Fatal Attraction: 7 Terrifying Beauty Practices from History

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Chemical peels that burn layers of skin from your face. Appetite suppressants that cause heart failure. Surgery to make a woman’s most intimate parts resemble those of a Barbie doll. Noses de-bumped with a scalpel and breasts slit and stuffed with whatever filling is currently considered least dangerous. 

When we reflect on the quackery of the good old days, we usually have the smug luxury of increased wisdom. We can click our tongues at the values of yesteryear that were infantile and ill informed. However, when it comes to women desiring to be beautiful at any cost, values haven’t changed much. Here are seven primitive beauty practices that are almost as scary as modern ones.

1. Corsets 

You know what really turns men off? Internal organs in healthy alignment. Why do you think they were out there all through the 19th century killing whales? So women could use the dang whalebones to wrench that spleen into a more attractive position, that’s why! In fairness, a corset was a viable support garment, and not all women tightened them to the point of injury. Though how those slobs ever thought they would catch a husband with their lungs all just…hanging out there is beyond me.

2. Arsenic Eating

In the 19th century and earlier, people ate arsenic to “produce a blooming complexion, a brilliant eye, and an appearance of embonpoint (sexy stoutness).” There were rules of course; you could only take it while the moon increased, only a single grain at first (until you built a resistance), and if you ever stopped, you’d die. But wait, there was a downside. It also caused goiters, because arsenic blocks iodine in the thyroid, causing swelling. Blooming, brilliant, embonpoint goiters. And sometimes death.      

3. Tapeworms

In this case women not only did something dangerous to be thin, it was also…really gross. Tapeworm eggs, taken in pill form, would hatch and attach in the intestine of the poor, plump host. There they would eat the nutrients that would otherwise be processed by the host’s digestive system. This makes the host malnourished, but it makes the tapeworms grow. And grow. Some species of tapeworm can grow up to 100 feet. There were deworming treatments to remove them, but wow, you are not going to like how they come out. Imagine having to coax them out, as if gently hand reeling in a flat, slimy, wriggling fishing line, inch by horrible, sphinctery inch.  

4. Foot binding

Many historians think the Cinderella story originated in China. In other cultures, it seems odd that a woman could have feet of such a unique size that they would distinguish her from every other woman in the village. But if it were coming from China during the last millennium, that plot point makes sense. A tradition that likely started around the late 10th century, foot binding turned feet into “golden lotuses.” Stinking, rotten lotuses with folds so deep they couldn’t be cleaned. (Men never saw that part. Women kept their feet covered in the presence of even their husbands). Lotuses began their blooms when mothers folded under the little toes of their toddler daughters, tying them there as tight as possible. It was extremely painful. The practice permanently deformed and crippled the women who it was done to, but that was the point. Her wobbly walk and doll-feet told the world she was too wealthy and cherished to labor. The practice wasn’t completely stamped out until the communist revolution in 1949, when labor became a virtue. You can see a photo of it here, but beware—it's gruesome.

5. Tho-Radia Radioactive Cosmetics

The best thing about the 1930s French cosmetic line Tho-radia wasn’t that its manufacturers added thorium chloride and radium bromide for extra pep! It was that one of the names on the box was “Curie.” Of course Dr. Alfred Curie had absolutely no relation to the genius scientists who pioneered (and died from) radioactive research, Marie or Pierre Curie, but so what? With any name, Tho-radia would still provide a woman with every possible beauty miracle imaginable. “Stimulates cellular vitality, activates circulation, firms skin, eliminates fats, stops enlarged pores forming, stops and cures boils, pimples, redness, pigmentation, protects from the elements, stops ageing and gets rid of wrinkles, conserves the freshness and brightness of the complexion.” It’s all vitality and freshness till someone’s jaw falls off. 

6. Deadly nightshade

Deadly Nightshade is also called Belladonna, or “Beautiful Woman.” In one of those cases where the question, “who ever thought to even try this?” arises, women would squeeze drops of Deadly Nightshade into their eyes. This caused the eye to dilate, because big innocent pupils are sexy. The blindness that was reported to result from extended use? Well, if it’s that or dying alone impoverished and unloved…here’s poison in your eye.  

7. Lead face powder

The 1700s were rough on your complexion. Even if you don’t count the miasmic filth in which even the richest of people lived, there were an untold number of pox diseases a person had to avoid or more likely survive to make it to adulthood. These pox left scars, and the best way to cover these and other imperfections was lead face powder. It's great stuff—inexpensive and easy to make, coats well, and has a silky finish. But then, alas. Your brain starts to swell, paralysis creeps in, and pretty much every system in your body starts violently shutting down. But what a lovely, pale corpse you’ll be.

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April 25, 2013 - 2:00pm
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