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Updated 05 July 2013

Brutal beauty

For centuries, women have been subjected to all sorts of bizarre and torturous practices – all in the name of beauty.

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For centuries, women have been subjected to all sorts of bizarre and torturous practices – all in the name of beauty.

What does true beauty look like? Busty, blonde and tanned? Black, tall and toned? Fortunately for the non- skeletal or statuesque among us, beauty is something of a fluid concept. Not only does personal preference play a role, but ideals vary widely from one culture and time to another.

That said, the fact is that many cultural standards of beauty are not easily attainable – not without a bit of pain and suffering that is.

Crushing corsets
Victorian society had a penchant for breathtaking beauty – literally. During this period, tiny waists nicknamed "wasp waists" were all the rage. To achieve this look – women wore suffocating corsets.

Corsets were bodices that were reinforced with steel, whalebone or featherbone. Women, particularly those from the upper classes, were laced tightly into these garments, in order to reduce and accentuate the waist. Over time, corsets were laced ever tighter, squashing the internal organs and significantly altering body shape.

Because corsets were laced so tightly, breathing was severely restricted, and fainting was common. And given that corsets could squeeze a 56 cm waist down to just 41 cm – uncomfortable is an understatement.

Lip stretching
In many western countries, well-shaped, full lips are considered an attractive feature. Sometimes lips are even injected with Collagen to boost volume and appeal. However, in some African cultures, it's not the pout that's important – it's the stretch.

Lip stretching is popular amongst the Suri and Mursi women of Ethiopia, where lip plates are markers of beauty and social status. Traditionally, a bride-to-be endures the painful practice 6 to 12 months before her wedding.

A hole is made in her lower lip and a wooden peg is inserted into it. This is left to heal for a few weeks, after which it's replaced with a slightly larger peg. Gradually larger and larger pegs are inserted into the hole, stretching it further each time.

Once the hole is large enough, the front teeth are removed to accommodate a decorative wood or clay plate, which replaces the pegs. These plates can be anything from 10 to 15 cm in diameter, and sightings of even larger plates have been reported.

Force feeding
As tabloid snaps of barely-there celebs all too often demonstrate, the pursuit of skinny bodies often leads to starvation. On the other hand, the pursuit of plump may involve gavage – the Mauritanian practice of force feeding. In this northwest African country, fatter women are deemed more desirable. But before you celebrate diversity and reach for the Bar Ones, gavage is no picnic.

For years, young girls have suffered hours of forced eating each day, gorging themselves on couscous and high-fat camel's milk. And although the custom is currently frowned upon, it's still practiced in remote parts of the country.

Needless to say, excess weight gain is associated with many health dangers. Overweight men and women are at a greater risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Maori tattoos
The Maori people of New Zealand view tattoos as great markers of beauty – full blue-tattooed lips and a tattooed chin are traditional feminine ideals. And although tattoo enthusiasts may also appreciate the beauty of ink work, Maori tattoos are far removed from commercial trends and methods.

To achieve this kind of beauty, Maori women endure deep cuts to the skin from a bone chisel with a sharp or serrated edge. A sooty pigment made from burnt Kauri gum or vegetable caterpillars is then tapped into the cuts.

The process is both long and painful – so much so that flute music and poems are often performed during the process to soothe the victims and take their minds off the pain!

Head flattening
Another weird and wonderful beauty practice is head flattening, which was popular in Mayan society a thousand years ago. Mayans considered flat foreheads and features to be attractive.

Head flattening involved strapping two wooden boards to a newborn's head and then holding them in place with bindings. The skull was slowly flattened, and eventually the boards were removed.

Mayans also believed that squint-eyed people were particularly beautiful. So they would tie a bead or ornament in front of a child's head so that it dangled between the eyes. The child would strain to look at the bead so much that he or she eventually became squint.

Neck stretching
The Burmese-Thai Kayan tribe is particularly famous for this custom, which has been practiced for centuries. Nicknamed the Long Neck Tribe, Kayan people view long necks as a sign of female elegance.

To express cultural identity and flaunt feminine beauty, girls begin wearing brass rings around their necks at the age of five. With time, more rings are added, until the weight of the rings gradually crushes the collar bone and compresses the rib cage, resulting in the illusion of a stretched neck. Ouch!

Breast reduction and enlargement
Whilst it may be hard to believe today, in the 1920s big busts were out and flat chests were in. To create the "beautiful" boyish look, women began binding their breasts and even enduring breast reductions to keep up with straight-dress clothing fashions.

Then, only a decade later, big and busty was back in fashion. During this period, many women underwent risky breast enlargement operations.

Doctors injected all sorts of dangerous substances into women's breasts to make them appear larger, including ivory, glass balls, rubber and even ox cartilage. Other surgeons attempted to inject fat from the buttocks or abdomen into the breasts. However, the body reabsorbed the fact, resulting in unsightly lumps and scars.

Foot binding
Foot binding was a brutal beauty practice that crippled countless Chinese women. It was common in China until about a hundred years ago, when it was finally outlawed – for good reason.

Because the Chinese perceive tiny feet as beautiful, young girl's feet were bound tightly with cloth to prevent them from growing normally. The purpose of this practice was to break the arch of the foot and create a "natural" heel, which looked a bit like a hoof.

The procedure produced tiny, deformed feet, causing women to hobble or sway as they walked. This swaying movement was known as the Lotus Gait, and was considered delicate and alluring.

The process took about two years, and could lead to serious infections and sometimes gangrene. Women who endured this custom generally suffered from foot pain for the rest of their lives.

Modern day foot torture
Although mutilating feet for the sake of beauty may sound ridiculous, many South African women do just that every day. The stiletto heel is a western peril that leads to countless foot problems, particularly pain.

The narrowness of the heel puts severe pressure on the ball of the foot. This can lead to bent toes, flat feet and even bunions (foot deformities).

But despite the discomfort and pain associated with long-term stiletto wear, many women still find the pretty elements of torture hard to resist. As any fashion magazine will tell you, stilettos accentuate the bust and buttocks, and create the illusion of longer, slimmer legs. And so, even if your boots were definitely not made for walking, many women will endure the pain for the sake of a svelte looking figure. (Donna Steyn, Health24)

Read more:
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All there is to know about ridding yourself of cellulite

Ask our Anti-ageing Expert

Sources: (fashion-era.com; kn.pacbell.com; history-nz.org; dailymail.co.uk; Wikipedia)

 
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