Saturday, August 12, 2006


White Lead

Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas, in a sad story entitled In Sudan, pale is beautiful but price is high, writes:
At the crowded Beauty Queen parlor in Sudan's capital Khartoum, beautician Selma Awa says she just cannot understand why so many of her clients want to get their skin lightened.

"One hundred percent of women who come here have it done," she said. "People think it's prettier to look white. In my opinion, dark is prettier. I don't know who they want to look like."

In many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia lighter-colored skin is considered prettier and paler women are believed to be wealthier, more educated and more desirable.

This attitude has led to a boom in the use of skin-lightening products in Sudan, a vast country torn by war where skin color also has political connotations.

Rasha Moussa, a maid, pulls some skin-whitening cream from her handbag. "I use it on my face to make my face shine. The Sudanese see the light color as better than dark. I think it's a complex that we have," she said.

"People judge you here by your color ... If they see me and someone else with lighter skin wearing the same clothes, they would say she is living a comfortable life and I'm a poor woman," she added.

Millions of women throughout Africa use creams and soaps containing chemicals, like hydroquinone, to lighten the color of their skin. But the creams can cause long-term damage.

Dermatologists say prolonged use of hydroquinone and mercury-based products, also found in some creams, destroys the skin's protective outer layer.

Eventually the skin starts to burn, itch or blister, becomes extremely sensitive to sunlight and then turns even blacker than before.

Prolonged use can damage the nerves or even lead to kidney failure or skin cancer and so prove fatal.

"It's a very bad problem here. It sometimes kills the patient ... It's bad, bad news," said a doctor at a Khartoum hospital. He said the number of women coming to the dermatology department with problems caused by skin-whitening treatments had grown to at least one in four of all dermatology patients.
In earlier posts on umbrellas and pallor, I pointed out that in ancient Greece, a man was supposed to look sun-burned, a woman pale. Not content with cultivating a pale complexion by staying indoors, some women artificially whitened their skin by means of cosmetics made of white lead, known in Greek as ψιμύθιον (psimythion), in Latin as cerussa. English ceruse is derived from Latin cerussa. I used to think English bismuth was derived from Greek psimythion, but apparently it isn't.

We see the use of white lead in a passage from Xenophon's Oeconomicus (10.2, tr. E.C. Marchant):
Thereupon Ischomachus took up his parable. "Well, one day, Socrates, I noticed that her face was made up: she had rubbed in white lead in order to look even whiter than she is, and alkanet juice to heighten the rosy colour of her cheeks; and she was wearing boots with thick soles to increase her height."
In Lysias' speech On the Murder of Eratosthenes, the defendant Euphiletus says he began to suspect that his wife was unfaithful when she started using white lead on her face (14, 17, tr. W.R.M. Lamb):
I asked her why the doors made a noise in the night; she told me that the child's lamp had gone out, and she had lit it again at our neighbour's. I was silent and believed it was so. But it struck me, sirs, that she had powdered her face [ἐψιμυθιῶσθαι], though her brother had died not thirty days before; even so, however, I made no remark on the fact, but left the house in silence.

All that had happened came into my mind, and I was filled with suspicion, -- reflecting first how I was shut up in my chamber, and then remembering how on that night the inner and outer doors made a noise, which had never occurred before, and how it struck me that my wife had put on powder.
Two fragments of Greek comedy preserved in book 13 of Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae (tr. C.B. Gulick) indicate that the use of white lead and other cosmetics was frowned upon by the censorious:
Now our married women are not like those described by Eubulus in The Wreath-Sellers: "They are not, Zeus knows, plastered over with layers of white lead, and they have not, like you, their jowls smeared with mulberry juice. And if you go out on a summer's day, two rills of inky water flow from your eyes, and the sweat rolling from your cheeks upon your throat makes a vermilion furrow, while the hairs blown about on your faces look grey, they are so full of white lead."

