If you think beauty standards today are ridiculous (and we certainly do), there’s one thing you can say: At least we aren’t living in Victorian England. In an era in which the Queen herself lambasted the use of cosmetics, and wearing bright eyeshadow colors could have you labeled a prostitute, women had to do ridiculous and harmful things to achieve what they considered beautiful.
Cosmetics were called “embellishments” and used nice ingredients like rosewater and honey, but they also included poisonous additions like belladonna, lead and arsenic. Buying these products was also a big no-no if you were a high-class woman, because you could never let anyone know you actually wore makeup. Heaven forbid!
Some of the dangers of theses practices (like, oh, wearing lead face powder) weren’t known at the time. But others were widely acknowledged to be very bad for you (like eating arsenic for it’s beauty benefits) and women did them anyway. This means that women of the Victorian period were either superheroes, or that the beauty standards during that time have a lot of ’splainin’ to do. Here are some things that Victorian ladies did to upkeep their appearance that we (thankfully) don’t have to deal with them.
Dropping poison in your eyes to make them doe-like
In Victorian England, women used to get that coveted big-eyed look by dropping Belladonna into their eyes to create a glowing look. The problem? Also known as “deadly nightshade,” Belladonna is straight-up poison, and putting it into your eyes made the pupils dilate. And yeah, it caused blindness. So there’s that.
Squirting citrus juice in your eyes for the same effect
A better alternative was dropping lemon or orange juice into the eyes to achieve the same iris dilation. It definitely beats the poison, but I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to drop lemon juice directly into your eyeballs. I can’t even deal when the lemon I’m squeezing into my water goes rogue and a tiny droplet hits me in the eye. It just ruins my entire brunch. Owwww.
Using soot as mascara
Women swiped beeswax on their eyelashes and then they would stick on clusters of soot or even crushed gemstones to accentuate their eyelashes. Diamond eyelashes sound pretty great, but getting dirt in your eyes on purpose? Eeesh. This practice makes the eyelash curler look like a walk in the park.
Rubbing road tar on your eyebrows to shape them
To enhance their eyebrows, women heated up a mixture of pitch, resin and frankincense, and rubbed them into their brows and also onto their lashes. In case you didn’t know, pitch is now used to make road tar, or to insulate houses. Imagine rubbing that on your eyelashes next time you’re carelessly brushing on your modern mascara.
Hiding your makeup inside medicine bottles
Women often had to hide their makeup containers within secret compartments inside their “toilet boxes,” or they would repackage their cosmetics with innocent pharmaceutical names that a doctor could have easily prescribed them, just in case their cases were seen. Wealthy women would roundly deny wearing any and all cosmetics because it was considered inappropriate and scandalous. Often, these women had to send their “ladies”—or servants—into the next town so no one would ever know they had cosmetic enhancements.
Using whale wax in your face cream.
Women made cold cream with white wax and spermaceti. Whales had it really bad during the Victorian era, what with all of their bones constantly being used to make corsets and all that. Turns out spermaceti, which is a wax found inside a whale’s head, is really good to remove makeup. I think I’ll just stick with Pond’s, thanks.
Arsenic all over the place
Women used face washes, shampoos and foundations laced with arsenic in order to gain the supposed (but completely false) beauty benefits arsenic had. Hell, they straight up had arsenic baths to improve their skin and make themselves look younger! Can you imagine having to take a bath laced with arsenic? Think we’ll skip that one.
Oh yeah, they also ate arsenic. Arsenic was considered a beauty vitamin, so to speak. Tiny amounts were consumed to achieve a clearer complexion and brighter eyes, and you slowly increased the dose to build up tolerance to it. In addition to causing your thyroid glands to swell out of control, arsenic will also kill you. In two ways, no less—if you overdose, or from withdrawal if you ever stop taking the small doses. So really, this was never a good idea.
Using lead as a concealer
And then there were the lead-based face powders, which women often wore to conceal pock marks. Lead makeup had a lovely silky finish, until the lead started to seep into your body and cause paralysis, that is.
So even though our beauty standards today are no picnic, at least we aren’t still eating actual, known poison. And corsets? Optional.
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