The Devil & DIY: Why We’re OK With “DIY Beauty” But Not Witchcraft And Homeopathy

I started out looking into what witches might do for beauty by looking into spells and potions one might concoct for skin care, hair care, etcetera. But two things became clear pretty quickly: First, that there’s nothing funny I can say about spells, because they’re basically prayers, and I respect that. Second, that whatever soaks or potions I could find on the internet that were specifically associated with Wicca, witchcraft, or paganism were almost exactly the same thing you might find on a site that covers DIY beauty. Like, for instance, The Frisky.

“DIY beauty” is, like, desperately on trend right now. POPSUGAR and Buzzfeed are all over it. There’s a whole subreddit devoted to it. Wellness Mama is insanely popular – and let’s not even talk about Pinterest. The appeal, at least from my experience, is this sense that maybe all you need to take care of yourself is your own two hands and whatever Earth has to offer. Beyond that, there’s this seductive ethos of thrift: If you make your beauty and healthcare products yourself, over the long term, it’s bound to be cheaper than paying for packaging, someone else’s labor, and some giant corporation’s profit.

And when we talk about DIY beauty products like teas, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, face wash, oil pulling, or whole foods that will better your well-being – always a popular topic on the internet – we are essentially talking about healthcare. And we’re also essentially talking about homeopathy. Take, for instance, the whole subject of oil cleansing for your skin: The whole idea behind it is that you should use the substance that clogs your pores to clean your pores –basically. And that’s “like treats like,” the foundational belief of homeopathy.

Other foundational tenets of homeopathy are also echoed by the proponents of DIY beauty. Ira Rutkow explains in his historical survey of medical science, Seeking the Cure, that in the nineteenth century, “Homeopathy’s favorable reception also likely arose because its practitioners prescribed commonsense activities, like eating well and exercising vigorously or walking in the fresh air and sunshine.” Sound familiar?

Homeopathy was created in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann, who “formulated the original theories of homeopathy out of a series of studies on the pharmacologic characteristics of herbal medicines,” says Rutkow. Those herbal medicines already existed, of course, for Hahnemann to study.

And here’s where we circle back around to witches: The medicinal traditions that Hahnemann studied had been women’s domain for centuries by the time that Hahnemann began to explore and catalogue them. Robin Briggs explains, in Witches and Neighbors, a review of witches in European history, that although physicians had tried to monopolize healthcare through licensing laws and closed corporations, most people in early modern Europe got their healthcare from clerics, astrologers, apothecaries, local healers, midwives, and local older women.

“Ultimately every household was expected to provide much of its own care, a task which usually devolved on the housewife, so that popular medicine had a strongly feminine tinge,” Briggs says, and continues: “Local medicine was cheap, quite often provided free or as part of that general exchange of services so common at all levels of society. It was also very empirical, relying on a mixture of herbal lore, pilgrimages, magical formulae and so forth.”

However, in the time of witch hunts, this also meant that the people in European and American communities who provided healthcare – women; midwives and healers – were also perceived as having a frightening power over life and death, according to Briggs: “Power to harm and to heal was so closely intertwined in the popular mind that they could never be clearly separated. All forms of healing formed part of a tangled web of cause and effect, into which the magical and the supernatural could easily be inserted.” If someone fell suddenly ill and had had a disagreement with a woman in the recent past, it was assumed that that woman was a witch who’d cast a spell on them.

But, Briggs says, “Angry exchanges and suspicions of bewitchment were much commoner than criminal prosecutions. A very powerful motive for accusing someone was the hope that they might offer a cure.” Those cures involved some things that might sound familiar: Preparing food and making herbal treatments, as well as healing through touch (echoed in current-day enthusiasm for acupuncture and massage), breath, and prayer.

It’s not just herbal medicine as practiced by women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had a mystical element to it, though – homeopathy did, too. Hahnemann “postulated that there was an intense interrelationship between the spiritual and material aspects of life,” and homeopathy originally (and to a wide extent, in the current day) focused not only on curing the body, but also curing what Hahnemann called the “vital spirit.”

So what happened to these traditions? Local medicine, midwifery, and homeopathy were all eventually absorbed into medical science. Rutkow notes that in the case of homeopathy, this was largely because physicians and medical scientists understood that they needed the homeopaths they had maligned in medical journals and the press as fanatics, because without those homeopaths, they wouldn’t get referrals, and medical science would suffer financially for it. As soon as the American Medical Association opened its doors to homeopaths, the practice was largely assimilated and wiped out, crushed as competition to medical science. And, let’s be honest, homeopathy itself was a way for mostly men to capitalize on a trade that had previously been practiced by women who were themselves maligned as witches.

And here, we get back to DIY beauty and its appeal to thrift, its economic argument. You don’t hear anyone raising too many concerns, too loudly, about what people who dabble in DIY beauty do with their time and money. That’s because DIY beauty is seen as only an issue of just that: Time and money. It’s yours, do what you want with it.

But Wicca, witchcraft, healing, and homeopathy are all still, to some extent, maligned. To some extent, they’re treated, in present-day America, as not “real.” Take, for example, something we published here, denouncing Etsy sellers who sold spells, before the company banned it. Take, for another, the attitude many secular Americans have toward faith healing. Take people labeling acupuncture as “pseudoscience.”

I’m not saying that I, personally, would consider homeopathy or faith healing or spells or natural medicine to be adequate care for me. But I would argue that we legitimize “DIY beauty” and personal care because we don’t feel skeptical about the value of a dollar, but that we delegitimize witchcraft, herbal healing, homeopathy, and their offshoots because we do feel skeptical about faith or even intuition. We see them as not scientifically effective.

But that’s not the point, and that’s judging witchcraft and homeopathy through the wrong lens. Briggs notes that misfortune and illness are deeply connected for human beings. If we fall ill, we see it as misfortune, and we want an explanation. It has always been human nature to look to a cosmic, religious, or mystical source for our misfortunes. Underneath that desire for an explanation is just a very deep anxiety about the future that I think anyone, secular people included, could relate to.

For people who practice an element of faith in their healthcare, (or in, let’s call it, their wellness routine), they’re looking not just to solve the physical symptoms, but also to resolve that anxiety through their spirituality. If we’re going to say that practitioners of DIY beauty and personal care can do whatever they want with their time and money, I think it’s also fair to say that practitioners of homeopathy, witchcraft, and any kind of faith in nature have the right to do what they want with their faith, too.

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