Jul 7, 2012

Fatal Beauty

Fatal Beauty by Lisa J. Yarde
While the modern age may seem to be taking beauty rituals to the extreme with the use of Botox, implants and other cosmetic treatments, women have always resorted to dangerous methods of making themselves lovelier and more attractive. As an author of historical fiction, I've enjoyed researching the beautification steps women of the past undertook and finding historical parallels of the risks women take today.


Jean-Leon Gerome's Femme Nue
(public domain)
During the Ottoman Empire, the female occupants of the Sultan's harem vied to hold their masters' hearts with a variety of rituals that increased beauty. Rusma is a depilatory, a mixture of caustic lime (a corrosive element) and orpiment, a by-product of arsenic. Turkish women applied rusma all over their bodies to remove all hair. After a quick rinse in the Turkic bathhouse, they used a bronze scraper to remove the mixture. It had the effect of whitening the skin, but if left on for longer than necessary, rusma could cause painful burns as it corroded the skin.
Atropa Belladonna

In Renaissance Italy, the counterparts of Ottoman women used 
 belladonna to appear more attractive. Belladonna is Italian for beautiful lady. Native to Europe, belladonna is one of the most toxic plants in the world, also called deadly nightshade. Italian women refined an extract from the berries of atropa belladonna, as part of their beautification. With one drop in both eyes, belladonna dilated their pupils, simulating the natural state of arousal where a person's pupils dilated. Prolonged use of belladonna caused permanent blindness, but before the onset of it, many women also experienced increased heart rates and prolonged blurred vision as constant complaints. 
John Singer Sargent's
Mrs. Ralph Curtis (public domain)

The Victorian era introduced another dangerous ritual. Uppper class women mixed white arsenic, vinegar and chalk to consume or rub on their skins to improve their complexions and reduce the natural wrinkling of aging skin. It had the effect of whitening their skin, but arsenic is a potent poison, known from ancient times as the weapon of choice among nobility and royalty for dispatching rivals permanently. Ingesting it consistently resulted in absorption into the blood stream. Deaths sometimes resulted from organ failure.

These rituals give new meaning to the term, “fatal beauty.”

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3 comments:

Jessie said...

Thanks for sharing your research! It's fascinating the lengths to which some women went to look "beautiful." To some extent, we still do it today (Botox for instance,) but of course it's not quite as extreme.

Andi's English Attic said...

When the only hope for a women to 'advance' in life was to marry a rich, successful man, one can understand why they went to such desperate measures to enhance their beauty. Now western women have the freedom to excel by their own talents I wonder why some still go to extremes for beauty?

Tara said...

My goodness! I would rather just have some peach fuzz than be burned! Thanks for a fascinating post.