Using a powder puff, Countess Maria Coventry caked her face until it was the shade of snow. She painted her cheeks to feign a flush and stained her lips scarlet red. This was her routine, day in and day out. She did it for power and an idealized image. And it had the effect she intended— the British Royal Court was riveted when she entered a room. It also had an effect she didn’t intend. On September 30, 1760, she died at the age of twenty-seven. The cause of death: cosmetics.[1] 

In the Oxford Dictionary, the word cosmetic has several definitions. The first is “a treatment intended to improve or restore a person’s appearance.”[2] This can include anything from false eyelashes to plastic surgery. A more noteworthy definition of cosmetics, however, is that they “only affect the appearance of something rather than its substance.”[3] Yet a superficial appearance is rarely the only goal or effect. On a deeper level, cosmetics have the power to affect identity, emotions, and how others perceive you. If media is an extension of man as Marshall McLuhan posited[4], then the medium of cosmetics can also be a means of extending features that we want to extend—whether beautiful, intimidating, or transformative. Simultaneously, the medium of cosmetics allows us to disguise and conceal our features —to mask our natural selves. A tribal warrior with a painted face becomes a supernatural enemy and a queen with alabaster skin seems somehow larger than life and above human frailties. Like the Greek myth of Narcissus, who mistook his own reflection in a pool for another person, we are fascinated by an extension of ourselves we can through cosmetics. By painting our skin or altering our figure with surgery, we transform into “servomechanisms of our own extended image.”[5] Cosmetics serve as a medium that expands beyond beautification to realms of status, power, theater, and transformation.

The medium of cosmetics has ancient origins. The word itself derives from the Greek word kosmētikos, meaning “skilled in adornment,” from kosmein, “to arrange or adorn,” which is from the ancient term kosmos, “order.” This suggests that when people apply pigment to their bodies, they are not only embellishing their features, but rearranging them for a purpose. The earliest use of makeup was not for feminine beauty, but for masculine power and influence. For the members of ancient tribes, manipulating their bodies with tattoos, piercings, and paint helped to intimidate and ward off enemies as well as establish status in tribal identity. In prehistoric New Zealand, men of the Maori tribe etched deep, inked patterns into their faces to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies and catch the attention of women (Document 1).[6] For African shamans, face paint was the most crucial part of their toolkit, because it had the power to combat unseen forces of evil.[7]

Hundreds of years later, makeup started to serve feminine use, not having to do with warfare but nonetheless having to do with influencing people. Georgians, like Countess Maria Coventry, “red’ned” the lips and painted their “phiz” (face) to draw attention to the bottom part of the visage, considered to be the most stately feature at the time.[8] As in all societies, physical appearance strongly influenced her identity and interaction with others.[9] Although trends are continually in flux, how closely one meets the cultural criteria for aesthetic viability is a key to personal and social success.

For women especially, beauty has always been a social and economic asset, and cosmetics have been a tool to perfect it. When used properly, cosmetics could help secure fame, social mobility, a good marriage, or fortune. More often than not, women prescribed to the concept of the female as an aesthetic object, which predominantly rose in the Renaissance. Ingrained into guidebooks like Count Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, women were channeled into the confine of aesthetic expectation: to appear natural, yet more beautiful than what nature created—to embody an “uncontrived simplicity” (Document 2). “Painting” the face was an acceptable enhancement. Similarly, the geishas of 16th and 17th century Japan covered their faces and most of their limbs in rich, white pigment. However, as seen in the woodblock portrait of a geisha, they left the nape of their neck exposed (Document 3). This demure flash of skin that the borders of the makeup drew attention to, enhanced the sexual attractiveness of a woman, and, by extension, her commercial value.

Throughout history, women, men, and even children have benefited from cosmetics, but at a high cost. A testament to the power of cosmetics as a medium of image and influence is that people will endure agony and risk their lives to wield it. From the Ancient Egyptians to the Victorians, people applied lethal compounds such as lead-based powders and mercury eye kohl that burned acid wounds into their skin and poisoned their blood. Their deaths were slow and painful—burn marks from past makeup meant they had to apply more to cover them, literally compounding the problem. Hundreds of years later, the silent-film actor Lon Chaney endured a great deal of physical agony to bring his monstrous movies roles to life, sometimes even implanting wire rings around his eyes to make them bulge like a vampire bat. In the 19th and 20th-century, when makeup couldn’t achieve the desired result, people endured the knives of cosmetic surgery, with mixed results as seen on television and the streets of Beverly Hills. These examples are the exception rather than the rule, but they demonstrate how people will risk their health and well being to transform their appearance to fit an intended purpose.

