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Suffering to be beautiful: a horrible history of human vanity

By Maggie Hall

Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. In this article she looks at the extremes people have been prepared to go to in order to change their looks.

I have awful feet. No, I mean really awful feet. My toes are deformed. My big toes are missing a joint and scarred from a bunion operation done forty years ago. I have a dreadful time trying to get shoes in which I can walk any distance without experiencing constant pain. I wasn’t born with these deformities. My childhood feet were as beautiful and pain free as the next child’s. So what caused the damage? I blame a combination of a fashion for “winkle picker” stiletto-heeled shoes in my teens and twenties and the 1980s fitness craze, which saw me doing five hours of very high impact “Popmobility” aerobic classes a week, involving, basically, an awful lot of jumping up and down in bare feet. In other words, a desire to conform to the fashionable image held by the society of the day that was perceived as attractive or desirable.

Chinese foot binding

The deformation of my feet has been, at least partially, the result of wearing fashionable footwear. However, back in ancient China it was the deformity itself that was viewed as desirable. The feet of young girls were broken and tightly bound to change their shape and size, creating “lotus feet” which were then adorned with highly decorative “lotus shoes”.

Feet of a Chinese woman showing the effect of foot-binding. Photograph 19 – Feet of a Chinese woman in an isolation hospital in Mauritius. Fot. Arfo (Mauritius). Work ID: zhvjpvnk. (Creative Commons).
Lotus shoe. Image by C.H. Graves (public domain – Wikimedia Creative Commons)

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Foot binding was viewed as a rite of passage for young girls and was believed to be preparation for puberty, menstruation, and childbirth. It symbolized a girl's willingness to obey, just as it limited the mobility and power of females, kept women subordinate to men, and increased the differences between the sexes.” It could be argued that fashions such as shoes with ridiculously high, thin heels and exaggeratedly pointed toes have a similar effect.

The ever-changing shape of the “ideal body

The foot is not the only part of the body that has been subject to interference by fashion. The ideal body shape for both men and women has changed many times over history and so has the means of trying to achieve it. At various times it has been fashionable to be tall, not too tall, thin, plump, toned, wide-hipped, long-limbed, light-skinned, olive-skinned, dark-haired, light-haired, round-faced, oval-faced and just about any other physical configuration you can think of, and even the women of ancient Rome were known to bind themselves to make their waists look smaller.

Elizabeth I when a Princess c.1546. Attributed to William Scrots (active 1537-53). Oil on panel. Royal Collection Trust (Queen’s Drawing Room, Windsor Castle), RCIN 404444
Portrait of Isabella of Portugal by Rogier Van Der Weyden. Google Images

During the Middle Ages a high forehead was in fashion for women. If your natural hairline was not high you just plucked your forehead.

The ideal body shape for Tudor women was triangular. A garment known as a busk would be used to flatten out the bust and eliminate the cleavage. Boobs were not fashionable in Tudor England. A bum roll would be used to bulk out the skirts and accentuate the triangular shape, as did a farthingale – a hooped underskirt.

King Henry VIII, 1537-1557? Unknown, after Holbein. Petworth House.

Men, in Tudor times, were expected to look big. In this well known portrait of Henry VIII, it is the number of layers of clothes rather than his actual size which are taking up all the space. Also note the square toed “duck bill” shoes.

Georgian fashions favoured a wide silhouette for both men and women. The posture was stiff and upright, so ladies wore stiffly-boned stays.

By C. Phillips - Aileen Ribeiro, Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Public Domain,
By Unknown author - LACMA Image Library Photograph: S.Oliver for LACMA., Public Domain,

Edwardian ‘S’ shaped corset. Google Images

The Rational Dress Society

In the nineteenth century, women’s waists became the focus of attention – the smaller the better. This resulted in “tight lacing” of undergarments so constricting that women regularly fainted due to the inability to eat or breathe properly. This practice persisted into the Edwardian era.

Such damage was caused to women by these restricting and deforming undergarments that a movement arose against them, largely initiated by a number of articles in medical journals by doctors who were very concerned about their damaging effects on the rib cage and internal organs. Early X-ray images published by Dr Ludovic O’Followell in 1908 had a significant effect.

One of Dr O‘Followell’s X-Ray images (public domain review)

Following publication of a magazine article by Mrs Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) promoting a bifurcated garment which later became known as “bloomers”, the Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881 in London by a group of high profile women. They included Lady Harberton, creator of the divided skirt, and Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar Wilde. The Lady Cyclists’ Association was also keen to promote women’s wear that would give them the appropriate freedom of movement for cycling.

Wikimedia commons
Image by 6563351-6563351 at Pixabay

Eventually, fickle fashion did what the Rational Dress movement had struggled to achieve. By the 1920s both waists and busts were out of fashion. Fluid, straight, boxy looks were in. Busts were flattened by binding or with special flattening underwear.

Public Domain image from Picryl

Patti Page 1955, Photo by James Kriegsman, Wikimedia Commons

However, by the mid-20th century busts and curvy figures were very much back in. In the 1950s, bosoms went inexplicably cone shaped. In the fifties and early sixties we were still curvy but any undesirable lumps and bumps were still controlled by underwear to smooth them out. However, the seventies brought genuine freedom when controlling underwear was abandoned altogether. Hippy fashion required no shape control. Freedom was the watchword.

