Beauty is as beauty does

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Popular culture is full of ‘beautiful people’, and it seems that people who are considered good-looking are privileged by society in terms of money and status. A recent book, Beauty Pays, uses this as its central argument, however, it is far from a new observation. One anonymous Victorian writer goes so far as to claim that, in light of the penalties they impose, “plainness” and “ugliness” should be recognised as conditions in need of a cure. Kallos: A Treatise on the Scientific Culture of Personal Beauty and the Cure of Ugliness (1883), written by an unnamed Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons is other little gem which deals with this topic. Kallos has been digitised as part of the UK Medical Heritage Library.


The book categorises different types of ugliness – coarse or narrow features, excessive weakness or strength, obesity, poor circulation – and offers potential treatments. As the text predates the popularisation of cosmetic surgery by several decades the author, for the most part, finds non-surgical solutions to ugliness. His usual approach is summarised by the phrase “the cure lies in the removal of the cause”. Coarse noses are said to result from too much drink and coarse lips from too much food. The cure in each case is a behavioural one: to eat and drink more discriminatingly. Thinness is remedied by ensuring one keeps good hours and gets one’s beauty sleep.

Plainness is not limited to a person’s form: a person may also move in an ugly way or have an uninteresting voice, and these too can be cured. More profoundly, these outer traits can be interpreted as signs of a beautiful or ugly character: narrow nostrils are said to “[give] an unintelligent aspect”, and a powerful jaw offers a “real indication of originally strong digestion and muscle, and it is, therefore, not without reason, assumed to indicate force of character.”


This connection between character, behaviour and appearance culminates in a claim that a person should “try to look like what he ought to be. In so doing he may be led to be what he ought to look like. […] In trying to look cheerful, a man may succeed in cheering himself up; and in trying to look true and brave, a sneak may deal a rude blow at his own untruthfulness and cowardice.”

Aside from this, the author offers plenty of more down-to-earth advice. He suggests some chemical treatments: soft soap and rainwater in the cure of acne and arsenic is said to have “the best effect on the state of both skin and hair.” The figure may be toned with appropriate exercise – although excessive exercise may lead to ugly, overdeveloped muscles.

He also believes in the importance of supportive clothing, recommending that, in the absence of a good corset, women knit themselves something which sounds suspiciously like a proto-brassiere. He is also a keen advocate of the Banting system of weight loss,  which proposes that dieters cut down on “respiratory” foods (potatoes, bread etc.) and instead eat plenty of “plastic” foods (primarily meat and fish) – a system reminiscent of the more modern Atkins diet. The author’s thoughts seem uncannily familiar in some ways.

Authors: Cassidy Phillips is a Support Services Assistant, and Deborah Leem is Digitisation Project Coordinator at the Wellcome Library.

Cassidy Phillips

Cassidy Phillips is a Support Services Assistant at the Wellcome Library.

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