A Brief History of Beauty

Narcissus staring at his own reflection, as picturized by Carvaggio (1594–1596)

We humans have been alive for a long long time. In our current form itself, we have existed for some 300000 years (not counting the time when we were called Erectus, Australopithecus etc). So yes, 300000 years as Homo Sapiens. And some 160000 years as Homo Sapiens Sapiens (I’m trying so hard to resist a wise wise joke right now). And the last time, I checked, that was the very definition of a long long time.

But jokes apart, for as long as we have existed, we have enjoyed beauty. We have revelled in it. We have fallen in love with it. And we have cursed it too. For as long as we have existed, basically, we have had some sort of a relationship with beauty. Sometimes human, sometimes natural, sometimes artistic, sometimes poetic. But always, always, we have had something to do with it. Whether it be the cave paintings of southern France, the architectural prowess of the Hoysala Empire, or even Helen of Troy. It has shaped our imagination. It has shaped our lives even, sometimes. But how? And more importantly, how has it shaped our psyche? How has it shaped the way we live today?


In order to be able to understand how it has shaped the way with think, perhaps we need to first understand why we see beauty in the first place. It probably is a horse that I flogged time and again, both in my book, and here, but let’s recap again. To put it simply, beauty helps us survive. It helps us pick the ripe fruit from the rotten. It helps us pick the plains to live or rather that treacherous peaks. It leads us towards the healthiest mate for us It helps us pick the healthier choice, the healthier life. Whatever has been genetically engineered by nature to help us survive is usually what we recognize as beauty.

But that is simply the physical aspect. The psychological aspect is different. Wherever the physical aspect recognizes its limits and decides to respect them, the mental aspect of it always wants to rip through what it considers to be the spider web equivalents of limitation. Irritating, but easily rippable. Not. Those aren’t spider webs, it turns out. Those are mesh made of steel. But our mind refuses to acknowledge that. And so when we look at great big mountains, we see awe, we see grandeur. And we want to conquer it (You don’t think so? Well, tell that to those people queuing up at Mt.Everest to make it to the summit). And that is a useful trait. Without that trait, we would be stuck in our habits. There would be no difference between us and that monkey that wakes up in the morning, gathers good, eats, goes back home, and does the same thing again and again and again. Being able to feel that awe, being able to feel that something is bigger and more beautiful than we are makes us want to be bigger and beautiful ourselves. It helps us push our limits. It helps us evolve. And it makes us want to own it. To possess it. Perhaps, the logic is, that that act of owning it will make us bigger and more powerful than that which has so much power over us.

That, probably, is why we see and recognize beauty, both on a subconscious (genetic) level and on a conscious (psychological) level. And that is why we like to create it also (after all, isn’t creation also a form of conquering?), whether we use ourselves as the canvas or something else. Let’s start at the beginning. The beginning of when woman and man decided to start creating beauty, instead of just staring it in the face. And then, perhaps, we can understand how we have been influenced by it also, beyond its genetic limitations.

Let us start with the earliest human, with prehistory.


Imagine this scene. Prehistoric Earth. Early Stone Age. Some 1.76 million years ago. Early human holds a stone in hand. An idea is forming in his/her head that this stone, if sharpened, could help them hunt. So s/he gets down to sharpening the edge of that stone. As s/he works, a kind of fervour grips him/her. The stone is sharp now. That is not the issue. But s/he has a need in them to go beyond just the utilitarian now. S/he sees an unnecessary jagged edge, and immediately sands it down. As s/he holds it in their arms, they feel that something is missing. S/he quietly picks up another sharp stone, and starts chipping away fervently at the base of this stone spear. It’s suddenly not enough to be just functional. It must look beautiful also. S/he wants to be proud of his/her creation. A few minutes later, s/he raises their head and looks at the base of the stone spear from a distance. Tiny little bison. Running across. Not perfect. Not entirely proportional maybe. The technique would only be polished with time. But good enough. Good enough to begin with. For that individual. And for humanity. And so we see the need to emulate beauty for the first time in humans (probably). That individual never met the first man to land on moon. But had they met, they might both have recognized the gravity of what he said, “One small step for me, a giant leap for Mankind”.

That must have only been the beginning. And it would not have been limited to just one person. This was not the moon. This was earth. This was a relatively crowded place. It must have been a large number of individuals who happened to feel the same way. All there at the same time. All discovering the same thing. But perhaps oblivious to it. Perhaps oblivious to the fact that they were discovering it. As far as they were concerned, it must have been just something thag they really wanted to do. Take a child to the beach, for example. Set them down on the sand. The child will invariably scribble in the sand. Or build a sand-castle of it. Is the child aware, that as far as the entirety of the child’s life is concerned, they are discovering the joy of creating what they consider beautiful? Never. They are just immersed in the doing of it.