Alexis, in the play entitled Fair Measure, sets forth the elaborate devices of the prostitutes and the artful tricks by which they care for their bodies in these words...."Another woman has eyebrows too light: they paint them with lamp-black. Still another, as it happens, is too dark: she plasters herself over with white lead. One has a complexion too white: she rubs on rouge."
See also Plautus, Mostellaria 258-264 (tr. E.L. Bassett and L.W. Jarcho, rev. Charles T. Murphy), where the courtesan Philematium wants to put on makeup, but is dissuaded by her maid Scapha. Philematium's lover Philolaches is hiding and watching.
PHILETAMIUM: Bring me the powder.
SCAPHA. Powder? What for?
PHILETAMIUM: Why, to put on my cheeks.
SCAPHA. You might as well try to bleach ivory with shoe-polish!
PHILOLACHES (aside): Chalk one up for you, Scapha. Ivory and shoe-polish -- darn good.
PHILETAMIUM: Well, let's have the rouge.
SCAPHA: I will not. You're too smart -- gilding the lily, eh? A young thing like you doesn't need a jot of rouge, lipstick, mascara, or any other war-paint.

PHILEM. cedo cerussam. SC. quid cerussa opust nám? PHILEM. qui malas oblinam.
SC. una operá | ebur atramento candefacere postules.
PHILOL. lepide dictum de atramento atque ebore. eugae! plaudo Scaphae.
PHILEM. tum tu igitur cedo purpurissum. SC. non do. scita es tu quidem.
nova pictura interpolare vis opus lepidissimum?
non istanc aetatem oportet pigmentum ullum attingere,
neque cerussam neque Melinum neque aliam ullam offuciam.
That quintessential grumpy old man, Saint Jerome, fulminates against the use of white lead and other worldly adornments in the following passages from his Letters (tr. W.H. Freemantle).

The women who ought to scandalize Christians are those who paint their eyes and lips with rouge and cosmetics; whose chalked faces, unnaturally white, are like those of idols; upon whose cheeks every chance tear leaves a furrow; who fail to realize that years make them old; who heap their heads with hair not their own; who smooth their faces, and rub out the wrinkles of age; and who, in the presence of their grandsons, behave like trembling school-girls. A Christian woman should blush to do violence to nature, or to stimulate desire by bestowing care upon the flesh. "They that are in the flesh," the apostle tells us, "cannot please God."

illae Christianos oculos potius scandalizent, quae purpurisso et quibusdam fucis ora oculosque depingunt, quarum facies gypseae et nimio candore deformes idola mentiuntur, quibus si forte inprovidens lacrimarum stilla eruperit, sulco defluit, quas nec numerus annorum potest docere, quod vetulae sunt, quae capillis alienis verticem instruunt et praeteritam iuventutem in rugis anilibus poliunt, quae denique ante nepotum gregem trementes virgunculae conponuntur. erubescat mulier Christiana, si naturae cogit decorem, si carnis curam facit ad concupiscentiam, in qua qui sunt, secundum apostolum Christo placere non possunt.
In the gospel a harlot wins salvation. How? She is baptized in her tears and wipes the Lord's feet with that same hair with which she had before deceived many. She does not wear a waving headdress or creaking boots, she does not darken her eyes with antimony. Yet in her squalor she is lovelier than ever. What place have rouge and white lead on the face of a Christian woman? The one simulates the natural red of the cheeks and of the lips; the other the whiteness of the face and of the neck. They serve only to inflame young men's passions, to stimulate lust, and to indicate an unchaste mind.

meretrix illa in evangelio baptizata lacrimis suis et crine, quo multos ante deceperat, pedes domini tergente servata est. non habuit crispantes mitras nec stridentes calceolos nec orbes stibio fulginatos, quanto foedior, tanto pulchrior. quid facit in facie Christianae purpurissus et cerussa? quorum alterum ruborem genarum labiorumque mentitur, alterum candorem oris et colli: ignes iuvenum, fomenta libidinum, inpudica mentis indicia.
Let her very dress and garb remind her to Whom she is promised. Do not pierce her ears or paint her face consecrated to Christ with white lead or rouge. Do not hang gold or pearls about her neck or load her head with jewels, or by reddening her hair make it suggest the fires of gehenna.

ipse habitus et vestitus doceat eam, cui promissa sit. cave, ne aures perfores, ne cerussa et purpurisso consecrata Christo ora depingas, ne collum margaritis et auro premas, ne caput gemmis oneres, ne capillum inrufes et ei aliquid de gehennae ignibus auspiceris.
In one way, I agree with Saint Jerome. I wish women would not wear makeup. But in another way I disagree with him. He seems to think that women are more alluring and enticing and dangerously attractive with makeup. So far as I am concerned, the natural look is more alluring and enticing and attractive. Makeup, jewelry, tattoos, painted nails, etc. all turn me off.

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