By Candice Sabatini

  • 18

If I told you I just read a book about the worldwide practices of body painting, hair removal, kohl eyeliner, skin lightening, hair extensions and precise lipstick application, you’d think that it was the latest “how to” book on the shelves, right? Wrong! These are historic beauty practices with many dating back as far as 100,000 years.

The ideals of physical perfection in various cultures from ancient times to the present is fascinating stuff to read; and to that end, L’Oreal, who’s celebrating 100 years in the business of making us more beautiful, has funded one of the most comprehensive studies on beauty ever written, called 100,000 Years of Beauty.

Published in French and translated into English, this collection of five tomes is an incredible undertaking headed up by Elisabeth Azoulay and contains essays from over 300 writers of 35 different nationalities who write about how various civilizations created cosmetics, clothing and complex hair styles to fashion the ideal look of their time. The five volumes span five major periods of history: Volume 1: Prehistory; Volume 2: Antiquity; Volume 3: Classical Age; Volume 4: Globalization; and Volume 5: The Future.

Even the books themselves are beautiful to look at in their stacked pyramid shape and lovely colors. It’s interesting to note is that when I was in Paris this past December,  I watched an in-depth dialog on the evening news with Mme. Azoulay being interviewed about this vast project, which took four years to create.  In the U.S. the book is just being released and  I  hope  the news media here also comprehends its importance and makes people aware that thoughout history, beauty has always affected how we view others and how we look at ourselves.  My French isn’t what it should be, but with the help of my Parisian friends, I did glean many of  her points in this passionate labor of love, so I’ll paraphrase her.

She said it all started with her conversation with the L’Oreal Foundation, who thought it unfair that beauty is often considered only feminine, as well as superficial. And so by showing documented examples of the importance of beauty though the ages, researched by archeologists, historians and writers, many of the myths could be proven wrong. The book also demonstrates that there is no universal definition of beauty. It changes through the ages and every culture has its own bias. However, as you read the books, it’s fascinating to see that there are some ideals of beauty, such as long hair and lightened skin, that, through the ages have been held as an ideal in many cultures — from ancient Egyptians to Japanese Geisha to today’s popular lighteners made by our favorite upscale brands. As an editor who gauges the pulse of today, I find this exceedingly interesting and I’d be curious to know the percentage of sales between the skin lighteners vs. the self-tanning products. Which one best defines our current American culture?

Circa 1470. Young woman’s hairline plucked higher, her eyebrows and eyelashes removed to make her the more ideal beauty of the time.

For me, this is one of those “I can’t put this down” books. It’s well-written with captivating essays chronologically arranged and broken down by culture. There is also an incredible amount of gorgeous artwork and high quality photos to delight the eyes and bring the written words to life. I learned that in ancient Japan, they often blackened a woman’s teeth for beauty, and as long as 160,000 years ago, Africans and Middle Easterners smeared their bodies with paints and wore jewelry. Egyptians made face powder with white gypsum and a touch of pink pigment to give the complexion a more even tone. Other rituals included the use of curdled milk to get rid of acne and cucumber juice to remove freckles. Almond oil was used to get rid of wrinkles…..hey, that one’s still here, although we’ve gotten rid of the crocodile fat that was also mixed in.

The final volume talks about our culture today and covers topics such as the influence of our popular media such as makeover television shows and how our global world is creating a hybrid of beauty ideals.

Beauty doesn’t come cheap, and neither does this limited edition book. But then, when you look at all the work, and how many writers, editors, and talented people it took to create a historic tome like this, along with the quality, you realize it’s well worth the $295.00 price tag.


Originally published February 2010



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