My mother is a natural beauty — the type who looks better without makeup and doesn’t need an arsenal of expensive skincare products to look younger than her age. She’s never styled her silky black hair that has only recently, in her late 60s, sprouted enough grays to warrant coloring. My father has always preferred the natural look, and because of this, makeup and hairstyling were always shunned in my house growing up.
In the throes of my pre-adolescent rebellion, I experimented a bit on my own. I remember desperately trying to create a feathered hairstyle on my stick straight, coarse Asian hair in the ’80s. In the resulting abomination, I slicked my hair straight out at the sides with so much gel that my entire head looked greasy and wet. My parents sat me down for an intervention but their concern was not well-received. In fact I think I remember running up to my room screaming something to the effect of “you don’t understand me!” before slamming the door. It’s funny now, but at the time I felt humiliated and ugly. My own parents thought I looked terrible. What hope did I have?
So, I gave up and by the time high school rolled around, I was back to the all-natural look. It wasn’t until I went to beauty school in my early 30s, inspired by my hairstylist’s recommendation, that I learned anything about hair, makeup, or even skincare. I was just a frustrated artist looking for something to do that would allow me to work with my hands creatively, and I had no idea how my newfound skills would change my life.
Learning how to care for my skin, properly apply makeup, and style my hair was empowering in a way I had never imagined. I was showered in compliments, and for the first time in my life, I felt good about myself. I looked better, sure, but more importantly, I felt better.
As happy as I was with my improved self-esteem, I couldn’t help but feel like I had been somehow cheated. I wasn’t annoyed with my mother, but I was certainly angry with myself. I wished I had taken the time to learn more about makeup and hair when I was younger, and lamented about all the time I spent faltering in these areas and feeling insecure about my appearance.
I swore that if I ever had a daughter, she would have it better. I would teach her about beauty — how to properly care for her hair and skin, and if she was interested, share tips on how to apply makeup and style hair. I would never push, but I wouldn’t leave her to figure it out on her own, either.
As it turned out, I had a son. I only wanted one child so that was that. I still wonder about my hypothetical girl, however. Would she even be open to my beauty lessons or would I have only made her feel more insecure? At what age would I let her wear makeup and would she view me as a hypocrite until then? Is there a way to teach young women about beauty in a way that encourages self-esteem? How do we give our daughters the tools to feel their best without making them feel as though they need to change their appearance to suit others? Is it best to find your own way, or would I have stumbled less if I had more guidance?
Since I don’t have a daughter myself, I asked some of my friends with girls to share their thoughts. Though these moms represent different demographics (stay-at-home mom, work-from-home moms, and various professionals including a lawyer, physician’s assistant, salon owner, and advertising executive), they have a surprising amount of common themes in their responses. They all do plan to share their beauty knowledge with their girls, but with a few stipulations. From their answers, I gleaned 10 fantastic bits of advice worth considering before talking to your daughters about makeup and beauty.
1. Start with the basics.
If our own teenage selves are any indication, it’s safe to assume that a lot of teens will experiment with some wild trends. Making healthy skin and hair the focus of your beauty training will give girls a leg up on anti-aging and a proper foundation regardless of beauty fads. As my friend Darcy puts it, “I think if she can learn the basics (skin care, sunscreen … ), then blue mascara is simply a novelty.”
2. Let them lead the conversation.
When asked whether or not we should teach girls about makeup and beauty, my pal Alma of Marketing Mommy shares, “As long as young women are interested and want to learn, I think it can improve their confidence. They need to speak up and ask, though. Otherwise we run the risk of making someone who’d perhaps prefer a barefaced, natural look feel inadequate.” Most girls who are curious about these subjects will ask, so follow their lead to avoid making them feel self-conscious.
3. Indulge their curiosity.
Like most of the moms I interviewed, my friend Jacinda from Pretty Prudent allows her daughters to learn by observation. “My girls,” she says, “like most I assume, are very curious about beauty products and notice when I do anything different. They will often watch me apply makeup and ask for a bit themselves.”
4. Have fun with it.
For little girls who are interested in makeup, allow them to play. Making makeup taboo may only make them more intrigued and shut down lines of communication. Additionally, you may be missing an opportunity to teach them a few things while having fun. “Playing beauty parlor while teaching real lessons is a good way to avoid creating anxiety,” offers my friend Diane.
5. Keep it classy.
Cristina, owner of Supreme Beauty Parlor advises, “When they are ready for makeup and parents are comfortable with it, teach them less is more.” This was a common sentiment among the moms I interviewed. In fact, I found that one of the primary motivations for moms to offer makeup instruction is to prevent their daughters from overdoing it. Offer tips on how to accentuate what they like about themselves instead of how to cover what they don’t.
6. It takes a village.
After my pale friend, Annice, adopted a Ethiopian daughter, she was the first to admit she felt inept at caring for her hair. “I have a friend who also happens to be my daughter’s godmother and is from Ethiopia as well. I lean on her to help me. I can only know what I know and when I need help, I ask!” she says. Of course, you don’t need to be a mixed-race family to feel overwhelmed. If you have a girl with interests or needs beyond your comfort zone, learn together. Friends, hairstylists, and YouTube are standing by to assist.
7. Use beauty to bond.
As with any interest you may have in common, time spent sharing your beauty routines is as much about bonding as it is a teaching opportunity. Whether you are getting a mani/pedi together or curling your daughter’s hair for an event, there is something very intimate and inclusive about spending this kind of quality time together. My friend Jennifer recalls, “I would watch my mom [apply makeup] and try to emulate her. I find these moments very sweet in my memory and hope my daughter feels the same.”
8. Encourage individuality.
My hilarious bud, Keely of Lollygag Blog, makes an amazing point: “I want [my daughters] to know that makeup and hair stuff are awesome, as long as it’s for them and only them. Streaked hair makes you feel pretty? Party on. All the girls wear false eyelashes and your new boyfriend only digs blonds? Yeah, not so much.” Amen, sister. If the goal is to raise self-confidence, girls should never feel pressured to look a certain way by anyone, at any time.
9. Teach self-esteem by example.
A lot of women are pretty critical of themselves, myself included. Remember that kids are sponges and will emulate your behavior. My mom friend, Macki, practices what she preaches when she says: “Learn to love yourself and emphasize loving yourself. That’s an amazing gift you can give your child — teaching them to love themselves no matter what appearance they have.”
10. Sharing is caring.
It turns out I’m not alone in wishing I had known more, sooner. Alma shares, “I talk to my girls about caring for their skin and hair and purchase them the products I think will work best for them because I feel like it’s an area where I can be of value. My mother never gave me any beauty advice or lessons, and I kind of floundered until YouTube came around. Applying makeup and doing hair didn’t come naturally to me, but I feel more confident when I look my best. I want my girls to feel beautiful, so giving them the tools they need to look their best is a gift I can give them.”
For all moms and daughters, the topic of beauty is a tricky conversation and one that warrants some consideration. I’ll leave you with one final point of my own, spurred by this statement from my friend, Jennifer: “I have feminist values but still feel very girly, so trying to navigate through these topics is hard sometimes.” Maybe the best lesson we can share with our daughters is that our feelings about makeup and beauty are conflicted and complex and that “girly” and “feminist” are not exclusive terms. Having skills and knowledge in this subject is not about changing yourself to fit a mold but about having options and expressing your own personal style with confidence.