Did white lead make-up enhance beauty at a deadly cost?
White lead make-up was worn by women for millennia. Pliny explains how to make white lead in the first century CE and archaeological evidence says that Roman women used it to whiten their skin. White make-up is an obvious cultural symbol in Japan. It is reported to have been brought from China to the Japanese royal court by a monk in the 9th century CE.
Whiteness was valued in the 18th century and white lead make-up played a role in whitening skin. In part, this was because tanned skin was associated with manual labour, and whiteness indicated a higher social class. However, BIPOC people lived in 18th century England and slaves were kept by the wealthy. Racism probably played a role in valuing white skin.
We are interested in 18th century white make-up because we want to know what it looked like. Our questions focus on whether it blurred blemishes and wrinkles, and whether the whiteness looked unnatural. As white women, we are aware that our skin colour has given us privilege. We do not believe lighter skin should be valued over darker skin: we do not believe that white skin is more beautiful than Black skin. While our current research interest is in white make-up we emphatically are not advocating for skin whitening.
At some point we would like to enlarge our research to include Japanese make-up, and the lead-based kohl that is used in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. We want to include researchers from those cultural backgrounds to do this future research. We have learned that lived experience of make-up and understanding of make-up in a culture is important to the scientific work.
All the best,
Fiona, Taren & Shaelyn