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Lead White

Today, I read the history of 'Lead White' from The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St Clair. This beloved shade dates back to 1417 and has a much darker origin than its bright reflection appears to be. As you may already know, lead was used in the making of this paint, and during its time it became a standard for many beauty products. As time went by, lead poisoning became a headline directly linking the use of lead in household products to many well-publicized deaths. Despite this, women continued coating their skin in pale white layers. It was even reported that women breastfeeding at that time were passing it down to their children. Now, this would have been enough to get me all fired up, but then I kept reading, and the following quote struck a chord:

“The irony of generations of women slowly killing themselves in an effort to look their best is of the darkest kind”. -Kassia St Clair

I don't write this to shame anyone for caring about appearances or to talk about health. I'm a huge fan of Taco Bell knowing full well it's not the healthiest choice. I believe we all have a unique sense of what we find beautiful and there's nothing wrong with pursuing that. In spite of this, our growing obsession with outward beauty, alone, has only shown up more in our culture. I believe seventeenth-century women felt a pressure to look a certain way and, ultimately, decided it was worth risking death to do it. I can’t help but ask myself, when did we let others decide how we should or shouldn’t look? And, more importantly, when did we make our appearances so damned important?


Makeup today is essential, bordering expectation. Do we feel as much pressure to be kind and loving each and every day as we feel the pressure to appear a certain way? I’ve heard so many women joke about how they would never leave the house without “fill in the blank” and I can relate to that. So many feel that they must mask their reality because they’ve been doing it for so long that people would be shocked to see the real them. If you really think about that it sounds crazy. So many of us try our very hardest to put only the picture perfect moments out there for everyone to see, but why have we made the standard a fake perfection when true beauty and strength is in the honest reality.


Who are we looking up to and why have we chosen these people to lead us? I believe these are important questions to ask and I wonder if the women in those days would have answered Queen Elizabeth. The point is at the core of this, we are all just people trying our best to find a purpose in this world and I’d like to believe we’ve come a long way since the seventeenth century. The unfortunate truth is that we have the same poisonous habits today. I believe the most attractive quality in a person is humility and I don't mean thinking less of yourself than you are, but actually just taking your eyes off of yourself altogether. Imagine how empowering that would feel! A life lived without trying to achieve a perfection that honestly doesn’t exist, a standard that will never be met. I can just hear my sweet grandma’s voice in my head saying, “it’s all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”


Wear makeup or don’t wear makeup but let’s not give it more power than it should have. What if we started leading in becoming beautiful people rather than beautiful appearances?


This is a mini-series I created in reflection of these thoughts. I coated birch panels with acrylic paint and then used extra heavy gel molding paste on top. Then, I added another coat of white employing messy brush strokes to contrast the perfect pale white panel that is only visible up close. This series consists of five 6x6 inch wood panels. I hope they provoke thoughtfulness in the areas of our lives that are simply an outcome from some external expectation, rather than what truly is.

Morgan WellsComment