Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (484)
Beauty tips were in vogue in 1931 when they were offered in Al-Ahram by a woman from the Levant. Jamila Khouri advised women what to do if they wanted to look like Greta Garbo. From the newspaper's pages of that year, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* sees how to make a body beautiful
"Al-Ahram is the largest and most widely distributed Arabic newspaper and as such is frequently read by contemporary women. I, therefore, feel compelled to impart through it, to the fellow members of my gender, information and advice concerning recent scientific discoveries, particularly those that pertain to the cultivation and refinement of beauty."
Thus read a letter to Al-Ahram of 3 August 1931, appearing under the headline, "What women want to know: beauty and cosmetics". It was signed Jamila Khouri, a women of Syrian or Lebanese origin judging by the name and by the fact that women of the Levant had preceded their Egyptian counterparts in the fields of fashion and cosmetics as practiced in the West. Al-Ahram welcomed Khouri's proposition and set aside space on its pages for a series of articles on the art of female beautification but on the basis of standards that departed from the familiar, which up to then had stemmed more from the Turkish perception of feminine beauty.
Khouri introduced her subject with the story of that idol of the silver screen, Greta Garbo. Born in Sweden to a family of simple means, Garbo began work in a hat factory in Stockholm. In spite of her humble origins, she was "tall, svelte and blonde" and she aspired to become an actress. This ambition drove her to enroll in the Royal Dramatic Theatre's school of acting and then to move to Hollywood. Khouri continues:
"When she arrived in the cinema capital of the world, no one took her seriously. But then, the technicians in the art of cosmetics got hold of her and she emerged from their ministrations the ideal of glamour. They had taken that blonde hair, curled it into wavy locks that were swept back off the forehead and to the sides, and they had removed the down from her forehead allowing it to gleam. In addition, those experts plucked out her heavy eyebrows and painted two graceful curves. Then, when her eyebrows grew back she trained their hairs to form those elegant arches, just as they had been drawn. Thus, evolved the stunning Garbo, enchantress of Britain and the US. She had metamorphosed into a vision of ravishing allure, to the extent that women everywhere have begun to imitate her mode of fashion, especially her hairdo, which has become so popular it has taken her name."
The moral Khouri drew from this story was that beauty, no matter how natural, had to be nurtured and honed. "It is like a precious stone whose splendour only shines once it has been polished." No wonder, then, that cosmetics had developed into an art in itself, with various branches and institutes developed especially for the study of this art. No wonder, too, that it had developed into an industry "which has devised special machines and chemical products for this art, numerous treatments from techniques of massage and exercise to various diets, new designs in clothes and accessories; in short, everything to do with beauty".
As though to whet the appetite of her readers for her forthcoming articles, Khouri appends advice on hand care and getting rid of wrinkles. First, to that perennial dilemma of fragile and brittle fingernails, a condition due to lack of calcium and high acidity in the blood. The remedy: rub a little olive oil onto the nails and apply some cold cream underneath them every evening. Of course, care must be taken in trimming the nails, she tells readers, recommending in the process that wonderful new and efficient device called fingernail clippers. Simultaneously, she cautions that fingernails should be trimmed to suit the shape of the hand: "Long, gently tapered fingernails help make short, stubby fingers look more elegant and graceful, while short rounded fingertips make long slender fingers appear longer than they are. Sharply pointed fingernails, on the other hand, are abhorrent to the art of cosmetics as they distort the natural curve of the fingertips." Equal care must be taken in the choice of nail polish. Quality nail polish which should be used is that which "can be applied smoothly and evenly, dries quickly to a gloss and continues to shine for several days without chipping, fading or yellowing". Following the application of nail polish, which Khouri describes step by step, a light coating of scented olive oil should be applied.
Turning to unsightly wrinkles, Khouri reassures readers with news of the most recently discovered remedy: "using a light wooden paddle, tap gently and repeatedly the affected area". She continues, "If women follow this method carefully, they will discover great improvement in their complexion. Not only does it help remove wrinkles, but it imparts a beautiful natural blush to the face."
The beauty specialist dedicated her second column, appearing on 17 August, to the figure or, as she termed it, the "harmony of the parts of the body". Such harmony, she claimed, tended to be so lacking in the women of the East, even cultured women, that were a panel of experts to judge them, "it would find perhaps only one in a thousand who met the qualifications of physical symmetry as understood by sculptors, photographers and masters of the fine arts". The primary cause of this was that women in the East lived "a life of ease, indolence and lack of exercise, for which reason their bodies grow unharmoniously. Tall women, thus, appear unshapely and, not infrequently, women's hips are so out of proportion as to distort their figure horribly."
Physical exercise was the key. True, Khouri admits, there was a growing interest in athletics in Egypt, to the extent that Al-Ahram dedicated a whole page to the subject. "But what about women obliged to remain in their homes, deprived of physical exercise apart from some simple domestic chores which do not bring the necessary benefit?" In answer, she presented eight exercises women can easily do at home:
"1. Lie down on the floor and roll to the right and left, only a few times at first and then gradually increasing them.
