When I decided to give tribute to a series of beautifully aging bellas, I thought long and hard about who influenced my style the most. Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan all provided inspiring images of strong black womanhood, but none of them could have had a bigger impact than my mother.
Peggy Aura Arlene Grell, this one is for you.
This photo was taken at her 67th birthday party in September and as you can see, my parents are still together (38 years strong), still partying, and on a Sunday morning if you creep downstairs early enough, you can still catch her and my dad slow dancing together in the living room.
Even though the signs of age are there – she is often plagued with arthritis and she’s past menopause, she’s still as gorgeous as always.
Some of my earliest memories of my mom involve her sitting at her fancy dressing table, putting her face on before going downstairs in the morning. She doesn’t go anywhere before she’s made up and looking pretty. “I don’t do it for anybody else. I do it for me,” she insists. She is dismissive of the so-called “duster women” who venture downstairs (or God forbid, outside) without showering, or in their pajamas (full disclosure: I am sometimes a duster woman!).
My mom has always been fastidious about grooming, and we have clashed over beauty issues many times and oft. But as I get older, I’ve become ever more like her.
Instead of getting annoyed when she insists that I pay special attention to scrubbing the back of my neck, or asks me if I’ve tried the Sally Hansen Hair Bleach for the fiftieth time, I find myself actually taking her advice.
In the course of interviewing my mother, I came to find out that years ago, she was just like me – sitting and watching an aesthetically fastidious woman apply makeup at their fancy dressing table. Her beauty icon was Auntie Ruby, my grandfather’s oldest sister who was a headmistress in Trinidad in the Forties.
“She would always have a huge flacon of 4711, and she would dab it behind her ears and on her neck. Being a six-year-old, sitting there and watching her was so different and fascinating. Everything she had was beautiful. That’s how I remember her,” she muses.
To this day my mother has a penchant for the centuries old cologne, and every time she comes to Miami she has to hunt down a bottle at this perfume store in Coconut Grove. For the record, I am NOT a fan of the citrusy scent, and I think she purchases it primarily for nostalgic value.
“I always loved Chanel. And I’ve always wanted nice things, even though I couldn’t always afford them,” she laughs. Now she firmly believes in pampering herself, and these days she uses products far more expensive than I would be willing to pay for.
When I tell her that her credo seems to be “the costlier the better,” she responds “No, but you do get what you pay for!”
I knew my mom would be a great source of advice for aging women, coming from a woman who still gets gushing compliments on her appearance from men and women. Here are Mama Bella’s top five tips to any woman aging beautifully.
1. “As you go into menopause, your skin gets drier and drier. Most of the older women I know use Oil of Olay. I bathe with the Oil of Olay body wash. I must use a body wash. Menopause is a drying process, I think, and I always need to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. And after that I need a moisturizer – I hate the fruity smell of most cheap moisturizers, so I use either Coco Chanel, Chance, or Allure. There is a difference you feel with products of that quality.”
2. “You must have a good serum. I use Dior. The serum sort of makes your skin look supposedly younger.” (For the record, that’s an exact quote, even though it doesn’t fully sound like an endorsement to me!) “I use the Dior Capture Totale Serum first, then the Capture Cream under my eyes. The lines under my eyes have gone with the Dior. First you use the serum, then the cream, then you wear your foundation.”
As she got older, my Mom started to develop melasma, a skin discoloration particularly common in the tropics. “Because I’ve been constantly using the Tri-luma, the marks are faded. But the thing with melasma, if you forget to use the cream tonight, bet your bottom dollar the next day they’re showing up more. It’s brought on by sunlight, so I use Sothy’s SPF 30+ now.”
To cover up skin discoloration, my mom has been known to use Dermablend. I must say, if you have any kind of permanent facial discoloring, this stuff could be the miracle you are looking for.
Mineral powder hasn’t hit the Caribbean yet, and I’ll be taking some home for her for Christmas. She is going to freak out over this stuff!
3. “A magnifying mirror is crucial to an older woman. If you don’t have a very strong mirror, you can’t see a shit and you would wind up going out and looking like a fool.” (Yes, mama tells it like it is!) I have seen many older women who obviously don’t have one. The fact that you have to use glasses to read shows you that you don’t have 20/20 vision anymore, and you can’t see your face as clearly as you used to. The mirror is so important!”
4. “A woman of color looks terribly terribly untidy under their arms when they shave. Shaving darkens the skin under your arms. If you wax, you would have no marks. I use the Sally Hansen Creme Bleach once a week to lighten the skin there, and then I always use a dot of moisturizer before I put on my deodorant. It helps to prevent the white marks I notice on so many other people.”
5. “Beauty comes from within you. So don’t gossip. Don’t malign other women – it shows in your face, your demeanor, how you carry yourself. I have found that the women who always talk shit about other people – it shows in their face as they get older. And those who are at peace within themselves, they don’t have that problem. And therein lies their beauty. Beauty is as beauty does.”
And there you have it! I hope my mother’s words of wisdom are of some use, even though the products she swears by are out of my price range (My inner cheap-o-meter prevents me from spending more than $50 on most things).
I try to follow most of her advice, especially tip #5 – I had enough petty and painful run ins with gossip and bacchanal back in high school. These days I try to live according to the Desiderata and that gets me through the day. I am currently road-testing the Sally Hansen stuff that she so swears by, so expect a review in a week or two.
To end this tribute to beautifully aging bellas, I’d like to say this: Just as the saying goes – you’re only as young as you feel, you are also only as beautiful as you feel. So it’s important to take the time to look at yourself in the mirror, give yourself a big, brave smile, and instead of picking apart your flaws, embrace your best features before you face the world. Gray hair and wrinkles don’t make you any less gorgeous. They just prove that you’ve lived life, and that you have valuable experiences to share with others.
** It’s 10:30 a.m. and I just wanted to add this: One of the main side effects of age for women is that they no longer feel attractive. If you’ve got an older woman in your life, there is no time like the present to let them know that you think they’re still absolutely gorgeous, and that you love them!