Changing Ideas of Beauty?

We like to talk about the Beauty Myth, and how women’s magazines, television programs and books and blogs galore have perpetuated it. And that’s all very true, it’s a real thing.

That said, the idea of a female standard of beauty that’s unattainable by all but the wealthiest is nothing new. Here’s an excerpt from “The Ladies’ Toilette” in “La Belle Assemblée,” a fashionable women’s publication from the early nineteenth century.

Of Cleanliness.—The toilette without cleanliness fails of obtaining its object. A careful attention to the person, frequent ablutions, linen always white, which never betrays the inevitable effect of perspiration and of dust; a skin always smooth and brilliant, garments not soiled by any stain, and which might be taken for the garments of a nymph; a shoe which seems never to have touched the ground; this it is that constitutes cleanliness.

Cleanliness can vary from culture to culture, even here in the West. But the writer’s idea of cleanliness stretches my credulity, and I’m the daughter of a nurse and a clean freak.

Bathe regularly, check; clean clothes, check.

Skin smooth and brilliant? Ummm, how ’bout no? My skin has never been smooth and is only rarely brilliant, but it’s always clean. Unless I’ve been doing something to make it dirty. 😉

No stains? Well, I always strive for this, but stains happen and some stains just will not come out. And honestly, if it’s a small stain in an out-of-the-way spot, I don’t really care and no one ever notices. So yes, I’m going to continue to wear my favorite sundress, thank you very much.

“Garments of a nymph?” Well, doesn’t that bring to mind our youth-obsessed culture? Have you seen Vera Wang’s new wedding dress promo??

Shoes. I have a love-hate relationship with them. They’re pretty and I want them, but I hate wearing them — I’d rather go barefoot. That said, I keep them clean and in good repair, but they’re SHOES, you walk on the (sometimes dirty) ground in them. Besides, some of the most comfortable pairs are the most worn.

To this might likewise be added a scrupulous care to avoid every thing that can indicate functions which undeceive the imagination. Women, among the ancients were nymphs, nothing about them belied the graceful imagery of the poets who immortalized them in their works. At Home and at Athins a woman could neither spit nor use her handkerchief in public. If she had a cold, she was under the necessity of remaining at home.

Stay home if you have even a sniffle? Well, yeah, somedays that sounds downright appealing. Other times? Uh, no.

Guess that means staying at home during your period, too. I expect there are many women that would not bother AT ALL. Heh.

For those interested, the rest of the entry can be found here.

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