My childhood was spent in beauty: the scent of exquisite Persian cooking, music and poetry of an ancient land, rich and layered with meaning, and in the company of Iranian women. Amongst these women I grew up encased in the customs of beautifying: make-up, yes, but also skin care, preservation of the face, shrinking of the nose, perfuming of the body and plucking of bodily hair; henna application, waxing, brow shaping, exfoliating with keeseh, lotioning and oiling.
Beauty rituals, as I would later come to see, weren’t so much rites of passage as integrated forms of being. My mother’s skin shone bright and beaming from a combination of genetic gifts, high-end dermatological treatments, and drug store basics she swore by like Cetaphil. To this day, her apple cheeks glow and at 75, she still applies daily care to her face, her hands, and even her teeth (no one flosses as diligently as my mother).
My mother’s beautification contained great pleasure as well. On weekends as we prepared to go to yet another Persian party, she would stand at the pink-tiled vanity and draw sormeh (black eyeliner) in a way no beauty magazine ever suggested you could. Once made of burnt almonds in the early 20th century Iran—now provided by Elizabeth Arden—sormeh was the centerpiece of Persian makeup. With a hand so steady it was heart-stopping to watch, the pencil would go in right at the waterline of the lashes, and with a quick sweep back and forth between closed lids, it was done. Et voilà! Suddenly, it was Cleopatra, and not my mother, who would be steering us into the night.
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Red lipstick came next, chosen without a second thought about its boldness. It wasn’t so much a statement to wear it as it was a willingness to participate in vibrance and to speak with your Iranian-American accent to ask for what you wanted in the world. After all, vivaciousness could be worn at any hour of the day; whatever rules written by white ladies for white ladies bore no relevance in my mother’s bathroom. The top drawer of her vanity contained a million shades of lipstick from pale pinks to plum, Chanel, Lancôme, Clinique, Revlon, but it was the audacious Dior red that she wore most often, the image of which I can still conjure alongside the enchantment of those evening, and of my mother herself.
Scent was the other trademark, for I did not know an unscented Iranian, man or woman, who partook in these immigrant evenings together. Christian Dior was my mother’s favorite, J’Adore sprayed from a vial with a spiraled top I loved to click on and off, or Dune that came in plump, pleasing glass shaped like a heart*.* Once, I pulled a tasseled string on an intricately-packaged, glowing amber flask only to find that by doing so, I’d doused our bathroom rug in hundreds of dollars worth of Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium.
My mother had been obsessed with collecting perfumes in her 20s in Iran and the plink of a glass stopper being drawn from a vial can still unravel whole seasons of time. When all was sprayed, applied, drawn, and colored-in, we’d pile into the car and head to a mehmooni, the food-filled, chatter-filled parties that our émigré parents attended weekly, children in tow—the place, I realize now, where my parents could be themselves.
If you ever wanted to be convinced that women were choosing beauty conventions of their own self-possession, all you had to do was see the Iranian women of my youth. There was no shame, no faltering, no hiding. Iranian women exercised their right to beautify in every dimension: some opted for Botox and eyelifts, others tried out brow tattoos and permanent makeup, and nose jobs abounded. None of this ever came with much judgment, either. If you wanted to do it, why not? The beautification of the self was a conflict-free undertaking in the expatriate Iranian community of the 1990s.
This is really where the beauty lies: in the refusal to be hidden away or shut up. Persian beauty is often big and expressive, colorful, and lively. It comes from the soul to the flesh, inside to out, an exaltation and celebration.
Get glamorous this weekend—and when you do, think of Iranian women. —Mitra Parineh