I spent more than 10 years in women's magazines, and I write a beauty blog with a critical slant. But my real qualification for sharing my thoughts on beauty is 35 years of womanhood. From dabbling in my grandmother's makeup kit at age 5 to trying anti-aging creams for the first time last year, navigating the messages I send with my appearance -- to myself and those around me -- has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. For just as long, I've been asking what goes on behind the scenes in the ways any of us present ourselves. Here's some of what I've learned.
How you feel has little to do with how you look.
At age 20 I felt near-constant panic about the circumference of my thighs. At 35, I look at photos from 15 years ago and -- well, you know the punch line. My thighs looked fine. I haven't released all insecurities, but I now recognize that self-image reflects mood and psyche, not actual appearance. Wincing about some flaw is a convenient funnel for stress, and it's certainly easier than unpacking Jungian angst. My own psychology aside, I've witnessed this in extensive interviews I've conducted with dozens of women. I've talked with a former model who couldn't look in the mirror at times; I've talked to women with quotidian looks who have no problems proclaiming, "I am beautiful." The way the world treats a woman may differ depending on how closely she matches an idealized beauty standard. But that treatment is secondary to your attitude toward your appearance. Part of the lesson here is that each of us has the power to dictate her own beauty. But the other part is that if women all over the beauty map are saying the same things, maybe beauty has less to do with how any of us look and more to do with how our culture regards women.
Beauty is a shortcut to enchantment.
Nearly every woman I've interviewed about beauty will mention the same person: her friend who isn't necessarily genetically blessed but who owns any room she walks into. You know that person, right? (Maybe you are her, in which case, mazel tov!) Call it je ne sais quoi, sprezzatura, or just "It" -- when you possess that quality and conduct yourself as though you're something to behold, you become something to behold. For all the hand-wringing over how women go to absurd lengths to look beautiful, I suspect most of us are after that luminous essence, not cookie-cutter beauty. But we use beauty as a route to that essence, and why wouldn't we? Magnetism only comes once you have a degree of comfort with yourself -- far more difficult to source than a nice shade of lipstick. Allure is possibly the best-named women's magazine out there, because it slices through beauty to get to what we're really after.
The power of attractiveness is weaker than you think.
There's plenty of chatter about how attractive people earn more money. That's true, but what's often overlooked is that the benefits of attractiveness are greater for men than for women -- and in some fields, attractive women are penalized for their looks. But even if beautiful women were universally earning more, when managerial positions are still more likely to be occupied by men, that boils down to women pecking around for crumbs left by people with real power, who can rescind the power of beauty at whim. I'm not saying life isn't easier in some ways for conventionally attractive people. But the power of pretty often boils down to little more than free drinks.
If you can't afford at least a 20% tip for your hairstylist, manicurist, or whoever is doing any sort of beauty work on you, you can't afford the service. You're in your 30s now. Be a lady.
It's okay to mourn your youth. But there's plenty to celebrate, too.
We get lots of messages about looking younger -- and we also get messages countering that notion. I've only recently developed early signs of aging -- under-eye bags, fine lines. Women older than me may say I don't know aging yet, but being new to it means I'm new to the emotions that accompany getting older. I'm thrilled there's a thriving pro-aging sentiment out there, but I sometimes feel like I'm wrong for having any sense of loss for my youth. I miss staying out until 4 a.m. and showing up at work resembling a homo sapien; I miss the radiance I had that I now only get with impeccable self-care. I'm making peace with those things, and age-positive sentiments are part of that. But if we don't allow permission to feel any sadness about the processes of time, we're not clearing the path for joys that lie ahead. And there are plenty of those, physical and otherwise: I look conventionally better now than I did 10 years ago. In my 30s, my skin stopped freaking out; I know what hairstyles and colors suit me. There's an undeniable beauty to youth, sure. There's also an undeniable beauty to maturity.
Self-esteem isn't found in a jar -- but the jar doesn't wreck your self-esteem.
Well-meaning people sometimes make the mistake of thinking makeup equals insecurity -- that women wear cosmetics to conceal shame about our natural selves. That can be the case, but many of us wear makeup because it creates a division between our private and public lives. I "put on my face" because I'm a social creature, and makeup is an internal signal that I'm functioning socially. It's an "on" switch as much as it is a cover-up. Nobody should feel pressured to wear makeup -- or be effectively fired for not doing so -- but we shouldn't feel ashamed about doing so either. You can't look your best unless you're comfortable, but comfortable can mean many things. If makeup helps you feel emotionally comfortable, dab and swipe away, my friend.
Beauty is work.
You already know this, of course; you understand exactly how much labor it takes to get ready in the morning, recalibrating depending upon how many times you hit snooze. But we often hide our beauty labor from men, and sometimes from one another. As much as I want to maintain a certain mystique, it's important to not hide behind-the-scenes "dirty work." We may think we poke fun at women who go over-the-top in chasing the beauty standard because they look silly or vain, but it's more that they're exposing the work many of us do on a lesser level: We laugh at Snooki's tan because it reveals our private application of graduated tanning cream; we snark at Kardashianesque eyelashes because we have the good taste to stop at one coat of Sable Brown. Maybe if we were more transparent about the preparations we took for the performance of public life, we might better be able to understand what we're after with all our careful work.
Most beauty tips don't matter. Here are 21 that do.
A manicure always helps. Good primer is worth the money. A dab of retinoid cream does wonders. Eat vegetables, drink water, get enough calories. Find a concealer that perfectly matches your skin. Stop with the photo face. Know the lipstick corollary. Get the best haircut you can afford. If you don't feel great in it, don't wear it. Grooming your eyebrows will brighten your face, and so will letting them grow naturally if you feel shame creep over you every time you tweeze. Exercise. Find your best colors, but don't be limited by them. Shoulders back, pelvis tucked. Red wine makes for a great lip stain. Don't gawk at yourself in every reflective surface available. Quit shampooing so much. Remember that it's called beauty sleep for a reason. Remember sunscreen. And remember that it's impossible to look your best when you're trying to look like someone else.
To Read More In This Series, "What I Know About Beauty ..."
Now That I'm... In My 20s
Now That I'm... In My 40s
Now That I'm... In My 50s
Now That I'm... In My 60s