Medieval noblewomen swallowed arsenic and dabbed on bats’ blood to improve their complexions; 18th-century Americans prized the warm urine of young boys to erase their freckles; Victorian ladies removed their ribs to give themselves a wasp waist. The desire to be beautiful is as old as civilisation, as is the pain that it can cause. In his autobiography, Charles Darwin noted a “universal passion for adornment”, often involving “wonderfully great” suffering. 5 The pain has not stopped the passion from creating a $160 billion-a-year global industry, encompassing make-up, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health clubs and diet pills. Americans spend more each year on beauty than they do on education. Such spending is not mere vanity. Being pretty – or just not ugly – confers enormous genetic and social advantages.
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