Cosmetics and Body Decoration

by Michael Sones

“I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That’s deep enough. What do you want-an adorable pancreas?” [Jean Kerr, The Snake Has All The Lines, ‘Mirror, Mirror’ ]

The word cosmetics originates in the Greek ‘cosmos’ meaning order or arrangement. The Greeek philosopher, Hesiod, wrote one of the first warnings to men about the deceitfulness of women and how they disguise themselves through cosmetics. This is the story of Pandora who was fashioned from clay and adorned before she could speak. While she was beautiful on the outside her interior was that of a thief and a liar. She was a “beautiful evil” sent to men to counterbalance the good they had received when they received the gift of fire.

The decoration and modification of the body through various means such as cosmetics, tattooing, piercing, scarification, circumcision, head-binding, and so on dates back many thousands of years. Scarification and filing of the teeth are considered by many tribal peoples as a way of differentiating the human body from Nature and the natural body of animals. The non-Natural body is beautiful. Animals do not file their teeth or tattoo their skin. People all over the world in virtually every society decorate themselves and so there is no reason to think that our ancestors did not. In Western industrialized cultures it is usually used to refer to the application of make-ups, lipsticks, and polishes.

Ancestral man used red ochre to draw in his caves, and quite possibly, on himself. Evidence of the use of ochre dates back 800,000-900,000 years. Skeletal remains have been found covered in ochre. Ochre is the common name for the iron ores of limonite (brown), goethite (yellow), and haematite (red). Most ochre used by ancestral man was haematite. Ochre may have been used for bodily decoration, an insect repellent, or treating animal skins. One anthropologist believes that ochre was used by women to mimic the flow of menstrual blood. It is still used worldwide by some tribal peoples as protection from the sun, an insect repellent (the Himba of Africa), and a medicine (the Gugadja people of north-west Australia). Aztec courtesans used a pale yellow ochre powder on their faces to make themselves look beautiful.

There is evidence for tattooing dating back to over 5,000 years as tattoos were found on the body to the ‘Iceman’ who was found in the Italian Alps in 1991. Take a look at COSMETICS, STYLES & BEAUTY CONCEPTS IN IRAN by Massoume Price. This is an interesting historical overview of cosmetics and beauty concepts in the ancient Middle East with particular reference to Persia (Iran). The article also has some very good photos of ancient statues revealing hairstyles from 3000 BC.

Modern day cosmetic and toiletries is big business with estimates that anywhere from over $45,000,000,000 – 66,000,000,000 a year are being spent worldwide (that’s nearly as much as Bill Gates’ reputed fortune at one time). Beauty is appealing and yet causes great anxiety. In many cultures there are myths about men being deceived and often led to their deaths by beautiful women. There are parallels to this in the Natural world. The Venus flytrap, perhaps the best known of the carnivorous plants, makes itself appealing in order to lure insects to their deaths.

Make-up both conceals and reveals. Hides and invites. Invites to see what is underneath. It conceals signs of aging, ill-health, blemishes, suggests mystery and invites further exploration, and is, in the mimicking of flushing and blushing, suggestive of sexuality. Perhaps rather similar to one of the types of landscapes which many of us find beautiful which is that of mountainous terrain-from a psychoanalytic point of view the mountains would symbolize the inviting breasts of the female and the country beyond the mountains representing the body to be explored.

The ancient Egyptians certainly used cosmetics and had beauty parlours nearly 6,000 years ago. There was not another ancient culture with such concern for personal beauty and body care. This was not just confined to the royalty and the nobility. Body oil was given to labourers as part payment. They were very concerned about bodily cleanliness. Shaving sets (not electric) over 4000 years old have been found. Grave goods, so that they could look good in the afterlife, included eye palettes, tweezers, and razors. A pot of moisturizer containing animal fat and perfumed resin was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. They made their cosmetics from olive and nut oils, animal fats, flowers, and seeds. Green eye shadow, eye liner and mascara were featured. They dyed their skin with henna and fashionable, high-status women wore red nail polish and coated their nipples with gold. Incense was used regularly and the acquisition of materials for cosmetics was a major part of ancient Egypt’s foreign trade. Both men and women used cosmetics and body oils.

In the Middle East today staining hair, skin, and nails with henna is a preferred way of adorning the body. A black henna is used to decorate feet and hands while red henna is used for fingers and toes. Kohl, which was used by the Ancient Egyptians as an eyeliner and eyeshadow, is still used today by some Arabian women. It enlarges the look of the eyes and offers some protection from the sun’s glare. Henna is now used as a body decoration by many in the developed countries.

The preferred “look” in the 19th century for women in the Western world was paleness, perhaps slight rouge on the cheeks, emphasizing feminine delicacy and fragility. American women really began using cosmetics en masse in the 1920’s as more and more of them began entering the workforce. The “look” for today emphasizes youth and health.

Cosmetic surgery really followed on from the carnage of World War I when surgeons, after having repaired men’s faces disfigured in battle, turned their attention to women.

The removal of bodily hair is an important part of body adornment. Women remove their bodily hair, usually legs and underarms, because this is thought to be masculine and it emphasizes their femininity. Men also remove bodily hair through shaving and sometimes their chests-this may have the meaning of both distancing themselves from the natural (i.e. animal world much in the same way that the hairstyle of ‘cornrows’ suggests cultivated land) and to allow women or gay men to see their muscular chests.

Body painting is popular the world over with, in the developed world, some of the most flamboyant displays being reserved for supporters of football clubs who paint their faces and torsos with the colours of their club and country. It is very popular and at fairs and markets there is often a stall set up offering to paint children’s faces.

Red on white seems to have been a favorite colour combination with which women have adorned their faces throughout history. In different cultures and time period around the world women have used white creams and powders on their faces and then used red to highlight their lips and cheeks as if to accentuate blushing and the flow of blood in excitement. High cheekbones in a woman are cross-culturally considered to be an attractive feature and blush, applied to the apple of the cheeks, accentuates this feature. Fuller lips are now considered more attractive and injections of collagen or fat are used to increase lip size.

Fair and wrinkle-free skin signifies youth, health and fecundity (fertile but not pregnant). Women as do children , even from dark races, generally have paler skin than men. A women’s skin generally darkens after her first pregnancy-hence natural skin lightness may be attractive to men because it signifies never having been pregnant as well as allowing the health and age of the underlying body to be more easily detected. Darker skin conceals blemishes and signs of illness, such as skin parasites, more easily. And, of course, sadly racism may play a part in this.

Women tend to wrinkle sooner than men and Caucasians tend to wrinkle sooner than darker races. A deficiency in oestrogen causes a loss of collagen and this leads to drier, more wrinkly skin. Oestrogen deficiencies are, of course, typical with menopause.

Unfortunately, we are so distanced from the natural that some women think they are ugly without make-up and that they use make-up solely as a mask to hide rather than to make the hidden enticing and mysterious.

Cosmetic surgery has been legitimized by cultural icons like Michael Jackson and Cher. Dissatisfied with the shape and look of parts of your body? Surrender yourself to the surgeons knife. Nose jobs, tummy tucks, face lifts , breast implants, collagen pumped lips, liposuction [sucking the fat out] to shape buttocks, ankles, and calves. Hundreds of thousands of cosmetic medical procedures, to improve appearance rather than remedy significant cosmetic defect or disfigurement, are now performed yearly in the search for Beauty.

Notice the decorated chest of this 19th century painting of a Canadian Indian

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