For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked my side profile. My bottom lip sticks out too far, the relic of a thumb-sucking childhood and subsequent overbite that even three years of orthodontic treatment couldn’t fix. You can’t see it from the front, but approach me from the side and bam, there it is: my slightly stuck-out lower lip, permanently arranged into the pouting moue of a toddler mid-tantrum. Same goes for the chicken pox scar between my eyebrows, which used to bother me so much as a teenager that, occasionally, I’d blur it out with whatever crude retouching program I could find just to get an idea of how much better my face would look without it.
“It’s easy to find what’s pretty in other people, but in ourselves we tend to see only what we don’t like,” wrote makeup mogul Bobbi Brown in her seminal 2000 beauty manual, Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty. If there’s a sentence that more accurately sums up the irrationality of the yardstick we use to measure beauty against, I’d like to hear it. To be a woman, whether adolescent or full-fledged adult, is often to be in constant pursuit of physical perfection, tormented by a train of thought that begins with, “If I could just …” and ends with a conclusion so far removed from the start that we’re practically driven to lunacy. If I could just drop 10 pounds, then maybe I’d get the guy. If I could just get rid of my acne, then maybe I’d be more popular at school.
I first discovered Teenage Beauty when I was 12, right on the cusp of my teenage years. A comprehensive beauty manual penned by Brown with the help of former Seventeen Editor-in-Chief Annemarie Iverson, it seemed to have an astute understanding of the quiet angst and insecurity of those emotionally charged years. Thoughtful treatises on body image and self-esteem bookended an entire chapter on braces (“they’re not forever”); a healthy eating plan was followed up by advice on what to do if someone you knew was dealing with an eating disorder. Though the small travel-sized version I remember reading technically belonged to one of my older sisters, it sat on our shared bookshelf to be thumbed through whenever I felt like it, which was often.
It hadn’t occurred to me that reading Teenage Beauty was a sacred experience outside of my own family until a chance conversation a few months ago with a friend who spoke of it with an equally reverent tone. When I uploaded a picture of it to Instagram Stories more recently, I found myself inundated with excited messages from women all over the world, all of which were along the lines of, “OMG I loved that book!!” and “Iconic.” It quickly became clear to me that Teenage Beauty had been responsible for introducing an entire generation of teenage girls to a concept of beauty that was more than just skin-deep. The memories people shared were sharp as a pin, many of them recalling specific images and chapters with a clarity that belies the fact they hadn’t read it in over a decade.
Everyone seems to have a story about it. One of the women who messaged me, Jessica F., mentioned that she was gifted the book by her godmother: “My mother was anti any makeup, and I, a typical teenager, was keen to pile it on thick and fast. So my godmother gave me this to try and find a balance.” For many teenage girls and the mothers who gifted it to them, Teenage Beauty was a way of bridging the gap between the children their parents often saw them as and the adult women they so desperately wanted to be. Woven into its pages was the promise of an age when you’d finally be allowed to present yourself however you liked, never mind what your parents or teachers said, as well as a toolkit on how to manage until that time came.
Perhaps its most defining feature though, and the aspect I now recognize to be the reason it resonated so deeply with me, was Teenage Beauty’s commitment to sharing beauty advice for girls of all ethnicities. The fact that it gave equal weight to all skin tones — with entire chapters dedicated to black, Latina, Asian, and mixed-heritage beauty — was by far the most common theme of the messages I received, from women of color and white women alike. “Even that young,” Priscilla V., a black American of Trinidadian descent wrote me, “I appreciated the inclusion of young girls of color in the book.”
Feeling better about yourself, rather than which eyeliner to use or how best to apply blusher, was ultimately what Teenage Beauty was all about. Its creed was one of self-acceptance — which perhaps sounds contrived in an age where messages about “self-acceptance” often amount to marketing ploys, but from Bobbi came across as heartfelt — born of a genuine desire to spare her impressionable readers a lifetime of neuroses.
Reading it as a teenager encouraged me to, if not exactly love myself, envisage a reality where I might be considered beautiful, and see myself as beautiful. Reading it now, I feel a slight twinge of sadness as it dawns on me how little of that attitude I’ve managed to carry with me into adulthood and how easily the non-stop perfection parade of social media and fashion magazines make me feel dissatisfied about my appearance.
But even after all these years, Teenage Beauty has lost none of its power. As I flip through it today, I’m bathed in the warm afterglow of the book’s message that I’m beautiful just as I am. The struggle, now, is how to hang onto that feeling.
Images of Bobbi Brown Teenage Beauty by Bobbi Brown & Annemarie Iverson.