There's an old Irish proverb: "A face without freckles is like a night without stars." It means your freckles are signs of beauty, individuality and cultural pride. I'm covered in little brown speckles from head to toe, and I've always loved them.
My freckles give character to my otherwise pasty, boring skin; they're the sprinkles on my ice cream sundae of a body. I grew up in a world super accepting of my freckles—I'm part of the generation that had books like "Freckle Juice" by Judy Blume, in which a little boy drank a grody ketchup/mayo/grape juice mixture just to get some freckles! I never thought my freckles were out of the ordinary—until I was a 19-year-old volunteer at a preschool. A toddler walked up to me, poked at the freckles on my hands and said, "What are those?"
"Oh," I said, "Those are my freckles!" The kid looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Nope. Those are dirt spots. Go wash your hands." A small child making that mistake isn't a huge deal, but the reality is that freckles have been a misunderstood, abject feature of human skin for a very long time. It wasn't until the 1990s that people really began celebrating their freckles. Now, we've made such strides in freckle acceptance, they've become one of the beauty world's hottest trends. Would-be Pippi Longstockings the world over are drawing freckles (sometimes rainbow-hued) on their faces.
In response to this trend, Kylie Jenner posted a rare, vulnerable Snapchat revealing the freckles the world never knew she had.
Her caption expressed befuddlement at her friends, who were now going out of their way to draw on features she's spent her whole life trying to hide.
Kylie's Snapchat garnered tons of responses from freckly people who echoed her befuddlement. Although we live in a world that's more accepting of freckles, we're still saddled with a lot of baggage and stereotypes surrounding those little brown spots on our skin that occur within all races and ethnicities (despite their most common association with Celtic cultures).
Though freckles are often a subtle feature of a person's appearance, the dots have played a surprising role in the tumultuous history of perceptions of female beauty, and how women's beauty routines affect their health.
The Roman Empire
Ancient Romans viewed freckles as normal, unavoidable facts of life that were neither beautified nor demonized. However, at the dawn of the Roman Empire, skin whiter than the Roman columns was all the rage. Though freckles weren't necessarily viewed as bad, they were an obstacle to achieving the image of an ideal female. To get rid of their "angel kisses," Romans would use lead-based chemical peels diluted with vinegar or mercury. Obviously, this horrifying skin "care" led to rampant lead and mercury poisoning, along with severe skin damage.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, makeup was viewed as SINFUL. Great! you think. I bet it was a great time for natural, freckly skin—right? NOPE. Instead of using lead-based cosmetics to achieve an ivory complexion, as their Roman predecessors had, Middle Age maidens focused their efforts on "natural" methods of freckles eradication.
Sir Hugh Plat catalogued many of these recipes in his book "Delights for Ladies." One natural remedy involved washing one's face with a mixture of tansy weed (a strong, bitter plant), strawberries and milk.
Another method encouraged readers to wash their faces with boiled elderleaves at midnight during a full moon. If those methods didn't work, Sir Plat recommended concocting a facemask from oatmeal and vinegar.
It's a shame that makeup was taboo, because medieval people saw freckles as a bad omen. A common superstition held that freckled folks were witches AND that their freckles doomed them to early deaths (probably from being burned at the stake as witches).
The Renaissance's intellectual rebirth led to the vanishing of superstitions around freckles; however, the old Roman ideal of alabaster beauty returned with a vengeance, along with its horrible lead-based cosmetics. Renaissance women used Venetian Ceruse—what we'd consider foundation—that contained a deadly mixture of lead and mercury. The treatment poisoned countless men and women and destroyed their complexions. One of the many victims of Venetian Ceruse is Queen Catherine de Medici of France, whose fatal lung infection was caused by inhaling the lead fumes from the foundation. But it covered up those pesky freckles, so...worth it?
The Colonial Era
In Dorothy Mays' book about Colonial American women, she divulges what those women wanted: perfectly unmarked skin with cherry cheeks, much like fashion icon and First Lady, Dolley Madison. Like their Middle Ages counterparts, Colonial women turned to skincare, not cosmetics, to solve their freckle problem.
One common solution was the Rose Complexion masque, which sounds like a delightful product from Lush! Spoiler alert: It is not delightful in the least; in fact, it's a mixture of crushed rose petals, honey, oil of tartar, vinegar and rye meal. Women would cake the masque onto their "problem areas" and leave it on overnight to harden. They next morning, they'd wash it off with lemon juice. If you didn't cringe at that, let me assure you: Lemon juice is very bad for your skin.
The Victorian Era
Anti-freckle propaganda really took off during the Victorian Era. Clear and pale skin was of
the utmost importance, but Queen Victoria made a speech banning the use of makeup and proclaiming that painted faces were impolite and vulgur. Yeesh, Vicky, calm yourself down. It was during this era that xenophobia against freckled people really took off. During this extremely racist time, those without austere, pale complexions were viewed as "less white," and not of the same "pedigree" as the eugenics enthusiasts who condemned them. Freckles were also associated with poverty, since they suggested that you worked outside in the sun all day, while wealthy people got to stay INSIDE.
So, with heightened beauty expectations and few cosmetic options, people turned once again to skincare.
Many of the products advertised in newspapers were poisonous, containing ingredients like arsenic (like the "wafers" in the ad above).
Other treatments included carbolic acid and that ancient Roman standby, mercury. Americans followed similar fashion in reducing their use of cosmetics and turning instead to skin care.
People were so desperate to remove their freckles that they even concocted a bizarre medical myth to justify increasingly extreme treatments. The myth, widely perpetuated, held that freckles are the result of an unhealthy liver. A malfunctioning liver needed to deposit bile somewhere—sometimes on the skin, where the bile manifested as freckles. That's right, American doctors decreed that freckles meant people were SICK. The solutions the docs devised were purgatives and bloodletting (mainly by leeches).
Early 20th Century
While women in the 1920s and 30s embraced makeup, many still felt the need to physically remove their freckles. The old stigmas abided—those with freckles were generally considered to be of a lower social status and "not white"—along with some new stereotypes. Ads called freckled faces"shameful" and "homely." Ouch. But what hurt more than the negative views of freckles were the drastic treatments for ridding oneself of them. One such common treatment, seen in the photo above, shows the application of dry ice to remove freckles.
By the way, touching dry ice is basically guarenteed to give you frostbite, so though the treatment may have "worked," it was completely unsafe and ruined many people's skin.
The advertisements for dry ice treatments often came with blurbs like these. This specific image is from Othine's Skin cream. Othine's STILL sells skin bleach today (at Walmart). This was also the period during which women wore big, fancy hats, veils and umbrellas everywhere—all to prevent freckles.
After a 1976 article in the Milwaukee Journal railed against a "plague of freckles," most of the freckle hate came to a screeching halt. In 1995, Chanel released the first Faux Freckle Pencil and made freckles a fashion-forward sign of youth and carefree afternoons spent lounging around on a beach. Soon after Chanel's release, other brands followed suit, and freckly models, like Jodie Kidd, became hot commodities. The artistic director of Lancôme proclaimed, "Freckles are a symbol of freedom."
Today freckle appreciation is through the roof, from the rainbow freckle makeup trend to photographers scrambling to put together collections on freckles. The first image above is taken from one such collection by Brock Elbank. Tons of celebrities, including Kate Moss and Alicia Keys, continue the trend of making freckles high fashion. Even Anna Wintour gave freckles her blessing, when, in 2014, she put together a celebration of freckles in Vogue. After the long, LONG history of people hating on freckles, people are finally starting to appreciate the tiny speckles.