Last weekend, my brother and I were summoned to sort through the artifacts, untouched for over a decade, of my family’s storage space: hours of embarrassing pictures, nostalgia-inducing baby books, and A-for-effort school projects.
Amongst the rubble was my parents' library of books of varied and strange subject matter; some antiques, mostly on the subjects of sexual studies, the history of religion, and the occult, all of which my parents both studied over the years. One book caught my eye in particular: the book of Natural Magick.
Judging the book by the cover, adorned with imagery of animals, monsters, and a six-breasted woman, I knew it was right up my alley.
Browsing through its contents brought out the '90s-wannabe-teenage-witch who thought watching Hocus Pocus and The Craft back to back would help me learn to levitate.
My version of Natural Magick is a reprint from 1957, but the original was published in 1558 by Giambattista della Porta of Naples, who was a polymath during the Scientific Revolution and founder of one of the first scientific societies, the Otiosi. Though this group, whose membership roster included Galileo, considered themselves scientists, they had to disband after accusations from the Vatican of dabbling in the occult.
Natural Magick’s roots are in alchemy, a speculative science that attempted to transform base metals into gold and make healing potions and compounds. Alchemists sought out inner health and immortality by ingesting and dispensing alchemical solutions. Giambattista and other members of the Otiosi report their scientific findings of counterfeiting gold in Natural Magick and in other books such as Of the Production of New Plants, Of Artificial Fires, and, most important for our purposes, Of Beautifying Women.
Some of the tips found in Of Beautifying Women include how to whiten your skin using lead paint, how to brew your own lye and use it as the base for your chosen hair dye, and how to use depilatories on your scalp to get a stronger part in your hair “because sometimes the part is deformed with abundance of hair.” Right.
We all know to avoid lead paint these days, but many women still use products with lye, most notably hair relaxers, despite the risk of permanent tissue damage (and worse). Lye can also be found in modern-day oven cleaners and drain uncloggers, so always check your labels.
As for using depilatories on my head, which would involve decomposing a salamander in water and using its vomit, I think I’ll pass. Salamander vomit is mentioned several times, so it was definitely the method of choice for 16th-century hair removal. Though I love to go hairless in most places, I think my part is straight enough without medieval Nair. If I need it to stand out more, I’ll just apply my Oscar Blandi dry shampoo incorrectly, which I unintentionally do most days.
Not shockingly, Chapter 6 begins with how “to take away sores and worms that spoil the hair.” It has some great advice about using flower-infused vinegar (in this day and age, I use apple cider vinegar and lavender water as a weekly hair rinse), but if all else fails, Giambattista writes, “I used very hot bread, newly taken forth of the oven, cut in the middle, and putting the hair between them till they grow cold.”
I want to say that our idea of beauty has evolved over the last 500 years because many of these tips are laughable, but the truth is most beauty magazines these days offer the same advice on how to dye, soften and curl hair.
To get my goth-ish look, I used two palettes of Revlon Illuminance Creme Shadow on my eyes in Not Just Nudes and (you’ll never guess) Black Magic! I used a Revlon Brow Fantasy pencil and gel today “to dye the eye-brows” instead of using burnt cork which is known now to be carcinogenic.
I used MAC Fluidline on my lips and lacquered them with Chanel Brillant Levres 72 that I bought at Sephora on the Champs d’Elysee in defiance when a clerk told me it was too dark for my complexion. (Not sure if it’s discontinued or only available abroad.)
Some of the most thorough advice in Natural Magick is the techniques used to whiten the skin. Not only was a white complexion preferred, but it was seen as a better base for applying other colors to the face. Centuries later, the beauty industry has caught up and caters to many more skin tones, but the skin-whitening industry is still going strong and projected to be worth $10 billion by 2015.
The portrait of ideal beauty has evolved over time almost in a similar way that science has evolved. We still have groups of scholars and scientists conducting experiments every day, and reporting findings in various published journals while beauty advice has exploded into a cult of its own.
It's easy to laugh at the tips in Natural Magick as nonsense at best and horrifically dangerous at worst but it’s not as far fetched from our modern day beauty advice as we think. Who's to say that 500 years from now people won't be shaking their heads at what we put on our hair, nails, and skin all in the pursuit of being perceived as beautiful? Already some have decided using parabens, petroleum distillates, or BHA in cosmetics are bad ideas, too, their uses having already been banned in the European Union.
The most wonderfully confusing and strange part in Of Beautifying Women is the last chapter entitled, “Some Sports Against Women.” It gives advice on how to make a woman’s face green, how to make a woman breakout in pimples, how to make a woman’s hair fall out (more salamander vomit), and most obnoxiously of all, how to reveal that woman’s face is painted and not naturally beautiful. Giambattista sounds like a real eccentric, but isn’t it just like the beauty industry: give us hope and then knock us down?