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The transformative power of beauty in midlife

There's more to beauty than mere pleasure and satisfaction, says Sue Peart.

Can you remember the first beauty product you ever bought? For me, the memory is clear, and feels as recent as yesterday – even though many decades have passed since I fished around in my purse for the required coins from my precious pocket money to enable that pivotal purchase.

The importance of keeping up appearances

These days, I’m sometimes embarrassed at the amount of money I spend on beauty products, and not just the products themselves, but the threading, plucking, waxing, varnishing, massaging, cutting, colouring and blow-drying treatments I also regularly shell out for. I believe these to be necessary, if only to keep up appearances.

This is a much-mocked concept, but I’m up there with Hyacinth Bucket when it comes to such things.  They matter. Out of consideration for other people (surely they’d rather not gaze at an old hag?) and also for my own self-worth, confidence, self-respect and pleasure.

In my case, nudging my teens in the late ’60s, I’d been dreaming about making this particular purchase for several weeks. My sister Karen, two years older than me, had already established a routine of taking her weekly £2 pocket money on the bus into Sheffield town centre to spend in Woolworths. She’d arrive back with a large brown carrier bag, and we’d gather round the kitchen table to watch her unfurl the contents like Santa Claus.

At first, this was mostly a jumble of pick ‘n’ mix sweets, a notepad and pencil, a couple of coloured Biros, hair grips and a comb, a Matchbox toy car for our little brother Ken, a book for me.

The allure of the makeup counter

Over time though, the booty changed. Woolies opened a cosmetics counter right next to the pick ‘n’ mix, with Rimmel taking pride of place, and the weekend haul took on a whole new complexion. Gone were the pointless notepads and (to Ken’s disappointment) the toy cars; instead there might be a tiny palette of compressed powder eyeshadow in pale blue or green, just like Cilla wore. A sweet-smelling fragrance spray that made us feel grown up. A bottle of liquid foundation. Mascara in a plastic box with a brush. And still enough change for a bag or two of sweets.

New ranges quickly arrived: Ponds, Miners, and – briefly – Baby Doll, whose long fluttery false eyelashes were a must for any self-respecting Sixties teen (though we never got the hang of them). Karen and I would rush upstairs to her bedroom with the rattling carrier bag, and spend many happy hours experimenting with the products, rubbing foundation into our cheeks, stroking on eyeshadow, observing and critiquing the way our appearance would change with each application, studying the effect with hair up, hair down, from the mirror this side, and that side.

The arrival of the game changer: Lipstick

Before long, Karen got a Saturday job flipping burgers in the Wimpy bar a few doors down from Woollies, and her weekly pay packet would be spent on yet more fascinating treasures: Stockings, hair spray, a medallion, a trendy chain belt. Rimmel still ruled the cosmetics counter, with their successful Beauty on a Budget range aimed at that thrilling thing: the ‘career girl’. It was around that time that Karen came home with the game-changer: her first lipstick. Shimmer Pink, the gleaming jewel in the Rimmel range.

The effect of that glossy film of palest pink on Karen’s lips made a huge impression on me. She already had all the other necessary attributes: long, slender legs (5ft 10ins in her sling-backs), hair cut in a bob, and the ability to knock up a pair of crushed velvet hotpants in an afternoon on our mother’s sewing machine, which she kept in her bedroom. But it was the final touch – that slick of pink – that transformed her from something pretty average – my sister – into something other-worldly.

How lipstick transformed my sister

It did something magical: Encouraged her to stand straighter, completed the look, gave her a lightning bolt of confidence, and rendered her suddenly eligible to fly our safe little nest, and go out and Meet Boys.

So it was that, at the age of 14, I travelled alone on the No 24 bus to Woollies, and returned with my very own Shimmer Pink lipstick by Rimmel. With one swipe of the magic pink wand, I was no longer a frumpy teen, but an assured young woman.

I was fortunate with the timing of my birth – becoming a teen when that was the thing to be. Retail was booming.  Debenhams opened opposite Woolies, with its entire gleaming ground floor given over to the shiny world of cosmetics. Smiling sales-girls would spray you with scent as you strolled among the aisles. Soon after, the cool white palace that was John Lewis arrived in its hallowed position in the city centre, next to the Gaumont cinema, at the top of a hill, looking down on all the others. Inside, it was calm and ordered, boasting a tasteful ladies’ powder room (Woollies never had loos!), and – taking centre stage – the fabulous Mary Quant counter, with its sense of fun, modern packaging, distinctive black daisy logo, and its clever, witty and oh-so youthful offering…. All of a sudden, Rimmel seemed a tad, er, dull.

