I love the backlit hair in this one! Thelma Jean Ethell, ca. 1951

I so enjoyed writing about my paternal grandparents in Part I and Part II of this series, and I promised to share at least one more post about my grandmother’s beauty regimen. Well, as I got thinking back over my memories of Mimi, I realized there were actually quite lot of things to write about, so I’ve got at least three posts before I’ll finish off. Today’s will be my grandmother’s general philosophy of loveliness. It’s one that rings true with me all these years later, and I think its wisdom is timeless. I hope you enjoy this blast from the past that still resonates today!

Vintage Makeup MirrorWhile my grandmother was undoubtedly a beautiful lady, she didn’t believe in loading on makeup and overdoing it with gaudy effects. I used to watch her “put on her face” in the morning, fascinated by the neat row of brushes laid on the dressing table and her makeup mirror that had a switch to change the surrounding lights from “Day” to “Evening” (with “Office” and “Home” between). This gadget was a mystery to me. How did the mirror know what Mimi wanted to look like during the day as opposed to at night? Well, as I grew up, I understood that the lights changed to replicate different lighting conditions, but, as a small child, it seemed like the magic mirror to me!

Mimi always did her makeup while wearing a dressing gown and with a scarf tied around her head to keep her hair out of the way. She didn’t want to get any stains on her clothes and told me to remember to be careful with my clothes so they would last. She came from a time period when clothing was made to withstand wear and tear and was altered to reflect new styles as the years went by…but rarely, if ever, thrown out. Alas, in our day of mass-manufactured clothes made of cheap materials, I’ve lost count of the number of garments I’ve had to toss into the rag bag. Even fabrics don’t seem to be what they used to be.

"Going Out" by Norman Rockwell
“Going Out” by Norman Rockwell

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start with my grandmother’s motivations for personal loveliness that she passed down to me. Mimi’s philosophy of beauty was one that I’ve often heard attributed to Audrey Hepburn, but it actually comes from a poem written in the 1970s by Sam Levenson. Mimi told me many times that, no matter how “plain” her features, a woman who smiled could never fail to be attractive. She said our lips and our eyes are the most important parts of our faces when it comes to communication. Bright, sparkling eyes full of joy and a genuine smile are better than any kind of artificial makeup and should be the focus of our faces–not heavy makeup or crazy hairstyles that draw attention for the wrong reasons. Mimi gave me a copy of the following poem when I was 15 and told me it was the best beauty advice she had ever read.

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge you’ll never walk alone.
People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived,  reclaimed, and redeemed; Never throw out anybody.
Remember, If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.
As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.
The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the  figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair.
The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.
The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mole, but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows, and the beauty of a woman with passing years only grows!

~ Sam Levenson

My parents encouraged all their children to memorize verses from the Bible when we were growing up, and there are many that reflect this same approach to beauty. They have stuck with me from childhood, and I’ve helped my own children to memorize them as well. One we use a lot in our house is from Proverbs 15:13: “A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance.” This is so true. Genuine beauty wells up from the heart and spreads to the face, lighting it up with joy that is radiant and infectious. That was what my grandmother told me to remember and what my own mother has always lived out as well. A joyful spirit just glows from the inside out and creates a genuine loveliness that can’t be painted on.

My grandmother as a toddler.
My grandmother as a toddler.

Another favorite verse is Proverbs 11:22: “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a lovely woman who lacks discretion.” Webster’s 1828 Dictionary has a fantastic definition for discretion: “that discernment which enables a person to judge critically of what is correct and proper, united with caution; nice discernment and judgment, directed by circumspection, and primarily regarding one’s own conduct.” A discreet woman is one who judges “what is correct and proper…primarily regarding [her] own conduct.” A woman without that quality is tactless and imprudent. Even if she dresses up beautifully and puts on jewelry, the result won’t be beautiful, because beauty isn’t something we can just plaster on over ugly actions or thoughtless words.

Frowning housewifePutting others first instead of focusing on ourselves creates a special kind of beauty. My grandmother showed me that the ugliest wrinkles are created by frowning (her demonstration gave me the giggles, but it sure helped me remember the importance of smiling!). She said, “The best kind of wrinkles are the ones that come from laughing and smiling; don’t worry about those, because they just show you’ve had a happy life.” Then she told me that self-centered people are easily disappointed and tend to frown more as they dwell on what they perceive as the unfairness of life. Mimi had lived through the Great Depression, WW2, the Korean War, Vietnam, and many difficult personal struggles as well, but she had a resolute, uncomplaining attitude and encouraged me to dwell on the good things and not complain. Complaining and bitterness do not lead to natural beauty but to a sullen countenance and a not-so-pretty pout. That doesn’t mean pretending life is just “swell” and that there aren’t challenges. However, putting on a smile (even when we don’t feel like it) often changes our inward attitude dramatically.

Ilaughing-lady‘m sure all of us have heard the catchphrase “Fake it ’til you make it.” It’s applied to all kinds of self-help seminars for entrepreneurs, but it also relates to the attitudes we choose to put on and our facial expressions. It’s very hard to continue feeling upset or sorry for yourself when you walk up to a mirror and just grin. Better still, grab a child and say, “Give me a smile!” Let me tell you, that is wonderfully effective medicine for a bad day! It’s impossible to keep frowning when others around us are smiling. Sometimes when my children are having a hard day, I’ll say, “Let’s take a couple of minutes to laugh.” At first, the laughs are forced and fake, but long before the two minutes are up, we are all giggling and laughing uncontrollably. The resulting smiles last for hours! There have even been studies proving that faking a smile creates feelings of happiness. So sometimes you just have to put on the smile in order to feel like smiling. 😉

True beauty begins inwardly with a joyful spirit, a grateful attitude, and a willingness to put others first. That inward beauty can’t help but radiate out into smiles and sparkling eyes, and that’s where the best beauty regimen begins. From there, anything else is icing on the proverbial cake. Next time I’ll talk about Mimi’s daily routine to keep her skin soft and smooth (“sweet and kissable,” as she said) and how she wore “just enough” makeup to create a lovely look without going too far and appearing overdone. It’s an art that women of my grandmother’s time seem to have mastered. During WW2 with men fighting overseas for wives, sweethearts and home, women firmly believed that “Beauty Is a Duty” and came up with ingenious ways to be pretty and boost morale during hard times on the home front. I’ll share some of Mimi’s best beauty tips from her youth on into her 70s. Thanks for stopping by!

1943 Beauty as a Duty Ad 1943 Yardley Ad


4 comments on “Mimi’s Vintage Beauty Philosophy”

  1. I just love this, Jennie!! Your grandma seems like such an inspiration, and it is so marvelous to get a glimpse into the life of an army wife from WWII. Being glamorous and yet down to earth are perfectly compatible qualities, and I think it’s high time the women of today seek counsel from America’s “greatest generation.”

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