Many women think of the old adage, “beauty is pain” everyday as they undergo painful beauty and fashion rituals, including tweezing eyebrows, waxing bikini lines and squeezing into breath-constricting skinny jeans. But some of these fashion and beauty practices from history make the act of pouring burning hot wax on sensitive skin, and mercilessly ripping it off look like a simple walk in the park. Taking a look at these excruciating beauty trends reveals how beauty standards can can vary widely in different cultures. Next time you have to lie on the bed and take a deep breath just to zip up your jeans, be thankful a servant isn’t lacing up your corset. With all of the dangerous fashion trends throughout history that lead to maiming, discomfort and even death, perhaps the answer to these dangerously restrictive fashion trends can only be found by living in nudist colonies.
10. Europe – Crinoline
This list is starting off with the relatively mild trend of the crinoline, commonly called a hoop skirt. While crinolines weren’t particularly dangerous, especially in comparison to the rest of this list, crinolines were extremely restrictive and, because they were originally made from horsehair or rough fabric, frequently caused skin irritation and rashes. Additionally, the shape of the crinoline created difficulty in movement, as they took up an obscene amount of space. Even fitting through a narrow doorway would be a Herculean feat in a crinoline, and the gigantic skirts often became entangled in carriage wheels, resulting in injury. Although crinolines are now obsolete, the next fashion trend is alive and well.
9. Worldwide – High Heels
Nowadays, many women wear high heels without a second thought. However, it’s important to remember that high heels can be very restrictive in addition to permanently harming one’s feet. High heels restrict one’s ability to run if caught in a dangerous situation and, if worn extensively, can be extremely detrimental to one’s health. High heels generally cause foot pain after an hour, and can cause bone and nerve damage, restricted circulation and damaged joints and tendons. Not to mention, falling and tripping in high heels can cause sprained or broken ankles and scraped knees. If you’re trying to dress up with heels, a bloody knee and broken ankle probably aren’t the best accessories.
8. Japan and Vietnam – Tooth Lacquering
Tooth lacquering was a common practice in Japan and Vietnam, dating from around 200 AD. Teeth were blackened as part of a coming-of-age ritual for young women, generally aged from 8-10, although men also engaged in the practice. Teeth lacquering was banned in 1870 by the Japanese government, but people still engaged in the practice. Lacquering one’s teeth was an arduous process that took about a week and multiple applications of chemicals every day. Painful reactions from the chemicals were common, but teeth lacquering also had benefits, such as preventing tooth decay. The drawbacks were worth it, for black teeth were considered to be very beautiful. Quite a lot has changed compared to the expensive bleaching treatments we opt for today.
7. France – Powdered Wigs
When Louis XIII of France started to go bald in the 17th century, he decided to change the popular style since he couldn’t change himself – a rather brilliant idea. Louis XIII popularized the large, comic powdered wigs that are indicative of his time period. These wigs were so ornate that men and women often had to sleep sitting up to preserve the style. Unfortunately, the lack of hygiene during Louis’ lifetime meant that wigs contributed to some unwelcome visitors. Wigs that were continuously perfumed, powdered and waxed, rather than being washed, led to infestations of lice, moths and sometimes even mice. In fact, one urban legend claims that a woman fainted at a ball after the mice living in her wig began to make a meal out of her head.
6. Europe – Lead face paint
Tanned skin is usually seen as the epitome of attractiveness in Europe and the U.S.A. today, despite the fact that excessive tanning can cause skin cancer. However, in the 16th century until about a hundred years ago, the paler your skin was, the more beautiful it was considered to be. In order to achieve the palest skin possible, women in 16th century Europe used makeup to make their skin as white as snow. The only downside? This face makeup contained lead, which is toxic to humans. The use of lead in face makeup enabled a whole host of terrifying symptoms including nausea, rotting teeth, headaches, confusion and even death.
5. Europe – Corsets
Tiny waists on women have been popular for centuries: they make the bust and hips look curvy and voluptuous in comparison, and are typically seen as very feminine. While high-waisted jeans are often used to achieve this look today, from the 16th century, accentuating the waist was achieved through the much more extreme use of corsets. The corset reached the height of its popularity during the Victorian era and, in addition to restricting movement, corsets caused indigestion, constipation, frequent fainting from difficulty breathing and even internal bleeding. However, compared to the next method used to achieve a small waist, corsets seem quite relaxed.
4. USA and Europe – Rib Removal
If corsets seem like an extreme measure in pursuit of a tiny waist, try this trend on for size: rumors about the removal of the floating ribs, which protect organs in the back but not the front, in order to achieve the narrowest waist possible. The rumors first surfaced about Victorian women, who were notorious for their pursuit of tiny waists. With the invention and flourishing of the corset in Victorian times, it would be no surprise if women went one step further, although some historians claim the rumors are false. Whether it existed in Victorian times or not, this trend still exists today: Amanda Lepore, an American actress, has claimed that she underwent the procedure in Mexico, and has outed other celebrities, including Cher, who have also gone to this extreme.
3. Burma – Neck Extension
The Kayan people in Burma view long necks as a sign of beauty, so neck rings are extremely popular. It is generally only women who wear the rings, and girls begin wearing the rings around ages 2-5. The process is extremely gradual, but it has lasting effects and permanently deforms the body. Neck rings do not actually lengthen the neck: instead, they put pressure on the clavicle, pushing it down while simultaneously warping the rib cage. This creates the illusion of a long and slender neck. Unfortunately, it can be painful or impossible to stop wearing the heavy neck rings after a lifetime of wearing them.
2. Europe – Stiff High Collars
While most of the fashion trends on this list were reserved for women, the stiff high collars popular in the 19th century were a trend for men only – apparently women found a strong neckline to be irresistibly sexy. Often referred to as ‘father-killers,’ these tight collars could cause asphyxiation if you weren’t careful, whether a long night at the pub made you forgetful or your collar was just a bit too tight and slowly choked you to death. Apparently, the price of looking good in 19th century Europe was death
1. China – Foot Binding
In China, in the 10th and 11th century, foot binding or ‘lotus feet’ became common because tiny feet were revered and seen as more feminine and delicate. The goal of foot binding was to create a foot that was a mere three inches. This could only be achieved by breaking the bones in the feet and restructuring them, a process that sometimes resulted in death from infection and shock and inevitably lead to medical problems throughout one’s lifetime. If you survived, mobility was severely limited. The practice didn’t end until the early Twentieth century, so some women in China still have feet that are deformed from foot binding. High heels may be uncomfortable after a long night out, but at least they don’t result in death.