The Changing Female Ideal

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I have been above average in weight for most of my life. Therefore, growing up when Twiggy was considered the ideal was painful at the least, and damaging in so many ways. I began thinking this post would be about cosmetics, but then I found that the “look” in the Regency period had as much to do with the changes in women’s lifestyles as with makeup.

If you know the Georgian style, makeup was used freely to provide white skin, red lips, rouged cheeks, and patches. Patches were little fabric beauty marks glued to the corner of the eye or mouth, wherever the woman wanted to draw attention. The makeup used contained harmful chemicals and caused hideous problems and even death to the wearers.

In the Regency, a more “natural” look became the ideal. Women began to walk out of doors, taking the air, and would have a healthy glow to their complexions. The condition of the skin and skin care overtook makeup in importance.

Undergarments decreased in number, and the drapey Grecian style was all the rage. Plump women were favored, because a thin woman appeared poor, sickly, and unable to reproduce. Wealth, health, and fertility were sought in a bride. And men of the time admired a healthy appetite in a girl, as that seemed to hint at good appetites in other things.

According to Hibiscus-Sinesis (, skin lotions were a growing industry with manufacturers competing for attention with wild names like Olympian Dew and Bloom of Ninon. A girl did not want to become tan or freckled, but windblown cheeks did not mark her as a dairymaid.

We think nothing of picking up a magazine full of beauty tips and styles as we check out at the grocery store. But not until 1811 were Regency women able to find a publication that told them the looks they should have. The Mirror of the Graces or The English Lady’s Costume, published anonymously by A Lady Of Distinction, promised to follow the rules of nature. But sometimes nature needed a little assistance, and so cosmetics changed and were used sparingly.

The web site also mentioned that dentistry was mostly a matter of extracting painful teeth, so few people in their thirties would have all their teeth unharmed. However, oral cleanliness became easier to achieve with tooth powders and diligence as in general everyone wanted to be cleaner.

Eye makeup is covered in more detail at the Jane Austin Festival Australia web site ( Egypt opened her ancient beauty secrets, making kohl available to the British Empire. Lamp black (a fine soot) mixed with a little oil could be used to darken brows or eye lashes.

I love the recipe for lip balm posted there:
“An excellent Lip Salve (1)
Take and ounce of Myrrh, as much Litharge in find powder, four ounces of honey, two ounces of bees-wax and six ounces of Oil of Roses; mix them over a low fire.” I suppose the resulting salve was put into a small tin, cooled, and carried around in the woman’s reticule for use throughout the day.

One of my favorite sites, Jane Austen’s World ( shows how the Georgian excesses gave way to the Regency natural idea. But notice also the body types of the Regency women. Any book where the heroine is thin and still seen as healthy and desirable by the hero needs to explain why that situation happened. Because it is against the normal cultural ideal.

Hair styles also changed, no one powdered their hair any longer, except the very old and rich. Swept-up hair stated that the woman was no longer a girl, and make the neck visible to male eyes. This page ( gives a simple Regency do, and Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion ( demonstrates the inspiration from Greek “marbles” or statues. You also will find hints about how to wear short hair and a reminder that many women were growing their hair long after decades of wearing it short under wigs.

Two Nerdy History Girls ( point to a real-life beauty, not the idealized fictional women that darling Jane created. Emma, Lady Hamilton, who had “high breasts and well-rounded thighs and bottom.” The sylph of popular fiction would have been considered sickly, maybe consumptive, and not attractive to anyone unless she had a fortune and he was desperate.

Sadly, the authors of this blog have no say over the covers of their books, and next to their documented information about beauty, one finds slinky women in Regency garb. To me, this says more about the state of the world for women than anything else. Skinny sells, plump disgusts, and no one can buck the trend very successfully.

I was in my 40s before I met a man who loves me and finds me attractive because my mind runs along the same silly paths that his does. I know I am blessed to find my happily ever after, and with the pressure being off me to conform to modern body type and ideal, I have been successful in losing weight, and improving my health. I will never be Twiggy, but I will be living a long and happy life.

Next week, let’s examine the same issues from the male point of view.


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