Our perception of beauty is largely defined by what we see in magazines and TV commercials. We’re told that in order to be beautiful, we need to do this or that. Otherwise, we’re falling behind the curve. But not only are beauty standards arbitrary, they differ from culture to culture. What the ideal beauty is for one society isn’t the same as another. Beauty standards can even differ in just one country.
Those same rules still applied in the past. Beauty standards changed with the times as things that were once fashionable fell out of style and new trends started to take over, not only in our culture but in cultures all over the world.
With such a long history of beauty standards around the world, there have been quite a few cases of some strange beauty standards, if not outright questionable. They may seem crazy to us because we think the people who followed them should have really known better. Or they may just seem crazy to us because the ends just don’t justify the means. And we have no intentions of trying them out anytime soon.
If you’re really curious to see some really unique beauty standards from the past and from around the world, then check out this list of 15 weird beauty standards from the past that would gross us out today.
15. Teeth Blackening In Japan
In our society today, pearly whites are the things we all strive for. But in Japan’s history, pearly whites weren’t the ideal. It was the exact opposite.
Starting at around 200 A.D. was Ohaguro, the practice of dyeing one’s teeth. One of the main ingredients used in the dye was a dark brown solution produced from the dissolution of iron fillings in vinegar. Not only was this blackened teeth look fashionable but it also prevented tooth decay. People would reapply the dye every day or once every few days.
During the Sengoku period (1467-1603), only the young daughters of military commanders had their teeth dyed as a sign of their coming-of-age. Following the Edo period (1868), only male nobles had their teeth dyed. People in rural areas practiced ohaguro, but only for special occasions like weddings and funerals. It wasn’t until 1870 that the government outlawed ohaguro, but it’s still used today for special festivals and historical plays.
14. Lard Wigs In 18th-Century Europe
Hair extensions and weaves are just some of the hair accessories women use nowadays. Wigs are another popular choice, but they were very different hundreds of years ago in Europe.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the rich and powerful with their big and poofy wigs on, but you probably don’t know what they were made of. Wigs were made out of wooden frames that the hair was draped over. To secure the hair to the frame, it was glued to the frame with a paste made from lard. While the lard paste worked well at maintaining the wig’s shape, it drew rats to itself. This is where the term “rat’s nest” came from. “Wig cages” had to be invented to keep the rats at bay while the wearer slept at night.
13. Tapeworm Diets During The Early 1900’s
There are a lot of extreme diets out there that promise to help the dieter lose a lot of weight. The tapeworm diet is one of them. Well, at least at a certain point in time.
Dieters would ingest beef tapeworm cysts, usually taken in the form of a pill. Inside the body, the tapeworms would reach maturity in the intestines and take in food, inducing weight loss for the dieter but also diarrhea and vomiting. When the person dropped down to their desired weight, they would take an anti-parasitic pill which (hopefully) would kill off the tapeworms inside them. The hardest part was having to defecate the tapeworms, which caused abdominal and rectal issues.
The primary reason for why the tapeworm diet is considered so extreme today is because tapeworms can grow up to 30 feet in length inside the host’s body and lead to all sorts of problems like meningitis, headaches, epilepsy, and dementia. Would you risk having complications just for the sake of beauty? Probably not!
12. Long Fingernails In China
If you want long nails, you get a manicure. But if you want really long nails, all you have to do is just grow them out.
During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), men and women grew their nails out to unbelievable lengths, eight to ten inches to be exact. In order to preserve their manicures, some women would wear nail guards made out of gold. This nail-growing practice was done by upper-class citizens to show that they were rich enough to not need to do any work with their hands. Their servants had to feed and clothe them.
Some Chinese men today grow their nails out, but not quite to the lengths seen in the past. It’s mainly done by former working-class men who aspired to become rich and distance themselves from their laboring ancestors.
11. Vinegar Diet During The Early 1800’s
Poet, politician, and leading figure during the Romantic Movement, Lord Byron is widely considered one of the greatest British poets in history. He’s also known for being one of the first diet icons in history.
Lord Byron admitted to having a “morbid propensity to fatten” and he weighed himself frequently, working hard to keep up his figure. He was so obsessed with maintaining his figure that he practiced a diet that consisted mostly of vinegar. He drank vinegar every day and even ate potatoes bathed in vinegar. Unfortunately, this led to a host of health problems such as diarrhea and vomiting.
But this didn’t stop Lord Byron’s diet from becoming popular among the youth during his time. Young women would practically starve themselves using Lord Byron’s diet to attain an exceptionally thin figure. Even Queen Victoria wasn’t immune to this practice.
10. Nose Plugs Of The Apatani Women Of India
In the case of women of the Apatani tribe, beauty can be both a blessing and a curse.
The Apatani, who still exists today, is a tribe living in the Ziro Valley in India, renowned for its efficient agricultural system. The people of the Apatani tribe were also known for having the most beautiful women out of all the other Arunachal tribes. They were so beautiful in the fact that they would fall victim to kidnapping by raiding neighboring villages.
In order to combat this, the women would wear nose plugs and tattoo a horizontal line from their forehead to the tip of their nose and five lines on their chin, to make themselves look unattractive to attackers. This practice began dying out in the middle of the 20th century.
9. Long Ear Lobes In Kenya
The Massai tribe of Kenya is known for preserving the tribesfolk’s traditional way of life, despite civilization and western influences. One of the traditions they still adhere to is elongating their earlobes.
