The Witchy Magic of Beauty Rituals

how potions and beauty routines connect me to my roots

My great grandmother Nana wore Oil of Olay and smoked Menthol Kools. She was a warm, solitary woman with tight curls who sat in a faded green chair and told us stories about growing up poor during the depression. She made strawberry jam and crafted my cousin and I beloved dolls out of towels which we creatively called ‘towel-dolls’. What I remember the most is the scent of Olay with a gentle ‘cigarette smoke’ note.

It’s a poignant perfume, which is why I can’t use Oil of Olay to this day. That scent is tightly held in the corner of my brain reserved for memories of Nana. The descriptions of so many that I’ve loved begin with a scent, or a memory of how they groomed themselves. Our beauty potions and perfumes floating around like gentle ghost’s for those we’ve held close in life.

I’ve been dosing myself in moisturizer and scents since I was a kid. It’s a cottage industry on both sides of my family branches. We all spent summers in the sun, coated thickly in sunscreen, then were encouraged to moisturize instantly post shower. This is the only time to moisturize productively (did anyone else’s mothers, aunts, or grandmothers repeat this thousands of times?) Before bed one should always moisturize his or her face. I’d tap vaseline around my eyes just like mom did. She looked good and I prayed I would grow up in a similar fashion. Guess what? The reports are true— us little ladies are taught real early that our looks are incredibly vitally, ridiculously all important. Am I aware that’s a little bit bullshit? Read my future essay ‘The Bullshit Reality That My Face and Body Are More Important Than My Mind, and Other Rants’ next Tuesday. Today, I choose to punch things out in the middle of the beauty ring, swinging happily while I enjoy the trappings of taking care of my skin and smelling like a flower. Can there be strength in that? (answer is yes.)

I believe passionately in moisturizer, both in the science of it as well as the emotional magic. If it’s nothing more than a type of sugar pill, I’ll take that daily, please. I know it’s a bit ephemeral and largely exists to make me feel better about the inevitable aging process. I hate to break it to anyone not quite there yet, but HOLY CRAP it actually happens! We get older and then…? Yep, that’s correct, we will all die (just throwing that in to keep things breezy and honest). Moisturizer won’t keep me forever young or alive any more than it will turn me into Gigi Hagid. I can see the signs of aging already. My tan doesn’t come or go as evenly. I need more eyeliner to do a cat-eye than I once it. I look realistically at myself in the mirror at the end of most days, taking stock in my skin’s new qualities while pressing a lightly perfumed lotion into my skin. Sometimes I spend a lot of money on it. Sometimes I buy the less expensive stuff. The months I’m dipping into the pricey jar? I swear I look better. I deeply love this process. Why?

It’s fun! It’s expensive! It’s frivolous! It’s 100% about my own vanity! I personally don’t care if I’m judged for it — I get power from it. Women are as strong and useful as men — which is a belief finally getting some valid attention these days. Believing this, I equally indulge in the genteel rituals of beauty. My skin glows, which comforts me and gives me a sense of control.

The first boy I ever liked so much that maybe I loved him a little wore Cool Water cologne. Don’t put that cheap shit on around me ever, cause I will stare at you like 14 year old teen who just discovered cooing into the phone and daydreaming is the purest form of survival. That crush is nearly 25 years behind me, but the scent transports me instantly to the hallways of junior high. Coolwater leads me to the scent of Noxema, which I began that year as a nightly ritual, probably due to the boy. I likely believed I was immortal at fourteen, so it wasn’t to keep me looking young. I’d apply a layer to my skin each night until it tingled, would rinse, and then apply a coat of moisturizer from my mom’s stash. She knew I did this. She never hid it. Thank you, Mom for the fancy shit. If you combine the scent of Cool Water with the tingle of Noxema, my eyes will roll into the back of my head and I’ll babble homework from beginning Spanish class “Donde esta la bilbioteca?’ while doing a slow running man to a PM Dawn track. (and in case you’re wondering what lipstick I wore that era, it was Black Honey, by Clinique thankyou very much. Yes, each life’s chapter could be titled by the lipstick I wore.)

My mother holds a strict nightly routine: Face-wash, rich moisturizer, then a thin layer of vaseline around her eyes and on lips. Say what you will about Vaseline, but my mom looks like she’s 45. I’m not too far away from 40 and she had me at 30, so you know something is working. We are about to start looking the same age, which is strange for me and is very good for the makers of vaseline and mainly my mother. Vaseline seems to works, guys. It’s not pricey. Go get yourself a jar.

The ritual of a beauty routine connects me to the female relatives who have preceded me in life — a witchy communion with my ghostly ancestors as I pat the cream around my eyes and spritz myself with a flowery perfume.

