By Beatriz Esquivel
Almost every culture in the world has some kind of personal grooming ideal. For some, it’s facial painting; for others, it’s just clothes, but there are also more extreme methods, such as body modifications (scarification, piercings, expansions, and tattoos). In many cultures, this was a way of expressing things such as their rank, marital status, or to indicate they were sex workers. Some others were just ways of adorning their bodies to look beautiful.
Ancient Aztec women had their own way of expressing their beauty, and it was so unique that Fray Bernardino de Sahagun —a Franciscan monk to whom we owe most of what we know about our pre-Hispanic past, as well as the first records of Nahuatl language— wrote (link in Spanish):
«Their faces were painted with dry, dyed powders; their faces were painted dark yellow or bitumen. Their feet were slathered in burnt frankincense, copal, and dye. Some women had short hair, so their hair touched their noses. They cut it and dyed it with black clay, so their head was very visible; they dyed it dark blue, and their head looked shiny. Their teeth were stained with cochineal; their hands and neck were painted with drawings.»
The use of dried powders or soil was due to the idea that yellow-tinted skin was beautiful, whereas the cochineal red was used to stain their teeth instead of their lips, and it had more or less the same use as the modern lipstick to bring attention to the mouth area, not only because of the deep red the insect produces when crushed, but also because it requires a lot of skilled labor to get these insects to produce a bright red instead of a violet hue.
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Archaeologist Eduardo Merlo, from INAH in Puebla state, explains that, according to Fray Bernardino, prostitutes were not only accepted in the Aztec culture, but their work was also well regarded because they were thought to prevent warriors from raping women from other villages. They were the women who better care took of their looks. And they were also some of the few who used cactlis (sandals):
«They take great care of themselves, they bathe, they comb their hair, they wear perfumes, and they adorn themselves with flowers. They wear beautiful dresses with embroidery in bright colors. They go out to the crossroads to offer their services, and they stand there, winking at men, while they chew on their tzictli (gum) and make it crack, like castanets.»
Ahuiani was the name the “happy women” were known with. / Photo: Florentino Codex / Wikimedia Commons.
The consumption of tzictli was very prevalent in the Aztec culture, and its use was similar to our modern use: to freshen our breath. They also dyed their hair to give it a darker hue. However, the preferred hairstyle varied very much according to the time; this we can know because of the archaeological pieces that have been found, and we know how they styled their hair. In general terms, women wore braids, hanging around their neck or in a bun. According to the magazine Arqueología Mexicana (link in Spanish), for the Aztecs, hair was a very important element for tonalli (life energy) to stay inside the body. That was the reason that headdresses were such an important element, both to signal prestige and authority.
The figurines that have been found have been important to learn about the use of makeup in Aztec culture. Some sculptures show makeup bars and some archaeological sites have yielded clay cases with remains of pigments for face painting.
On the other hand, besides the headdresses, one of the accessories that are in use even nowadays are earrings, although they were quite different, but almost everybody had pierced ears, and earlobe expansions were also very common because the tools used were heavier and larger than our modern earrings.
As we can see, Aztec women were just as careful as any other women in their personal grooming.
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