Shock of the old: 10 painful and poisonous beauty treatments

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Shock of the old: 10 painful and poisonous beauty treatments

Photograph: Brandstaetter Images/Imagno/Getty Images

Photograph: Brandstaetter Images/Imagno/Getty Images© Photograph: Brandstaetter Images/Imagno/Getty Images

Iknow we are supposed to be rejecting everything we stood for last year, sloughing off our desiccated, used-up 2023 selves to emerge sparkling fresh, dewy and morally superior, but, I don’t know, seasonal self-loathing seems so … vigorous. If you are anything like me (I pray you aren’t), you feel listless, lumpen and broke. Plus, have you looked outside?

Rather than tormenting ourselves with “new year, new you” flannel, let’s take a horrified, judgmental look at some “new year, bad old them” pictures. Because things could definitely be worse. Historically, “pain is beauty” was taken literally, giving rise to centuries of wild claims, dangerous hacks and impossible-to-attain standards.

Before today’s vampire facials and snail-mucous moisturisers, there were arsenic “complexion wafers” promising a “deliciously clear complexion”. Renaissance women used deadly nightshade to make their eyes look bigger, and cat poo to remove hair. One Roman remedy for blemishes involved grinding up the intestines “of a small land crocodile which feeds only on the most fragrant flowers”, which does sound like something you might now find for sale on Goop.

But have we bought into an inaccurate cliche? The idea that, in the past, women ignorantly or recklessly used deadly poisons to serve their own vanity is “a misogynistic trope that has circulated since classical times,” art history professor Jill Burke writes in her book How to Be a Renaissance Woman. Burke describes a 16th-century poisoning ring in Rome, where women used aqua tofana – a concoction including ground arsenic and lead disguised as skincare products – to slowly poison their violent or merely “drunk and feckless” husbands (at least 46, though some speculated as many as 600).

But even when the objective wasn’t murder, women throughout history may have known exactly what they were doing. Beauty conferred power, status and control in a world where women had precious little of any of those things. It’s no wonder the odd dangerous or out-there treatment felt worth it. And is it really that different from a leech cleanse or injecting a deadly toxin into your forehead? Let’s see.

Roman plucking and manicuring tools

The Romans were heavily into depilation: the men for sporting performance and the women because of patriarchy. “No rankness of the wild goat under your armpits, no legs bristling with harsh hair!”, Ovid wrote, which was apparently funny (I suppose you had to be there). He wasn’t alone among Roman writers: “They are all writing about how you will need to keep on top of the body hair and you know, gosh, no man is going to be interested in you if you’ve got armpit hair,” according to Cameron Moffett of English Heritage. This is amply evidenced at Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, which has found a “strikingly large number of tweezers” used in its bathing complex by professional pluckers.

Elizabeth I, c1588

Did Elizabeth really cover her face in lead? Possibly: lead-based Venetian Ceruse was a contemporary cosmetic but there is no evidence she used it. Actually, much Renaissance Goo – the truly excellent name of a collaborative research project between Burke and Professor Wilson Poon (soft-matter scientist) – wasn’t half bad. The team have recreated and tested historical unguents and found they are pretty good, including a facecream full of sheep’s fat, vitamin E and antioxidant.

Electric corset, 1890s

As if corsets weren’t bad enough, here comes science to make them even worse. Mrs Whiting, a lifelong sufferer from constipation, was “wonderfully better” thanks to this electric corset. (Was it squeezing her like a boa constrictor? Yikes.) The seductive small print promises “the chest is aided in its healthy development”, making this sound like something a Kardashian might attempt to sell you on TikTok. The electric corset hailed from 52 Oxford Street, London, which is now a Holland & Barrett. Good luck curing your hysteria and “organic affections” with three-for-two packets of dried apricots.

Dr Mackenzie’s Arsenical Soap, 1897

In the 1850s, reports on Austrian arsenic eaters emphasised their flawless complexions, kicking off a craze for arsenic-laced beauty products. These wafers, creams and soaps conferred a desirable tubercular pallor. After all, “the fairest skins belong to people in the earliest stage of consumption,” as Mrs SD Powers wrote authoritatively in the 1874 beauty bible The Ugly Girl Papers (chapter headings include Hope for Homely People, Brief Madness and, my favourite, Easier to be Magnificent than Clean). Unfortunately, arsenic wellness products made you pale by destroying your red blood cells, but it’s OK, this one was “guaranteed absolutely harmless”.

Hip-reducing machine, 1899

The chap with the thousand-yard-stare operating this device (seemingly a set of mechanised rolling pins; I have my doubts about whether it would help “keep that boyish form”, as it claims) is Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, 1905 world light-heavyweight boxing champion. Why? Is he endorsing it? He definitely looks as if he would rather be punching something.

Edwardian ladies’ beauty regime, 1906

Ah yes, how to “repair the season’s ravages”, a perennial problem. I doubt that meant mainlining pigs in blankets in front of the World’s Strongest Man for Edwardian society ladies, but their creative beauty treatments offer inspiration for more contemporary malaise. Why not take a “light bath” in a cupboard (“may reduce the weight accumulated by incessant dining out”), lie in a bath full of magnets (“strengthening and life-giving”), or enjoy an “electrical massage” from a stern lady who looks disgusted with your life choices? Plus, if your nose had “gone out of fashion”, it could “be altered to suit any desired pattern” (I hope that stern lady wasn’t involved).

Lip tattooing, 1929

As someone who, 25 years ago, replaced my nonexistent eyebrows with tattoos, done by what I can only assume was the beauty parlour’s work experience kid, and still bears the scars, indelible orange and psychological, I am perfectly placed to shout back through time, “Noooo, don’t do it” at this reckless young thing. However, her expression of blank, listless resignation suggests she knows exactly how badly this will turn out.

Radium perm, 1920s

A reader recently alerted me to the wild early 20th-century craze for radioactive wellness products. Radium bath salts, madame? Or perhaps the radium toothpaste? I can find no information on how radium was supposed to make your hair curl, but it could definitely make it fall out.

Radium makeup remover, 1937

The French Tho-Radia range of beauty products were supposed to improve circulation and remove wrinkles, but were also shown conferring the unearthly radiant glow you can see here. They were cunningly promoted with “expertise” from a doctor called Alfred Curie, though he was no relation of Pierre and Marie, who apparently considered legal action against the company. French authorities, spoilsports that they were, restricted the use of radium in 1937, meaning this version may be radium-free: where would I get my glow?

Salon spa treatment,

1968Is cucumber even beautifying? One paper claims it is “excellent for rubbing over the skin to keep it soft and white”, contains “naturally occurring organic acids such as glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids” and inhibits tyrosinase (apparently a good thing). This woman has essentially been turned into a wedding buffet salmon; yet another unrealistic beauty ideal for us to fail to live up to.

Story by Emma Beddington, pictures selected by Sarah Gilbert: The Guardian

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