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As a former beauty editor, I was embarrassed when I accompanied my mother to Sephora for the first time and watched her smear Stila Convertible Color — you know, that cotton candy cream blush — all over her face like a three-year-old playing with Magic Markers. You have to watch your contours, I whispered, not knowing that my mother had known exactly what facial contours were — she had quietly been an artist during the Cultural Revolution in China, after all.
To understand my mother — and not just my mother, but many women of her background and age — you have to go back to the Cultural Revolution of China, and possibly a generation before that, too. My mother was born right when the movement started in 1966, when Chairman Mao Zedong mandated the purging of anything that appeared capitalist or traditional in Chinese society. Mao believed that paying attention to feminine beauty was considered both petit bourgeois and an outcome of gender oppression. Mao wasn’t just against Western forms of femininity — he was radically opposed to traditional Chinese norms of beauty, too.
On July 14th, 1919, he wrote, “Why must women have their hair piled up in those ostentatious and awkward buns? Why must they wear those messy skirts clinched tightly at the waist?” An unadorned woman was a symbol of liberation from a patriarchal capitalist system. (That’s not to say that beautiful, adorned women weren’t used as political devices in the Communist Party — glamorous and charismatic young actresses like Bai Ying were used in films to create aspirational images of young Chinese women. As with all movements led by mostly men, beautiful women were used to glorify and distract.)
In traditional Confucian discourse on womanhood, for example, the good woman was expected to have virtue, work ethic, loyalty, and beauty — and not just beauty on the face, either. My great-grandmother on my father’s side participated in the ritual of footbinding as a child, in which her feet were cracked and wrapped up painfully tight with strips of fabric so that not only would they stop growing, but also she would only be able to take delicate, small steps for the rest of her life. To be beautiful in her era, she had to give up her ability to run. By the time her daughter, my grandmother, was born, footbinding was mostly obsolete, except in the most rural of areas in China. My grandmother’s unbound feet came in handy when she ran away from her ransacked home, where the rest of her wealthy merchant family was murdered because they were considered too bourgeoisie.
My mother’s mother, my laolao, on the other hand, was an illiterate woman from a small Northern Chinese village who wedded my grandfather in an arranged marriage. “Your laolao didn’t teach us anything about beauty or cosmetics,” my mother told me. “She didn’t know anything herself.” When she was a teenager along the rural borders of China, Laolao didn’t have access to the latest European fashions the way her wealthier urban counterparts in Shanghai did. At the time, the Chinese port city was known as the Paris of the East.
During the Cultural Revolution, when the government prohibited all cultural, capitalist, intellectual, and traditional practices, my grandparents had believed that years of poverty and inequality were finally over. Little did they know that it would take my mother’s generation to escape poverty and my generation to enjoy it. They moved to the city of Chengdu, known for spicy food, panda bears, and lamei — or hot sisters — which was and still is a term used to describe the supposed abundance of good-looking women in the city, due to fresh air and spicy food. In elementary school, the prettiest of my mother’s classmates — according to her — were recruited to join the local dance academy. Mom was not chosen, but she did graduate valedictorian in a few years. And many decades later in suburban California, she enrolled me in ballet class against my will. “I dreamed of these opportunities,” she told me, as I grumbled about the fact that she sat there and watched every ballet class of mine intently while all the other parents used the free hour away from their ungrateful kids to run errands or read a book.
As a little girl, Mom sat on the streets of Chengdu with charcoal and thin butcher paper, sketching the changing faces that passed her by. They were long-forgotten faces of my mother’s childhood, when she would sit on the stoop of the apartment building as the world crashed and burned around her. My mother had no formal artistic training — no one in her family could afford it nor was it encouraged — but her hands were restless. “I was always good with my hands,” she told me. The government had banned many forms of artistic production, but they never took note of the little girls and boys sitting on the streets, sketching away at the changes before them. But without any access to piano or dance or painting lessons, Mom eventually became an oral surgeon. Her hands labored over the intricacies of root canals and titanium implants and delicate sore gums instead.
Wearing makeup in school was banned, my mom recalled, and students were expected to tattle on one another if they saw each other with rouge on their faces. She (and a few other classmates) once told the teacher on a girl who secretly wore lipstick after class, and she was proud at the time to be enforcing these rules. Vanity had no place in a society where everyone was supposed to be equal. “Women hold up half the sky,” Mao is often attributed to have said, but apparently not while they wear makeup. “We thought girls who wore makeup were bad people,” my mom told me, as my fingers wrapped tightly around the Clinique Long Last Lipstick in Sugared Maple, the first lipstick that she ever bought for me and the same lipstick I still wear ten years later.
