Three Generations of Middle Eastern Women on Makeup, Beauty, and Self-Care



When I think of superheroes, I think of Iranian women from the generations before me. Not just because they were raising an average of seven to ten children all while up-keeping their home and their spouses (which is cape-worthy in and of itself), but because they did so with a smile and an understanding of self-care, too. Don't get me wrong, between socioeconomic issues and daily life burdens, these women had their fair share of challenges, even before the revolution. But in my mind, these are powerful, strong women who value their family, culture, and ultimately, themselves.

I typically find national themed holidays quite futile (though I'll happily accept free doughnuts on National Doughnut Day). This year, however, as my grandmother nears her milestone 100th birthday, I decided to put all cynicism aside in honor of International Women's Day to see what beauty routines in mid-1900s Iran looked like. After interviewing her (along with my mother, who's the youngest immigrant of eight children), it became abundantly clear: No matter one's age, background, and life experiences, there's one thing we can all connect on: beauty. Read on to see how a 100-year-old Iranian woman, a 66-year-old Iranian working mother, and a Persian-American millennial all view beauty.

My Grandmother: A 100-Year-Old Iranian Woman

When I think of all my grandmother has witnessed and experienced from 1920 until now, it's difficult for me to put myself in her shoes. I can't imagine what it was like for her to have an arranged marriage at only 15, or how terrifying it must have been to pack up her family and escape from the revolution happening in her homeland (via donkeys, by the way). Through it all, she still managed to find the time for herself, especially impressive considering the resources we're accustomed to now weren't around. "In those days we didn't have access to makeup as we do today, in part because they didn't exist," she remembers. "There weren't stores dedicated to beauty products like Sephora or Ulta, we bought all of our makeup at the drugstore."

When I asked her what her beauty regimen was like and how she found the time for herself while juggling the well-being, studies, and nutrition of eight children, she told me that Iranian women in those days wore very little makeup, if any at all. "On a daily basis all I wore was lipstick and face powder—liquid foundation wasn't readily available and if it was, it was extremely pricey," she recalls, pointing out that she came from a middle-class family. "Boxed hair dyes also didn't exist while I was growing up—some would just allow their gray hairs to grow out, others (like me) would use henna, a natural dye sourced from a henna plant, to color their hair." To account for the brassiness or red tones caused by the henna, my grandmother would mix her henna with coffee.

When it came to her skincare routine, I was in for a surprise. While a Clarisonic still looks like a foreign object to my grandmother, exfoliating was still part of her routine. She recalls using a rooshor (a cleansing agent similar to a pumice stone) with a kiseh yazdi (a hand-made bath mitt) to slough away all of the dead skin on her face and body. My mother recalls watching my grandmother as a young child in amazement as she exfoliated, recalling that the amount of dead skin that would fall off was enough to fill a three-ounce cup. To this day, rooshoor remains one of Iran's best-kept beauty secrets and is sold in select Persian markets in the United States.

Middle East Collectibles Exfoliating Tablets $20

In the older days in Iran, my grandmother says women were shunned for things like driving and even being left-handed. And when it came to beauty, women were often told to look beautiful just for their husbands. Even still, my grandmother has always stressed the importance of education, hard work, and, most of all, taking care of yourself, for yourself.

My Mother: A Working Immigrant

Growing up, my mother always had her makeup done. But, apparently, that wasn't always the case. "In college, I only wore lipstick and mascara, not even a face powder like my mother," she says. After she moved to the U.S. (which is where I was born), my mother began exploring makeup and beauty products more. For her, wearing makeup is a confidence-booster. "When I wear makeup, all of my fine lines, wrinkles, uneven tone, and age spots disappear," she explains, glowing as she describes how her beauty products make her feel. "Makeup transports me back to my youth, especially when I over-line my (now aged) lips to mimic how plump they used to be."

I don't need to ask my mother her favorite makeup product because she asks for a replenishment every other month when she empties a tube. It Cosmetics' CC+ Cream with SPF 50+ ($40) is her tried and true because it blurs the line between makeup and skincare, providing coverage while delivering skin-loving ingredients like collagen, hyaluronic acid, and peptides.

It Cosmetics CC+ Cream with SPF 50+
It Cosmetics CC+ Cream with SPF 50+ $40

Me: A Persian-American Millennial

When it comes to how I view makeup, and beauty in general, it's slightly different from both my grandmother and mother. True, I can appreciate a DIY beauty recipe or a concealer that covers up under-eye circles. But, for them, makeup is about self-care. For me, it's about self-expression. On my good days, I'm more inclined to wear glitter-covered lids; on days I'm not feeling my best I'll keep my look minimal. Just as a painting doesn't require justification, I don't believe one needs a reason to wear makeup. To me, makeup is a form of art—whether it's on Instagram or on passersby. It never ceases to inspire me. I believe beauty has no bounds or standards—it's simply there for the taking, and for the creativity, power, and expression it brings.

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