Monthly Archives: August 2013

“ROSY CHEEKS . . . Skin clear as Alabaster . . . LENNOX’S HARMLESS ARSENIC WAFERS”


No beauty advice would be complete without a rundown of the ‘superfoods’ and drinks that make you lovely from the inside, but I was reminded of the strange history of edible beauty recently by an advert for Perfectil beauty supplements. It’s a bit of an odd one:

“It contains vitamin B2, biotin and iodine which contribute to the maintenance of normal skin and provides 1000mcg of copper which contributes to normal skin pigmentation. It also includes selenium and zinc, which contribute to the maintenance of normal nails and normal hair…”

These pills will make you normal! Not exactly the kind of promise you expect to see in a beauty magazine.

While I am quite pleased at the implication that normal might actually be good enough for once, I am less sure about ingesting copper to achieve it. I know, it’s probably fine, but if we look back at the beauty supplements of the past, we might be just a little bit wary…

  • Drinking vinegar for clear skin.
  • Apparently the warm urine of a young boy does that too.
  • You can get bright eyes with “half a dozen drops of whisky and the same quantity of Eau de Cologne, eaten on a lump of sugar” (from Mental Floss)
  • And don’t forget to try Belladonna eye drops.
  • Along with cocaine toothpaste, for that sparkling smile! (from The Everyday Goth)

And my personal favourite:

  • “ROSY CHEEKS . . . Skin clear as Alabaster . . . LENNOX’S HARMLESS ARSENIC WAFERS” (advert in Home Chat, 1900)


‘Ophelia’ by John Everett Millais, 1851-2 (

And that’s before we even get to the things that go on your skin:

  • The Ancient Greeks used to bleach their hair using pigeon excrement.
  • They also singed off their pubic hair using heated stones. Makes a Brazilian wax look tame.
  • Some classic 18th and 19th-century makeup ingredients: hyposulphite of soda, mercury, corrosive sublimate (I love this – sublimated corrosion?), carbonate of lead, sugar of lead (in Leigh Summers, Bound to Please).
  • Oh, and some classic 21st-century makeup ingredients: urea (which used to be extracted from horse urine), oleoresin capsicum (that’s pepper spray), diatomite (a component of dynamite), guanine, i.e. fish scales – also known as ‘natural pearl essence’. Nice. (from No More Dirty Looks).

Anyone know of more horrors that I’ve missed? Somehow goji berries and coconut water suddenly seem a much more inviting route to beauty…

Stop Reading! Your Computer is Making You Ugly

According to this month’s Elle magazine, anyway.


Despair slithered down my spine as I read Sophie Beresiner’s description of how the “stealth youth drainer” (i.e. computer) I work on was slowly sucking the freshness from my face like Michelle Pfeiffer’s witch in Stardust. Et tu, laptop? Here’s how:

  • Beresiner kindly asks if I’m sitting comfortably. WELL STOP, she continues. It’s giving you wrinkles.
  • The computer is chucking free radicals at your face. What are they, anyway? Who knows, but they’re ageing you too.
  • Are you using a phone? Gross! It’s dirty and will give you spots.
  • The actual air of your office is probably air-conditioned and is ageing you. Sorry.
  • You had a sandwich for lunch? A sandwich that you bought? Disgusting. Pre-prepared sandwiches and salads are “dead foods”. They’re giving you spots too.
  • Your face is ageing your face. It’s your resting face. You probably frown all the time – go on, I bet you do. According to a “skincare expert” your bitchy resting face creates a “focus mould” for your facial muscles and they get stuck there. You know, like when the wind changes and your ugly face gets stuck forever.

Gosh, thank you Sophie. I didn’t realise my precious beauty was in such terrible danger. But what’s the solution?

Well, apart from buying a Chanel moisturising spray for £44 and drinking chlorophyll powder, it seems all I have to do is… go for a walk at lunchtime. Oh really? That’s all?

Boring. Chanel and chlorophyll all the way.

Hemline Feminism


Whenever a story crops up about a sexual or sexist attack in which the (female) victim is accused of wearing the kind of clothes that ‘ask for it’, I always feel that one important point is never made. Although the argument that women really should be able to wear what they like without incurring ‘justified’ rape ought to be enough to end the discussion (if only!), I think there is more to be said on the clothing choices available to girls and women.

Now, I know I am not the only person who has purchased a lovely summer dress, which looked absolutely fine in the changing room, only to find that once you start walking around in it the skirt is barely swishing over your buttocks. Or the difficulty in finding tops with a neckline high enough to cover your bra. Or a shirt for work that is not completely see-through. I mean, seriously, why would you ever want a see-through shirt?

And yes, if you are concerned by these things you can choose to wear something modest like trousers and a shirt – oh wait.

Choice is a funny thing. It is very easy for a rape apologist to say that women can just choose to wear clothes that cover their bits up and then, erm, there will be no more rape. However, if you cast a critical eye over the window displays of clothes shops aimed at young and youngish women, you will see an overwhelming dominance of teeny skirts, skintight jeans, low-cut tops, see-through blouses, backless dresses, hotpants and this summer – God forbid – crop tops. These are the clothes that girls and women are encouraged to wear by adverts, magazines and the celebrities who unfortunately function as role models. Add to that the immense pressure to be hot and sexy and it no longer seems like a simple choice for a sixteen-year-old girl to wear a polo neck and bootcut jeans from Marks and Spencer.