2. To strengthen the stomach muscles lie down on the floor, hands placed firmly on the hips, and bend up until your head touches the seat of a chair you have placed above you.
3. Lying on your back, arms stretched up, lift your right leg until it touches your left hand and then your left leg until it touches your right hand.
4. Lying on your right side, right hand above your head and left hand on the floor for balance, lift the left leg in the air several times. Repeat on other side.
5. While standing, hands on hips, stoop forward bringing shoulders towards the ground. Repeat several times.
6. Balancing on one foot, stretch the other forward, then gradually go down to a squatting position.
7. Lying on your back with legs pressed together, bring them to the right and lift them in the air so as to describe an arch over the body from right to left. Repeat in other direction.
8. Sitting cross-legged, as would a tailor, and holding your feet, roll backwards until your knees touch the floor, then forwards to a sitting position. Repeat 20 times."
Women who perform these exercises once in the morning and once at night will see rapid progress, Khouri continues. "Their excess fat will vanish and their trimmer figures will bring out the elegance of their clothes." To drive her point home, she appended alongside her article several before-and- after pictures from foreign magazines. Nevertheless, one wonders whether she fully understood the circumstances of the Egyptian housewife who, even if she had the time for exercise between taking care of her children and household chores, would probably become the butt of merciless jest by her children and her husband, above all.
Khouri's next instalment on lip care must have struck her readers as odd at first glance, though undoubtedly they would have changed their minds after reading it. "Lips tell much more than words," she informs her audience. For example, some lips might say, "We belong to a nervous, quick tempered woman who is always chewing us out!" Or, others might say, "We belong to a frail woman as you can tell by our pallid colour."
Certainly those women must want to exchange those bitten or pallid lips with lips that are smooth and red, "thereby turning an attractive face beautiful and a beautiful face gorgeous". The secret was simple: Eat plenty of healthy foods, such as fruit and cooked and raw vegetables, take in plenty of fresh air and sunshine, and exercise as much as possible. Of course, slack lips were another problem entirely. In addition to plenty of lip cream, these required lip toning exercises and massage. "Open your mouth, then bring your lips together until they touch. The best massage for your lips is to pinch them between your thumbs and index fingers beginning at the corners of the mouth and working inwards."
Facial expressions had much to do with a woman's beauty and appeal, the way she laughed in particular. To avoid at all costs was that coarse artificial laugh in imitation of certain actresses who rose to stardom. To laugh out loud, even to shriek with laughter, was perfectly acceptable in the home, when one is among one's family. "However, in a restaurant, café or any public establishment, the least that can be said is that it is mortifying to one's friends and companions to allow oneself to give free reign to one's laughter." Khouri continues: a woman should laugh from her heart without pretence; to titter, cackle or guffaw is repulsive. "They say, 'Laugh and the whole world laughs with you.' I say it depends on the way you laugh."
While some laughs were acceptable and others were not, frowns of all types were to be ruled out entirely. Women of gloomier dispositions may find this more challenging, but Khouri had a convenient cure: "It is not at all difficult to remove that crease of a frown from the forehead, merely with our fingertips, if we have the patience and perseverance. Simply tie your hair back and cover it with a cloth. Rub in generous amounts of cream on your forehead, then place your fingertips on the bridge of your nose."
The neck was "the gauge of age", and it is not surprising, therefore, that Al-Ahram's beauty consultant should devote a lengthy passage to this part of the body. "The slightest slackening of the muscles of the neck can make one look alarmingly older," she cautions. Generally, this horror awaited women over 30, but some women less than that age were also vulnerable, "especially those whose financial circumstances compel them to spend long hours at work and those who spend much of their time studying or writing as a result of which their neck muscles are lax for lengthy periods during the day".
Again, massage was the cure. "Every morning and every night, these women must knead their neck muscles vigorously for several minutes. However, they must take care to knead into the neck, for pulling at the flesh will produce the opposite desired result." Should women find their neck off colour, every night before going to sleep they should massage in some yogurt "because it stops dryness and restores colour to normal". Then, when they wake up in the morning, they should apply lemon juice into which they have added a few drops of rose water and allow this solution to dry by itself before applying cream or powder.
A subsequent article dealt with the voice, which held the power of allure or repulsion. In this regard, Khouri relates that Cleopatra wanted to know whether there was anything to justify her jealousy of Octavia, her rival for Anthony's love. When she put the question to a messenger from Rome, he answered, "Have you heard her voice? Is it loud and shrill or delicate and melodious?"
She went on to cite recent medical research that claimed that people who live in noisy environments were more vulnerable to nervous disorders. "A noisy environment is an unhealthy environment and the consequent lack of rest and repose shows on the face. Add to this that coarseness and loudness of voice is generally infectious. Therefore, learning to control one's voice is the first step towards a beautiful voice and correct breathing is the first lesson in controlling the voice." She follows with a useful piece of advice. "When you feel that you are losing control over your voice, that it has begun to tremble or grow hoarse, stop and take a deep breath and release it slowly and regularly as you hum." She adds, "And remember, correct enunciation enhances a woman's beauty."
