Because they were humans functioning in a capitalist system and the sun always sets in the west, our grandparents were body shamed and had their insecurities exploited for profit. But the solutions for their myriad faults were different than modern herbal remedies and skin creams. Perhaps because it was a time of technological revolution, treatments tended to be extreme and carcinogenic. It’s hard not to cry out while watching the old, misogynistic, racist advertisement for these services.
“Wait! Stop!” one wishes to yell. “Fucking around with radium is really stupid.”
A number of relevant reels have been posted online by British Pathé, the production company that archives newsreels, providing a fascinating glimpse of how humanity went to nuclear war with self-consciousness. The clips start funny and proceed toward dire.
Some of the earlier videos, like the silent movie-era The Massage Robot! envision a future where technology makes life easier for the masseuse and client alike. This steampunk massager was basically a body sock connected to a series of pneumatic air pumps. Designed to save the masseuse from the strains of all that massaging, the “pneumakardion” was so calming it promised to make users sleepy. The goal was, at first, relaxation. Beauty would come from a sense of well being.
But the goals got more specific.
As the century progressed, health and beauty tech advanced in unexpected and silly directions. A Frightening Facial Treatment from the 50s opens with the narrator explaining how a beauty school student from Siam is “discovering what gives Western complexions their zip!” Predictably, it goes downhill from there. Apparently for 50s era beauticians, the facelift of the future involved smacking the shit out of a face to soften it up, then subjecting it to “invisible rays” emanating from a mask containing “radioactive elements.”
Later in the decade, The Way of Beauty gives us an inside look at a “beauty farm” where weight loss treatments included full body paraffin wax casts, seaweed baths, and incredibly sinister looking electroshock socks designed to reduce puffy ankles. And who doesn’t love the parting shot by the narrator admonishing the ladies to avoid “buttery toast,” which might be the single most British bit of body shaming in recorded history since Churchill last got drunk.
And don’t for a second think the menfolk were overlooked: Decades before the word “metrosexual” was first uttered for the first time, British spas put the “man” in manicure. Male spas employed steam scalp treatments to prevent baldness, offered full body waxing, and featured wrinkle-removing therapy guaranteed to “get your secretary to dine with you.”
As it turns out, getting slim the “Pathé way” involves a lot of guilt and fad dieting. Apparently, Dr. Atkins wasn’t the first to advocate a protein heavy diet, though weight loss experts back in the day didn’t shy away from calling it what it was: “The Fat Diet.” Still the most horrifying machine of the bunch is a simple scale. Step on it and it announces your weight to a train station. It’s no small wonder those haven’t proliferated over the years. People generally don’t embrace the technology made to help them feel better about themselves when it does the opposite — or irradiates them.