And note the phrase was used up there, ‘what they consider beautiful’. As far as the psychological realm of beauty is concerned, beautiful is subjective. As far as the genetic realm is concerned, beauty is objective. The average hip to waist ratio that we find beautiful will change from culture to culture, but only minimally. But in our minds, we even find Picasso beautiful, who is as asymmetrical as they get.

But how can we know if that is how that happened? Simply put, we can’t. We have often measured history in terms of pottery, jewellery and weapons. They are usually what last the longest, being made of stones and mud and metals. But cultural standards get lost in the more of time. It is not everyone who would have expressed their desire to create beauty in terms of weapons, pottery and jewellery. Some would have chosen the walls of their caves. Some would have chosen their minds. And yet others would have chosen their own bodies also. The usage of jewellery does point to exactly that. And this is where we lose track of archeological evidence. For now we can only derive their thoughts, based on our own, rather than unearth our prehistoric ancestors thoughts.

But while that is true, let us still look at ourselves and use that as the basis to understand our prehistoric cousins. For what other option do we have? Jewellery, though it is something that we add to ourselves to enhance the beauty of the body, it does not make the body beautiful. You could have the prettiest Swarowski pendant there is. But if your objective is physical beauty, that Swarowski pendant will fall woefully short. For it can only enhance what is already there. It cannot create. And our prehistoric cousins would have recognized that. They were sharp, intelligent people, no doubt. Living the tough lives that they did ensured that evolutionary trait. It could even be argued that perhaps they were sharper than we are today(it is my personal feeling that the cushy lives so many of us lead today does dull our intellect and alertness as a species, but I digress), or perhaps I am just looking at history through rose tinted glasses.

So how better might they have enhanced their own bodies? Usually, evidence of this fails to survive to a modern age since the goods used are perishable. Think about charcoal mixed with butter to form kohl. Or crushed safflower petals to stain the cheeks and lips. Or how about turmeric to rejuvenate the skin? Or a mix of frankinscence and moringa to prevent wrinkles? How do these things remain through the years as evidence? Don’t they perish (so to speak), the minute they are applied?

So let me present to you evidence no. 1.


For the longest time, like most everything in Archeology, it was thought that the earliest evidence we have of makeup being used among humans was from the Egyptian Civilisation. And for the longest time, that was true. That was indeed the first evidence we had. Little ceramic containers lying in the dust since the predynastic era in Egypt. And early Egyptologists, obsessed with those dusty deserts were quick to find it. Those were beautiful little containers, called ‘Cosmetic Palettes’ by their eager discoverers. These palettes even had little grinders inbuilt, leading me to believe that makeup was preserved in a solid stone like form.

But there is flaw with this, if we are simply looking at the chronological history of makeup rather than the qualitative history. We tend to look immediately as Egypt as a pioneer for most things simply because we have more information from the area. Egyptologists were some of the first ever archeologists. And Egypt has seen more than a century’s worth of archeology. Most other places simply haven’t had that advantage.

So it wasn’t all that surprising when recently a research team announced that they had found what was possibly the oldest makeup container in Slovenia (though whether or not it is truly the oldest remains to be seen). These were little corked bottles containing, what we guess must have been beeswax, animal fat and lead-based ancient Maybelline, that were probably tied around the waist. Sort of an ancient version of the makeup artists’s fanny pack. We’ve all seen those, right?

But what else was the earliest makeup made of? Well, we can’t really say what the absolute earliest earlies makeup was made of. No traces of it probably exist. But ever since we started using specially made containers to store them, we are able to use whatever traces are left on the container to decode the ingredients a little bit better. We know that the Slovenians used Beeswax (which is still very good for your skin), Animal Fat and Lead Based items (which is not!). We Indians have almost always used charcoal and butter as kohl but the Egyptians used lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds to make theirs (not sure how good that is for your skin. Probably best not to try that recipe without proper research). The lead in there was probably a very good anti-bacterial agent that prevented the products from going bad too quickly, but in the long run, it would not just kill the bacteria but also the user. Cleopatra apparently used donkey milk to soak her skin in, and ground Carmine Beetles as lipstick. The ancient Greeks and Romans used powders ground from various rocks and minerals.

But all this (in Europe) was only till the Church declared makeup forbidden.

Meanwhile, what did we use back then in India? We should know, after all right? We did write a whole treatise on Shringara. While most of the world has gone the see-saw route with the art of the external beautification of the self (i.e. the art of cosmetics), India, or should I say, Indian literature has maintained a pretty constant view upon it. It is a rite of passage. Young girls and boys like to dress up. That’s it. Period. That has been the take on beauty from the Indian perspective for most of written history. The whole process of dressing up also, has been romanticized and ritualized in a way that probably has not been done in most of the world. We gave birth to what Bollywood popularized as the Solah Shringaar (the sixteen types of adornments that a woman dresses herself up in). For brides, beautification has been a ritual. And how many times in Sanskrit literature have we come across the author poetically waxing on about the protagonist getting dressed!

