I remember getting my first beauty book when I was about 12. It was a huge and very 90’s manual of how-tos which, while somewhat outdated today, did teach me some important basics of color matching, hair care, skin care and makeup application.
The book didn’t dwell on larger questions about cosmetics or their implications — why do we need them, and why in particular are women singled out? — instead, it assumed you had bought it for functional advice. So rather than a history lesson, it served up a no-nonsense guide with huge glossy photos showing you each step of the process. Whether it was how to do a blow-out, line your lips, shave your legs or achieve a day look for your skin tone and hair color, my first introduction into the world of makeup explained everything in helpful detail. I loved it, even as it got covered in smears and stains from ill-fated attempts at liquid liner or mousse application.
I feel like I should envy the pre-teens of today who have endless video tutorials at the tips of their fingers, but in some ways having a “this is how a pale-skinned brunette should look” guide made the process much simpler for a novice who just needed to practice something basic. I could focus on trying to figure out where my crease was, or how to best apply mascara, instead of waffling between trying to re-create Pixiwoo or Lisa Eldridge’s iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s homage. Even now the sheer volume of tutorials feels strangely overwhelming for me — and ultimately bouncing between a million different looks can mean you never find your own, which is a shame.
So this long introduction is meant to establish the fact that in today’s video tutorial-saturated marketplace, there may not be room for another step-by-step book of the kind that I was devoted to. Instead, Guardian beauty columnist and former makeup artist, Sali Hughes, has smartly offered her readers something new — something that does get into the big, scary questions about makeup and still tells you to throw on a little red lipstick when you’re feeling down (just because it’s fun).
Hughes hasn’t so much published a beauty book as a series of smart, funny, insightful, warm and feminist essays on the nature of beauty and its importance to women at different stages of their lives.
If you’re rolling your eyes, then I’m not selling this right. Hughes makes a point of saying at several times in the book that she is not advocating that every woman wear makeup, or that every woman needs makeup. Need isn’t really a term that can be applied to paint that you smear on your face, and she doesn’t try to change your mind about that. But if you are a feminist woman who enjoys makeup, then she has your back.
That conspiratorial feeling that she conveys makes reading the book feel like you’re spending time with your cool older sister who’s showing you the right way to apply nail polish and teasing you about boys. Even the sections that didn’t pertain to me seemed unskippable because Hughes’ writing style was so entertaining and inclusive.
But perhaps the part that I loved best was near the end when Hughes delivers what can only be described as her overarching beauty mantra and manifesto. She relates an anecdote from Nora Ephron who once said that the death of a friend taught her to “always use the good bath oil.” By which she meant that the practice that people have of storing away their luxuries until they “deserve them” is ultimately a gloomy approach to life. You could die tomorrow — so why not burn that expensive candle you got for Christmas?
Hughes offers her own cautionary tale of the time that she was gifted a massive collection of Creme de la Mer products which she dutifully squirreled away on a high shelf promising only to use them on special occasions. Fast forward to four years to when Hughes finally felt she had earned a fancy moisturizer, only to discover that it had now gone rancid and was totally unusable. What difference would it have made if she’d just cracked it open on day one?
After reading that passage, I went into my closet where I’d stored a massive bag of Lush bath products I’d been given as a present sometime in the last year. I kept putting off using them because they were so expensive (not that I’d paid for them) and I wanted to save them for some nebulous “nice occasion.” Rummaging through the bag I pulled out one bubble bar in the shape of a pumpkin and realized that I’d been given these 14 months ago. So for over a year, I decided that I didn’t deserve something I’d been given as a gift. Spurred on by Hughes’ advice, I crumbled up the bar, grabbed a couple of magazines and ran a bath. It felt fantastic.
Cosmetics aren’t the most important thing in the world, and if they just aren’t your thing, then that’s fine. But for anyone who really does love them, Hughes’ book celebrates and encourages that love — for anyone from the pre-teen just starting, out to the postpartum mother who feels like she’s lost her identity, to the older woman who still wants to look fantastic but knows that glitter and winged liner may not be for her.
So if beauty is your thing, or you want to explore the world of makeup a little more, then I really recommend you buy and cherish Sali’s book.
And use the good bath oil.