"Stop it, Beaulah. No, you're beautiful! You are. Truly. Thank you. But you are!" I remember my grandmother, Mary, chuckling often as she ended conversations with her girlfriends: Aunt Beaulah, Aunt Birdie, Ms. Theresa, Mrs. Mellef, Mrs. Fannie or Ms. So-and-so. After those hour-long, Sunday-ritual chats, they'd jest lovingly about who was more beautiful before putting the receiver in its cradle. At the time, they must have been in their mid- to late-50s. They were seasoned women: triumphant, deeply spiritual, assured, sophisticated, no-nonsense and well past pretty—their sometimes less than pretty life experiences mandated that. And they knew it.
I didn't. To me, they—but Mary especially—seemed youthful, vivacious, savvy and just interesting. As a seven-years-separated, college- and grad-school-educated (which she did as an adult), professional mother of three grown children, grandmother (though I call her "Mommy"), and dedicated daughter, Mary had style and pizazz. She was graceful, kind, approachable and loving. There was something about Mary and the lessons she taught without even trying.
I was five years old—almost six—at the time. It was 1983—near the time Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America, the first black woman to win the title. Mary and I watched the pageant together, just the two of us. I was fascinated, but she? Far less so. No matter, I couldn't take my eyes off of the sequined dresses, the red patent pumps, the sleek and shiny swimsuits and the curls I craved! An effervescent, would-be fashion and beauty doyenne out of the womb, I saw this show as my "dress-up" dream! I cooed. But Mary stayed quiet…until Vanessa (the daughter of Aunt Beaulah's friend) took center stage. Mary's wide smile was soon accompanied by enthusiastic handclapping as Vanessa answered her finalist question. I, however, remained connected to the curls, asking my Mary things like, "How did she make her hair do that? Can I wear lipstick? I want to wear that to school!"
Further into Vanessa's moment, Mary chided me to "pay attention and listen." I tried. Vanessa's words only half made sense to me. An impressed child, I was too focused on the gown and crown. I was too young not to focus on appearance, too young to appreciate the breadth and impact that this younger "queen" would have on Mary, her friends and our community.
Mornings later, as Mary got herself dressed for work—after bathing, feeding and styling my hair in four (maybe five) braids—I watched her intently. She dressed herself slowly. She positioned her undergarments, stockings, slip and all, just so. She combed and then patted her hair. And her lipstick? Always well-lined and applied deliberately. Her attention to detail was the epitome of meticulous, careful and intentional whether she was caring for me, "grandma", my mom or herself.
Mary knew that taking time to "put on a face" meant that she was taking time and interest in presenting her best self. And she enjoyed it, because it garnered interest. But Mary made something very clear to me one morning, not long after Vanessa Williams had been crowned. She said something along the lines of, "Sugar lump. Baby. You are beautiful! Just as beautiful as Miss America. You are smart—you ain't no fool. But you are fun. You have a heart of gold. You are beautiful—just as beautiful as Aunt Beaulah, Aunt Birdie, your mother, me and that girl, Vanessa. You might not always feel beautiful, but you have to know you are! One day, you'll put on your lipstick, dress up and call your friend. Tell her she's beautiful 'cause she'll remind you that you're beautiful too!"
Mary wasn't just teaching me about grooming and beauty, but she was teaching me about community, sisterhood and inner beauty. As I look back on a lesson that is simple, I realize the legacy is rich and the story true: Beauty is not only as beauty appears, but beauty is as beauty speaks, teaches and does. And for that, I am beauty-fully grateful!
These days, I tuck my beauty essentials kit into my purse whenever I leave the house. But even on the rare day that I forget to, it gives me comfort and pride to know that I carry my Mary's wisdom with me wherever I go.
Cheers to you and all grandmothers, aunts, mothers and sister-friends who have shown beauty, but most importantly, who have encouraged another's beauty.
Tai Beauchamp is a beauty expert and former My Black Is Beautiful spokesperson. Olay® and CoverGirl Queen Collection® are honored to partner with My Black is Beautiful to share your beauty with the world.
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