Cosmetics and our psyche…

Curious Rascal
5 min readMar 24, 2023

Every now and then I catch cost centre 3 with unnaturally rosy cheeks or as Mills and Boons used to put it, bruised lips. I do a double take and question. Shyly the response is she has been experimenting with make-up. My little one is 10 years old and to be fair to her, she is only emulating what she observes. Regardless of the unease with my fledgling prettifying herself, I also admit to a slight conflict when I wear make-up.

I mostly apply it to accentuate my better features, but I also power up to hide that which dampens my confidence. I like to think I embellish myself for my own gratification, but this isn’t completely true. I accept I also ‘modify’ myself for external approval. I want to be glamorous, I want to enhance my presence. I want to demonstrate I take care of myself and I relish the confidence make-up bestows. Should those extrinsic needs figure in my psyche? What does make-up suggest about how I derive self belief? Should I be trying to fix my imperfections or should the feminist in me be aghast.

In ancient Roman the poet Martial wrote to a made up woman the following: ‘You are but a composition of lies … No man can say, I love you, for you are not what he loves, and no one loves what you are’

The gulf between wearing nice clothes or jewellery, choosing how to speak, acquiring material goods to display and beautifying ourselves is not unassailable. They all contribute to an external promise. I am attractive and prosperous. It is well known, an alluring look bequeaths advantages in life and research has proven it helps to elevate perceptions of status, parenting skills and intelligence. Beauty is almost a short hand for success. Further psychological analysis offers insights into the nuances of our look. Both sexes regard a make-up free face on average as less healthy. Women perceive others wearing make-up as more dominant but also potentially promiscuous. Men have viewed women donning cosmetics as prestigious; more feminine than those who don’t and if being made up discerns youth, such women in evolutionary terms command choice when it comes to choosing a partner.

As I’ve explored I have come to learn make-up has encompassed these conflicts and aspects throughout history. But more intriguingly are the lengths we would go to to satisfy our egos. The baffling chronicle demonstrates the potential for death; or at least an excruciating existence was overcome by self-conceit.

Chinese royalty in the Zhou dynasty (3000 BC) used gelatin, beeswax, egg white and gum arabic to stain nails gold and silver. The lower class were not permitted to do this. In Ancient Egypt dark Kohl was applied around the eyes by both men and women to protect against evil spirits. The Kohl was made of lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds (howstuffworks.com) and could be black, blue or green. Cleopatra applied red lipstick made from ground carmine beetles, the poorer Egyptians used clay for their lip colour. Rouge and green eyeshadow was also popular. Perfumes and face oils were made from herbs and flowers. It is believed daily bathing and make-up rituals in Egyptian times were to honour the gods and goddesses who valued cleanliness and beauty. I wonder if there is any truth to the idea the Egyptians were the first to invent anti-wrinkle serums!

But fast forward. In the 1st century AD during Roman times, make-up was regarded as vulgar particularly driven by the philosophy of Stoicism which leaned towards beauty being related to moral acts rather than external appearance. However there was a trend to whiten the skin using Venetian ceruse. A white face signified youth and wealth, a life of leisure rather than the tanned skin of outdoor life. Ceruse was composed of lead and vinegar and emerged as a strong white paste on the face. Lead was also used in face paint in Ancient Greece and possibly in China. It caused infertility, deafness, hair to fall out and muscle paralysis when left on the face for weeks at a time as would occur. Aside from the availing of Venetian ceruse, women could also wield egg white.

The Byzantine empire embraced make-up and the Renaissance era took to hair dye and skin lighteners made with arsenic. Scent making becomes more complex utilising natural ingredients. From the middle ages for a long period, colour faded out of fashion and white faces became popular symbolising youth. The Church spoke about make-up being the preserve of satanists. In the 16th century, after contracting small pox, Queen Elizabeth was left with a scarred face when previously she had been admired for smooth skin. To cover up she administered Venetian Ceruse then termed ‘The mask of youth’. In the 1800’s, facial cleaner could contain mercury which was toxic as was the red pigment used on lips which contained heavy metals. ‘Belladona’, a poison; was used as eyedrops to dilate pupils.

In the 19th century upper class men and women wore make-up but mostly based on family recipes and everyday products from the home to lighten their complexions and soften the appearance of blemishes. Burnt matches to darken eyelashes, rice powder to dust noses, red beetroot juice to brighten cheeks and face powder from a concoction of margarine and chalk.

In the US from 1880, entrepreneurs began to produce and sell lines of cosmetics using an agent system spawning Avon in 1929. In the 20th century make-up became mainstream and wearing brighter colours more acceptable possibly due to the emergence of the camera, the increasing prominence of movie stars and greater use of mirrors. Stage make-up did not translate easily to the everyday and so Max Factor, the London based make-up company took original greasepaint and turned it into more suitable products. By the 1900’s, cosmetics were in mainstream use. Maybelline appeared in 1917 selling mascara from a mix of petroleum jelly and coal dust originally created by founder Thomas Williams for his sister Maybel. Spending on cosmetics rose significantly after the second world war as women entered the workforce and gained stronger purchasing power.

I could go onto the modern era and its developments but it’s pretty dull in comparison to the historical craziness. However I’ll leave you with a few odd anecdotes. The average made up woman spends 9 days applying make-up, is in contact with more than 200 synthetic compounds daily and swallows 4.5kgs of cosmetics over a life-time including 5 lipstick tubes per year. A mortician once told me, years of mascara wearing would end up clumped behind eyeballs and have to be gauged out….

Hmmmm….I have an idea. Do you think taking a make-up curious 10 year old to an autopsy might either cure her of her interest or be bad parenting…..

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Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.