If there is a better solution than safety pins and opaque tights then I for one would like to hear it.

“Beauty Terror”: Thoughts on ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach

“Beauty terror” is an evocative phrase. Troubling and mysterious, but I think that everyone will immediately have a good idea of what it means. We have probably all felt it.


The idea of beauty terror comes from Susie Orbach’s 2009 book, Bodies, which I have recently been reading and would highly recommend. Orbach is a practising psychoanalyst, and she knows what she is talking about. Her work draws on the real cases of her patients as well as feminist and cultural theory, but it is readable, sensible and kind of rocks.

So what is beauty terror? Is it a terror of beauty itself, beautiful people, or of not being beautiful? I think the last suggestion carries the most weight, but that they are all connected. According to Orbach, beauty terror is created by:

  • The 2000-5000 Photoshopped and enhanced images of bodies that we see every week
  • The ideal of beauty that these bodies show – a kind of beauty that is becoming ever more narrow, with less room for variation
  • The beauty industry which produces these images, and then offers products to ‘fix’ our faulty bodies and solve our insecurities
  • The insecurities that they created in the first place, you mean?
  • Yes, those ones. What a genius money-spinner.


“Our bodies are and have become a form of work.” Fun! (Orbach, p.16).

People defend beauty practices (or beauty work, as feminists rightly call it) by saying that we have always used makeup and transformed our bodies. Cleopatra’s eyeliner and the African tribes who stretch their necks with bangles are often given as justification. Orbach has an excellent response to this, which hinges on the fact that those kinds of beauty practices were done for very different reasons:

“What is new today, however, is the way in which bodily transformation is no longer linked to social ritual within the family but is part of the individual’s response to wanting to produce what is an acceptable body.” (p.98)

An elongated neck may be regarded as a feature of attractiveness, but that is strongly bound up with its role as a feature of belonging to that community. As for Cleopatra and pals, apparently kohl eyeliner helps stop you having to squint against the sun.

The bodily transformation we chase today is a feature of a different kind of belonging: the ideal body is presented as the only acceptable body, and anything less is less than human. A fat body is called a whale, a cow, a lump. An animal, an object, a failure. Never a person, just trying to get on with their life.

Photoshopped-dog-or-a-woman Yeah. Lolz.

So of course we keep going back to the beauty and diet products, and the advice of the beauty magazines, because we keep failing to become acceptable. And of course we fail: the ideal, acceptable human body is not a human body at all, but a digital image, a set of pixels that have been shifted, brightened and deleted by Photoshop whizzes into an eerie shiny symmetry. A symmetry which flesh can only achieve when sliced up and sewn back together. As Orbach says, “the body has become a series of individual images and a labour process in itself” (p.90).

And we sort of know this, we do. “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ by the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence. We believe that we can be critical of the negative practices of this persuasive industry and simply enjoy fashion and beauty, and yet the constant exhortation to change gets under our skin” (Orbach, p.108-9).

Simple resistance is really too much to expect of anyone who has been surrounded by these images, adverts and beauty talk – fat talk, transformation talk, makeup talk – since, well, birth. It’s too much to expect that anyone could ignore the clamour and feel like their body is just a vehicle that they live in, and it doesn’t really matter how it looks. We no longer have that idea of the body made available to us. Instead, that vehicle needs pimpin’.

We can try though. Reading books like Bodies and talking about them is a pretty good start. Adding to our beauty talk some discussion of Photoshop, capitalist profit-making and the problems in the dream we are sold.

Making a noise. Being more than a picture.

word hug

Fighting Fit

One of many reasons I don’t do Twitter: in a follow-up to my post on the abuse of Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, here is a neat selection of the kind words she received on Twitter. Thanks to Nesrin for the link.


My previous discussion of sportswomen wearing makeup barely scratched the surface of the problem – as the folk on Twitter demonstrate, it takes more than lip gloss to conform to their idea of a woman, and Bartoli received a ridiculous number of tweets saying that she must be a man (because she doesn’t look like Lisicki).

As we have seen in the past couple of weeks, Twitter has become the platform of choice for displays of misogyny, most recently rape and bomb threats to Hadley Freeman, Mary Beard, Laurie Penny and other female writers and journalists, for no apparent reason. Is it the thrill of a public audience? The 140-character limit that is so suited to insults? These are some of the theories put forward by Claire Hardaker in the Guardian. Is it that these thoughts (if they can be called that) would have been expressed anyway, somehow?

Or is it, even worse, just a trend? One of those things that seems isolated and weird at first, but gets picked up by bored people and snowballs, like printed leggings?

OK, maybe not just a trend. The misogyny is clearly there. But the sudden enthusiasm first for rape threats and then bomb threats has the hallmarks of a fad, getting picked up and proliferated like the word ‘awesome’ in its current, irritating UK usage.

The question then is whether to publicise these tweets and talk about them, or deny them the attention.

Should I perhaps have refrained from posting the Marion Bartoli tweets?