Mom kept pearls around a bottle of Tea Rose, and her solitaire diamond necklace draped around a bottle of Joy. Both bottles lasted the duration of my childhood, which proves mom was classy as she was thrifty. You didn’t need much perfume if your pearls already smelled of Tea Rose (that sentence can only be read allowed in a southern accent while fanning oneself). My cousin recently reminded me that the ‘consequence’ of Joy being their mother’s scent meant the three sisters each believed Joy was ‘the only scent they could each wear and is (also) their favorite.”

That’s some powerful memory, as tied to a mother’s perfume.

On my father’s side was Grandmother Graalman (Yes we called her Grandmother. That was her name and she was fabulous.) Grandmother wore Hermes scarves all months but the sweltering summer ones. A bombshell blonde who rocked a deep tan year round, which was procured with a tanning board outside on their back patio. Sun-science will tell you this is a bad idea and will definitely have an impact on anyone’s skin-quality. But Grandmother always looked radiant. She had a few more lines than she would have if she’d hidden from the sun, but she seemed to enjoy herself bronzey, so bronzey she was. She washed her face with Erno Lazlo black soap, which I would fantasize about owning when I was grown. I don’t know where she bought it out in Oklahoma. I assume she had a secret salesperson at some fancy store who had it sent in from New York. I would fact-check that with family, but I don’t want to ruin the mystique by learning she bought it at the Piggly Wiggly. This is the ritual mythology I’ve built for myself, and I’m sticking with it.

While she cooked us lunch, I would tip-toe into her room and try to mimic her beauty routine. I put on every lipstick. I put on every eyeshadow. I was almost always caught — not that she ever minded. She’d saddle up along side me with her collection of pinky brown nail-polishes (her signature color which matched perfectly with her always bronzey skin) and would instruct me on proper nail-painting techniques. She wore Fracas perfume most days, and her scarves still smell very softly of the scent. I breathe in and the olfactory magic is released. Closing my eyes, her memory and presence becomes tangible.

Even in Alicia Key’s current non-makeup wearing sabbatical, her makeup artist revealed how she cares for her skin. It’s a routine that doesn’t go away, even when the color and powders are dismissed. Based on interviews she’s given, to Alicia Keys, the expectations of made-up (as in makeup) beauty feel like trappings to her. She’s right, then. No one gets to declare that she’s wrong for not obliging societal opinion that all women be ‘made up’. If she feels overwhelmed by the expectations, then she should release herself of those expectations.

I love that Alicia Keys is making the decision to go fresh faced. However, I dislike the idea that some people take the decision to mean ‘makeup and the beauty industry is bad’. The conversation can and should be nuanced, and we each get to have our own truth and reality when it comes to how deeply we wade into the waters of product consumption.

I have clients who will occasionally admit that they feel guilty for spending the money on the service, or the products. Or guilty for caring. I very quickly state “there is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to indulge in your vanity. It’s your face. There is zero weakness in obliging.” It is fun and important if you decide that to be true for yourself. Some of these faces are seen by throngs of people and fans — some faces are seen by casting directors. Are you getting your face done because 1 (one) person you’re sweet on is taking you to dinner? That’s more than fine— you are saying this person matters and so you’re wanting to look hot/beautiful/powerful/sexy/demure/however the hell you want, using some tools. I love helping clients discover new ways of seeing themselves. It can be surprise to find a new source of power in an eyeliner technique or lipcolor. To seek individuality in a perfume. “This is my scent. This is my color. This is who I’ve decided I’m going to be today.”

My beauty rituals tie me to my ancestors — each female relative in my rear view mirror indulged in the tradition of splendidly grooming themselves. They pin-curled their hair, pinched their cheeks, brushed their brows, and even did facersize in the 80’s. They painted on bold lips and smized into cameras as confident, strong women even when their gender was seen as ‘less than’.

They were travelers, teachers, dustbowl survivors, and artists who were exquisitely feminine. When nearing the end of their lives, they whispered at me to travel and not marry too young. I’ve doubled down on that advice and have yet to marry, but have a solid career in the beauty industry, which allows me to keep women believing in themselves. When I feel less certain of my own appearance, or hold doubts about my place in society, I go back to basic beauty routines and derive strength there. Who is Rocky’s side-kick in the boxing ring who cheers him on? Mickey? Embracing a beauty ritual and summoning my ancestors is my version of having a Mickey. Get up you son of a bitch cause Mickey loves ya. Only they whisper to me ‘That perfume is DIVINE!’

I keep photos of these women around my home as a reminder. I have a few scarves from Grandmother, which still hold faintly onto the scent of Fracas. A small case that Grandma Becky kept her lipstick in. I have a ring from Great Grandmother. A picture of my great-grandmother, who had everyone call her Babe.

Great Grandmother Babe Staines

I have the memory of Nana tucked away safely to conjure out when needed. I’m like Jem, touching some magical earring and suddenly I’m a little bit more fabulous and go on fighting. That fighting almost always done while wearing a very bold lip and smelling like Gardenia, which is a Chanel scent that is perfect to me, and keeps me going forward.