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Are We Too Body Conscious?

Updated on February 25, 2012

We must suffer in order to be beautiful, it is said. From the beginning, Man's search for the ultimate in physical and moral beauty has been a history of extraordinary excess and extravagance. We have poisoned ourselves with paints, distorted our bodies with crippling garments and ornaments, and occasionally, in our eagerness to improve our appearance, even killed ourselves.

We are relatively fortunate now. Self-beautification is relabeled cosmetology, and health and beauty become combined into a science. Qualified cosmeticians research for years on a non-allergic lipstick or a new balanced diet. Cleanliness becomes of major importance as women massage themselves with 'deep-active' lotions to rid the skin of 'unsightly impurities', deodorize every conceivable area of their bodies, rid themselves of 'unwanted hair' and wash the hair they do want into shiningly conditioned purity.

Vitamin pills are sold with foundation creams and lipsticks. Dirty fingernails, body odour and dandruff have become signs of physical and moral collapse as advertising and industry create new profit-making images. We have, perhaps, reached a new kind of absurdity.

The obsession with self-decoration, if more health-conscious now than ever before, is universal and eternal. An Ancient Egyptian mother, according to a contemporary letter, lamented her daughter's preoccupation with fripperies, just as Isaiah, in a more profound gloom, foretold disaster for those who wore their 'tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets and the earrings, the rings and the nose-jewels...'

Satirists throughout the ages have mocked women - and, for that matter, men - for their cosmetic endeavors. 'You may dust your skin as much as you like. But you don't throw dust in my eyes,' claimed the Roman satirist Martial. And Juvenal laughed at the women who, like Nero's wife Poppaea, used skin foods to excess.

'She stinks of face packs which stick to her unhappy husband's lips,' said Juvenal. And, more mysteriously, we were warned: 'Never trust a girl who wears emerald necklaces or gold pendants in her ears, for she will stop at nothing and is entirely without shame.'

Less flippantly, an early saint pronounced: 'Thrice, thrice I say, not once, do they deserve to perish, who use crocodiles' excrement and anoint themselves with the froth of putrid humors and stain their eyebrows with soot, and rub their cheeks with white lead.' If we can understand to a certain extent the disgust engendered by such practices - as late as 1100 AD, cow dung mixed with a good wine was recommended as a friction rub for the beauty-conscious lady -it is difficult to sympathize with the moral condemnation of the use of buttons, which were not in fact accepted into polite society until the end of the fourteenth century.

They had been felt to be symptomatic of a loose life; presumably they made undressing too easy.

Among the tribes of Africa, Australia or South America, body decoration is more obviously ritualistic in motive. The effect, when not simply intended to frighten off evil spirits, wild animals or another tribe, is usually one of sheer exuberance and pleasure in color and pattern. Position in the tribe, widowhood, marriage, all have their special body pattern and color: red and white 'Cubist' decoration in one Australian tribe, for example. An early traveler in South America reported the most remarkable patterns: diamond shapes of brilliant purple, blue and black with red and yellow lines; red striped and spotted faces and heavily dyed ears; 'collars' and 'epaulettes' of stripes.

Feathers with straw coronets over long hair completed the picture.

A more permanent method of decorating the skin is obviously to scar, as some people do in New Guinea, for example, by cutting lines with sharp stones which leave raised welts of tissue, or to tattoo it.

Here, the skin is punctured and injected with dye made from vermilion, indigo and sometimes gunpowder. Apart from ritual pattern and sometimes the clearly erotic tattooing - where the women of one tribe will tattoo the tip of the tongue, and in our own society men will have naked girls inscribed alluringly over their rippling muscles - the art has been put to other more macabre uses. Besides being dangerous - syphilis and cancers of the skin have been said to result - the process is very painful. It was used to identify slaves and, in China, for example, as a punishment. One criminal was in three months' continuous work tattooed decoratively but agonizingly from head to foot. His accomplices, treated similarly, died.

Not a punishment but still very harsh was the Chinese custom of binding young girls' feet to the point of complete and irreversible mutilation. The tradition, said to have originated over 800 years ago with the club-footed Empress Ta-Ki, has been called a national fetish. Even in more Westernized times, the Oriental female foot, fragile and useless, supersedes in erotic value the breasts, which are crushed by tightly bound dresses into almost total non-existence.

Other approaches to the bosom have usually been vastly different. In Ancient Egypt and Minos, fashionable and rich women would gild their nipples with real gold, and except for reactionary periods of puritanical concealment, fashions since then have rarely left much of the female breast unrevealed.

Indeed the breasts were at one stage left totally exposed by some, while the arms and shoulders were determinedly and modestly covered. Even in the reputedly staid and prudish Victorian age there was a little-publicized but surprisingly popular fashion for piercing the nipples and inserting rings, often to match the rest of the ear and finger jewellery.