While many women fondly recall being accompanied by their mothers to buy their first perfumes, I can recall the first time my mother bought her first perfume — I was there. It was Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds, and it was at Macy’s in Hillsdale Mall, San Mateo County, California in the early 2000s. Mom wanted something simple and pleasant that she could wear to work at her clinic, where she bent over her patients and immediately knew every one of their hygiene sins, from failing to floss daily to losing their retainers. I watched the beauty counter sales associate gently test fragrances on my mother’s wrist while my mother’s brows furrowed with each sniff. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t buying anything too expensive for herself.
But Mom didn’t actually use the perfume much, and this Thanksgiving when I came home, I found the same bottle of Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds sitting on her bathroom sink, surrounded by anti-aging serums and creams that I had gifted her throughout the years in my sample-loaded tenure as a Teen Vogue beauty intern and Yahoo Beauty editor. It has been over ten years, but the bottle is only half-used. Last year, I gave my mom a Jurlique gift set, and she told me recently that she finally started using it — after the expiration date passed. “Just throw it out then,” I said. “I’ll get you something else.” But as with leftover food, no matter how stale it becomes — once, I begged Mom not to eat a week-old stale donut — my mother won’t let anything go to waste.
In second grade, when I was assigned an essay about my grandparents, I mistakenly wrote about how soft my laolao’s hands were — I just assumed they were that way because of how soft-spoken and small she was. “This is a beautiful essay. I’ll translate it for Laolao,” Mom said after reading it. “But you should know that her hands aren’t soft at all.” Laolao’s hands, as Mom explained to me, are calloused and blistered and rough from years of raising her three children and her children’s children while putting food on the table, from hand-pulled noodles to congee, no matter how little money the family had. In later years, when visiting China, I watched Laolao’s hands peel and bleed from years of hand-washing her children’s — and grandchildren’s — clothes in industrial-strength lye soap, cooking dinners for extended families every night, and mending worn blankets to keep her husband warm in the brittle winters of Western China. Who had time for beauty when there was a family to feed? Laolao always made sure we were already eating before she sat down at the table herself.
My mother didn’t inherit Laolao’s cooking skills, or embroidery skills, or, to be honest, any of her domestic talents — our house was constantly a mess, and my father didn’t have many domestic skills to contribute to the household, either. My sister and I obsessively cultivated our beauty rituals every morning and evening simply because it felt frivolous — because it was an affordable luxury in a household built upon spending the bare necessities. Our Christmas and birthday gifts from our parents were rarely wrapped because our parents thought wrapping paper was a waste of time and money. And yet, my 17-year-old sister, this year’s senior class homecoming princess, applies winged eyeliner every morning before class even after staying up until 3 a.m. studying for exams.
Of course, Mom’s busy enough without eyeliner to apply every morning. Mom holds two medical degrees — one in China and one in the United States — and a master’s degree in pharmacology. Mom held my hand as a toddler as we took the train from Chengdu to Shanghai and then to San Francisco after our visa was finally approved the second time around. Mom owns a successful business in Silicon Valley where her employees are smart, young daughters of immigrants with big dreams, too. Mom raised two daughters after growing up in a country where baby girls are undesirable, so much so that the number of men now greatly outnumber the number of women. But Mom also refused the Chinese language ballot when she voted in the American presidential elections. After all, she understands everyone quite well — it is us who should try harder to understand her.
In America, we make the mistake of confusing a beautiful face for virtue — the “What is beautiful is good” fallacy. But women who grew up in the Cultural Revolution were taught the opposite. It’s dishonorable to be beautiful, because how hard in a patriarchal society do you then have to work? It’s frivolous and wasteful to have beautiful things, because why wouldn’t you save the money for something else? And if you happened to be beautiful, you had to serve utility as a dancer or actress.
These days, my mom reads every beauty article that I write — “I learned about the Kardashians from you!” she proudly tells me. She knows what Estée Lauder is — “It’s a big deal,” she tells me. She haphazardly remembers to wear the serums and creams I gift her, usually when they’re about to expire. I know she does these things not because she cares about beauty but because she cares about me and my interests. And sometimes she does buy hand creams for herself, in tribute to what she considers the most important part of her body — hands that carried two daughters to adulthood, hands that sketched ephemeral passersby into permanence, hands that intimately performed surgery on strangers. I know she does this not because she cares about beauty — but because she cares about me, and she tells me so with her hands.