It feels a bit strange to write a beauty blog, but for years I’ve been asked almost every week for beauty tips. As a 43-year-old woman requests for beauty tips could be seen as novel in a culture where youth is still so often represented as being a prerequisite for beauty, but perhaps it is precisely my age that can bring a slightly different focus to a blog on the subject. (That and the fact that I owe no allegiance to any beauty brand or product).
After some thought – and general sense of weirdness because the whole concept of ‘beauty’ is fraught – I decided I would respond with an honest, straight up post about ‘beauty’ in my non-expert opinion, based on what I’ve learned after more than a quarter of a century in front of the lens:
1) If you want to look good you need to, at a minimum, feel okay.
My top tip refers to the common refrain that ‘you must suffer for beauty’. That is crap. It’s toxic, it’s cruel, and it is a line aimed almost entirely at women, designed to get them to spend a lot of money on expensive and often painful treatments and fashions. In my experience if you want to look good, or even *fabulous*, you must at a bare minimum, feel okay.
Feeling okay is, of course, subjective, and not always possible, but to be clear, I’m not talking about ‘feeling happy all the time’, I’m talking about, whenever possible, allowing yourself the basic human dignity of avoiding things that bring unnecessary pain into your life. Because this blog is about beauty, that also applies to the pain you may choose to inflict upon yourself to fulfil a beauty standard.
I’m 43. This is not my first rodeo, as they say. Please trust me when I say that if it feels horrible, it probably is. When you do horrible things to yourself you will most likely look unhappy. You may even impact your health in significant, negative ways, and if that is sustained over a long period, it can be detrimental to you, your health, your life, and yes, what people can see on the outside. I’ve been around the modelling and beauty industries for some time over the course of my life so far, and I can tell you that being uncomfortable or even in pain may temporarily work for tortured supermodels in photo sessions, but in real life, even the most genetically lovely human looks awful when they feel awful. I’ve seen it. I’ve been there.
I recall the pain of hunger when I was a teenager and was told by modelling agencies in Europe that I was ‘fat’. I starved myself until I was ‘Paris Thin*’ trying to do what I was told and it was unsustainable and wrong for me. It felt awful and I’m glad I stopped. For my own health, nutritional requirements, and physical and mental development, I needed to say no to those adults who wanted me to starve. I was still a kid at the time really, at 16 or 17, so that wasn’t easy. Sure, I didn’t get the approval of some random people I don’t even remember the names of now, but I went on to have a fulfilling and interesting life and, ironically enough, a rather long term career as a model (among other, more satisfying careers). I don’t believe I’d have any of that if I’d continued to listen to them. (*This is something I wrote about at more length in The Fictional Woman.)
Above: Underweight and unhappy as a ‘Paris Thin’ model in my teens, 25 years ago. Photographer unknown.
Only you can judge what feels okay and what hurts you. For example, I dig tattoos and I’ve even taken to wear custom fitted corsets some days of the week to manage chronic back pain so I know you can’t always pick what will or won’t feel good for you by what feels good or doesn’t feel good for other people. Don’t judge, just pay attention to yourself, and when things hurt you, I mean really HURT you, take note. Whoever you are, trust me when I say you are worth more than that. Jettison that stuff from your world.
2) Think long term.
My mother died far too young, and in a real way I consider each day a small miracle. But the reality is, statistically, I am likely to be around until my eighties, perhaps even longer. There are no guarantees in life, but those averages are something to consider. When I was younger I remember feeling incredible pressure to figure everything out by 25. I actively tried to please others. I tried to change my appearance to please others (or frankly to get work). I tried to be ‘in fashion’. not always successfully, I might add. I wish I could tell the younger me ‘this too will pass’, that the approval of strangers doesn’t matter, that those expensive shoes/clothes/treatments weren’t actually going to change my life, that I wouldn’t find the right partner for me until I was in my thirties, and that it is better to be alone than with people who are harmful. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that a lot of things that seem important now will not seem so important in a few years.
I’d also want my younger self to consider the long term effects of what I did to a body that I’d have for a long time yet. The aforementioned starvation, for example, created poor health which in turn would have destroyed the very thing those modelling agencies were supposedly hiring me for. In addition to being thin, sun exposure and tanning beds were pushed on us in the 1990s but create health problems and pre-mature ageing of the skin. Guess what? Indoor tanning is linked to more cancer than smoking. Yet it was/is marketed as a ‘beauty treatment’ and one year I used those beds regularly. *cringe* There are a lots of things we may be pressured to do for beauty that aren’t good for us, and certainly aren’t wise long term.
