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Changing Beauty Standards

I was lunching with a friend who mentioned having read a biography of Lucrezia Borgia, an Italian femme fatale, which described the extreme lengths women went to in order to have a ghostly white complexion, the epitome of beauty back in the 1400 and 1500s. Frankly, they make as much sense as what women do nowadays to be thin.

Here’s the skin beautifying description that Sarah Bradford provides in LUCREZIA BORGIA—LIFE, LOVE AND DEATH IN RENAISSANCE ITALY (page 146). “Foreheads were to be kept high, white and serene by hair removal, by applying a past of mastic overnight. Perhaps the most revolting beauty treatment for whitening the skin of the face, neck, hands and other parts of the body ‘whiter than alabaster’ was this…from Marinello: ‘Take two young white doves, cut off their necks, pluck them and draw out their innards, then grind them with four ounces of peach stones, the same of washed melon seeds, two ounces of sublimate mercury, a spoon of bean flour and ground pebbles which have been infused for a day and a night in milk; two young cabbages; a fresh cheese made that day or hour, fourteen whites of fresh eggs, half an ounce of camphor and an equal amount of borax; and four bulbs of the white lily, ground together and mixed together, put in a glass vial and mix with water and use at your pleasure.’ He continues with a further eight pages of recipes for whitening skin, considered so necessary for appearance of beauty.’”

Would you go through any of that for whiter skin or to be considered beautiful? How ridiculous these instructions sound and how dangerous they are—but are they really any sillier than women going on grapefruit diets, doing intestinal cleansings, living on diet shakes, purging with laxatives, fasting, or following any sure-to-make-you-thin fad that comes along? Imagine what will be said about our obsession with thinness centuries from now. I suspect that the female quest to pare down her body and the ways in which it’s being done will seem just as ludicrous and hazardous.

When you view women’s obsessions with thinness and beauty from a distance, you get a better sense of what we do to ourselves to meet arbitrary standards, often set by men. It’s important to be healthy, not thin. Pedaling thinness and white skin as synonymous with female attractiveness are ways that society controls women’s thoughts and behaviors which, in turn, keeps us focused on our appearance rather than on making a place for ourselves in the world. Women have choices now that Ms. Borgia didn’t and it’s up to us to remember that and make healthy beauty decisions for ourselves.