How Tuberculosis Shaped Beauty Standards


I just got done reading an article from the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Article) and after reading it, I realized that many of the characteristics I find attractive and beautiful are a result of the terrifying and fatal disease of Tuberculosis (aka Consumption)

I guess it doesn’t help that I am listening to the song “Forever Young” and just completed reading an article about Trinkets of memento mori - mementos to remember your dead relatives - a practice that eventually evolved into death photography where families would have family portraits taken with dead family members.

So back to the point here: This article made me think how I describe my characters both playable and NPC and I wonder if my readers would like that I describe them in terms that death illness of Tuberculosis imposed on people… and then I started to think what other things I do in my writing that have a similar origins…

There is a lot for me to think on here.


This might be an urban legend (I haven’t looked into it) but it sounds convincing: women shaving first caught on among French prostitutes around the turn of the 20th century, in response to pubic lice and the other brothel wildlife foreign travelers brought in. They in turn brought back the fashion, which spread to their mistresses and eventually caught on with other women.

One from Soc class: when white Europeans and Americans were mostly dependent on outdoor labor, fair skin was the sign of an aristocrat. Post-industrial Revolution, when jobs shifted to be indoor, people who could afford to vacation and tan became the sign of the upper class.


I have always found these to be fascinating topics. I majored in psychology with a minor (and so many of my electives) in history, including taking a Sex in History class which highlighted other ways in which both illness and socioeconimic changes influenced standards of beauty and fashion. I mean, the whole idea of the artificial beauty mark came about from attempts to cover up and beautify pock marks left by illness and acne scars.

Besides the examples @Sashira mentioned…there is also evidence to support that the rise in popularity of ridiculously large and decorative codpieces came about with a widespread outbreak of an aggressive strain of syphilis that would have necessitated the use of thick bandages around the…err…afflicted appendages. Dresses also became more elaborate and used more fabric among the rich in times when having those materials were in higher demand due to wars, trade issues, or overall economic depression in order to show off how wealthy they were through being able to “waste” that much fabric of frivolous designs.

It is also my understanding that this is true of “fashionable weight” (I know, eyeroll, but from a purely sociological standpoint). Pressure put upon women, by the general public or industry, can fluctuate with the economy much in the way having paler/tan skin does. In other words, in times of hardship or in the recovery periods after a war/drought, being curvier and heavier is seen as a sign of affluence and fertility and is therefore more desirable. This can be tracked through photographs and, earlier on, trending in drawings and paintings, as cross referenced with majors events of the era in which they were made. Of course, there are also times where power plays on the gender spectrum, the most information about which we historically have within largely patriarchal societies, have also played a part, such as the “boyish” trends of having a more linear silhouette and short hair among flappers, or the way high heels originated among the French male aristocracy and later became considered almost entirely a woman’s shoe.

Anyway! Sorry, maybe that’s more of a response than you anticipated with the thread, I just think this topic is SO INTERESTING! I love talking about and researching this stuff. My inner history geek comes out every time. Consequently, I am also the worst person to watch historical dramas with if their fashions are not period accurate. :sweat_smile:


Belladonna is Italian for “beautiful lady”, and is also the name for the plant deadly nightshade. This is not a commentary on femmes fatales, but is in recognition of the practice of making eye drops out of the plant. While poisonous and ultimately destructive to the eyes (causing partial or full blindness) it made a woman’s pupils gigantic, which made her irises seem darker and more soulful.


I am a history junkie too. There was a movie a few years back… one that had Edwardian era fashions (funny I remember the details of the costumes etc but not the story or title) that caused a row between me and a girlfriend cuz she loved the “romance and drama” and all I could comment on was “they really took liberties with things and screwed up everything from the period dances to the carriages used”. lol. Well, not so much lol as sigh So now I dolphin away any movie we attend in a group together :dolphin: …“Oh Barbara, I’m so glad you found the leading man to be so gallantly gagging romanti… err I mean so handsome and engaging”… :dolphin:

I learned somewhere (where I could not tell you) that shaving was a crusade of a French woman concerned about our body hair carrying all sorts of diseases like consumption. Much like the dresses of the Victorian Age were demonized, so to the hairy pits and unshaved legs. I’m sure the truth is out there somewhere.

