By Emily Franklin
I came late in life to skin care as is often the case with people who consider themselves intellectuals. As a graduate student and, later, as a chef, there was no room or need for products. As with surgeons, chefs do not wear nail polish or skin powder lest bits slough off into the chowder (I cooked on historic schooners and yachts—there was always an oversized pot of chowder bubbling away, opening up the pores on my face as I checked for depth of flavor).
I am also the daughter of a beautiful mother and, as such, eschewed beauty and its trappings for books, words, equations. I prided myself on being outdoorsy and natural. I liked putting zero effort into beauty, actively pushing back against everything being marketed onto me as compared to my mother who traveled with a full floral bathroom bag from Bonwit Teller.
My mother did not wash her face at night. She slathered Lancaster cream on her neck and face instead, feeling sure that the oil and moisture were better than water. The container was heavy, the lid coral-colored, the scent unremarkable. But how sure-handed and glamorous her slathering. She sourced her skin care regimen from Canada, from France. My seventh grade self, watching from the doorway, judged her. All of those minutes spent on her exterior could have been spent reading—about the Iran Contra affair, about poetry as a salve for human emotions.
In my mind you could be one—an intellectual—or the other: a woman who spent time and hard-earned money on her face. I knew I was in the first group. And yet my mother was clearly bright. How did her confidence mesh with her need (and it was a need—she grew worried when the jar was near-empty) for products?
I could not separate my mother’s beauty from her beauty regime, my love for her from my scorn of her relationship with products. In college, when I missed her (she had moved to Europe) I walked through Henri Bendel’s to find her by scent, Oscar De la Renta by Oscar de la Renta. I could not afford to buy it, but I would ask for a sample on my wrists, inhale my mom until the busy Manhattan streets whisked the scent—and traces of her—away again. I could not reconcile the distance between us—and the discord of her running her own bed and breakfast and organic farm in the English countryside with the notion of beauty products.
How many times had she asked me if I wanted lotions, a manicure, to wax my legs (before this was on trend)? How many times had I declined? And was the decline a way of proving my intellect or just proving I was different from my mom? She was praised her whole life for her beauty; I preferred praise for my mind.
After college, I cooked. When my chef job and onboard romance fizzled out, I spent my time in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley—cross country skis and a fishing rod in car my at all times—which is to say, even in my mid-twenties, I had no use for make-up, for creams, for lotions that claimed to work miracles.
Then I had miracles of my own—four kids in eight years while writing at least two novels each year. Again, no time for self-care in the form of skin pampering. I was careful to repeat part of what my mother had done with me—make jam from scratch, talk openly about sex and bodies, volunteer at the local food bank—but I was equally careful not to pass down the focus on image. I did not want my sons and daughter to be overly-invested in appearances. Eating well, helping others, exercising mind and body, finding community—these were crucial. Appearances were not.
I often felt my mother’s praise when I showed up at an event looking, in her words, “put together.” I often resented the praise. Looking good was nice, but it wasn’t anything more. Somehow, spending time on skin care, on products, signified to me a lack of confidence or being an easy target. I wanted to keep learning to be a better human, not how vitamin C serum brightens. When friends spoke about foundation or eyeliner, I sat mute. Actually, my closest friends spoke rarely of beauty products—at least to me.
So what changed? I turned 45, my kids grew, my career chugged along with effort, my parents aged. I kept up my sunblock routine even in the heart of a brutal winter. I found myself amazed at the years slipping by and how they did or didn’t show (scars, stretchmarks, new lines). And I thought of my mother at my age, scraping together finances and family as both seemed hard to hold onto.
I studied my face in the mirror. Complexion wan, circles dark. What gave me pause? Multiple family illnesses, diagnoses, and unsold books, our country crumbling, and on a personal note, the awareness that while there is tremendous excitement as the eldest child applies to college, there is also loss.
This was not just a heightened awareness of the passage of time. This was a stinging, heart-aching reality as so many friends lost parents and jobs, as I struggled myself with 32 days of COVID.
As a daughter, a mother, a spouse, the very body I live in often feels as though it is not mine. This is my choice. I loathed pregnancy but adored nursing, cuddling, reading aloud (still) or (now) watching shows with edgy humor with the older kids tucked in around me. I love my spouse (still). And my giant dog. But my skin? Flat. Decent enough but dull. Do I really want to spend time, though, on my exterior when there is always, always work to be done inside?
Then, in the sunlit January of the monthly writing group I started a couple of years ago it hit me: look at J____. She’s mid-40s, has a newborn (!), and is super smart. And her skin glows. I mean an evangelical, heavens-opening, fairy-dust-illuminated kind of glow.
So I surprised myself by texting … Tell me about your skin.
Her email and text came with links and instructions: buy this serum, use this cream twice each week, rosehip oil morning and night. The poetry of skin care. And she isn’t kidding; I might be guilty of ogling my own face a few times as I relish the newfound dewiness, the magic of real moisture. Maybe it’s the products, but I also suspect it’s the time I allot to the process. My mother ran a farm, designed houses, and worked in a science lab all with great skin. Was it possible I would write novels, take care of my family, cook for needy neighbors, and glow at the same time?
It has taken me forty-plus years to understand this concept: maybe being an intellectual—or a strong woman—and tending to yourself aren’t contradictory impulses.
I now spend three minutes in the morning and about the same amount of time each evening as I rinse, blot, smooth in, and think: of myself, of my friends, my mom, my skin—that glorious organ that has covered my body and my mind all these years. My mom’s nightly slathering was one way she took care of herself and it is a way I now take care of myself too.
You smell so good, the senior in high school said that first night of my new routine. You smell like ocean, the youngest said. She smells like tea, the middle boy said before stomping out of the room. I can’t smell you at all, my daughter said in her basketball uniform, shrugging over her nearly non-existent olfactory sense. The younger said to her, That’s okay. My daughter nodded and said, I bet you smell good, Mom. I smiled. And my youngest son went on, You know, she smells like herself.
Emily Franklin is the author of numerous novels for adults and for young adults as well as the memoir Too Many Cooks about cooking for and eating with her family. She lives with her husband, four kids, and 160-pound dog outside of Boston.
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