Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away was a woman. Her sole purpose in life was to get married and have children. She believed having beauty would give her a better chance of attracting a husband and increase her overall eligibility as a bachelorette. Hence, to be "beautiful," she orchestrated several alterations to her physicality.
The earliest documentation referencing the "perfect" woman is from 25,000 BC in the Palaeolithic era (aka the old stone age). Found in Austria, the woman in question is called “the Venus of Willendorf." She’s a miniature statuette with a plump pear-shaped body and large breasts. For the most part, experts don’t know whether she is meant to be a symbol of fertility or beauty. Perhaps it's both. Given the period in which it was crafted, a proclivity for equating strong childbearing potential with a measure of a woman's aesthetic fortitude seems appropriate. By this outdated logic, the more pregnant your body looks, the more attractive you are.
The notion that beauty and fertility are intertwined carried into 17th century Europe, which adored the plump and full-bodied woman. At this time, a woman's plumpness was a sign of not only fertility but also wealth. An association between plumpness and wealth happened on two fronts:
Those with well-defined muscles were generally labourers. Hence, the plumper you were the fewer tasks you did, and the richer you were.
Food accessibility — especially that of the more fattening variety — was far worse a few hundred years ago. If one was a bit stout, it merely meant she was affluent enough to afford such luxuries.
So it would seem that during the renaissance, having a round face, dimples or double chin was favourable, if not coveted.
Another marker of the upper class back then was fair skin. The bourgeoisie did not tan or sunbathe as they spent all of their time doing indoor things. Even when they ventured outdoors to get fresh air, the fair ladies ensured they were protected by a parasol or other such covering. Labourers, on the other hand, had to stay outside for long hours without the luxury of constant shade.
Women would proudly show off their blue veins that would appear from such white skin. In order to achieve this level of white, women would go either an organic or chemical route. For instance, they may have used pumpkin, cucumber, squash and melon to lighten their skin. The chemical path was more often selected, however, because it garnered a far more noticeable effect.
Women would rub chalk, mercury, lead or bismuth on their face and skin to get that "timeless, pale dead look." These are very lethal chemicals that were believed to be medicinal back in the day (much like cigarettes in the mid-1900s). As a result, many women experienced hair loss, skin inflammation or damaged teeth. Some even died from using these chemicals in the pursuit of a skewed vision of beauty.
As time progressed, the fair white make-up routine included red blush and lips to create an “I’m not dead yet” look. The mouth was expected to be red and narrow, but with big lips, similar to the shape made when one puckers and blows a kiss. It was most preferable for the bottom lip to be larger than the top. Thankfully, this illusion easy to create with the help of vermillion hues found in nature. But alas, mercury was a common source of "perfection" for the lips as well, and the price was greater than the reward.
Would you believe there's more? Well, it doesn't stop with pale white skin and deep red lips. During the time in question, to be the perfect woman, one also needed big eyes. And they were meant to be either extremely dark or very bright blue — nothing in between was acceptable. Also, one's hair had to be thick and curly (preferably brunette). The wrists and feet had to be as small and dainty as possible. For reference, Madame de Montespan was considered the closest thing to perfection at the time.
As you can imagine, having all of these features naturally is not feasible. Hence, 17th-century women took matters into their own hands, giving true meaning to the expression "beauty is pain.” Our woman in a kingdom far, far away sought out torture and mutilation in the desire to adhere to a notion of beauty that was both fleeting and false.
In reality, this kingdom isn’t so far away; It’s in your backyard. Throughout history — and even today — arbitrary and unattainable beauty standards are based on fertility or the fickle inclinations of man’s desire.
The thing that gives me comfort is that today's women can (and do) reject the notion of "perfection" and live their best lives as their most beautiful selves without the aid of chemicals, surgery, or other unpleasantness.