Public Domain image from Picryl

Today there is a wide choice of fashion styles and just about anything is in fashion from vintage 50s hark-backs to loose shifts to modern “sheath” dresses which – guess what? – need controlling underwear to smooth out the bumps. However, these days we have Lycra, so we don’t need whalebone.


Eugen Sandow, often referred to as the "Father of Modern Bodybuilding", By Benjamin J. Falk (1853-1925) – public domain, Wikimedia commons

Obsessing about body shape is not the prerogative of women. Men, too, have always been subject to the influence of society’s expectations regarding physical appearance. The ideal man in ancient Greece had a muscular physique and Greek men worked hard to achieve and maintain it. However, modern bodybuilding crazes date from the 1890s, when Eugen Sandow, often referred to as “the father of bodybuilding” staged “muscle display performances” in which he displayed his well-developed physique. Florenz Ziegfeld, the well-known Broadway impresario, arranged stage shows built around displays of strength and wrestling matches and Sandow went on to create several businesses selling exercise equipment and special bodybuilding products to the masses. 

From the 1930s until the 1950s Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano), an Italian-American bodybuilder, became famous for his books containing bodybuilding and fitness training programmes for men.

By Scope Magazines (a.k.a. American Comics Group) - Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

From the 1960s onwards, the use of steroids to help increase bulk was controversial. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to prominence with the film Pumping Iron, admitted to its use long after his retirement.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the most notable figures in bodybuilding, 1974, - Public Domain, Wikimedia commons By Madison Square Garden Center

Bodybuilding continues to be a popular pursuit today with both men and women. Professional bodybuilders take things to extremes, achieving size and bulk never seen before. Concerns about the health-damaging aspects of “overtraining” have arisen. There is a fascinating Wikipedia entry on the practice, which reveals a whole world of intense competition and the lengths participants are prepared to go to to achieve their goals.

Professional female bodybuilder Nikki Fuller posing. Public Domain, Wikimedia commons By Mikevoltz

If you can’t grow it, change it

Cosmetic surgery has been practised since ancient times. One of the earliest procedures, for the repair of a broken nose, is recorded in an Egyptian papyrus of 1600 BCE. Some popular procedures today include tummy tucks, eyelid surgery, penile surgery, breast augmentations, reductions or lifts, buttock augmentation, lip augmentation, nose jobs and ear pinning, among many more. Sometimes the aim is to improve the appearance after surgery,  for example mastectomy, or after weight loss, for example to remove excess skin. However, the pursuit of plastic surgery has been linked to psychological disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder, where the subject obsesses about a perceived fault in their physical appearance. Sufferers are often not pleased with the results of their cosmetic surgery and the disorder has been linked to instances of suicide.

Less invasive cosmetic procedures include injectables such as botox (the trade name for a neurotoxic protein called botulinum toxin) or hyaluronic acid-based dermal fillers. However, these are hardly less likely than surgery to lead to problems. Some people have become so addicted to cosmetic enhancement that they have spent a fortune turning themselves into Barbie dolls, vampires or even reptiles. If you have the stomach for it you can see them here.

Mrs. M. Stevens Wagner, an American circus performer, with arms and chest covered in tattoos, 1907 (public domain, Wikimedia commons)

One way of changing your appearance without surgery is to add some decoration with tattoos or piercings, both of which can also be taken to extremes. Tattooing is an ancient art form dating at least as far back as ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies have been found with tattoos. Many ethnic communities have a long tradition of tattooing. In the 19th and early 20th century it was popular among circus performers. Today tattooing has never been so popular. Almost every high street now has at least one tattoo studio.

Body piercing also has a long history. The oldest ever discovered mummified remains had earrings. Ear and nose piercings are still the most popular, but lips, nipples, tongues and genitals are also commonly adorned with piercings.

Elaine Davidson, the 'Most Pierced Woman' in the world as of 2009 By George Gastin (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons).


Why do some people find it necessary to change or augment the body that nature has given them? I must admit I do find it puzzling. I’ve never even had an ear pierced, let alone a nipple, and neither have I allowed ink to be injected into my skin. My bodily integrity is very important to me, and the idea of it being breached without good medical reasons is quite abhorrent to me.


But then again, am I really immune? I may not have deliberately made permanent alterations to my body, but I do wear makeup, being seldom seen in public without my face on, and of course there are those deformed feet, the result of a youthful commitment to fashion which is now only a distant memory. Perhaps there is a fine line between physical self-expression and self-obsession.


I do wonder if, perhaps, it is sometimes a dissatisfaction with the inner self which results in a fixation with our outside appearance. Social media clearly bears a great deal of responsibility for this due to its tendency to make us compare our lives to those of others in an unnecessarily competitive way. Increasingly, young people in particular are being encouraged to aspire to impossible standards of physical perfection as portrayed by digitally-enhanced images. I can't help thinking that if only as much attention could be focused on their inner lives and their intellect as on their external appearances they would be much happier. But who am I to criticise? If someone had warned me when I was sixteen that my high-heeled winkle pickers would destroy my feet, would I have listened? Of course not.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska:

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