This reminds me that lead was used to bring out color which is why it was used in makeup so long. Ditto mercury and arsenic. And a couple other poisons. It is extremely worrying to me that history is chalk-full of women wearing things with poisons in them… it makes me wonder about today’s cosmetics… what will they find out 200 years from now…

Anyways, thanks for participating in the tread, I was sort of worrying no one would want to.

Edit: Interesting that only the fair sex has responded so far… although I see interest from @Charles_Parkes too :dolphin:


Although I’m not a history freak (although I wished I was in High school since I was failing said subject) one of my pet peeves is when a game that is set in a period of history where something like hair styles or how you dress aren’t accurate.
What I did have to know to pass history in high school is that the events that are happening during the time of the making of, let’s say, a book normally affect said book. If we consider this, it doesn’t surprise me that the same would go for fashion

I did find it interesting that makes weren’t participating in the discussion

'Twas I came…


May I ask a question as this thread seems to cover the gender politics of female dress and fashion?

I have a character in the sequel to my WIP named Weylinn. She’s known as the Lady of the Sunflowers.

I would like an opinion on whether my intended depiction of her represents objectification . . .

Weylinn leads a city named Solace through sixteen years of siege. She is mortally wounded when she fights to get a message out and send a contract to a band of mercenaries to break the siege.

She is delivered, dying, to Samiel Asztalos, who uses experimental machinery and packs magical crystal inside her to replace her ruined gut.

I see Weylinn paying homage to her backstory by wearing a flower patterned kimono open at the chest. I think that the fashion for women in Solace might also be to bare a single breast to show their respect for the Lady of the Sunflowers and what she’d done for the city.

I’m not sure whether my description of Weylinn might border on objectification - Weylinn is around forty and is intended to have a glamour, grace and a femininity that could arguably bring her description closer to that.

She’s based on my enjoyment of the concept of the samurai who smelled of sunflowers from Samurai Champloo.


I personally don’t see the objectification. It would be if a topless pair of breasts were all that she was, her open breasts and femininity tie into the story.


This is just my opinion:

The more you focus on the breast, the more you objectify. I’ve read other stories where there was something similar going on and the more the author wanted to diminish the character or her position, power or worth, the more they focused on the nakedness, vulnerability and humiliation.

From a historical point of view, in antiquity, bared breasts signified participation in normally male-dominated areas; the Olympics, Gladiators of Rome, etc. After the Victorian era, the entire perspective was changed and since then, any trend still fights the tradition established then.

It sounds like your WiP is based on a more Japanese ethos - which allows more nudity in public (except certain woman-parts) so you might have more freedom. This can work in your favor as in other published works but since the majority of your market is non-Japanese, it may be harder to pull off in a non-historical pure fantasy setting.


I think I’m struggling mixing the two things:

  • one a woman leading her people in war
  • two a graceful lady whose bearing contrasts with other characters in the story

When you see this type of thing in pictures it often seems to stray a bit far into the realms of objectification.

I guess I don’t think my description would focus much on the breasts after the initial character portrait - after that it would be more continued allusions to her elegance and kindness, crossed with the occasional disturbing effect of seeing her scarring, crystal and machinery around her belly.

Maybe the reference to the fashion in the town could be for both men and women. Such as a cut in the clothing revealing the belly and perhaps a tattoo referencing the Lady’s scars.


Yes; this was not the case up until the 1800’s but since then, yes. At least in Western society.


I’m not quite clear on how crystal scarring on her guts leads to one bared breast as a statement? Wouldn’t a bared midriff make more sense - or am I picturing it wrong?


