With all the self-tanners on the market today, it’s hard to believe that women in the 18th and 19th centuries sought white, pale skin—the beauty ideal at the time. But just as we use product to make us look like we returned from a week in Cancun, Victorian women used primitive cosmetics to achieve their version of the perfect skin tone.
Interesting dichotomy, sure, but more interesting still is the political ramifications—or lack thereof—of a few ounces of powder brushed onto the skin of different eras. Victorian women likely weren’t as worried about setting their gender back a decade or two just by going all goth with the face makeup—but does hitting the Nars Laguna powder these days make us traitors to our gender? Some radical feminists have been known to blame patriarchy for coercing women into using beauty products. On the surface, they have a point: After all, anything we’re expected to do that men aren’t is cause for suspicion. But a look at the history of beauty products suggests otherwise: