I don’t live in the same place as my mom and my grandma anymore, but I speak to them every day—on my way to work, on my way home from work. We often end up on the topic of beauty. I come from a line of beautiful women—this much, I’ve always known. My favorite compliments are the ones that place me in relation to them. Watching my mom and her mom navigate the relationship they have with their skin has shaped so much of what I see when I look in the mirror. And while I know my mom’s favorite serum, and my grandma’s favorite eyeshadow palette, there is so much more that I want to know. So I wrote down my questions, saved them in a note on my phone, and when they visited me this month, I asked them all.
The following conversation is honest, unfiltered, and brought to you by spaghetti and a bottle of wine. It's everything I love about the women in my family. After you read this, call your mom, or your grandma, or whoever serves that purpose for you, and ask them why they do the things they do. You might learn something very special. Here’s what mine had to say:
Ali, 22: Most people say their first memory about beauty is from their mom, but mom is not into beauty. My first memories of beauty, all of them, are from grandma.
Mom (Stephanie), 51: I don’t have those memories watching my mother either, because I don’t think I cared.
Grandma (Amy), 71: Stephanie, what do you remember me saying to you?
Mom: ‘Put lipstick on.’ My whole life. Maybe that's why I didn’t want to do it.
Grandma: Put lipstick on, put blush on, put makeup on.
Ali: You always told me to put blush on, and now if I wear anything, it’s blush. I always remember you saying that.
Grandma: My first beauty memory was watching my mother. I’m going back to probably the ‘50s. My mother used Elizabeth Arden orange skin cream every night—that was a big deal. She would say to me, from the time I was a little child, ‘You only have one face.’
Ali: You’ve said that a million times to me, too.
Grandma: It’s true. You have to start taking care of your face from the time you’re a child. What do you say to children? Wash your hands and face.
Mom: I washed my face and I put on moisturizer, but I was definitely more concerned with breaking out. I had similar issues to you [Ali]—hormonal, cystic pimples. Now, I would take you to the dermatologist to get that injected. But then, we didn’t really do that. Clearasil was on TV every day, and Bonne Bell, and every single person that I knew used Sea Breeze.
Grandma: You had no beauty consultants to speak to, you had no websites. I mean, when I was growing up, nobody talked about breakouts. The magazines only wanted to talk about people who were already beautiful and perfect.
Ali: Well, people are more educated about beauty today.
Grandma: If you get down to why women take care of their skin, and why they put so much effort into it, it’s to keep a youthful look. Not to be more glamorous. If you were doing that, you would wear more makeup.
Mom: I went through a stage in the ‘80s where I wore a lot of makeup, but the makeup was horrible. The ‘80s were a disaster, collectively. Everyone wore heavy black eyeliner, and had big hair.
Ali: Did you have a perm?
Mom: Yeah! But it wasn’t like yours, now. And it never stuck in my hair. I don’t think anybody’s like, ‘I looked so great in the '80s!’ But as I got older I liked a much more classic, minimalistic look. My icons for beauty were more Ralph Lauren models or Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. It was definitely about a clean, no-makeup look. I still have that same aesthetic. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, even for very formal events.
Ali: Is it because you don't like the way it feels, or the way it looks?
Mom: I don’t like the way it looks. I have really big, deep-set eyes, and sometimes I look in the mirror after I get my makeup done and think I look like an alien.
Grandma: But when you put makeup on, you look so much better.
Mom: Thanks, mom.
Grandma: It’s true! If you have a blank piece of paper, and you color inside the lines, it looks better!
Mom: I don't want to have to color inside the lines! I think that’s the problem here. [Laughs] But I’m at an age now where something like eye makeup isn’t as important to me as making sure my skin is covered. Now I’ll use a moisturizer, and a serum, and a primer, and then a foundation. I also think that too much makeup past a certain age ages you tremendously.
Ali: You use primer? I’m impressed. The only product I remember you using when I was a kid was Maybelline Great Lash mascara—
Ali: —and one Bobbi Brown blush in Tawny that was like a dusty pink.
Mom: I’ve used Chanel foundation since I was in high school, from grandma. I think that’s the one thing you did impart.
Ali: If you’re headed out in the morning and you can only do one thing, what would you do?
Grandma: Besides my eyebrows?
Mom: Let’s talk about the eyebrows. Grandma had major neck surgery recently, and she woke up in intensive care literally in a neck brace, on morphine, with doctors running in because of her blood pressure. The first thing she did when she opened her eyes was say, ‘Make sure my brows are on.’
Grandma: If nothing else, you need to have eyebrows!
Ali: Would you ever consider something like microblading? Do you know what that is?
Grandma: Is that like tattooing? No. It’s funny, the older I get, I find that I’ve stopped reading about new things in beauty magazines because they’re not for me. They’re for people who are 25 to 60, and then after that… at this age, I don’t know if there’s that much you can do aside from Botox and fillers.
Ali: When did you first decide you were open to trying Botox?
Grandma: As soon I learned about it, and knew it was safe, I was at the doctor’s office.
Ali: When was that?
Mom: You were early. You were younger than me—in your 40s. When you first took me to try it, I remember, I was in my 30s.
Grandma: A friend had gone. I had a very deep crease in the middle of my eyes, and I went and had it done. There was a doctor in Miami who was doing all the FDA studies, so before the product hit the market, when they were in their final clinical trials and they needed people to try it, we would do it. We were so excited, it was all free.
Ali: You weren’t scared?
Grandma: No! But you know, it was new. People were doing it and not telling anybody—they didn’t want to admit it.
Mom: Now it’s fine to walk around with a bruise on your face. I have friends who have started to get more major procedures, and they will literally go out to dinner with stitches in their ears, hair in a ponytail. It’s like a badge of honor. [Laughs]
Ali: I have very funny memories of being at Lee [Gibstein, plastic surgeon] with you guys when I was little. I remember playing with a silicone boob implant while I waited, like it was a squishy toy.
Grandma: We make it a mother-daughter outing!
Ali: I feel like I have a very warped sense of what aging looks like. I look at you and think that’s a good idea of what I’ll look like at 70, but it’s not. There’s a lot that’s gone into it. I think that I don’t want fillers, or Botox, or a facelift, but maybe I will when I get older and start to realize the way you look is not the norm! [Laughs] But what was always interesting to me is that you’re so open to those things, and yet neither of you had your nose done.
Mom: We all definitely have noses that some people might not like—they’re strong noses. I think there is an argument that could be made about straightening your nose, but none of us ever wanted to do that, or thought it was an issue. I think that’s the kind of stuff that scares me, because I’ve never wanted to [permanently] alter anything on my face.
Ali: At what point did you feel like you were fully comfortable in your skin and your body?
Grandma: I didn’t realize that I was pretty until I got much older. I am very short, and people always made comments. They think it’s cute, but really and truly—
Mom: You are so cute.
Grandma: Your mother to this day cannot say to herself, ‘You know what, I look good.’
Mom: I looked good in that dress the other day—why didn’t I buy it? What’s wrong with me? I never look in the mirror and say that.
Grandma: See, there’s your answer. You’re beautiful! You’re two beautiful women.
Mom: Well, thank you. I don’t really think about it that much.
Ali: I love your hair color, grandma. It’s really good. I want my hair to grow in white, and I won’t color it. When did you start going gray?
Grandma: I started getting a few grays probably in my late 40s. The more gray I got, the more I colored my hair. My husband, your grandfather, always said he loved blonde. Now, if I go any lighter, I won’t have any hair!
Mom: I started coloring my hair in college because it pulls so much red. I don’t mind red hair, but my complexion is more olive and I think it’s terrible. When you had red hair, I hated it because it reminded me of mine.
Ali: You were very chill about me coloring my hair.
Grandma: Who took you to have your hair colored pink? Who took you?
Ali: You did!
Mom: I didn’t mind the pink, or smurf blue. I felt like all of those things were just a part of experimentation. And here you are, looking very natural.
Grandma: Let me ask you a question. When did you stop wearing nail polish and makeup? When did that go from ‘absolutely’ to ‘I don’t wear anything’?
Ali: When I was younger, I wasn’t wearing makeup to look more beautiful. I liked the colors, and I liked playing with it, and I liked seeing the different ways I could do it.
Mom: And you still do it when you’re going out.
Ali: I do! And I don’t use nail polish anymore because I’m an aesthetician, but even before then, I stopped doing them when I got back into painting last year. It just looked messy, and sometimes the colors clashed.
Mom: I have a big thing about long nails going over my skin. I don’t like it.
Ali: Yeah. Now I feel the exact same way. I just think short and natural is the nicest looking.
Mom: When I lived in New York, sometimes I would do super short, apple-red nails in the winter.
Ali: I cannot picture you with red nails.
Grandma: I think it’s classy looking. Why don’t you get pedicures done?
Mom: This is just grandma wanting to know why you don’t get pedicures. This doesn't have to do with this interview.
Ali: Hey, it’s been winter in New York! I’ll get one when I come home. You can treat me to it!
Grandma: Poppy goes for pedicures. You can go with him.
Photos via the author.