history and insight, and I could use every dollar or penny I get.

And lastly, one of my favorite books ever.

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and continue this exploration of women’s beauty into the future.

And don’t forget to find me on the other side! Instagram I Twitter I Pinterest I YouTube

Footnote: This week’s Instagram Live Literature discussion will happen on Friday 7:30pm instead of the usual Thursday. My apologies for the change. Check my Instagram stories for the selected text!

27 thoughts on “Women and Beauty: Part One

  1. I don’t think about it. Like most things I find if I don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t happen. I’m not taking arsenic for sure, but I do use Frankincense Oil every day. It preserved the mummies so …..js

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And here I am, just having got back home from a session of getting my greys masked at the salon. A timely arrival of your post or what? 🙂 I cannot tell you good it feels to not see those awkward few strands. Anyway, we women always tend to take it a measure too far, isn’t it? I mean, belladonna and arsenic?! To compound matters, more arsenic to cover the harmful effects of arsenic. It is hilarious if it were not alarming. As usual, full points to us for being born in this millenium. Loved this post. Oh and I am not a crow lover too. They have pooped too often on me. xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What perfect timing! I haven’t had any greys yet, and I honestly can’t even see myself with grey hair. I wish I could so that I can somehow mentally prepare. I must say though that you don’t look old enough to have greys. This millennium is definitely an improvement to arsenic. Me and you would have been dead long before we got our skin to remotely resemble anything socially acceptable. You’ve been caught by bird poop now than once in your life? Shame on you! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Is Botox that different from arsenic?

    When I was 20 I longed to not look youthful, for fear I was not taken seriously at work.

    At 30 something, I learned to be taken seriously required a poker face.

    At 45, I color my hair whatever I want because I like it. And use expensive creams and get facials because they feel good. And gosh darnit, I smile, frown and even cry if that’s how I feel. Funny enough, when I started respecting myself so did the world.

    I am now calling my spa lady…😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Kris, so much to say in response to this comment. I’m wondering about Botox- not getting it for myself, but just safety-wise. I thought it’d been proven safe, but it’s still weird to think that in paralyzing muscles that were made for working.

      As far as looking older, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve always liked younger and really disliked it when I was younger. I’d wear makeup and heels and people would still think I was a kid. I’ve been ignored because people thought I was “just some kid” way into my 20s. I even tried the poker face too, and that was exhausting.Commanding attention and feeling powerful does need to come from the inside first. Wearing masks can never last long, and we just waste time being discontent for no reason.

      A spa treatment sounds great right now. I’ve started doing my own facial massages in the mornings, but I’d love to get under someone else’s hands. It’s been a while. Go forth and enjoy that treatment! 💜


  4. I looked for another word for crow’s feet, but wasn’t able to find one! arsenic as a beauty powder is absolutely insane, how interesting. I like to think some creasing around the eyes is just cuz you laughed a lot in life, which is a good thing, ya know? 🙂


  5. “When your currency in the world is primarily based on your beauty and ability to reproduce, it’s no wonder arsenic was in high demand…”

    I giggled SO hard after I read this. What an enjoyable read! I do recall paintings with watery eyed, pale skinned heroines in baby blue bustles with their hair in petticurls. I didn’t realize they intentionally forced their eyes to water nor did I realize they also went damn near blind in doing so! So, what is this Instagram Live party and how can I be down???

    Dom | http://www.DivaNamedDom.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like my WordPress isn’t giving me notifications or is delayed or something… I don’t know how I didn’t see these comments before, wtf.

      I love spending time staring at paintings of rosy cheeked women in petticoats in museums, and we just never see the ugly underbelly. And I think Jane Austen may have forgotten to mention the arsenic as well, lol.

      So the party is on my IG: iwannabealady. It’s normally every Thursday night at 8pm but this week it will be Friday (tonight) at 7:30pm. Every week I choose a literary text and just old school read and discuss the work and geek out over how great literature is! I would freaking loooove for you to join us. I’m so happy you’re down. XOXO

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Supercilious, damn girl. You’re too cool for school. Now you make me want to go out and find my own “I’m super smart and it feels totally natural for me to use this word” word. Also, thank you soooo much for joining the broadcast last night! You’re super awesome xoxo


    1. My goodness, Tony, what a perfect way to describe the situation. I’ve been decluttering my house, and it’s unbelievable how many tubes of this that and the other I’ve found. Every day there’s a new specially formulated miracle formula promising, well, miracles.


  6. This is a great series. I had beautiful skin when I was younger. Fast forward to middle age…btw, I HATE that term…tiny lines & sensitive skin. Yuck! I don’t necessarily spends wads on my face care. I do wear organic/natural makeup which I’ve found is very gentle. Thanks again for this series.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Organic/natural makeup is what I need to work on. I don’t wear much on my skin, but what I do have probably isn’t the best. Because I wear it so infrequently, it’s taking forever to finish. I’ve been looking at natural brands from a distance in the meantime. And sunscreen everyday, of course. I’m glad you’re liking the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. FIY, I belong to Gabriel’s email list and right now there is a 25% coupon if you are interested in trying anything. I just ordered some eyeshadows. 😊 The coupon code is MDW25. It is good thru 11:59 pm May 28th so hurry!! You’re welcome! 😊



  8. I know that the 1600’s British parliament banned lipstick, saying it had the power to seduce men into marriage, which was classified as witchcraft” So that gives me a big happy. For myself, I have played with the idea of getting botox, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting a laser treatment, and I’ve fantasized about using latisse, but so far, all my beauty efforts have been in my head lol


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