Cosmetics, however, are not always intended to achieve some broadly accepted standard of appearance. They can be used to defy or even mock such standards entirely. Such is the case with theater and film actors who are required to transform into something clownish, grotesque, monstrous, or supernatural. Prosthetics and pigments disguise their features, so they can turn into a new person. The screen or stage amplifies human traits, extending a person’s image beyond normal interpersonal contact. In a non-theatrical setting, cosmetics can be used to expand past the confines of social expectations. Cross-dressers and transsexuals use makeup to define themselves as they feel inside and not according to the expectations of a heteronormative culture. As such, makeup isn’t just a tool to achieve conformity—it can be a powerful tool to achieve non-conformity.

As socioeconomic and demographic circumstances change, cosmetic practices change with them. For instance, in the late nineteenth-century, waves of Irish immigrants flooded the United States, and strove to assimilate through a more “American” look. So much so, that Irish immigrants underwent plastic surgery to transform their “signature pug noses”[10] into straighter, longer-looking ones (Document 4). As more people traveled the world, the standards for beauty continued to be influenced by Western ideals, and the cosmetics used to achieve them became more advanced. Similarly, in the 1950s, when African Americans tried to assimilate into predominantly white society, many began to permenantly straighten their hair. Cosmetics have allowed people to adapt their physical standing and influence in terms of appearance as the world changes around them. While watching these advancements play out, French anatomist Francois Xavier Bichat foresaw that, “If everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty. If all women were to become as beautiful as Venus de’ Milo (Document 5)…beauty [would] then [be] associated with other forms of perfection, such as moral character and aesthetic creativity.”[11]

We are getting to the point where cosmetics are bringing us closer to everybody being cast in the same mold that Bichat predicted. There are an ever-increasing number of products, procedures, and images that promote that physical identity can be bought with money. Our daily consumption of media, from reality television to magazines, inhabits “the physical milieu of the body,”[12] ever increasing our desire to remake our appearance (Document 6). From a young age, girls are taught that they must improve their looks using cosmetics and thereby improve their chances of succeeding. This can even be seen in toddlers who participate, perhaps involuntarily, in the uneasy spectacle of juvenile beauty pageants (Document 7). Like the “American nose” the Irish immigrants sought, the Barbie doll ideal is not only engrained in the American psyche, but influences other populations around the world. People endure discomfort and spend thousands of dollars to reach an arbitrary form of perfection promoted by the media (Document 8).[13] In the process, natural beauty is often obliterated. Our growing obsession with outward appearance causes a “cosmetic gaze” through which we look at bodies with an awareness of how they could be changed.[14]

The skin has always been a surface waiting for manipulation.[15] No matter the time or place, a person’s physical appearance has and always will be deeply related to their worth, identity, and how others interact with them. As Freud put it, man becomes a kind of “prosthetic God” when he dresses in his “auxiliary organs”—he transforms into something “truly magnificent.”[16] Through a desire to enhance or conceal ourselves, cosmetics are “organs” that seem to grow on us until they become an integral part of who we are. To some extent, we are controlled by the judgment of others and how we wish to project ourselves.[17] Like Countess Maria Coventry and her powder puffs, the image we extend is as or more important than our natural, God-given trait, because they ensure our success as social creatures.

— Lucie Fama

Works Cited

[1] Maggie Angeloglou, A History of Makeup, (Macmillan: New York, 1970) 74.

[2] “Cosmetic.” Def. 1. Oxford English Dictionary. Second ed. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.

[3] Cosmetic.” Def. 1.2. Oxford English Dictionary.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, and Lewis H. Lapham. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (The MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994), 3.

[5] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 41.

[6] Ngahuia Awekotuku, Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2007.)

[7] Angeloglou, A History of Makeup, 10.

[8] Angeloglou, A History of Makeup, 74.

[9] Clinton Sanders, Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing. (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989)

[10] Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful. (Princton: Princton University Press, 1999), 95.

[11] Sander L. Gilman, Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery. (Durham: Duke UP, 1998), 39.

[12] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 29.

[13] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 29.

[14] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 29.

[15] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 31.

[16] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 29.

[17] Mitchell and Hansen. Critical Terms, 29.