empress elisabeth of austria: was the 19th century monarchy just as bad as today’s media?
Any time her weight began to creep past 110 pounds, she enacted a “hunger cure” by fasting. When told she needed the nutrients from meat, she settled on having its juice squeezed into a soup to avoid actually eating it. She exercised obsessively – she had balance beams in her bedroom so she could work out the moment she woke, and she went horseback riding for hours every day. She employed steam baths to prevent weight gain and weighed herself three times a day. Styling her hair took three hours and she traveled with her hairdresser. Her hair was washed with eggs and cognac and the process took the entire day. She favoured a natural look over wearing makeup, so she placed a high value on maintaining smooth, youthful skin by using facial tonics and a nightly facial mask, and enacting a routine of cold morning showers and evening baths in olive oil.
Reading this regimen, who would you think these body image issues and fanatical beauty routines belonged to? The call for the media to stop promoting unrealistic body types seems pretty recent; it might not be something we think of beyond the 1980s, and certainly not before the twentieth century. We associate things like vanity, as well as the serious issue of eating disorders, with Hollywood. But these practices were part of the life of a nineteenth-century European monarch.
Elisabeth of Austria, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, was born in 1837 in Munich into the Wittelsbach family. The Wittelbachs ruled Bavaria from 1180 to 1918, when the kingdom was turned into a republic. But despite the power of her family, Elisabeth – known as “Sisi” – had a pretty carefree, normal childhood. This made Sisi’s transition into the Habsburg court all the more difficult. Sisi’s aunt on her mother’s side, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, wanted a wife for her son, Emperor Franz Joseph. And she wanted to keep the marriage in the family – actually the norm back then. The engagement was supposed to be between Franz Joseph and Sisi’s older sister, Helene, but when Sisi accompanied Helene and their mother to court to meet the emperor, he fell for the beautiful younger sister instead. Five days later, they were engaged.
Sisi’s world changed drastically, and fast. She was sixteen, and girls back then weren’t exactly educated about what happens on their wedding night – Sisi locked herself in her room for three days in shock after hers. And court life wasn’t much easier. Making the strict rules and social expectations even more intense, Sisi’s mother-in-law, Sophie, seemed to go out of her way to make life more difficult for her. Sophie was beyond critical, which didn’t do much for Sisi’s insecurities and discomfort at court. She basically just wanted Sisi to be constantly pregnant, providing heir after heir for the throne. Almost immediately, Sisi developed health problems from her extreme anxieties at court: she would fall into violent coughing fits and was terrified of descending narrow staircases. But her first major heartache came when she gave birth to a daughter ten months after her wedding. Princess Sophie whisked the baby away, named it after herself, and refused to let Sisi have much to do at all with raising the child. The same thing happened a year later when Sisi gave birth to another daughter, Gisela.
But Sophie’s harsh view of Sisi wasn’t the popular one. Sisi was adored by her Austrian subjects and even more so by her Hungarian subjects. There were factions of people who were put off by Sisi’s obsessive beauty habits, and by her dislike of being pregnant, but compared to female monarchs with far more divisive character traits and who produced no heirs at all, public dislike wasn’t something Sisi encountered often. By today’s Hollywood-driven standards, she could be compared to an Angelina Jolie type: never-waning public interest, an incredibly strong fan base, respect as a humanitarian and admiration as a beauty, all peppered by a few human missteps and detractors. Sisi was a trendsetter. She didn’t subscribe to the heavy makeup popular at the time, and women were inspired by her natural look. Her waspish waist became her trademark, so you may have her to thank – or blame – for helping shift what was considered a beautiful figure from curvy to waifish. Suddenly women were tightening their corsets or, if they could afford it, ordering the newest versions from bespoke shops and other countries. Sisi tried boned fabric styles, leather styles…and the women she ruled followed suit. And if you thought public figures in the nineteenth century were safe from today’s tabloids, think again. The distribution of “pamphlets” has been going on for centuries. These pamphlets would dish on royal gossip and feature illustrations, often sorts of political cartoons. The pamphlets did sometimes mock Sisi when she refused to become pregnant again, and they also immortalised her beauty and figure. The pressure was on. Her image was syndicated throughout Europe. She became obsessed with making sure no one ever met her and found her to be anything but what they expected: youthful, radiant, natural and skinny.
And the media’s tendency to take away from a woman’s political and social views because she’s, well, a woman? It was just as strong then as it is now. It’s hard to imagine a male politician or presidential candidate getting even a third of the attention for his hairstyle that Hilary Clinton has gotten for hers (Who cares if she’s running in 2016? The question is, will she or won’t she get bangs?). Sisi’s waist and luxurious chestnut hair almost always overshadowed her work. So much so that many people of her time didn’t know how fiercely she rallied at court for improved mental health care. Sisi had witnessed mental illness firsthand: her cousins, brothers Ludwig II and Otto, would both become kings of Bavaria only to be deposed due to their “insanity” (while accounts show undeniable proof of certain eccentricities and perhaps even some mental problems, many historians doubt just how insane the brothers were). When Franz Joseph asked Sisi what she wanted for her birthday one year, instead of asking for the jewels that were a more typical request of empresses, she asked for a state-of-the-art asylum for the mentally ill.
Having fallen in love with Hungary during her travels there, Sisi made it her personal responsibility to help the people there warm to the idea of an alliance with Austria. She learnt the language and worked with the Hungarian Gyula Count Andrássy to make sure the alliance was fair and just for both parties. She even helped secure Andrássy as prime minister of Hungary once the alliance was made.
In addition to her humane and political efforts, Sisi endured several tragedies that were also overshadowed by her more superficial fame. Her young daughter, Sophie, died of what’s now believed to have been typhus during a trip to Hungary. One year saw the death of Sisi’s beloved mother, sister and father, and was capped off with the shocking death of her son, Rudolf, in his murder-suicide with his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Sisi was, as one could imagine, devastated – but before the year was out, her dear friend Andrássy would also die.
The empress died on 10 September 1898, at the age of 60. She had traveled to Geneva, Switzerland with her lady-in-waiting, ignoring warnings to be more careful and avoid so much traveling or to travel with more protection. Sisi hated making a production out of her trips and calling attention to herself. It was an admirably down-to-earth attitude for a monarch, but unfortunately one that led to her assassination. An Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni was in Geneva, and had planned to murder the Duke d’Orléans. When he found out the Duke had already left town, Lucheni turned his plans on Sisi, who he’d just heard was in the city. He explained after the murder that he did not care who he killed as long as his victim was a sovereign. Sisi was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sisi’s legacy has lived on in books, films, articles and sheer adoration and remembrance in Austria. But that legacy is often focused on her looks. The media in nineteenth-century Europe is surprisingly comparable to our media today. The images were drawn, not photographed, but the words were just as judgmental. And they had just as much power on both their subject and their readers. The pamphlets and the word-of-mouth gossip surrounding Sisi framed her as beauty-crazed and vain, which both silenced Sisi’s more noble pursuits and made her feel more pressure to maintain her perfect looks. Presumably in no small part because of this, Sisi didn’t allow a portrait to be painted of her after the age of 32 so that only a youthful image of her would live on into history. But even though the public was paying attention to Sisi’s luscious locks and barely-there waist, even if her political and humane work was silenced outside the court, it never stopped her. Sisi kept her work up no matter who was paying attention, as long as it was getting results. And that’s something we can learn from her even today.
Maybe the women of Europe were tightening their corsets and trying her hairstyles, but Austria and Hungary entered into a beneficial alliance and the Hungarian people felt comfortable instead of frightened of their new government. The monarchy started paying attention to mental health care. Sisi’s surrender to the media’s pressures on her appearance simply shows us how real and human she was – we all have weaknesses, and one woman against the media is quite the David and Goliath situation. But Sisi also showed us how to rise above such pressures and physical beauty focus by driving her work forward. She showed us to never let them silence your voice, keep on doing what you’re doing. Maybe they only care about your looks or your waistline, but while they’re distracted, you could be doing something really important.