13 November 2007

Standards of Beauty:
Dangerous Beauty

By Lisa Yarde

While the modern age may seem to be taking beauty rituals to the extreme, women have always resorted to dangerous methods of making themselves lovelier and more attractive. The use of Botox, implants and other cosmetic treatments, designed to maintain a youthful appearance have their parallels throughout history.

During the Turkic Ottoman Empire, the female occupants of the Sultan's harem vied to hold their masters' heart with a variety of rituals that increased beauty. Rhusma is a depilatory, a mixture of caustic lime (a corrosive element) and orpiment, a by-product of arsenic. Turkish women applied rhusma all over their bodies to remove all hair and after a quick rinse, 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, rhusma could cause painful burns as it corroded the skin.

Meanwhile 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. Italian women refined an extract of 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 became 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.

In the Victorian era, upper 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 historic rituals give new meaning to the phrase, "dying to be beautiful."