I was the hairiest girl I knew growing up. My eyebrows connected, my upper lip was shadowy, my downy arms would swing at my sides. I hated wearing shorts for various reasons, but mostly because of all that damn hair. Even my big toes had a small patch of sprouts. I wasn’t smooth in any sense of the word.
I’d get mad at my dad for giving me hairy genes, and I’d beg my mom for a solution, any solution. This nice Australian lady and her three young daughters would occasionally pop up on our bunny-eared kitchen TV while my mom was making Sunday dinner. “When I noticed the sadness in [my daughter’s] eyes because of the unwanted problem, I had to do something about it,” Sue Ismiel, the founder of Nads, a kind of hair removal wax, would say in the infomercial. My mom didn’t know Nads, or Nair, or any of the other hair removal products that called to me in the Rite Aid aisles. She didn’t know about eyebrow shaping or plucking or tweezing. Or concealers for that matter, or loose powders. Her makeup brushes were always the ones that came with the compact. My mom was and still is unfazed by Big Beauty and their messages of how a woman should look and be. She hardly wears any makeup at all, her skincare routine is barebones, and she’s the most beautiful woman I know.
Around this time of year I am always confronted with a stream of articles on the beauty lessons women learned from their mothers. The passed down hair tips, the rules on perfume application, the generations-old remedy that really works! But because I didn’t grow up with a mom who had a prescriptive perspective on beauty, I could never relate. I didn’t learn much from my mom about beauty (except for how to execute a professional manicure at home, which is her superpower) and in fact, it’s more like the other way around.
I’ve taught my mom about eye creams and power cleansers. I introduced her to La Mer. I do it because I love beauty, and every beauty discovery makes me feel like a Real Housewife with good gossip: it’s my ultimate duty to share. I’ve even made a career out of it—now, people often come to me for beauty advice. Usually they say something along the lines of, “I need a cream for my fine lines,” or “I need a better concealer to cover up my dark circles,” or a version of “What’s the serum/treatment/cream to help me not look how I look now?” My knee-jerk response to anyone asking is always, “YOU DON’T NEED ANYTHING, but if you want to go for that particular look here’s what I recommend.” I say that at the risk of outing myself as the worst beauty editor in the world, but I think it’s because my mom always approached beauty as something that enhances a person, but never defines. And more than that, beauty to her is an add-on: the accessory you throw on just before heading out, as opposed to the anchoring statement piece.
I don’t think beauty is a universal look, or that it’s really necessary at all. What it is is fun, and interesting, and a hinge to so many worlds. (Two cases in point: I was knee-deep in meme culture back when everyone else I knew was still pronouncing it me-me because they were prolific on my favorite site to peruse skincare advice, aka Reddit. And digging into U.S. hair braiding laws taught me more about libertarianism than my undergrad government course.) Which is to say that in teaching me virtually nothing about beauty, my mom actually taught me a hell of a lot. Her lesson was that it’s a thing but it’s not everything. Advice that’s not for nothing.
Photo via the author