A History Of Beauty: Corsets, Tape Worms And Lead Foundation

How Women Have Suffered For Beauty Throughout History.

07/08/2016 9:58 AM AEST | Updated 07/08/2016 7:54 PM AEST
Andreas Kuehn
Corsets caused all sorts of problems by squeezing organs into places they are not supposed to be.

Not everybody has been blessed with natural beauty. For many, a beautiful face is the Holy Grail of life itself and women throughout history have gone to extreme lengths to be the fairest of them all.

What's a little arsenic if it means your skin is nice and pale? Let's swallow a few tape worms, promise you'll lose that puppy fat in no time!

The Victorian times were notorious for cruel and unusual beauty trends. In fact, mothers were told 'If you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and her feelings, lace her tight.'

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Corsets caused dizziness and even organ damage.

The Corset

Corsets were designed to literally reshape a woman's torso; perfect if your life's desire is to have a 13-inch waist. Female bodies were squeezed inwards until there were a range of health issues, from constipation to organ damage.

Breathing was difficult, which led to dizziness and fainting, which is why most ladies carried 'smelling salts' in case they needed to be revived. Back muscles were badly weakened by regular corset use. Even today, many women undergo 'waist training' which flattens the stomach and maintains womanly curves. One could argue that today's popular shapewear, like Spanx, are just a new version of corsets, minus the whalebone.

Tape Worms

Tape worms removed from the bodies of the rich in Boston, US, in the 1880s.

In the early 1900s some people would swallow beef tapeworm cysts, in the form of a tablet. Once the tapeworms reached maturity in the intestines, they would absorb food, resulting in weight loss, vomiting and diarrhoea for the human host.

Tapeworms may reach up to nine metres long, causing symptoms ranging from headaches to dementia. Once the dieter reached their target weight, they were given an anti-parasitic pill to force the tapeworm out. Failing that, a bowl of milk was place before the person's open mouth in the hope the tapeworm would crawl out, but that apparently could lead to strangulation. There's some debate over whether the deliberate swallowing of tape worm cysts was more than an urban myth but, if so, it's an urban myth with great longevity!

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The paler the skin, the more attractive the woman was considered to be.

Lead Foundation

The perfect Victorian woman was supposed to be 'childlike, pale and indeterminate, passive, submissive, mindless, genteel and nice.' Apparently the best way to achieve incredibly pale skin was to put lead in your foundation and pack it all over your face. It was said to be the height of beauty.

The lead was mixed with vinegar to create 'Venetian ceruse' or 'Spirits of Saturn' which created a white complexion. Some people added egg whites for additional shine. Problems occured because the lead was absorbed through the skin, causing poisoning. It resulted in a range of nasties, from hair loss and brain damage, to organ damage and even paralysis. Another symptom was wrinkling and scarring of the skin. The solution? Pack on even more of the poisonous foundation to cover the offensive wrinkles.

In Australia, women tended to follow whatever was considered fashionable in the UK, following the trends as they came and went. Perhaps an advantage in being a follower and not a leader meant that women in colonial Australia might have heard about dodgy side effects before the trend arrived here.

Deadly Nightshade

Another gruesome beauty trend of the Victorian age involved putting drops of atropa belladonna, or 'deadly nightshade' into your eyes to dilate your pupils. Apparently that was considered very attractive. Of course this beauty fad came at a dreadful cost because women who used it too much eventually went blind. In the early 1930s there were cases of women going blind by using a new product called Lash Lure.

Tim Flach
Deadly nightshade was put into the eye to dilate pupils.
The product contained 30 times the recommended amount of paraphenylenediamine and caused 15 recorded cases of permanent blindness.


While many of us associate the use of arsenic with murder, due to it's ability to kill even the healthiest person, it wasn't a fact that would frighten some women off using it in the name of beauty. Apparently it 'freshened' the complexion and, if you happened to be walking in the mountains, it made it easier to breathe.

Arsenic was even mentioned in James Johnson's Chemistry Of Common Life which contributed to swallowing small amounts as a popular beauty product. There are no official records on exactly how many people used arsenic, how many became ill or how many died but complications ranged from vomiting to death - many appearing to look in good health until they dropped dead.

Other dangerous beauty trends included X-Rays used for hair removal, Chinese foot binding, mercury in mascara and in 1869 Laird's Bloom of Youth, a skin whitening lotion with lead acetate and carbonate. It caused muscle atrophy and paralysis.

But, hey, at least your skin looked white as white can be.

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