It’s 2000 years ago in Western China, and Zhang Chang, a high-ranking and well respected government official is settling down for an evening at home with his beloved wife. However, his relaxation would not last long, as a sharp and urgent knock rang out on his front door. Confused by who could possibly be knocking at such an unsocial hour, Zhang opened the door to be confronted by the stern frown of the District Inspector of Public Morals. As it turned out, Zhang’s name had been circulating around the social circles of China’s elite, and the rather scandalous rumour had fallen upon the ears of the now rather disgusted Emperor Xuandi. The nature of the rumour was in fact so disgraceful, so repulsive, that it put the entire Imperial Court to shame, even leading the Emperor to believe that his own image had been tarnished by association. The only way to restore the prestige of the noble elite was to severely punish the perpetrator.
And that is why the District Inspector for Public Morals was standing out front of Zhang’s house, ready to arrest him for the heinous crime of illicit cosmetology.
Zhang was guilty of helping his wife pencil in her eyebrows.
However innocent Zhang’s actions seem today, at the time a man preforming the act of female beautification was extreme and could be punishable by life imprisonment. So what happened to Zhang? Well, he was pretty lucky. Sort of. By arguing that there are far deeper degrees of marital intimacy between husband and wife that the government wouldn’t dare debate the decency of, Zhang won over the Emperor and was granted his freedom. However, his reputation as a female beautifier never quite left him, leaving the once promising government official without the chance of any future promotions.
So why would Zhang risk his future just to make sure his wife had a great set of brows? Turns out that ancient China had a slight obsession with eyebrows, to the point that it was completely normal for women to entirely shave them off and draw on a more desirable set. Eyebrow shape was considered such an issue that Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty even created a book full of shapes so that the ladies in his court could draw them on just the way he liked them. To have great brows meant you had great beauty, and to this day the affectionate phrase mei mei is used to compliment beautiful young women – literal translation, beautiful eyebrows.
Us humans have a long and interesting history of cosmetic use, with both men and women using peculiar methods to make themselves appear more attractive. The Geishas of Japan were known to use a mixture of rice powder and bird droppings to achieve their pale complexion, and blacked out their teeth with paint during important ceremonies. The pasty look was also popular throughout Europe as it was thought to signify wealth, with women using toxic lead and arsenic based formulas to achieve the desired result. This look was deemed so attractive that many women were prepared to die for it. The use of kohl as eyeliner goes as far back as Ancient Egypt and is even mentioned in the Old Testament where “Jezebel painted her eyelids.” The Egyptians were so fond of the product that they even used it on their mummies so that the deceased could be irresistible in the after life.
In some cultures makeup was solely reserved for royals and the upper elite, used to separate the social classes. From around 3000 BC the Chinese began to paint their fingernails with a mix of gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg. Colours such as gold, silver, black and red signified royalty, while peasants were strictly prohibited from using such products. And how did the Ancient Greeks let the people know their social status? A thickly drawn on uni-brow. Not even kidding.
So what about our animal friends? It would be easy to believe that us humans are the only species that use cosmetics to enhance our look, but there is evidence to suggest that some of our animal counterparts also take advantage of certain products and techniques to catch themselves a mate.
Take for example the flamingo, the animal I like to affectionately call the ‘flying noodle’.
It was long believed that the vibrant pinks found in the flamingos feathers came solely from a diet rich in algae and small crustaceans. However, observant scientists at the Donana Biological Research Station in Spain noticed that as soon as breeding was over and chicks were born, the rich colouring began to fade. Turns out that the colour wasn’t just coming from within but the birds were dabbing oil from a gland near their tail onto their feathers, giving off the appearance of more healthy, bright plumage. Why? Well, the brighter the feathers the sexier the bird – the flamingos were applying this colourant solely for the purpose of finding a mate.
Another bird that enhances their natural beauty is the bearded vulture. The adult members of this species often have a deep orange-red tinge to their plumage, with the colours varying depending on the age, sex and location of the bird. To achieve the correct tone for their social standing, the vulture will take baths in iron-rich mud, with the females and oldest members of the group opting for a richer finish compared to the young males.
Outside of the realm of birds we have the cuttlefish, who doesn’t so much as use cosmetics but draws on the beauty within. When faced with an attractive female, the male cuttlefish transforms his appearance to one with glowing zebra stripes. If the female finds him pretty, success! He gets to mate. However, the females have used this behaviour to their advantage. If she’s not quite feeling it, she too will display the male’s zebra pattern across her body, leading him to believe that he was severely mistaken and just hit on another male.
So back to us humans. I think it’s safe to say that our use of makeup throughout history and up until today is for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to make us more attractive to the opposite sex, display our social status, or just to improve our self confidence. But how did this behaviour come around in the first place? Is there a reason we are so drawn to cosmetics?
What benefit did makeup have to our early ancestors?
To figure this out we need to travel back 164,000 years ago, when fossil evidence suggests our ancestors began this practice. Near the Southern tip of South Africa, small stone blades and a reddish body pigment were recently discovered inside a cave, indicating that prehistoric humans also had a penchant for a bold lip. Even our Neanderthal friends were in on the action, with yellow foundation-like pigments and red powders from 50,000 years ago found in shell containers in Spain.
So we now know that early humans liked to dabble in makeup, but why did they wear it? Although there isn’t a whole lot of evidence on why, current theory suggests that makeup was worn during religious and spiritual rituals. Scientists believe these findings to represent an early manifestation of symbolism, a hallmark of modern human behaviour, where makeup was used to convey messages to other peoples living in the vicinity. These rituals likely revolved around death and fertility, bringing groups together to bond and form social ties over some of life’s most important moments.
So there you have it, a short history of makeup use in humans and the animal kingdom. I’ve never felt so grateful for my local MAC counter.