In the Eye of the Beholder


Makeup. “War paint.” “Putting your face on.” Call it what you will, roughly eighty percent of women worldwide use some form of cosmetics. A 2010 study performed in the United Kingdom found that the average woman will spend approximately $13,000 on cosmetics in her lifetime. Seventy percent said they would not leave home without certain makeup items and/or tools. Seventy-one percent believe that makeup makes them prettier. Forty percent said that they would feel embarrassed if they were seen without makeup by friends or coworkers.

The use of cosmetics has been a part of human history for over 4000 years. Ancient Egypt is the first civilization known to have used cosmetics, according to historical records available to us today. Both the rich and the poor, men and women, used kohl on their eyes not only to enhance their appearance but also to shield their eyes against the sun, deter flies, supposedly ward off evil spirits and improve their eyesight.

Depictions of Egyptian Queen Cleopatra

The preferred colors for kohl were black and green. Kohl in ancient Egypt was made up of lead, copper, soot, and other ingredients. Forms of rouge and lip color were used, but the ingredients were often poisonous.

Ancient Mesopotamian women are thought to be the first creators of lipstick. Ancient Greeks and Romans used cosmetics such as face powder, kohl for the eyes, and even depilatories.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, the use of cosmetics was frowned upon. That did not stop women of the lower classes from trying to lighten their skin, which was tanned by the sun as they labored outdoors. Only the upper classes were wealthy enough to remain idle indoors, out of the sun and therefore maintaining their naturally pale skin.

While Queen Elizabeth I reigned, a falsely pale face and red lips were considered fashionable among upper class women. A little over a century later, in 1770, the British Parliament passed a law condemning the use of lipstick, which was viewed as means of seducing and/or entrapping a husband.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the use of cosmetics was considered vulgar. Only an uncouth woman or a prostitute would dare wear makeup. Queen Victoria publicly declared that makeup was indecorous and only acceptable for actors and actresses. However, in 1884 in Paris, France, the first commercial lipstick was invented and made available. By the 1920’s, undisguised use of makeup was generally accepted.

In the decades that followed, many developments and advancements were made in commercial cosmetics. Manufacturers made many claims, often ridiculous, about their products.


In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many women involved in the Women’s Liberation movement decided to go without cosmetics, believing that the use of makeup kept women in a second-class status as mere sex objects.

Today, the cosmetics business is a multi-billion dollar industry. L’Oréal, founded in 1909 as a hair dye company, has through research and innovation in the field of beauty become the largest cosmetics firm in the world, with assets totaling over €24 billion as of 2010. Fashion makeup artistry has become a coveted career among both men and women. Average women try their hand at home makeup artistry, reading magazines and books offering tips on cosmetics and watching videos or going to department store makeup counters to learn application techniques.


Today, as the use of cosmetics is generally accepted, even young girls and some men are exploring the world of makeup. Girls are influenced by the media to believe that perfection in terms of physical appearance is not only attainable, but expected. More and more men trade genuine masculinity for foppery as social structure deteriorates and gender roles are blurred. But I digress.

In today’s perpetual striving for physical perfection, there are countless options for the improvement, enhancement, and beautification of the human body. The simplest, most cost-effective, and accessible options fall within the scope of cosmetic products. At a relatively low cost, with the convenience of home application, we can dramatically change our appearance without the risks of surgery. Whether we want to simply hide imperfections and look presentable, or reach extremes of unnatural beauty, we need only go to the nearest drugstore or department store to find all the tools we need.

But why do we want to change our appearance in the first place? Why, for thousands of years, have women (and men) invented, formulated and used cosmetic products? Opinions vary widely. Some strongly independent women will say it was all invented by males to keep females subjugated; relegated to the rank of sex object or slave. Some insecure women can’t live a day without cosmetics and feel that they can’t step out to the mailbox without a “full face on.” Some go to excess in efforts to be their own makeup artist. The majority of women, however, are grateful for products that boost their confidence and help them feel positive about themselves and the image they project. Covering imperfections and enhancing natural beauty are the only goals they expect makeup to accomplish. The rest is up to the inner person – the source of beauty that is most significant, unlike physical appearance, where beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

2 thoughts on “In the Eye of the Beholder

  1. […] an earlier post, I discussed the origins of cosmetics and facets of their social impact throughout history. One […]

  2. daniel moran says:

    Great website. Lots of helpful info here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious.
    And of course, thanks to your sweat!

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