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Pretty Hurts (Seriously you can die...)

One of the biggest profit-generating industries in the world today is the fashion and makeup industry, and this is probably due to the long-standing obsession humankind has with beauty. Throughout history, people of different cultures have practiced painful traditions such as foot binding, neck lengthening, and ear enlarging, all in the name of beauty. However, the simplest (and least painful) form of alteration that is still used by people all over the world is through the use of makeup.   

Way back then, people did not have the technology and sophisticated machinery to produce the variety of makeup products we have available today. In comparison to modern makeup, ancient forms of makeup were actually potentially dangerous and so much less convenient to use!

So what kinds of products were used back then?



white lead

make up

In place of the foundation and concealer we use today, normal Ancient Roman women used chalk, orris root, and fat to create a thick layer over the skin that hid and evened out imperfections, while the wealthier women used white lead paste. White lead paste was popular as back then, pale skin was considered beautiful and white lead paste did an excellent job in whitening skin; though on the down side, frequent application meant a higher chance of death due to lead poisoning (lovely way to die isn’t it). 




While not as widely used in modern Western countries, a product that is extremely popular in Asian countries is “enlarging contact lenses”. These contact lenses come in a variety of colours and they mimic the appearance of a dilated pupil and larger iris to give the effect of larger and “cuter” eyes. Similarly, medieval European women tried to enlarge their pupils to gain a more seductive look – with the employment of way more dangerous methods of course. Atropa Belladonna, more commonly known as deadly nightshade, was prescribed in the form of eyedrops by physicians, and when applied to the eyes, made pupils dilate and appear more aroused and seductive. The danger of Belladonna is that it contains toxic tropane alkaloids, and an accidental overdose or prolonged exposure to it could induce hallucinations, vomiting, vision loss, delirium, and death. 




Another popular eye product used today is eyeliner, it is commonly used to define eyes as well as make them appear larger. The olden day counterpart of eyeliner – kohl – is in fact still used today. Kohl was mainly used by the ancient Egyptians and it was made through the combination of burnt almonds, ochre, oxidized copper, malachite, lead, and crushed antimony, producing the black powder known as kohl. To apply the Kohl, the Ancient Egyptians would use a stick, dip it in the Kohl and line their eyes with it to define their eyes to make them seem more almond-shaped. And though it does not have much scientific backing, ancient Egyptians also believed that Kohl could help shield their eyes from the harsh Egyptian sun.



Rosy cheeks have always been considered beautiful as they are a sign of health and liveliness, and in order to achieve this rosy glow, modern women use powder or tinted blushers. 



Interestingly, medieval European women used a very similar formulation to the powder blushers of today. Their version of powder blushers was known as “rouge” and it was produced through the combination of the dried leaves of angelica archangelica, and the dried flowers of the safflower carthamum tinctorius. They also seem to have their own version of tinted blushers as Gilbertus Anglicus, a physician in medieval times, notes in one of his works from 1240, the practice of soaking brazilwood chips in rosewater to obtain a clear, pink dye which could be rubbed on the cheeks to mimic rosy cheeks.



perfume 1

perfume 2

Majority of us strive to smell nice, or at least not-smelly for obvious reasons of wanting to feel good about smelling good, boosting sex appeal, and not wanting to cause discomfort for others. In order to keep smelling fresh and delicious throughout theay, we employ the use of perfumes and deodorants to cover up undesirable smells, which was also a common practice inancient.The Ancient Chinese people such as those from the Tang, Song, and Han dynasty carried around fragrant spices in little sachets so that they would give off a pleasant scent. 




  The Ancient Egyptians on the other hand, took it to the next level by inventing the perfumed bath, and on top of placing scented wax that would melt throughout the day to give off a pleasant scent, they also attempted to use carob, incense, and even porridge as deodorants. 



Thus, this consistency in the way beauty is viewed and achieved is perhaps indicative of the underlying connection amongst humankind that transcends both time and space (geographical space that is) and we think that that’s amazing!

