Belladonna, Blemishes and Beauty Standards: The Portrayal Of Victorian Women in Advertising and How Their Beauty Standards Reflect the Current Ideals of Femininity
When it comes to beauty, the obsession with having perfect skin has reached a crescendo. From Tik Tok to instagram, the rise of filters and editing has fueled a desire for “glass” skin - the look of blemish-free, glowing skin without a hint of texture. Derived from the beauty ideals of South Korea, also known as the home of skincare, it burst into the global beauty industry and onto social media.
However, this fascination with having perfect skin is, unfortunately, nothing new.
The obsession with female beauty and perfection is rooted in the male perception of femininity, and the construction of beauty ideals by patriarchal values. For decades, women have been objectified and manipulated by advertisements; be thinner, be curvy, have perfect skin, have long hair, straighten your hair, curl your hair, get a tan, make yourself paler, etc… - As Natalie Reilly argues in her article for the Guardian, “advertising doesn't work unless you accept something is wrong”, and cosmetic companies prey on female insecurities.
The effectiveness of an advertisement lies in the ability to convince the consumer that their appearance is in constant need of improvement. Victorian women were no stranger to this kind of manipulation, and the notion that their self-worth hinged on whether they conformed to societal expectations of beauty and femininity. Roy Church, writing for the The Economic History Review - points to the Industrial Revolution in Britain as having introduced advertising as a new commercial weapon, wielded by companies to entice consumers to buy their products. A burgeoning market of facial products, like skin lotions and face creams, targeted a woman’s external appearance.
Product advertising relied on the supposed “weak-willed” nature of female consumers. Medicinal advertising, in particular, preyed on those desperate to achieve societal standards of beauty. The Victorian Age saw the explosion of “quack” cures and remedies, with little scientific evidence. Known as “proprietary medicines”, these products would make sweeping statements of their benefits while using ornate bottles and jars to attract the female user, who were believed to be susceptible to beautiful and elaborate packaging.
Crane’s Little Bon-Bon pills (Source 1) used the tagline “a beautifier of the complexion” to advertise their treatment for a “torpid liver”. The use of an elegantly dressed woman boosted these claims that their pills could help Victorian women to achieve better skin when in reality, these pills were merely a laxative that caused dehydration by making the user vomit.
Beauty advertising then, like today, fixated on improvement and perfection. As Lola Montez, an exotic dancer, wrote in 1858 in her book The Arts of Beauty; or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, “it is a woman’s duty to use all the means in her power to beautify and preserve her complexion”. Women resorted to using mixtures like chalk and vinegar to paint their faces white or other cocotions like Zinc Oxide to achieve the desired translucent look. For Victorian women, pale skin was idolised as it represented ideas of nobility, wealth and privilege, and beauty advertisements emphasised this importance of achieving a “fair” and “delicate” complexion. Rowland’s Kalydor lotion (Source 2) promised to remove freckles, sunburn, redness and tan in order to help smooth out women’s complexions and slow down the ageing process.
This idolisation of fair skin mirrored a Victorian fascination with death and the desirable physical effects suffered by those with Tuberculosis (TB). As Carolyn Day discusses in her book, Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease, the 19th century saw an increasing association of the symptoms of consumption (a historical term for TB) with feminine beauty. Women suffering from the early stages of consumption developed red cheeks from a low-grade fever, pale skin and dilated pupils that resulted in a “sparkly” look and also experienced significant weight loss as the disease progressed.
Consequently, women sought to emulate these symptoms for themselves, even if they weren’t suffering from the disease. Many even dropped Belladonna (deadly nightshade) into their eyes to ensure they sparkled. The look of “wasting away” became synonymous with the fragility and delicate nature of feminine beauty. Marie Duplessis (Source 3), a renowned beauty of the era and famous French courtesan, became idolised for her large, round eyes and deathly pale complexion. Her death from consumption in 1847 at age 23 signified how beauty ideals of the era associated sunken features and translucent complexion with nobility, elegance and high society.
Over the course of the 20th Century, the increased popularity of the “sunkissed” look signified that beauty ideals had moved away from the desirability of pale skin. Women now longed for that “healthy glow”, and the obsession of Western culture with the fake-tan was born. However the fascination with Eurocentric beauty and whiteness has remained ingrained in many beauty standards today. The continued prominence of white women in makeup campaigns throughout the beauty industry, makes it clear that “whiteness” still dominates the “feminine beauty ideal”. Just like the rigid beauty ideals of the 19th century, women are constantly measured by our ability to conform to these standards. Social and traditional media, politics and educational systems constantly remind us of what is “beautiful” on both a professional and personal level.
Western colonialism has left a deep-rooted influence on the beauty industry and the focus on eurocentric beauty as the ideal. Colonisers espoused ideas of white supremacy to African and Asian communities, and thus whiteness became synonymous with beauty, wealth and power. Ngunan Adamu writes that those who had lighter skin within these communities were afforded higher social standing and more privileges like better pay and employment. Thus, skin tone represented a direct correlation to class and beauty.
Cosmetic companies have also capitalised on these colonial ideologies. Skin bleaching in African, Caribbean and Asian communities has been a widespread practice for decades, a direct result of the damaging influence of the “white ideal”. As Yaba Blay argues, "Ultimately, I think all over the world, it's about understanding the stronghold that white supremacy has on people's minds. And the ways that we continue to assign pivotal power to whiteness so people still want access to it”.
It’s not about blaming the women who use these products but the institutions that continue to allow these products to be sold and the ideologies that continue to reinforce whiteness as the beauty ideal.
Sources and Images
Source 1: Crane’s Little Bon-Bon pills
“Advertisement for Crane’s Little Bon-Bon pills”, The British Library, 1885 <https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/advertisement-for-cranes-little-bon-bon-pills-for-sluggish-liver>
Source 2: Rowland’s Kalydor Lotion
“Advertisement for Rowland’s Kalydor Lotion”, Play Pictorial, 1904 <https://www.historyworld.co.uk/admuseum.php?l1=Medicines+%26+Health&l2=Creams+%26+Lotions&sort=0>
Source 3: Marie Duplessis
Viénot, Édouard, Painting of Marie Duplessis, 1845. Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection.
Weber, Caroline. “‘My Favors Cost a Great Deal’ (Published 2013).” The New York Times, 19 July 2013, <www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/books/review/the-girl-who-loved-camellias-by-julie-kavanagh.html >