In modern times there have been phases of complete breast obsession. Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and the boned brassiere were the focus of attention until the late 1960s, when mini-skirts, tights and trousers brought legs - and, with modern advertising frankness, the crotchinto new perspective. But reaction was inevitable, and women nostalgically began to cultivate the longer-skirted fashions, with the result that the ankle seemed likely to achieve its old erotic fascination. Men's attempts to beautify themselves have their own history of vanity and folly.

King Louis XIV of France wisely ensured that his nobles would remain peacefully impoverished by insisting on impossible extravagances of dress. The resultant fashions, with the stress on heavily-jeweled fabrics, meant in many cases that men literally wore their fortunes on their backs. The shrewd king had his pride, too, and compensated for his lack of height by introducing high curled wigs and often ridiculously high-heeled shoes for men as well as women.

A strange fashion in the unbridled Elizabethan age was to draw attention to the male sex organ with a codpiece - a decorative 'pouch' often richly jeweled and sometimes used as a purse. In New Guinea, men will decorate the penis with feathers and pieces of bamboo extending to quite improbable lengths. Men have gone to much more painful extremes to make themselves sexually attractive to women.

In the Middle East, for example, some will deliberately roughen the surface of the penis by lacerating it, in the belief that this gives more pleasure to women during intercourse. They may also 'desensitize' themselves from childhood by masturbating with sand in order eventually to prolong intercourse and allow the more slowly responding woman to achieve orgasm. Circumcision - literally 'cutting round' or removal of the foreskin - is supposed also to have this effect.

Conversely, men have deliberately castrated themselves in an attempt to remain morally pure or effeminately beautiful. And if they do not actually go that far, some Eastern mystics, as part of their self-abnegation and denial of the body, have rings inserted through the penis in order to prevent all possibility of intercourse.

To shave or not to shave was an important question particularly in ages of painfully inefficient razors. As in all fields, hair fashion would be set, often deliberately, by royalty, aristocracy and, in our own age, film and pop stars. The French King Francis I, for example, set a fashion for beards as soon as he found it necessary to conceal burn scars on his face.

There have been eccentrics who would wear their beards short on one side and long on the other, to ensure two exciting profiles. It is perhaps unfortunate that the only virtually infallible method of preventing baldness - the eternal bane of the beauty-conscious man - is castration, which alters the balance of hormones.

Women have, of course, always cherished their hair. Until this emancipated century, wearing it inconveniently long emphasized the luxury of inefficient femininity.

But there have been times where even the hair on the head was plucked in the cause of true beauty. Chaucer, in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, pokes delicate fun at the worldly priestess who obviously followed the contemporary fashion of plucking her hair to broaden her forehead into comely intelligence. In Ancient Greece, women would pluck all facial hair in order to emulate the smoothness and purity of the statues.

Body hair on women, considered 'earthy' and sensual by some, has more often been considered indelicate and unfeminine. Most Western women will now remove the hair from their legs and under their arms with the same devotion that medieval women, for example, would have every hair laboriously plucked from their bodies at marriage.

Teeth have not until recently claimed much attention, mainly because in previous eras few people could keep them for long. Replacements, originally made of ivory by the Romans, aroused more excitement in the last century when the advent of reasonably convenient and comfortable dentures took Europe and America by storm. George Washington, the story goes, had all his reasonably healthy teeth removed simply to replace them with the more fashionable synthetic version. In certain Australian primitive tribes, boys are initiated into manhood by the simple process of having their teeth knocked out.

And in Sierra Leone native tribes file and chip their teeth into decorative shapes as a religious ritual. In our own society, a trick of professional models and ballet dancers is to remove the back teeth to ensure interesting hollows beneath the cheek bones, and among many peoples prominent gold fillings are a sign of wealth.

The prime consideration in self-beautification has generally been temporary concealment or emphasis. Anything more permanent, apart from the rather drastic measures already mentioned, was out of the question until the invention of cosmetic surgery. Now a girl might have a 'new' nose, or a boy have his embarrassingly prominent ears flattened neatly against his skull, with very little difficulty. A disfiguring hare-lip can be completely cured, and now that there is some notion of the psychological misery undergone by people who are facially abnormal, cosmetic surgery is taken very seriously by doctors. Simple vanity is less serious, but can be dealt with reasonably efficiently, if at vast expense. The 'facelift' tightens skin across the face and neck, sometimes leaving the face with an oddly mask-like appearance. Bad complexions can be improved by a scraping procedure where the outer skin layer is removed completely.

And after all this what, one might ask, is it all about? What is 'beauty' now? Helen of Troy, it is said, had the 'face that launched a thousand ships'. Someone once flippantly suggested a measure of beauty called the millihelen - equal to that quantity of beauty needed to launch one ship.

Who are the pacesetters of fashion?

At one time it was royalty.

In the middle of last century, filmstars led the way.

Not that long ago pop stars set the trend.

Today, we are influenced by manufactured celebrity, the stars of reality tv.

Who or what dictates your standard of beauty?


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