Beauty is Pain: Horrific Things the Women of History did in the Pursuit of Beauty

Do you think today’s beauty products are bad for your skin? Believe me when I say things have been much, much worse. You can rest assured that for as long as there have been two people on this Earth, one or both of them tried to look attractive to the other.

That being said, the fashion magazine culture of women being obsessed with the way they looked is nothing new. We have always cared, sometimes more than we want to admit, and historically, women have done some crazy and dangerous things in pursuit of looking beautiful as dictated by the fashion of the time.

Lead Powder Foundation for Pale Matte Skin

Unlike our bronze is beautiful culture today, in the 16th and 17th century, being tan was a surefire sign of being a lowborn laborer. As such, women of the European aristocracy sought to have pale and flawless skin. Thanks to the abundance of diseases, many women who reached adulthood often had faces that were not so smooth with pox scars and other blemishes, but while they used silk beauty marks that they glued to their face to cover them, you can’t cover a tan the same way. Instead, they solved the issue by applying a white powder on their face…made of lead.

Basically, women were giving themselves lead poisoning to have that pale matte look to their skin. While lead can be absorbed through the skin, most women suffered because they inhaled or accidentally ingested some of the powder when applying it. Symptoms included brain swelling, paralysis, and then multiple organ failure. It kind of sucks when you think about the fact that many of these women lived through or evaded the major diseases of the day only to essentially kill themselves.

Lysol as a Douche

Lysol as a Douche


Today we use Lysol strictly as a disinfectant or a deodorizer if we don’t have a Febreeze on hand. However, in the 1950s, ladies were encouraged to douche their downstairs with a watered down Lysol solution to prevent infections and odor in order for a happy marriage. Even when watered down, women still experienced everything you would expect from Lysol-ing downstairs like burning and inflammation.

Corsets and Rib Removal for a Trim Waist


The hourglass figure is the dream, but not a realistic one based on how normal bodies work. Even today with corsets making a minor comeback, people are still chasing the dream. However, maybe people would think twice if they knew how historically dangerous the corset was.

One of the major issues with a corset is that it constricted breathing. Often women didn’t faint from their delicate sensibilities, but thanks for the fainting couch in the ladies room anyway. They fainted because they literally couldn’t breathe. Even a moderate gasp in a tightly-laced corset could be dangerous because the lungs could only expand so much. Furthermore, prolonged use of a corset also literally rearranged your organs. Organs are where they are in the body for a reason, and they need their space to work properly.

Yet, if you really wanted to go the distance towards that hourglass, you needed to consider having a rib removed. While the Bible spread the myth that women have more ribs than men, this is typically false. People can have one less or one more, but most people, both men, and women, have 12 sets. Some women supposedly had one on each side removed to lace their corset tighter and have a smaller waist. Yet, there is some debate as to if this actually happened back in the Victorian era (It does still happen in this modern era, though) or if it was just spread in more modern times as a way for a writer to boost their career.

Teeth Blackening

Teeth Blackening

For hundreds of years, before it was banned in 1870, the women of the Japanese aristocracy used to practice, Ohaguro, or teeth blackening. In literal contrast to our modern obsession with pristine white teeth, the aristocracy in Japan (and other areas of Asia) used to paint their teeth a luxurious lacquered black as a coming-of-age rite for women and a way to show loyalty for men. The dye was made by mixing a plant dye with ferric acetate, which is basically a solution of dissolved iron.

While the mixture actually served to protect teeth from decay (as well as to cover it up), it had to be reapplied every few days and those that used it usually became ill due to essentially consuming too much iron from the solution.

Eating Tapeworms to Stay Skinny

Eating Tapeworms to Stay Skinny

Have a few extra pounds around the middle section? Well, naturally the best idea in the world to down a few tapeworm eggs! (That’s sarcasm, definitely never do that.) Those lovely little parasites will eat a large portion of your nutrients in your intestines so you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. Never mind that you will quickly suffer from malnutrition from that alone. Historically, swallowing tapeworms was mostly accidental, but in more recent history this became somehow a viable form of weight loss.

If you aren’t grossed out by parasites, consider the fact that what goes in must come out. A tapeworm can live up to 25 years, so it needs to be taken out at some point. Often, they need to be pulled out and considering tapeworms can grow up to 55 feet, it is not going to be fun in any way.

Wigs for Fun Vertical Hair

Wigs for Fun Vertical Hair

If you have a not-so-secret addiction to period pieces like me, we all know those super ugly looking wigs that queens like Marie Antoinette and other European aristocrats wore. What we don’t know is that those wigs, both for women and men, were super duper gross! There are several things to consider here.

First, those wigs were rarely, if ever, washed. This means that they typically were infested with lice. Second, those huge elaborate hairscapes were shaped using lard and wooden frames if they got really huge. That lard would not only serve as a breeding ground for maggots, but they also attracted rats. In fact, because rat nests in wigs became such an issue, they created rat cages for these wigs to protect them while not being worn.

Deadly Nightshade for Innocent Eyes

You know, when people stare at someone they love or are, at very least, attracted to, their eyes dilate ever so slightly. However, in Italy during the Middle Ages when they probably didn’t know this, they saw women with dilated eyes as innocent and desirable. So you know what women did to get men to like them more? They dripped the essence of Deadly Nightshade, otherwise known as Belladonna, in their eyes.

If ingested, Belladonna is quite an effective poison. While dripping it into your eye didn’t kill you, it would eventually make you blind. It dilated your eyes giving them that coveted lost puppy looks that Italian man at the time I guess loved, but eventually, you would have trouble identifying close objects then lose your sight completely. I guess there might have been more than a few single, blind old women at the time.

Foot Binding for Tiny Feet

Foot Binding for Tiny Feet

Do you know what they say about a woman with tiny feet, eh? They physically can’t run away from their husbands! Well, at least that was the case for some women in China from the 10th century all the way to 1949 when Communists did an actual good thing and banned the practice.

Jokes aside, the overall goal of foot binding was not to maim young women (though that was typically the result), but rather to land a husband since small feet were delicate and indicative of high status. The process involved in breaking the toes of a very young girl, then binding them under their feet. They would heal that way and result in being able to fit into a very small shoe. As it made walking or standing very uncomfortable, many women of high status often enjoyed sitting much more.

Radioactive Cosmetics for Radiant Skin

Radioactive Cosmetics

After the advent of nuclear technology, those particles weren’t just used to make bombs, they were additives in cosmetics as well. Many cosmetics companies in the 1940s and 50’s actually added radium bromide and thorium chloride to cosmetics, both of which are radioactive and used in the production of nuclear energy.

Oh yes, it gave skin a pleasant glow, “cellular vitality”, and could cure everything from wrinkles and pimples to eliminating facial fat, but it also causes a wide array of cancers. Not only that, but common side effects also included skin irritation, redness, wrinkles, and literal rotting. Basically, as your skin got worse, women probably used more of those cosmetics to try and treat it. It’s a vicious circle.