Beauty is certainly a fluid concept. It doesn’t truly have a concrete definition, mainly due to the fact that the concept of beauty is often subjective, constantly changing and culturally relative. Throughout history, many shocking beauty regimens have been practiced by women in a bid to conform to beauty standards of the time. Examining these regimes offers a fascinating glimpse of how the concept of beauty has changed throughout the course of history.
It seems that being svelte has almost always been seen as beautiful. Dieting is one of the most common ways that women try to adhere to this standard, and the practise has existed for centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, women in England resorted to drastic diets to fit in. The most shocking diet of the time was the Tapeworm Diet, which saw women ingesting live tapeworms. The tapeworms would live in their stomachs, feeding off the food the women ate. The tapeworms then had to be removed from the women’s stomachs when they grew too large. But before you shake your head and brand these women as crazy, simply consider the society we live in today. Many shocking practices that women take part in today are a direct result of society’s beauty ideal. Take tanning beds for example. Since the days of Baywatch, tanned skin has reached mainstream popularity. In fact, many women can’t even fathom the idea of socialising without a golden glow. Of course, it’s now been proven that tanning beds are incredibly dangerous. They have lead to a massive rise in skin cancer in young women across the globe. According to SkinCancer.org, just one tanning session raises your chances of developing skin cancer by 20%. Yet despite these worrying statistics, the tanning bed market is growing every year.
So, without being too quick to judge the stranger beauty standards women have adhered to in the past, take a look at our list below. These nine trends – some of them now unfathomable – show how the concept of beauty has changed throughout history across the world, and how women have gone to extreme measures to conform to it.
9. Huge Foreheads
The Renaissance (or “Rebirth”), which began in Italy in the 14th century, was a time of great artistic, scientific and political discovery. At the time, having a large forehead was seen as beautiful. To achieve this look, many women plucked out all of the hair at the front of their heads, balding themselves to the crown. If you didn’t want to resort to plucking half of your hair out, there was a dangerous chemical solution. By using a mixture of vinegar, quick-lime and animal faeces, women could easily remove some of their hair and achieve a receding hairline. However, this often resulted in scarring. This style was the epitome of beauty at the time, and it can be seen in many famous Renaissance paintings.
8. Ultra-Thin Waists
The Elizabethan Period took place between the years 1558-1603, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England. At the time, minuscule waists were considered extraordinarily beautiful. That’s not to say that being thin was in fashion, however. Women who were considered beautiful were those who accentuated their breasts and bottoms, but maintained a disproportionately small waist. This look was achieved by wearing corsets or bodices underneath clothing. Often, these garments were fastened so tightly that they caused women to faint from a lack of oxygen. There are also reports of women suffering from broken ribs.
7. Deathly Pale Skin
In contrast to today’s bronzing-obsessed western world, having pale skin was seen as the epitome of beauty in the past. This began in the 6th century. The women who were the palest were considered the most beautiful. To achieve this look, women often cut themselves and literally drained blood from their bodies to achieve a ghostly pale look. This trend continued into the 18th century. In France, a noticeable feature of all portraits of wealthy women (like Marie Antoinette, pictured above) is that they have chalk-white skin. Pale skin was considered beautiful, but it also showed that you were wealthy. If you were tanned, it was a sign that you worked outdoors and thus were of a lower class.
6. Tiny Feet
Foot binding is definitely one of the most disturbing beauty trends in history. In the time of the T’ang Dynasty in China, women with tiny feet were considered incredibly beautiful. Soon, the frightening trend of foot binding spread throughout China. The idea behind foot binding was to stop the growth of a girl’s feet at a young age, so that she would be considered more attractive for potential suitors when she was older. Girls aged just four had their toes purposely broken and bound tightly in cloths to stunt foot growth. This did allow them to have tiny feet when they were older, but underneath the cloth, their feet would be severely deformed.
5. Black Teeth
In Hollywood today, any actor or actress who doesn’t have a winning white smile has a questionable future. Tom Cruise famously swapped his crooked smile for a set of perfect pearly whites. Although a few actors and actresses get away with it (Kirsten Dunst is known for her ‘vampire’ teeth), a perfect smile is pretty much a Hollywood must-have. We’re so used to this that it’s hard to believe that black teeth used to be considered beautiful. Back in the Meiji era in Japan, married women dyed their teeth jet black using a mixture of iron and sumac. Black teeth were a sign of elegance and maturity.
4. Dramatic Hair
Hair is often directly correlated with beauty. In practically every fairytale, long hair is a staple trait of beautiful princesses. However, during the Victorian era, BIG hair was considered incredibly beautiful. The need to have big hair grew so much that wigs became one of the most sought after beauty items. The wigs were actually made from wooden frames that were placed on the head. The wooden frames had human hair glued over them with lard. The lard would often attract the attention of rodents, who would take up residence within the wigs…
3. Chubby Women or Boyish Girls?
Weight and body shape are often considered a judging factor in terms of beauty. However, what is considered a beautiful weight has fluctuated dramatically over the course of history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, full-bodied women were considered incredibly beautiful. This is very clear from paintings from the era. A full figure, almost verging on overweight, was idolised. By the 1920’s, thin was back in – to an extreme level. Women flattened their breasts with tight cloths to pretend they had boyish figures. Thin was also huge in the 1960’s thanks to the worldwide fame of the supermodel Twiggy. Despite the fact that the majority of Hollywood is a size zero, Marilyn Monroe’s curvy hourglass figure, which was popularised in the 1940’s, is still considered the ideal female body shape today.
2. Big Eyes
Eyes are often considered one of the most beautiful facial features. The eyes are delicate organs which, unlike other parts of the body, are difficult to alter. Many think that eye alteration was simply non-existent before the emergence of coloured contact lenses, but this is not the case. In Ancient Egypt, women applied antimony sulphide to their eyes to make them sparkle. In the 16th century, large eyes were considered particularly captivating. Women rubbed deadly nightshade into their eyes which made pupils dilate. Both of these practices resulted in vision problems and blindness. It’s believed a preference for big eyes is an evolutionary instinct; children have large eyes, which signifies a need to be nurtured and evokes that ‘cuteness’ we can’t help but love.
Westernisation is possibly the most alarming beauty trend of the modern era. Westernisation in beauty terms refers to the methods by which many women alter their image to fit a more ‘Western’ framework. The Western image, in this context, is defined by the typical traits of any Caucasian female: pale skin, average height, and large eyes. In many countries outside of the West, this image is idolised and has resulted in very alarming practises. From skin bleaching to eyelid surgery, many women have gone to startling extremes to meet this relatively new Western ideal. This homogenisation of beauty and the lengths to which women are going to attain it is a shocking and dangerous trend – we can only hope that this is another fleeting trend to which we’ll look back on incredulously in years to come.