Good question, I think it is because the author wants her in a kimono, and with an open front robe like that, you can’t really just bare the midriff like you could in a cutoff top, the top part of the robe would have to be open enough the reveal that much of the stomach, hence leaving the shoulders/chest area more uncovered. I think I’m picturing that correctly?

But I agree with some of the other responses here, there is no reason to focus much on breasts at all, since that isn’t the political statement as much as the stomach area. To do so otherwise, at least in the context you present, would start veering toward objectification. For example, nothing irritates me more than when male authors, through the inner narration of a female character, talk about how they feel or notice their breasts bounce/swing/brush up against their clothes or something else! In my real life experience, much as I assume it probably is for people with outward or hanging genitalia, you don’t really notice or think about those things on a regular basis unless those body parts are uncomfortable or in immediate danger, lol. I also won’t presume to speak on behalf of everyone, but just my two cents in the discussion.

EDIT to add: I would say that having the crystal packed into her chest cavity due to injury to her heart or lungs or something would make more sense if you’re really set on that angle, but then that almost sounds like coming up with an excuse to justify talking about her breasts more, which feels similarly problematic, but the thought did cross my mind, sooo… :sweat_smile:


Yes, you took it farther then I did but I think your position is right on the money.


Haha, thanks. That’s me…always compelled to take things “farther,” for better or for worse! Mercifully, it sounds like my foot managed to stay firmly planted outside of my mouth on this one. :smirk:


I’d known that victims of “consumption” were believed to be attractive, but I didn’t know fashion trends enhanced tuberculosis features. And it never occurred to me that that was the reason hemlines shortened. Thanks for the article!

I really loves clothes, makeup, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by fashion’s reactions to the times. I just finished watching all of these fashion history lectures on youtube. It’s pretty interesting stuff, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’d recommend them!


I’m not quite clear on how crystal scarring on her guts leads to one
bared breast as a statement? Wouldn’t a bared midriff make more sense -
or am I picturing it wrong?

To be honest that was my immediate reaction and it sounds like I’m not the only one. Although I can see you wanting the symbolism rather than objectivity, I can’t see any reason at all for them to be baring their chests when the crystal should be below the ribcage. (Unless the story can be changed to have her shot in the chest instead). You may end up with people questioning your anatomical knowledge at best or an unintentional backlash to “it’s just an excuse to have female nudity” especially if you make a fuss of them being topless/open shirted at worst even if it’s not intentional.


Thanks everyone -

Regarding the anatomy I think the original imagining had massive scarring (I was thinking that the damage to the gut would have been the fatal part, while the chest area would have exhibited damaged tissue - in my head like some post operation cancer patients)

However all this feedback has helped me consider this much more fully, and other than the excellent observations above also made me think - if this lady has been so badly wounded, how on earth did she make it back alive from the battlefield to the operating table, then live long enough through a massively invasive operation.

I think this new question suggests the wounding must be lesser - a mortal but not enormous gut wound. So the as you say there is no reason the breasts would be bared anyway.

At the moment I still see the open flowered kimono as important, (it will help me emphasise the lady of the sunflowers part), but I think the lady would be more likely to then be wearing bindings around her chest. Think I saw something like that in Bleach.

Citizenry both male and female can display their midriff, with some kind of representational tattooing, or red coloured binding. I think the desired effect should be the same :blush:


That sounds more descriptive of a corpse than beauty, with the exception of the last few items. Rosy cheeks have otherwise generally been seen as a sign of health. Interesting. I watched a documentary, and it seems that anything that has been seen as the female ideal was generally harmful to their health, such as corsets, binding of the feet, those weird neckrings and lip discs etc.


Thank you for those lectures. They can be useful to build characters and fit them in context.

It seems health vs fashion is a constant theme in history.

It does seem a lot of fashion results in this sort of thing. Modern fashion seems to be going away from that result though which is a good thing.