Tour of Beauty: A Hundred Years in the Arms Race to Acquire Newer, Better Weapons of Cosmetic Enhancement
Larson, Christina, The Washington Monthly
Since its debut last year, the cosmetic-surgery show "Extreme Makeover" has drawn runaway ratings, its many viewers at once fascinated and appalled by the needles, incisions, and bandages the mostly female participants will endure in order to climb a few notches on the beauty totem pole. This fall, ABC moved its Nielson heavyweight into televisions' kingpin slot, Thursday evenings, while wincing critics sounded an alarm that Americans' fundamental understanding of nature, beauty, and artifice has changed.
Nonsense, darling. In the pursuit of beauty, American women have variously plumped breasts with toilet-plunger-like suction devices (1890s), strapped themselves into fat-roller machines to press away the pounds (1910s), endured "electrode" shock treatment to zap away wrinkles (1920s), worn wire headsets to pull back cheek waddles (1960s), popped "youth" pills, and slathered on anti-cellulite lotions for generations. Today's ladies have no greater drive to become beautiful, and defy the effects of timer than their mothers did. But the technology has sure come a long way.
In Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful, New York Times patent writer Teresa Riordan gives readers a delightful, quirky account of American cosmetic innovations, from lipstick to silicon implants, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. She avoids swerving into pro-feminist or antifeminist polemics, and instead simply accepts that the desire to be fairest-of-them-all is an impulse as mythic and enduring as a fairytale. With a little Cinderella-magic of her own, Riordan transforms patent history into an almost titillating subject, while reminding readers that tanning creams, breast implants, and nail polishes are "not merely articles of fashion but legitimate inventions"--and serious business.
A skilled hostess, Riordan sees the "emotional landmines" she's tiptoeing around. To ease progressive minds, she suggests that lipstick, hair dye, and Wonderbras may in fact be a force for some social good--helping women born with lesser physical endowments make up for nature's neglect through a combination of cunning, creativity, and financial investment: "When successful, the artifice of beauty is a great leveler." That's true, if you're talking about evening the playing field among Women. But let's not be uncivil--it's well worth setting aside ideology long enough to enjoy her splendid romp through the dusty attic of the Patent Office archives. Before the push-up bra appeared in anyone's closet, someone had to invent, patent, and perfect it. And Riordan's strictly-business eye on the beauty industry inevitably turns up ample grist for other debates.
In the century covered by her research, for instance, she found that only 1 percent of all patents were awarded to women. But in the field of "breast enhancers"--that is, cushions and contraptions that allow a lady to look hustler under her sweater than she does ha the shower--nearly two thirds of the patent holders were women. Does this suggest that women, not men, have historically enforced the standards of female beauty? Or that more than a few businesswomen will take advantage of their sisters' insecurities? The question at least might bring a blush to third-wave feminists fond of placing all the blame for the objectification of women's upper half on husbands, Hustler, and Hooters.
It turns out that the patent history of human beauty products resembles that of natural selection. Once a new species emerges, variations flourish, until one version with a clear competitive advantage triumphs. In the first half of the century, women fumbled with myriad products to darken their eyelashes--patented tongs to apply cake powders, tweezers to paint on commercial creams, miniature combs to brush in tinted jellies--but once mascara wands took off in the 1950s, no woman or inventor cast a painted eye backward.
Not only does the beauty industry drive invention, but new technology can also push the limits of what is possible, and therefore potentially beautiful. …