Makeup Timeline

Makeup. The commodity that got people to spend $8 billion on annually, just in the USA alone. The industry that allows makeup gurus on YouTube to become billionaires, have their wax figures made in Madame Tussauds, just like any Hollywood stars. All these demonstrates how much love we have for makeup. It can be seen as a form of fashion, art and sometimes even a way of making people feel better about themselves. Furthermore, it is also a topic that creates many debate about how much to wear, what to wear and when to wear since the beginning of history. Makeup can tell us about how one’s culture is like, especially when you know how makeup is perceived as in particular cultures.  




The civilization famous for the dark lined eyes, wigs and elaborate fashion sense. They wore makeup for a variety of reasons as seen in simsyeunice  in details in her blog-post. So I will just talk about the uses relatively briefly.

For instance, for magical protection provided from the god Horus when they lined their eyes with black-khol and green malachite.

Furthermore, some researchers reported that their makeup protected them from infections and even increased their immune system because the ingredients they used (arsenic and lead) could kill bacteria. However high dosage would cause high toxicity. The fact that Egyptians were attracted to such compounds due to the colour payoff produced is not very arguable, however whether the Egyptians were aware of the toxicity or benefits of such compounds is disputed.

They viewed cosmetics as objects with magical healing properties, rather than non-magical objects with healing properties like medicine to us. As we have learnt in lecture that they have integrated music into all aspects of life, it makes it difficult for them to view objects with healing properties as non-magical. In my opinion, because of the fact magic was so intertwined with their lifestyles, they themselves probably were not very sure of the actual properties of the substances. Even if they were good at making cosmetics, they may just think that each ingredient possess a special therapeutic function due to the rituals they perform while making the cosmetics rather than having knowledge of the properties.

Makeup was not restricted to some privileged few, but rather something that everyone had access to because both men and women of all classes wore makeup then. We can also infer from this that women enjoyed some degree of independence or rights. Makeup was also used religious reasons, beauty, and health by everyone. Its presence was weaved into their culture, deeply ingrained. The role of makeup in creating the history of Ancient Egypt and telling us about their history is thus significant.


Classical Era 1000BCE-300 CE:


Classical Greece 800-350BCE:

With the influence of women’s role in the Classical Greece culture, women were expected to be virtuous and were not supposed to reveal anything. This social expectation extended into the practice of makeup because women were not allowed to wear heavy makeup since they should be virtuous and focus on domestic chores. Hence, women would only wear a light layer of white powder on their face, colours on their lips and cheeks with fruits or plants. Sometimes they would even use toxic lead-based of mercury-based ingredients for their cosmetics. They also had a unique perception of beauty…

The uni-brow.



If one did not have a uni-brow naturally, they would draw them on with soot or apply animal hair.

They preferred a natural look, just like the current trend of “no-make-up-make-up look” minus the uni-brow of course.

The minimal take on makeup expected by Classical Greece women shows us that the women had little freedom as they were not supposed to be concerned with how they look, but rather focus on being virtuous and fulfilling their domestic duties.


Medieval Era 300-1450CE

Due to the religion during the Early Medieval Era by the churches, women in Europe were not allowed to wear make-up because it was taught to be associated with loose morals. There were even periods where make-up could only be used in brothels. They were also associated with deception and sin. This inspired women to look as natural as possible with their own sneaky techniques experimented at home. This reflects on how women were perceived as the source of temptation and probably did not enjoy much freedom. It also shows that the society then valued spiritual beauty rather than outward appearances due to religion.


During the Late Medieval Era, makeup was back in use. Contrary to the culture in the Early Medieval Era, it was said that an Italian Catholic priest reluctantly agreed that woman should wear makeup to be attractive enough to prevent their husbands from committing adultery and not cause husbands of other wives to commit adultery with them.

Flawless and fair skin was seen as beautiful because of the prevalence of diseases then and also because fair skin meant that one was a wealthy person who did not have to work outdoors (Hmm, fair enough! See what I did there). English women also made their skin pale by applying flour or even based makeup. The females would make their face pale, plucked their brows  and applied rouge to make their cheeks pink. Up to this moment, I cannot help but wonder what is up with society and their eyebrow trends? Frst unibrows, then no brows and today, thick bushy brows!


In conclusion, the practices of makeup can reflect on the cultural values of a society as well as giving us an insight on women were perceived as during then and even today. I am thankful that we do not have such restricting rules for makeup today but just some flexible ones that are even encouraged to be broken at times (eg. "Thou shall not wear heavy eye makeup with a bold lip").