6 Terrifying Beauty Practices from History

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Woman, iStock. Corset X-Ray, Public Domain.

Chemical peels that burn layers of skin from your face. Appetite suppressants that come with a risk of heart failure. Cosmetic surgeries that change the appearance of a woman’s most intimate parts. There are plenty of modern cosmetic practices that run the gamut from physically painful to medically risky. But most don’t hold a candle to the hazardous cosmetic techniques of yore. Check out these historic beauty practices that are even scarier than modern ones.

1. WEARING CORSETS

You know what really turns men off? When women take deep breaths. In the 1800s, the invention of metal eyelets allowed women to cinch their corsets tighter than ever before, with acute medical consequences. In fairness, not all women tightened their corsets to the point of injury, and probably none of them achieved the 14-inch waist advertised in 19th century fashion magazines. But the stylish undergarments were often laced so tightly that they restricted women’s breathing. In the long term, wearing corsets caused muscle atrophy, deformed the ribcage, and misaligned the spine. And extreme corset use wasn’t just limited to women, as indicated by the warped ribs of a 19th-century Englishman whose body was excavated in the early 2000s. The study authors felt that it was likely an orthopedic corset, but noted “corset use to obtain a fashionable silhouette cannot be ruled out.”

2. EATING ARSENIC

In the 19th century and earlier, some people (mainly in Styria, a region that encompassed parts of modern Austria and Slovenia) consumed arsenic to “produce a blooming complexion, a brilliant eye, and an appearance of embonpoint [sexy stoutness],” according to one 1857 magazine article on the practice. There were safety rules, of course: You were only supposed to take it while the moon was waxing, and you could only eat only a dose as big as a single grain of millet at first. If you took more than that before you built up a tolerance, you could die. Once you began eating arsenic regularly, though, if you ever stopped, you’d suffer from painful withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and muscle spasms. But wait, there was another downside—because arsenic interferes iodine necessary for thyroid function, eating it gave people goiters. Blooming, brilliant, embonpoint goiters.

3. FOOT BINDING

A tradition that likely started around the late 10th century, foot binding was designed to turn a woman’s feet into 3-inch-long “golden lotuses” by folding the toes under and binding them tightly. The extremely painful practice began when a child was as young as 3 to 4 years old and continued into adulthood. The resulting wobbly walk and doll-like feet were considered highly attractive and vital to a woman’s marriage prospects. This one isn’t limited to the distant past, either: Foot binding wasn’t completely stamped out until China’s Communist Revolution in 1949, and there are still living Chinese women who feet were bound as children.

4. APPLYING RADIOACTIVE FACE CREAM

In the early 20th century, before anyone knew about the health risks of radiation, radioactive consumer products were all the rage. In the 1930s, an enterprising doctor named Alfred Curie capitalized his association with the famous radioactive researchers (who he definitely wasn’t related to) to launch Tho-radia, a French cosmetics brand whose products featured radioactive chemicals like thorium chloride and radium bromide. Advertisements for his face cream claimed that the radioactive formula could stimulate “cellular vitality,” firm up skin, cure boils and pimples, even out redness and pigmentation, erase wrinkles, stop aging, and help retain the “freshness and brightness of the complexion.” It’s all vitality and brightness until someone’s jaw falls off.

5. MAKING EYEDROPS OUT OF DEADLY NIGHTSHADE

Deadly nightshade is also called belladonna, or “beautiful woman,” a likely reference to its role in the cosmetic routines of ladies in Renaissance Italy and beyond. Italian women—and later, women in Victorian England—would squeeze drops of deadly nightshade into their eyes to dilate their pupils for a striking, wide-eyed look they thought was seductive. Unfortunately, the side effects included blurry vision, vertigo, and headaches. And the blindness reported to result from its extended use? Worth it, as long as you got the watery-eyed look of a consumptive. The active ingredient in deadly nightshade, atropine, is still used today to dilate the eyes during eye exams, but unlike the cosmetic belladonna drops of the past, the highly diluted modern versions won’t blind you.

6. USING LEAD MAKEUP

The 1700s were rough on the complexion. Even if you don’t count the miasmic filth in which even the richest people lived, there was smallpox to contend with—by the end of the 18th century, an estimated 400,000 Europeans were dying of it every year. If you were lucky enough to survive, the disease left severe scarring. The best way to cover these pockmarks and other cosmetic imperfections was lead face powder, and both men and women took advantage of it. It's great stuff—inexpensive and easy to make, coats well, and has a silky finish. Except even then, it was known to be wildly toxic. Not only did it cause eye inflammation, tooth rot, and baldness, but it also made the skin blacken over time, requiring yet more of the noxious powder to achieve the pure white face, shoulders, and chest that were so fashionable. Ah yes, and then there was the fact that using it could eventually kill you.

BONUS: EATING TAPEWORMS (MAYBE)

This controversial fad diet—which may or may not have actually existed—was not only dangerous, but also really gross. In the early 1900s, several newspaper accounts reported that women were eating pills filled with tapeworm eggs as a way to lose weight. The tapeworm eggs would supposedly hatch and take up residence in the intestine of their poor, plump host, consuming the nutrients that would otherwise be digested. This would keep the person malnourished and thin. However, even a century ago, doctors doubted people would subject themselves to this kind of pain to look good. In 1912, The Washington Post ran an article called “Tapeworm Pills For Fat People Merely A Wild Yarn, Say Experts.” But as we know, people have done crazier things in the name of beauty.

A version of this story ran in 2013.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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