Elizabeth I‘s make-up killed her. At least according to some historians. In her attempt to look youthful and blemish-free, the queen used a toxic white powder, Ceruse, containing high doses of lead. As you can imagine, lead isn’t something you want to put on your face every single day for years. No wonder the prosthetics and cosmetics to turn Margot Robbie into Queen Elizabeth I in the much-anticipated film, Mary Queen of Scots, gets so much attention. There’s an almost macabre fascination with it. Margot looks freaky and that “look” actually ends up killing her.
But my fascination with her appearance is for a different reason. The queen went to great lengths to look like this (and suffer for it in multiple ways) for much of the same reasons we “kill” ourselves to look beautiful. According to Rebecca Onion‘s detailed story in Slate, The Real Story Behind Margot Robbie’s Wild Queen Elizabeth Makeup, Elizabeth was stuck. She was expected to look youthful and beautiful, as Onion explains: ‘People perceived a queen’s beauty as a sign of her divine right to rule.” In other words, she had to look good for her job. Sound familiar? Being the Queen, and a virgin at that, she became a worshipped, a cult-like figure that MUST remain youthful. Her appearance was one key aspect of that worship. “Living inside it all, Elizabeth clearly seemed to realize her presentation of a mask that didn’t slip was critical to her survival.” writes Onion.
At the same time, however, there was a strong anti-face-painting movement brewing. It’s questionable how much her subjects actually criticized her for it, but historians point to jokes made about her and published criticisms of the use of cosmetics in general stating that painted women are foolish, foul and abominable. Elizabeth just couldn’t win this game. Either she loses for looking old and ugly or she loses for masking her changing skin. And no question, she loses to her make-up’s poisonous effects.
Times have changed. Make-up won’t kill you (though some plastic surgery, like botched butt enhancements for example, can). Women can lead without having to be worshipped. And adorning ourselves with cosmetics is second nature. But we, women, aren’t fully immune from the high, and often complex, beauty expectations demanded of us in society. We have to look youthful, so as not to be deemed as frumpy and, thus, old-fashioned or not on the cutting edge of our fields. And, at the same time, we can’t look too beautiful, so as not to appear too provocative or frivolous, and therefore, not smart or competent. Let’s be honest, how many of you — women and men — comment on what your female corporate or political leaders wear vs your male leaders wear? I remember these very discussions when my division was led by a woman. I willingly took part in these conversations too! I’m not blameless. We didn’t want our female leaders to appear unstylish. Now that it’s being led by a man, not a word is raised. I’m not saying male leaders aren’t expected appear a certain way. It’s that it doesn’t become water cooler conversation, ever.
I love beauty. I love to play with make-up, wear fun outfits and get my hair blown out. I undoubtedly feel more confident and energized. And, yes, I want to be admired for it too. But why does it need to go beyond that? Why do women have to be caught between all of these tensions? Why can’t we look frumpy or dolled up without any of the negative associations? Why can’t we look beautiful without being accused of being flirty and flighty? My only hope is that as men invest in their beauty more (according to the American Association of Plastic Surgery, in 2017, nearly 100,000 men had filler injections, a 99 percent increase since 2000), we will level the playing field, and the conversations will turn from what women and men look like to whether they have something worthy to say and give to society.