paint lips

shave eyebrows

never cut hair

paint new eyebrows

Heian beauty

blacken teeth

The single most important attribute of a woman's beauty in Murasaki's day was her hair. Longer than her height, trailing down her back, abundant lacquer-black hair was a woman's main beauty asset. She washed it once, perhaps twice, a year using the "white water" (shiromizu) in which rice had been soaked. Her daily hair care consisted of combing it out, sometimes applying camellia-nut oil or almond oil to it. She might also drape her hair over burning incense to perfume it. Combing one another's hair seems to have been a favorite activity for women living together in one household. Hair was also infused with erotic overtones in the relations between the sexes.

   To cleanse their complexions, women used coarsely ground red beans as soap. They then whitened their faces with rice flour or lead-based powder that they mixed liberally with water into a thin paste or foundation. Natural eyebrows were tweezed away with large silver tweezers, and false "eyebrows" in the form of chunky straight lines were painted higher on the forehead. Lips were reddened with beni, the juice from the benibana or safflower, that was also used as a fabric dye. In an earlier period, women used beni to pinken their entire complexions, but by the Heian era, only the lips were colored and the face was supposed to be an elegant shade of pale.

   One other beauty essential was blackening the teeth. In the thirteenth century aristocratic men copied this custom, but in Murasaki's day only women did it. In fact, the custom of tooth-blackening for women persisted right up until the late nineteenth century, by which time it had become a mark of adulthood—something a woman did when she married. But in Murasaki's time it did not have this meaning and was purely a cosmetic effect. The teeth were stained by applying a concoction of oxidized iron filings steeped in something acidic, and the smelly mixture had to be re-applied every few days or the teeth would revert to white. It must have been something like the necessity today of redoing one's manicure.

Author with blackened teeth…