Forever Beautiful

Forever Beautiful

In the name of vanity, Americans, both men and women, spend over $5 billion a year on cosmetics, beauty salons, and barbershops. Artificial adornments of the face and body have been a part of the human experience for many thousands of years; painting, powdering, and perfuming have been in existence since early Stone Age cultures.

Researchers have strong evidence that our Paleolithic ancestors used cosmetics: the abundance of red ocher at many early sites suggests that coloring of faces and bodies was an established ritual. Although the short, stocky Neanderthal female may have resembled a wrestler too much to appeal to modern tastes, her painted body may have appeared all the more attractive to the sturdy, brutish males of 100,000 years ago. Facial and body decoration may have begun as beauty marks for the Cro—Magnon of 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, but they became a serious feature in rites of religion and warfare. Such practices continued into the age of civilization; archaeologists have unearthed palettes for grinding and mixing face powder and eye paint dating as far back as 6000 b.c.

Beauty shops and perfume factories were flourishing in Egypt by 4000 b.c. The creation of cosmetics was a highly skilled and widely practiced art for men as well as women. Perfumes ("foods that reawaken the spirit," according to Mohammed) were first identified with deities; myrrh and frankincense were the ultimate of worldly tributes (the gifts to the Christ child were not casually selected). Because they served an important religious function, the strongest fragrances were reserved for the nobility. At special ceremonies and banquets, guests could appear in the presence of the pharaoh only after being sprinkled with fragrant waters. Royal mummies were deeply impregnated with lasting aromatic substances. Unguent pots in Tutankhamen's tomb, which was sealed around 1352 b.c., were still fragrant when they were opened in 1922.

During the centuries before the Christian era, every recorded culture with the exception of the Greeks adorned itself with perfumes, powders, and paint. In the ninth century b.c., during the prosperous golden age of Greek society, the dominant idea of human perfection was masculinity and natural ruggedness. Male athletes and scholars dominated the scene, and women were little more than chattel. The perfect creature was the male, unadorned and unclothed. The use of cosmetics was restricted in Greece to the courtesans, handmaidens to the noble and wealthy. These mistresses to the aristocrats were adorned with painted faces, coifed hair, and highly perfumed bodies. Added to these elaborate embellishments was a breath perfume that, in those days of uncertain dental care, may have been an essential ingredient for plying their profession. The courtesan carried an aromatic liquid or oil in her mouth. She did not swallow the breath freshener (which appears to have been history's first) but, at an appropriate moment, discreetly spat it out.

In sharp contrast to the Greeks, Roman men and women were often unrestrained in their use of cosmetics, and Roman officers often rode into battle elaborately adorned. Considerable archaeological and historical evidence exists that fashionable Roman women had vanity shelves equipped with the equivalent of every beauty preparation available at present—day cosmetic counters—and many the Food and Drug Administration would not have approved.

The Egyptians accepted the idea that the eyes, more than any other visible body part, revealed the inner emotions and thoughts of a human being. Eyes reflect an endless array of feelings, including love, hate, confusion, depression, surprise, tenderness, joy, sorrow, and despair. Quite naturally these early leaders in the art of beauty enhancement concentrated on the eyes as the focal point of facial makeup. Their favorite color for eye shadow, green, came from powdered malachite, a green copper ore mineral. It was applied heavily to the upper and lower eyelids. Then the eyes were outlined, and lashes and eyebrows darkened with a black paste made from powdered antimony, burnt almonds, a black oxide of copper, and black clay ocher.

An additional fringe benefit encouraged wide use of this mixture, called kohl. Kohl discouraged and probably killed off tiny mites whose habitat was the hair follicles around eyelashes, where they caused such assorted discomforts as itching, infections, and blindness. Many women shaved their eyebrows and applied false, expressive brows with a kohl pencil. Both Egyptian women and, later, Greek courtesans drew extended brows to meet above the nose.

Fashionable Egyptian men and women were the first to enhance their eyes with glitter. They crushed iridescent beetle shells into a powder that they mixed with the malachite eye shadow. The preferred lipstick of the time was blue—black, although Cleopatra seems to have been partial to red. Facial rouge was also red, and feet and hands were stained red—orange. Even Greek men, advocates of natural appearance, furtively added rouge to color their cheeks. The courtesans, whose goal was dramatic contrast, first coated their skin with white powder, then applied a dark red rouge.

The rouge used by civilized ancients would have failed the basic tests of the fda. The base, made from harmless vegetable substances such as mulberry and seaweed, was safe enough. However, it was colored with cinnabar, a highly poisonous red ore mineral of mercury. Cinnabar was also the coloring material used in the lip rouge of Greek and Roman women. Doubtless much of it was ingested and in the bloodstream would have been very harmful to the fetus of any pregnant woman. Since the custom was to abandon any deformed infant at birth, there is no way of estimating how many miscarriages, stillbirths, and infants with congenital deformities resulted from these ancient beautifying practices.

The custom of staining fingernails and fingers was well established in Egypt by 3000 b.c. Nail color signified social order, the deepest red being at the top of the list. Queen Nefertiti painted the nails of her fingers and toes ruby red; Cleopatra favored deep rusty red. Women of lesser rank were permitted only pale tones, and no one dared flaunt the color worn by the queen or for that matter the king, who also displayed his superiority with brightly colored nails. Defiance of the royal color order was considered quite disrespectful and may have led to offenders being unceremoniously fed to the royal crocodiles.

Other than not infringing on the rights of royalty, few restraints were exercised against the use of cosmetic enhancement. But disapproval was voiced. Herodotus wrote that a painted prospective bride was as dishonest as a groom who overstated his property holdings. In 2nd—century Greece and 18th—century England, legislation was passed to prevent women from tricking men into marriage by the use of paints, potions, and perfumes—but such laws were short lived. Now, with a multibillion—dollar industry to support the practice, whatever sells is right!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning