Invented by movie mogul DW Griffith in 1916, stick-on eyelashes have become an essential part of the female beauty arsenal. But, argues Liz Hoggard, why would anyone want to appear fake?

I'm lying in a darkened basement with my lower eyelids taped down. If I cry, everything will be ruined. After the treatment I can't get my face wet for 24 hours. Now I know what they mean by an extreme makeover.

Eyelash guru to the A-list, Susie Lung is patiently gluing hand-cut synthetic "lash inserts" to the roots of my natural lashes, on the underside of the eye. A master technician, she can make the sparsest lashes look darker, more luxuriant – while adding that desired curl.

Two hours later, I look in the mirror - and, hmm yes, I'm channelling Monica Vitti and Sophia Loren. Lung is too skilful to make me look like Ermintrude the Cow – but you feel more defined. More womanly.

All day I wear the new lashes like a secret. Men lean forward rather more in conversation. Women say accusingly: "Have you lost weight?"

Such is the subliminal power of the fake. The past year has also seen an explosion in the number of salons and department stores offering semi-permanent extensions – individual lashes glued to your lash-line that last up to a month.

Because never have eyelashes been so important – as a signifier of fashion, health, fertility and raw sex appeal. X Factor contestants Katie Waissel and Cher Lloyd have even started a trend for wearing two beetly pairs, one over another.

Five years ago it was a quaint, camp thing – the preserve of drag queens – now every woman is experimenting with extensions, lash-regenerating mascaras and magic re-growth formulas that you apply nightly.

Eyes matter – for communicating, bartering, flirting. They speak even when you are silent. Everyone coverts the sexy "open-eyed" look (during sexual arousal our pupils dilate). Even back in the Bronze Age, women wore kohl to enhance their flutter – and make the whites of the eyes appear whiter.

In Stephen Bayley's book Woman As Design – a study of how evolutionary biology and male desire have both tried to shape the female body – he explores how eye make-up was an indicator of high social standing, suggesting an inclination and ability to spend time indoors rather than in the raw blasts of the field.

Today the UK mascara market is worth around £200m annually – jammed full of products promising to "volumise" and "plump" lashes. But increasingly we're opting for falsies. Working on the same principle as hair extensions, it's a phenomenon that began in south Asia and has made its way here, via Hollywood.

Michelle Obama wore false lashes on her trip to Europe. Lady Gaga and Katie Price sport feathered lash sets. Shu Uemura has custom-designed mink lashes with diamonds for Madonna. Or how about eyelash jewellery – delicate baubles that hang from the lash line, serving as a new breed of "eyecessories." Even if you don't have a spare $10,000, you can create your own bespoke style. Young Hoxton kids are slapping the fake lashes on and cutting them down artistically.

The make-up artist Armand Beasley says: "False lashes were once restricted to the Norma Desmonds of this world, ageing has-beens struggling to hold on to the symbols of youth. Not any more! With hit shows like Mad Men and pop stars like Girls Aloud and Lady Gaga, the bombshell is back. They have become popular again because it's instant glamour along with hair pieces, wonder bras and corsets. A great way to change your look without having to do something invasive."

British shoppers spend over £10m a year on false lashes. Some 5 per cent of all Selfridges' sales come from lash products. Superdrug has reported a 33 per cent rise in sales this year.

Forget boobs or Brazilians, eyelashes are the new erogenous zone. You can choose from one or two spider's legs added to the edge of the eye to enhance a sexy flutter, or go for the full caterpillar effect. Plastic surgeons are even offering an eyelash transplant for anyone with a spare £3,000.

But is it a good thing? Why are we seeing a return to retro femininity? No one actually wants to be Betty Draper, surely? Am the only one who finds the lashtastic craze slightly sinister, the idea that modern woman – natural, unadorned – isn't good enough? I can't help noticing celebrities are rapidly dropping body mass (Cheryl Cole actually looks thinner than the notoriously etiolated bodies you see on the catwalk) but then the female form is "rebuilt" with hair weaves, breast enhancements and stripper nails. As flesh disappears, the new secondary sexual characteristics are made from silicone and acrylic. Women are terrified of taking up space – does my bum look big in this? – with their real bodies. But apparently it's fine to dominate a room with Big Hair and Big Lashes.

And the subtle message is that ageing is wrong. Long eyelashes are associated with youthfulness (lashes get shorter as you grow older and hormone levels change). So women over 35 are expected to "sex up".

I don't mean to be a killjoy. I enjoy massages and pedicures. I am nothing without a blow-dry. But, you know, I already spend far too much of my damn time on my appearance. Femininity seems increasingly to be a form of performance art with women in thrall to body insecurities. Slap on this, add that, never let the world see the real you.

And yet I too am fascinated by our makeover culture – where maybe you can reclaim a body you judge too harshly. On shows like How To Look Good Naked, it's fascinating to watch the psychological journey people go on when they are given treatments and attention.

Beasley loves the fact that simple tricks are transformational: "I use lashes all the time on my clients whether it's on the general public for makeover shows or celebs on the red carpet. Lashes are an affordable glamour."

With all the X Factor madness, it's easy to forget eyelashes have a very practical function. They protect the eye from debris and (not unlike whiskers on a cat) trigger a warning that an unknown object is approaching the eye. Kohl was thought to protect eyes from heat and dust.

False eyelashes were only invented by silent movie director DW Griffith in 1916 for the heroine of his epic movie Intolerance. He wanted her to have especially long lashes so suggested using cuttings of hair from a wig, woven through a fine gauze. In the 1940s and 1950s, make-up artist brothers David and Eric Aylott perfected falsies for stars such as Dietrich, Hayworth, Lamarr – who understood that a langorous close-up could be stronger than a thousand punchlines.

But it wasn't until the 1960s – and poster girl Twiggy – that they were adopted into ordinary women's beauty regime. In the past, lashes had to be glued on. Today's designs come with adhesive applied so they can simply be pressed into place. Lash extensions (£85-£140) are more costly but last up to three months if you have top-ups. All you need to do is comb them in the mornings.

As for the sooty-eyed X Factor girls, history is just repeating itself. According to the clothing historian Philippa Stockley. "Women have been emphasising the two mobile, attention-grabbing and sexually persuasive parts of their face (the eyes and mouth) ever since coal, soot, wax and various red pigments, from crushed berries to beetle wings, were around in the Bronze age. Romans did it, so did ancient Egyptians. The idea was simple, the ingredients coarse; but they made a big difference to Western eyelashes which are generally sparser, shorter and paler than those from Latin countries."

I ask Stockley about the new surge in popularity of false eyelashes. "It's hard to be sure whether is due to women taking refuge in 'glamour' in an economic downturn, or to a 1950s-1970s fashion strand that includes big hair, big false lashes and big breasts – all almost comic signifiers of femininity, but ones that may also help the owner nail down the insurance of an economic provider," she jokes.

She tells me the first commercial mascara was produced by Frenchman Eugene Rimmel in the 19th century. "The word Rimmel came to mean mascara in several languages including Italian. Around 1915 T L Williams mixed coal and Vaseline for his sister, Maybel, and called the eyelash-coating cake Maybelline. The brand never stopped selling. For instant sex appeal and gender definition, no woman should step out of doors without lipstick and lashes. The rest is window dressing."

There's big money in lashes. The hot new trend is paint-on, lash-lengthening products – which stimulate hair growth and makes your lashes grow back thicker and darker. This summer thousands of women crashed the Boots website as they clamoured to get hold of new "miracle" thickener, RapidLash.

The irony is the new formulas came out of research for glaucoma. A main ingredient (bimatoprost ophthalmic solution) in the popular glaucoma drug, Lumigan, has the side effect of causing eyelashes to grow. Today it's FDA-approved but you have to be careful applying it because it has the potential to turn light-coloured irises dark.

Why are we taking these risks? I can't help finding it ironic that as my fortysomething generation are panicking about failing sight – "Dear God, why can't I read the A-Z any more?" – we're distracting ourselves with diamond lash extensions.

As one of the 45 per cent of Britons with the rogue gene that causes shortsightedness, I was the plain school kid in National Health glasses. Disposable lenses saved my life but as consumers we've only been wearing them for 30 years. Who knows the long-term effects? I wear minus 12 lenses – so I'm unsuitable for laser surgery; I'll have to wait 20 years until I have cataracts removed for restored sight. Meanwhile I spend my life dreading signs of age-related macular degeneration.

Reading novelist Candia McWilliams' recent autobiography, What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness, is humbling. In 2006, she began suffering from the effects of blepharospasm – drooping of the eyelids (the Greek word for eyelash is blepahris). After two years of "functional" blindness, she underwent an operation which harvested tendons from her leg to enable her to open her eyelids again. And here I am fooling around with bloody false lashes.

Perhaps the new lashtastic craze is a subconscious fear of mortality. Certainly as an ageing work population, we need all the help we can get. Susie Lung tells me lash extensions take seven years off your "eye age" – no small matter in a week when women have heard they will have to work to the age of 66. They are also great for people with alopecia. And post-chemo patients.

Surprisingly many of her clients are judges, doctors and lawyers who don't want to look too made-up and need to save time in the morning. "It is a very 'clean' look, whereas mascara is dirty."

I gaze in the mirror again. Everyone is a sucker for the perfect parabolic curve of a batting lash, but few of us feel we have the lashes we deserve.

I've always felt like a second-class citizen when it comes to eyes. Now I can do the latest trend. But it's a thin line between necessary vanity and body tyranny.

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