I’m no saint, and I made plenty of mistakes, but I was lucky I stayed out of the sun in my youth (mostly) and despite some nasty ups and downs, I ended up maintaining a pretty healthy weight for my body type overall. My wise mom, Janni, also got me to quit using soap on my face when I was little, and got me on to face cream, all of which I think that has helped me today. Good skin care, basic fitness and health maintenance pay off in the long term. Your 40 plus, 60 plus and perhaps even 80 plus year old body will thank you for the good things you do for yourself today
3) Remember there are no bad bodies, only bad clothes.
If you don’t feel beautiful because your body doesn’t fit into any clothes, or because you don’t look like the models in the ads, know that the clothing and the ads are the problem, NOT YOU.
You don’t need to look like that model. You don’t need to wear those jeans. You don’t need to take that stuff on. No body is perfect, but every body is good, so whether you are skinny, fat, tall or short, your body is a good one. If you want to look better in clothes then find – or better yet make – clothes that fit you, rather than trying to fit yourself into those off the rack clothes. Cultivate your own style and beauty, because one size really does not fit all.
Above: As I’ve discovered, sewing has body positive possibilities.
I am literally three different ‘standard’ clothing sizes, at the same time (medium top, small waist, large hip). It is a rare piece of clothing that will fit me properly, so I’ve taken the time to learn how to alter and mend clothing to suit the shape that I am. It is incredibly freeing and I recommend it. (Plus it hurts the pocket book a whole lot less.) Clothes that fit the person they are on always look more beautiful. If you hate the way you look in clothing change the clothes, and stay you.
4) Remember that some fat is good.
As there is something of a cultural epidemic of fat-shaming (and thin-shaming, though arguably to a lesser degree), I want to put it out there that fat is good and normal and beautiful. If you don’t ever see curvy or bigger people (or even ‘average weight’ people) celebrated in the beauty pages, I recommend finding different beauty pages. The idea that only thin people (or only white people, only people under 30, only able-bodied people, only cis-gender people) are beautiful or fashionable is toxic and incorrect.
My weight used to yo-yo when I was modelling (hello, unhappiness/pressure to be thin), and looking back, and even looking at myself now, I feel I actually look better than when I was pressured to be underweight for my body type.
When I wasn’t forcing myself to be smaller I felt better (point 1 in this blog), I was in better health, which is better long term (point 2) but I now also realise that the fat on my body was part of what made me look better, too. It was more flattering on me. My body knew what the right balance was, but I didn’t listen, and pressure from some toxic boyfriends and modelling agencies didn’t help. The right balance for you is going to be different, but please don’t assume that thinner is better, or more beautiful. It isn’t true.
As a rule, getting healthier is always going to make you look better, and that isn’t something you can weigh.
5) 4 things today to look better tomorrow
I’m often asked what I do to look good before a shoot, so I’ll tell you. It might work for you, too.
In my experience the most important part of looking good for a shoot/special occasion/the special occasion of life happens the day before, and is strongly associated with feeling good, too. It’s free and it goes like this:
– Don’t drink (or do drugs) today.
– Take it easy on the salty food today.
– Drink water regularly.
– Get a full sleep tonight.
I confess I have a weakness for salty food and I like a drink occasionally. Also, I have a lovely daughter who isn’t always fond of my getting sleep. I’m not good at strict diets or routines, (even this simple one), so I am not going to adhere to this plan every day of my life, but part of my professional life involves making public appearances and feeling sharp/not hungover, so if I have a big speech or a video or photographic shoot coming up, or I just want to feel better, I will try to do those four things listed above. When I do, it helps every time.
Above: Bright eyes and the energy to think wins the day, and for me, that requires sleep.
Concealer and makeup is a wonderful thing. Eyedrops and caffeine can be handy too. But I find now, in my forties, that my eyes in particular show it the next day when I have a drink or don’t sleep enough. Likewise, very salty food will give me massive eye bags. (I learned that the hard way.) Cucumbers, or tea bags, or those SKII eye masks might help, but honestly nothing but time can really reverse the effects if I wake up puffy, red-eyed and tired.
If I have a shoot, or I just want to look and feel better, I will do those first four things, and if I can, I will try to get a little walk in, too. Even ten minutes. It is revitalising and can give the skin a little natural glow. (If you have a willing and able partner, good sex rates rather well for circulation, too.)
Those are my honest to goodness top 5 beauty tips. I’m sorry that none of them involve sleeping upside down, submerging the body in cryo chambers, wearing latex in saunas or drinking peculiar teas. Or buying stuff. But I promise you, the first 4 in particular will improve your life, regardless of your age or gender.
I know I’m not perfect, and far from everyone’s idea of ‘beautiful’, but those are my honest beauty tips for the many who have asked over the years. Why not give some of it a try? After all, it’s free.
PS Obviously this is not a blog about makeup application or hair styling – that is far too specific to the individual and the look you want to achieve. But if you are into vintage beauty or styling, check this out.
* Photograph at top by Berndt Sellheim, at the NZ Steampunk Festival. Yes, it’s there to be ironic.