Tour of Beauty: A Hundred Years in the Arms Race to Acquire Newer, Better Weapons of Cosmetic Enhancement

By Larson, Christina | The Washington Monthly, November 2004 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Tour of Beauty: A Hundred Years in the Arms Race to Acquire Newer, Better Weapons of Cosmetic Enhancement
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.