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  • The Beautified Body:Physiognomy in Victorian Beauty Manuals
  • Sarah Lennox (bio)

Throughout the Victorian period, women's magazines, etiquette guides, and beauty manuals offered advice regarding "beautifiers" that could be found in nature, made in the home, or purchased from a chemist to improve a woman's appearance.1 For the many Victorians who believed [End Page 9] in the pseudoscience of physiognomy, however, a woman's use of beauty products to alter her appearance was seen as particularly objectionable—as a hiding of inner truth. John Caspar Lavater, the eighteenth-century pastor who popularized this pseudoscience in its modern form, described physiognomy as the study of "the original language of nature," a "divine alphabet" inscribed upon the human exterior by the hand of God ("Lavater" 258). For Victorians who believed in physiognomy, the body—in its unaltered, natural state—functioned as a legible text, with physical features spelling out the story of a person's identity. While physiognomists generally prioritized what Lavater called the "solid" features of the face when making their physiognomic assessments—considering, for example, the size, shape, and proximity of the forehead, eyes, and nose—in practice, many also considered aspects of appearance that could be changed by beauty products, such as the colour of a woman's hair or complexion (Lavater 12).2

Some Victorian beauty writers included only the most respectable content in their manuals, recommending the healthy living practices that were thought to naturally beautify the body. Others defied social mores by providing recipes for every type of beautifier, including the most scandalous, that of coloured cosmetics. However, in this essay, I focus on a subset of beauty writers who occupied a middle ground; these writers integrated physiognomic rhetoric and ideas into their manuals both to pacify moralists and to defend the detailed beauty advice that they provided to readers. They tried to appease moralists by outwardly championing the science of physiognomy and condemning colour cosmetics as deceptive tools used to mask, cover, or hide the natural surfaces of the body. At the same time, they justified their recipes for homemade skin- and hair-care treatments by aligning them with healthy living practices that cleansed and preserved the body. In doing so, these beauty writers claimed that skin- and hair-care treatments actually facilitated physiognomic assessments.

Many Victorian beauty and etiquette writers reinforced physiognomic beliefs to placate potential critics who might otherwise object to the content of their manuals. The anonymous British author of The Ladies' Hand-Book of The Toilet (1843), for example, presents the physiognomic correspondence between the "inner" and "outer" person as an established fact. He or she asserts "that the internal state of purity, or impurity, … depicted in legible characters upon the external countenance, and shown in the conduct of all, is so clear, that no one, will venture to deny it" (vii). Similarly, in The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Etiquette (1877), the American writer Eliza Bisbee Duffey upholds the physiognomic principle of kalokagatheia (236), which holds that "the morally best [are] the most beautiful, [and] the morally worst [are] the most deformed" (Lavater 99). Following this principle, Duffey advises readers to "cultivate pleasing traits of character and beautify the soul" if they wish to beautify their eyes (236). In a related vein, in The Arts of Beauty (1858), the dancer, actress, and writer Lola Montez reinforces the physiognomic [End Page 10] belief that repeated immoral thoughts and actions leave permanent, visible traces on the countenance when she observes that "an habitually ill-natured, discontented mind ploughs the face with inevitable marks of its own vice"(37).3 Before moving on to practical beauty advice and skin- and hair-care recipes, these writers affirm the body's physiognomic legibility and insist that a woman's morals will impact her beauty.

Such beauty writers also conformed to moralistic standards by encouraging readers to adopt healthy living practices and to avoid colour cosmetics. Most Victorians positioned healthy living practices, such as a nutritious diet, light-to-moderate exercise, the right amount of sleep, and regular baths, as an integral part of a woman's beauty regimen. Indeed, some beauty guides and etiquette manuals offered little advice beyond the recommendation to...


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