I am not a lesbian (not that there is anything wrong with that) but I think that watching a woman dress up is so sexy. I suspect this is true of most of us and goes back to the time when we watched goggle-eyed as our mothers draped silk saris and pearls, perfumed and powdered themselves to the accompaniment of tinkling anklets and bangles. There is a certain self-absorption that comes over us women when we face the mirror. We cock our eyebrows, rub our lips together to smooth out lipstick and flick away a fallen lash. We preen, in other words, like the many-splendoured peacocks that we are.
Secret’s out: Geishas prefer nightingales. Kazuhiro Nogi/AP
I don’t know about the rest of you but for me the best part of a party is dressing up for it. Massive events such as family weddings kick into gear the rustle and shuffle of silk saris and lehengas being appraised for appropriateness. Of all the questions that we women pose to each other, can any be more vexing and delicious than “What are you going to wear?”.
Among the baubles and bottles that litter my dressing table, my current favourite beauty product is a cleansing powder in which “nightingale droppings” is the main ingredient. I got this fabulous cleanser in Tokyo where it is called Uguisu No Fun—a misnomer if ever there was one. It should have been called Uguisu Lotsa Fun.
The beautician who sold it to me said that nightingale droppings have been used by geisha and kabuki actors for centuries. Apparently, this particular bird poop contains guanine, an amino acid loaded with ammonia, hence it has skin lightening and cleansing properties. Since I am philosophically against skin lightening, I didn’t give a shit (forgive the pun) about the ammonia part but I was all for cleansing through enzymes. And so it comes to be that come dawn, I prance around the house wearing nightie and nightingale droppings.
The problem is that my supplies are running low and I need to replenish. Since I am not likely to visit Tokyo anytime soon, I began thinking about options. After all, tons of birds routinely do their business on my balcony. Was there some potential in their poop?
Putting animal and bird excretions to good use is a hoary tradition in many countries. Argan oil, much loved by cutting-edge chefs, comes from Morocco. For centuries, Berbers have allowed goats to climb up the spiny argan tree, eat the fruits and collected the nuts which come out undigested in the goat faeces. It is this nut that is used to mill argan oil. The next time you pour some of this fragrant green stuff on your salad or smear it on your face, remember its route from tree to palate.
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The beauty industry, too, dips into the animal species for tips and techniques. Demi Moore is supposed to have undergone a treatment in Austria which used leeches. When I first read this, I thought it was fabricated. Turns out that plastic and reconstructive surgeons have used leeches to stimulate blood flow to a region for decades.
Recently, scientists in Korea isolated an antioxidant peptide renowned for its anti-ageing properties from the skin of the bullfrog. Which means that the fairy tale was right after all. Sleeping Beauty did wake up when kissed by the frog prince—must have been the antioxidant peptides coursing through her skin.
India is no slouch when it comes to recycling animal excretions. Not only did Morarji Desai drink his own urine, but we have a whole spectrum of Ayurvedic medicines made using wastage from a cow. Panchagavyam, which is made using cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee and yogurt is said to remove not just diseases but sins, poverty and pretty much all human suffering.
Crème de la mer, a much touted product that I used for a while, was discovered by Max Huber, an aerospace physicist, to heal the burn marks on his face. Some of the Korean beauty products that I like include fermented soy isoflavones, which I rub on my face at night while listening to Dave Brubeck’s version of Take Five. The comfort of this beauty ritual probably does more for my skin than the actual product, which explains why I can switch from La Prairie to nightingale droppings with insouciance.
Pigeons are partial to my balcony, which they use as their bathroom. Just my luck, I thought sourly, to be surrounded by pigeons instead of nightingales. Then I did a little research on Google Scholar and learnt that “soluble salt minerals” from pigeon droppings were potential contributors to “the decay of stone-based cultural heritage” sites. If pigeon poop could corrode stone, my skin would be pigeon’s play for it. Could I somehow convert pigeon shit into an exfoliating mask?
Keeping all this in mind, I set out a phalanx of disposable plastic containers on my balcony. To attract the pigeons, I played Mozart’s Symphony 40 in G minor. If you haven’t heard the 40, and I doubt you haven’t, it is like listening to the elder Dagar brother interpret Raga Miya ka Malhar with his feathery light touch in the lower octave.
The pigeons delivered. I collected the plastic containers, took one glance at the grey goop inside and threw the lot away. There are a lot of things I will do for beauty but I draw the line at pigeon poop. Now, if any of you are going to Tokyo and are willing to bring me back some nightingale droppings, that’s another matter altogether.
Shoba Narayan likes Shu Uemura’s skincare line…and its eyelash curler.
Write to her at email@example.com