Hairstyles, like other fashions, were constantly changing. Currently, medium length -- down to the shoulder or perhaps a tad longer -- was the current mode. It also had the advantage that it could be styled in many ways to make women look more feminine, and "coiffeurs had devised many skilful ways of creating luxuriant waves and curls".
Khouri then gives her readers some tips on hair care that she had just received from "the capital of fashion", by which she means Paris, of course. Thick hair must be thinned so that it takes the shape of the natural curve of the head. Care must be taken to ensuring that the part is perfectly clear and straight before proceeding to combing the hair. In parting the hair, "use the fine toothed end of the comb for the thick end will leave unwanted furrows". Above all, however, women must style their hair to suit their face.
Sleep was also intrinsically connected with beauty, but it was not so much the quantity as the quality of sleep that counted. Before going to bed, it was important to wash off all traces of makeup, using one of the special creams created for that purpose, and then to apply a skin-nourishing face cream. As for bedding, medium was the word. The mattress should be neither too firm nor too soft and should be free of lumps "which are harmful to the spine and cause discomfort". Similarly, the pillow should be "neither too hard nor too fluffy". Women given to insomnia should drink a cup of warm milk and take several deep breaths before going to bed. Finally, the bedroom should be furnished simply and in good taste "so that the last thing we see before we close our eyes is restful and comforting".
In her final instalments of "What women want to know", Khouri takes her readers to the "world of fashion". Only two years ago, she tells them, "the world of fashion awoke from its long slumber and news abounded that those clothes that resembled sombre official suits are out and women now are back to elegant gowns with hems trimmed with fringes and fur. Just last September, she continues, the fashion show in the Olympia in London displayed a stunning array of dresses in a variety of cuts and colours. The event attracted a massive audience, most if not all of whom were of the fair sex and newspapers and magazines teemed with reports on the displays.
All agreed that fashion had changed, but not to the extent anticipated. "The influence of the first and second empires is still apparent, if it has been modified to suit contemporary taste. One is also surprised to find that the fashion for this autumn has virtually been taken from that of last spring. Nevertheless, it appears that fashion designers have gone mad about blending styles from diverse historical periods, dating even as far back as the Persian epoch." It was also a sumptuous exhibit, with costly fabrics ranging from satin and velvet to taffeta and crepe de Chine, and colours ranging from heather to chartreuse and from amber to a shimmering slate blue reminiscent of burnished silver.
Jewellery, the subject of another instalment, had a long and diversified history. "It began with pieces of bone, then polished metals worked into various shapes such as insects, and later precious stones, pearls and coral, which women acquire according to their class and environment." Women had to be just as careful in choosing their jewellery as in all other aspects of their adornment, for the subtlest differences could enhance beauty or emphasise flaws. For example, short women should wear long necklaces, "which creates something of the illusion of height", while larger cast women should avoid necklaces with large stones. Similarly, necklaces consisting of flat pieces such as those worn by ancient Egyptians best suited petite women while tall, stately women are eminently suited to necklaces with large stones "as long as they do not hang too much below the chin". Khouri concludes this subject with the caution: "One of the most common mistakes women make in choosing their necklaces is to ignore their age. The necklace that suits a 20-year-old can hardly be deemed appropriate to a woman looking 60."
Handbags were another important accessory and it was women's good fortune that stores were filled with a vast array of diversely shaped and coloured purses. Some of the best to be had were manufactured to last. "They are made of high- quality leather, have rounded corners and solid clasps and their lining is evenly textured. It has been suggested that they were designed by a practical-minded woman, fully aware of the many personal things a woman must carry with her." Naturally, the purse must match the shoes, "and the shoes to wear this season are alligator leather and brown or black".
Jamila Khouri concluded her fashion series with two questions, the first being, "How much of her husband's money should a woman spend on clothes?" She replied that women should always be careful not to overindulge themselves and overspend on clothes and accessories for that would be to court financial disaster for their husbands. "It is important for women to keep a firm check on that feminine instinct to constantly change their appearance and, instead, to strive to keep her wardrobe and accessories within the bounds of reason and necessity." Nevertheless, she goes on to cite a recent opinion poll on the subject conducted by a British magazine and in which respondents cited figures ranging between five and 12.5 per cent of the husband's salary. Nevertheless, Khouri believes that such amounts did not necessarily constitute a guideline for Egyptian women and that, ultimately, couples must work out their domestic finances together, including the amount to be spent on clothes.
Her second question was more challenging: "Are all women equal?" In answer to this question, she turned to astrology, although for some reason she confines herself to women born under the spring signs, Aries, Taurus and Cancer, even though her articles appeared in autumn. In all events, Aries women "liked to lead" and were "bold, ambitious and passionate". Tauruses were "calm, mild-tempered and inclined to go their own way and mind their own business". Women born under Cancer were romantics; "they love to travel and fantasise, they love nature and cling to tradition, and they hate being apart from their family and loved ones." One cannot help but to suspect that Al-Ahram's fashion consultant had her tongue in her cheek, here, for she would certainly be aware of the proverb, "Astrologers lie even if they tell the truth."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.