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A Shockingly Gruesome History of Beauty Marks, Real and Fake

In the 18th century, mouse fur was commonly made into facial patches.

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The history of fake beauty marks goes back quite a while, and like most beauty history (and history of femininity, in general), it involves gruesome death, witch trials, definitely some puritanical political philosophies, divine prophecy, public humiliation, and arbitrary opinions dressed up as scientific fact used as the basis to defend torture. In between all of that blood and fanfare, you have duchesses and other fine ladies wearing fake moles made of velvet and leather couture patches, because wealth and whiteness can often protect you from many awful things, like public scrutiny and cavity searches and refugee bans and the racist violence legislated by spray-tanned fascist dictators.

Anyway. Cosmetic stickers aren’t new technology. Ancient Romans would apply fake moles made out of leather to pockmarks and scars; in fact, the preoccupation with “imperfections” such as pimples and moles was topic of discussion for Hippocrates, who developed a theory of medicine informed by astrology. He wasn’t necessarily the first person to come up with a theory of the body concerning moles and what they meant in the universe, though.

Imperial China came up with Mian Xiang, the art of face reading, around the same time as Hippocrates did. In 403-221 BCE, in the period of Warring States, it was already a subject of serious discussion and debate in academia and military strategy. One of these schools was run by Gui Gu Tze, who was a master of both face reading and military strategy. His students went on to be the advisor to the prime minister, commanders in chief, and were rumored to be the real authors of The Art of War (though that theory is pretty far-fetched, according to historians). So the man who taught some of the most important military minds in Chinese history the art of political rhetoric also knew a lot about what moles meant, and why that mattered.

Chuo Kuo Liang, another famous face-reader, was similarly both a general and an astrologer. He used his skills to help Liu Bei come to power in Western China. Chuo Kuo Liang was lauded for being able to pick the right man for office, and he’s sometimes worshipped as a saint for his wisdom. And what did he do besides work as a prime minster, a general, and an astrologist? He wrote several books on face reading — including moles.

General Chiang Kai-shek, a proponent of face reading.
Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

It is not an industry that truly ever died in my ancestral homeland. Chiang Kai-shek frequently used face reading and mole divination to help him find the right general for military maneuvers. When those strategies eventually went awry and he and his followers fled to Taiwan in 1949, face reading, mole reading, hand reading — all of it was banned in China for decades by Mao Tse Sung. Of course, it is suspected that Mao himself privately used it. And now some Chinese companies hire people with the skill to monitor their employees. The regimentation and surveillance of beauty has only changed, never died entirely.

So while the heads of armies in China argued military strategy and mole divinity, Hippocrates and the rest of ancient Greece were also utilizing their own approach to body politics: moleomancy. And when pimples could not be remedied by ancient and often poisonous remedies suggested by Hippocrates, Pliny, and the like, people just plastered small rounds of leather on top of them and declared them moles. It didn’t make one more beautiful than those with clear skin, but it improved the person’s appearance from being just hideously hormonal. Fake moles were also a tool used to differentiate the free Romans from the enslaved, who were more likely to bear wounds, scars, tattoos, and brands from the abuse they endured but weren’t given the agency to cover up. The formerly enslaved sometimes cut off or burned their branded skin and used fake moles to conceal the scars.

The Ancient Romans weren’t the only ones to use fake moles as a method of delineating ugliness, morality, and class rank. In Medieval Europe, moles and other physical characteristics like pimples didn’t mean you were enslaved, but that you were possessed by the devil. Called the “witch’s teat,” moles and any other bodily “abnormality” were seen as signs of witchcraft and were the devil’s mark on his subject, where he or the witch’s familiar suckled. Suspected witches were subject to strip searches, shaved, and often tortured into confessions. And because most people on earth have at least one mole or other irregularity, witch’s teats were often found and people were often condemned. Even if someone came to a woman’s defense, she would still be tried, tortured, and eventually killed. I haven’t yet found evidence that people in this period were using fake moles, probably because the risk of the irony would have gotten them tortured and killed.

Portrait of Marie Casimire of Poland, 1750.
Photo: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

The majority of remaining physical evidence we have that the history of cosmetic stickers and fake moles is long and violent comes from the 18th century, when fake moles were used as a response to smallpox. Because skincare and cosmetics at the time were still mostly poisonous trash, they did very little to alleviate scarring from smallpox, so on top of arsenic-laced face powders, women began to resort to stamping on mouse fur and various other fabrics onto their pockmarked skin. Plenty of men thought this was a sign of devilry, too, and because men have historically legislated their opinions into laws on women’s bodies, on June 7th, 1650, British Parliament introduced a bill to deal with “the vice of painting, wearing black patches, and immodest dresses of women.” Just a few years after that, a remarkably named book called The Artificial Changeling was published by John Bulwer, who described both the methods of fake moles and cosmetics in general as “mad and cruel gallantry, foolish bravery, filthy fineness, and loathsome loveliness... [a way of] fashioning and altering bodies from the mould intended by nature.”

Of course, when you make it sound so utterly fantastical, it’s bound to become en vogue. And so it went: Artificial beauty marks, by then, were called mouches (“flies” in French), and the materials they came in were as varied as any other fashionable object. You could get fake moles in silk, taffeta, velvet, too, in the shape of a heart, a club, a wand, and more if you had the money for it. Once again, fake moles could delineate your class privilege; if you were a woman of limited means, you were not spending your money on the fancy fake mole. You were stuck with homemade mouse skin stickers. Patch making was its own small industry for a while; making elaborate ones provided a lot of children and elderly women with work. So many people made and bought paste-on moles and face stickers that in Venice there was a street dedicated to the industry. It’s still there, called Calle de le Moschete, though the market has understandably moved on.

Besides hiding signs of smallpox and explaining your class privilege, fake moles were also in political conversations — albeit satirically. Joseph Addison wrote on “party patches” in 1711 in his satirical newspaper Spectator about observations on patches in an opera house in West Yorkshire. He wrote that Tories wore different patches than Whigs, and those sitting in the middle of the opera house with no patches at all were a neutral party. Spectator had a huge circulation for the time and was often used as a means to educate women on their proper place, so while the account is fictional, the message was still effective: keep women in their place, and leave politics to the men in the room and off your perfect (if) bare face. Fake news has always been a tool to regulate women’s agency, from fake moles to reproductive rights.

The history of fake moles, of course, stretches into the modern era too, with Elizabeth Taylor, Clara Bow, Marilyn Monroe, and other celebrities’s beauty marks migrating and growing as their celebrity status grew exponentially. Some celebrities chose to remove their natural moles — Sarah Jessica Parker did so, as did Madonna — while others draw them on, like Marina and the Diamonds.

Now L'Oréal even has Smart Stickers that will tell you when you’ve had too much sun exposure, and anarchists have experimented with using stickers and fake hair to deter from government surveillance. Some of the most popular Instagram beauty artists are using face stickers as key parts of their signature looks, and cool-kid brand Milk Makeup sells Tattoo Stamps nowm too (with product copy: “instant body art that washes away in time for that job interview.”) Soon, we’ll be able to eliminate scars entirely, because scientists have figured out a way to regenerate human skin: no stickers necessary. But that technology will come first, of course, to those who can afford it. Cosmetic alteration like fake moles and stick-ons have always been linked to violence, class, concepts of the “right” kind of womanhood, body politics, slavery, surveillance, and freedom. It’s never just about your body, but the rules people want to enforce on it. Funny how timeless that is, huh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn on the news while I cover up my zits and mask up for another march.

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