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The Comtesse d’Haussonville

I can recall a few years past lamenting to my cousins, how when I feel horribly unwell, I either become flushed with fever or ghostly pale. Well, more pale than usual. Oddly, it is during these rare bouts that I often receive numerous compliments on my appearance. It has always been thus since I was a child. I sighed, “Do you not hate it, when you are feeling under the weather and people keep remarking on how beautiful you look?” The sisters stared at me blankly. Mlle V said flatly, “No. I cannot relate. When I am unwell, people say ‘Gosh V, you look like sh–.'” Her elder sister, Mlle A concurred, “No. I cannot say any person has complimented me when I am ill. Ever.” So it is just me then.

From the middle ages to well past the 19th century, probably up until 1960, fair skinned women were most desirable. There are host of reasons for this many are psychological intertwined with social constructs. In European societies, the elite did everything humanly possible to distance themselves from the masses of people they considered beneath them. One of the most telling features was the epidermis. The average folk toil in the noon day sun and tanned as a result. The elite refused to attempt something so pedestrian and resided indoors and shield themselves from solar influences. The term blue-bloods refers to the common occurence of being able to see the blue blood vessel beneath the skin because the skin was so pale, almost translucent with some people. At one point this became so desirable and a status symbol that some, men and women, took to tracing their own veins in light blue make up to mimic the appearance.

White is also equated with innocence and virginity; essential untouched or marred by outside influences. In women, this was beyond desirable throughout history. A wealthy female virgin is the highest attainment and quite the prize for any man. If she was not truly pure, at least she appeared to be. Ah, how looks can be deceiving.

During the 19th century, tuberculous was rampant throughout England and Europe. Macabre as it sounds, the ill appearance became a trend. If you deem this ludicrous, recall the recent 1990s Heroine Chic look epitome by the supermodel Kate Moss for Calvin Klein. This Tuberculous beauty trend was more complex than it seems. A young girl attempts to make herself pale to make her seem weak. This weakness is already tied to feminine and the weaker sex. However, if she is ill she could elicit sympathy and emotions from men who felt compelled to assist her.

This attitude actually goes hand in hand with fainting of the period. Certainly, women corseted themselves within inches of their lives for the ideal hour-glass figure, and rightfully swooned from lack of oxygen. However, many a Victorian woman fainted to “touch a man.” It was one of the few allowances for public decorum to assist a lady. It was another reason why ice skating was so popular, the inherent danger of falling led to more opportunity to touch in a society that forbade it outside the matrimonial sanction and closed doors.

But I digress. Pale was ideal. It was beautiful. It was feminine at best. While I am . . . fair, to say the least, I prefer such adjectives as porcelain, marble, or alabaster. White works just as well, but pale . . . sounds unwell. Which has me wondering, if I look so fabulous when I am ill, is that to say I look unattractive when I am well?!