Ear-piercing and ear-stretching are huge components of Kenyan beauty. Men and women stretch out their earlobes to impossible lengths using all sorts of things—stones, twigs, elephant tusks, thorns, and more. Then they’ll wear metal hoops through their stretched-out earlobes. You can tell how old someone is by the length of his or her earlobes—the older the tribe member, the longer the earlobe.
8. Colorful Eyebrows In China
The barbed wire eyebrow trend is probably one of the most creative eyebrow trends out there today. But women in ancient China were a little more creative with their eyebrows.
Women back then practiced the art of Hikimayu, in which they would have their natural eyebrows plucked or shaved completely and have black, blue, or green smudge-like eyebrows painted on.
The shape of the eyebrows depended on what was trending at the time. Sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), sharply-pointed eyebrows were the thing. At another point in time, short and high eyebrows were in. And another style that was in was “sorrow brows” in which the eyebrows were curved upward in the middle in a semi-permanent expression of sorrow.
7. Stretched Lips In Ethiopia
A popular tourist attraction in Ethiopia is the lip plating where women from the Mursi tribe wear lip plates to elongate their lips.
When a girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is cut by her mother or another woman in the village. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wound heals, usually three months later. It’s the girl’s decision how far she wants to stretch her lower lip, inserting progressively larger wooden plugs over a period of several months. Some lip plates can be as long as 12 centimeters in diameter.
It’s also the girl’s decision if she wants to get her lip stretched in the first place and it’s not something that is forced upon them by older tribal members. Many girls marry happily without having to stretch out their bottom lip.
6. Foot Binding In China
While it’s true that many women prefer to have small, dainty feet, the Chinese took it to another level to attain this look.
When a girl was between the five and seven years old, she would have to start undergoing the painful and grotesque practice of foot-binding. The toes on her feet, minus the big toes, would be broken and laid flat against the sole, creating a triangular shape. The feet were kept in place using a silk strip. Over time, the wrappings became progressively tighter, forcing the heel and the sole together as tightly as possible, in a process that took about two years.
5. Dead White Look In England
It’s no secret that life expectancy during the Middle Ages was fairly low. One of the reasons for this may have been due to repercussions from certain beauty regimes at the time.
People during the 18th century strongly desired to have pale faces. However, makeup was costly and washing wasn’t considered healthy, so alternative ways to achieve paleness had to be found. Women would powder their faces in Venetian ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar, and wear it until the ceruse wore off. Then, they would just apply some more. For an added effect, they would apply just a bit of red lead to their cheeks for a rosy glow.
But what 18th-century Europeans didn’t know back then was that lead is dangerous. The lead eventually broke down people’s skin, causing scars, and it also led to illness. Less lucky people died from lead and mercury poisoning.
4. Bathing In Arsenic In Germany
Women had to stop powdering their faces with lead after the negative health benefits became known, so they resorted to other means to achieve the ideal pale look, proving that some women will do anything to become beautiful.
Women from Bavaria (a state in southeastern Germany bordering Liechtenstein), Austria, and the Czech Republic, would soak in baths of arsenic to keep their skin looking almost deathly white. Even though bathing in arsenic isn’t as deadly as eating it, bathing in enough of it can cause irritation and redness on the skin.
Not only that, it can lead to some more serious side effects. If you suddenly stopped taking arsenic baths, your complexion would go out of whack, inciting women to keep taking the baths. What’s worse is that the toxic fumes of arsenic can cause health problems like lung cancer and pharyngitis.
3. Eyelash Removal During The Middle Ages
Some of us are all about plucking our eyebrows, but plucking our eyelashes? That’s a whole ‘nother story.
During the Middle Ages, the forehead was considered the most attractive part of a woman’s face. So much in fact, that women would pluck or shave their hairlines to expose more of their forehead. They would also remove their eyebrows and even most or all of their eyelashes to increase the size of the forehead.
But another reason for the excess hair removal was that the Catholic Church denounced the display of hair in public as a crime and a sin against God and the church. Generally speaking, hair on women was viewed as an erotic aspect and not acceptable during that time.
2. Tooth Inlays And Skull Elongation In Ancient Mayan Civilization
Some people use celebrities as their beauty icons, implementing their style as their own. After all, as they say, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” For the ancient Mayans, their beauty icon was the Maize god.
When a baby was only four or five days old, he or she would be stretched out on a bed and his or her head would be placed between two boards, one at the front and one at the back. The boards were compressed together and secured so that the skull could become elongated. Ancient Mayans spread out their skulls into different shapes, and the shape of someone’s skull could tell you what their stature was in society.
Tooth inlaying was sort of like an ancient version of the modern-day grill. Mayans would file their teeth in all sorts of patterns, drilling holes into their teeth to carry inlays of turquoise, jade, hematite, and pyrite.
1. Portuguese Urine Mouthwash In Ancient Rome
There are plenty of us who would do anything to have perfect white teeth that almost sparkle like they do in cartoons and animated movies, but we have our limits.
Somehow, wealthy Romans came to the conclusion that the best way to whiten their teeth was to wash their mouths out with urine. But they couldn’t use just any urine. The urine had to come from Portuguese people. Portuguese urine was considered to be the strongest in the world, so jars of urine were imported to Rome for the teeth-whitening practices of the upper-class. Jars of urine were so popular that Nero was forced to place a tax on it.
Surprisingly, the urine mouthwash worked. The ammonia in urine served as a disinfectant, and urine was used as an ingredient in mouthwash until the 18th century.