- Tagore in Bhanusimha Thakurer Padabali describing Radha getting ready to meet Krishna.


But since when did we start codifying it? Well, that depends on what we mean by codification, first of all. Now there are two parts to what I mean here by codification –

1. A simple anthropological account of the way things are done

2. A guide describing how things ideally should be done.

To make it more clear, imagine you travel in time to Ancient China, and you happen to have your smartphone in hand. You see a woman going through the traditional (but horrific) foot binding custom. You are fascinated. So you decide to record it on your phone. That is an anthropological account of the way things are done. You are simply watching, and recording. There is no commentary there. There is no judgement. There is no conclusion drawn.

But then, imagine that once you are back in the 21st century, and you are thinking over whatever you saw, you decide that it is actually an amazing custom and that it should be preserved. So you start writing on your blog detailing how such a foot binding should be done. Not only that, you also start actively campaigning for it! You exalt its healing properties, its aesthetic beauty. Everyone should do it, you say and you do your best to spread that message around everywhere. Well, now you are creating a guide on how things should be done.

So while I briefly (briefly because this is an article and not a book) try to source down the first ever codification of beauty, it is by these standards that we will judge them.

And here is where we run into our issue (or not, depending on how you look at it). It turns out that the Kamasutra (written by Vatsyayana in the 2nd Century BC) gives detailed information on the world of ‘beauty aids and cosmetics’ as one research article calls it. He even went as far as to suggest certain few Yogasanas to enrich the ‘beauty of the body parts’, as the same research article states. So we have already moved on from the skin deep applications of makeup to fitness. Going further back, Sushrutha Samhita (a renowned book on Ayurvedic medicine, written by Sushruta back in 6th Century BC, and yes, this is the guy who did the world’s first nose job), contains in it a whole chapter on cosmetology. When you have something covered clinically in a medical text book, you know it is legit. So not only do we have makeup and fitness covered, but also plastic surgery. This is starting to sound very familiar now. But let us see if we can go further back too.

Let us look at the Ramayana. Well, it turns out, in the Ramayana, while Rama, Lakshmana and Sita are staying at the ashram of the Sage Atri, his wife, Anasuya gives Sita lessons on what she calls ‘Angaragas’. Here, Anga means Body, and Raga means attachment or attraction. So, Angaragas means anything that makes the body attractive, i.e, the art of beautification, or cosmetology as we like to call it today. In fact, she calls it the ‘divyam varam’, i.e. the divine blessing. Now, that seems to be quite the change from pre-medieval European Church attitudes, or even recently, Queen Victoria’s, who famously frowned upon any act of self-beautification, seeing it as immoral. To put the nail in the final coffin, let us take a trip over to the Rg Veda, where it talks (in a more descriptive rather than prescriptive manner) about the different ways in which women wore their hair (the hairstyles are apparently called Stukla, Kurira, Kumba, Opasa and Kuparda. Beautiful names, but just don’t ask me what they look like !) But with that, I think we have run into the end of written history as we know it. Well, not really. Because if I get deeper into it, there’s enough material to cover a thousand pages. Now I know, the final part of this has been heavily focused on Indian literature. But you know what, I am drawing closer to 3000 words now and I really don’t think you have the patience to read any more in just one go. So let’s save the rest of the world for another article, shall we? The Codification of Beauty in the Ancient World, we can call it. And you can keep your eyes peeled for that soon.

But for now, it’s time for me to draw a conclusion. We have looked at very limited material here, but I don’t think it is unfair to say that not only has the codification of beauty existed for as long as we have been able to form coherent sentences and commit them to memory (since writing did come later), but that the act of beautification itself is part of our inherent nature. If it were not, we wouldn’t spend so much time on it. If it were not, we wouldn’t be inspired by it. It seems like such a frivolous thing, slapping on some lipstick before heading out. But that really, is not the entirety of the art of beautification. The art of beautification goes deeper. It refers to your very self. How can you beautify yourself? Every single layer of yourself? And yes, we do usually take this sentiment to mean stuff like developing one’s character or being a better person (whatever that means), which is very valid. Those are absolutely integral parts of beautifying what you call you. But the body is also a part of you. It is, in fact, more tangible than the rest of you. You can hold it, squeeze it, experiment with it, see the results with your five senses. It is the most solid part of you. In fact, you could even argue that if you didn’t have your body, you wouldn’t be human. And if we are going down that route, you could also argue that if you didn’t have your body, there is a huge chance that you would not exist, right? Why then, do you want to discount such an integral part of that which forms you?

And some of those questions are just too important to ignore.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store