‘A life brimming with excitement’

Most of all, Mary Quant offered the promise of a life brimming with excitement, just beyond my reach.  Designer mini-dresses!  London’s King’s Road!  Sports cars!  A career! By now an avid reader of Petticoat magazine, I learned that if I varnished my nails in Sky Blue Pink, I would surely catch the attention of the dishiest boy at the sixth form dance. Cream eyeshadow in Dove Grey would give me an advantage over all the other hopefuls at my first job interview. And the genius a.m. and p.m. fragrance sprays in their sleek steel handbag-sized phials (scent bottles were no longer for gathering dust on dressing tables!) would guarantee heads to swivel in my direction.

The hip scene in Sheffield

At that time, Sheffield was quite hip. Sandie Shaw, Petula Clark, the Hollies, and even the Beatles came to perform at the City Hall, somewhere we’d only previously been taken to see the revered Halle orchestra and the Christmas pantomime. A posh new hotel opened nearby to accommodate these gods and goddesses who we hung around for hours in the pouring rain hoping to catch a glimpse of as they flashed by in smart black cars.  But by the mid ’70s, Sheffield was on the wane. The steel industry – backbone of the north – was not what it used to be, and suddenly the lights beckoned brightly from down south.

I duly arrived in London, and – after a few false starts – landed my first proper job as secretary to the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. At that time, Cosmo was selling half a million copies every month – the undisputed bible of young career women. Sunshine bounced off the bright yellow office walls, vases of flowers stood on every windowsill. Motorbike messengers would arrive several times a day with packages festooned with ribbon and stuffed full of tissue for the editor, a charismatic Irish woman called Deirdre McSharry. Deirdre would rummage inside and pull out the prize – a bottle of newly-launched fragrance, perhaps, or a perfect coral lipstick in a gold case. A gleaming eyeshadow palette, maybe, that snapped open to reveal several glamorous shades.

The sweeping change in beauty products

The world of beauty was fast-moving, and humming with innovation. Blusher was invented, and, hot on its heels, highlighter. Mascara in a tube. And the lightest translucent powder to dust on our cheeks, and on our shoulders when we wore halter-neck tops. I still remember the beauty assistant, Nicky, unwrapping the first bottle of what was to become an iconic product – Body Shop’s Peppermint Foot Lotion – and all of us crowding round her desk to breathe in the zingy, fresh minty aroma. Who knew that even your feet should be gorgeous?

Once a month or so, we’d have a beauty sale for the staff, the proceeds funding the occasional party in the office with wine. Heady days indeed.

The deeper side of beauty

But there was more to beauty than mere pleasure and satisfaction. More than the instant frisson of a new product. Our managing director was a man who, to my young eyes, seemed rather elderly.  Occasionally, he would wander into the Cosmo office, holding a crystal tumbler of whisky. He was The Boss, and no matter how successful Cosmo might be, we treated him with respect. Upon receiving a summons to the MD’s office, Deirde would slide open her desk drawer and pull out a mirror that she’d stand up on her desk. She’d powder her nose, apply a fresh coat of lipstick, run a brush through her abundant auburn hair, and spritz generously with fragrance. The mirror would go back in the drawer. Suitably armed for battle, she’d stand up tall in her high heels, and stride through to the MD’s office. It was clear that make-up was her armour; it gave her permission to own her position as a successful woman in what was a stolidly masculine world at that time, a world still steeped in traditional mores.

I never forgot the importance of that confidence-imbuing three-minute ritual.

Come the Eighties, I’d arrived on Fleet Street, toiling first on the women’s pages of a daily newspaper, before moving into features – a somewhat blokey environment, back then. I remained loyal to everything I’d learned on Cosmo, preparing for my role every morning (hair and make-up!), and always finishing with a generous spray of fragrance.  Estee Lauder had a firm grip on the fragrance market with new fragrance launches coming thick and fast, each backed with a heavy marketing campaign.  I’d gone through Alliage, Youth Dew and White Linen, and by the time I arrived on the Daily Express, my fragrance du jour was Beautiful.

The editor, a large, bluff Yorkshireman who spent most of his time commanding proceedings from his office would lumber down the corridor at around 7 pm, when the evening shift came on. Perching on the corner of my desk, he’d close his eyes, tip his nose upwards and sniff the air, like a badger emerging from his lair.  ‘Hmm,’ he’d mutter.  ‘Something smells a bit different around here.’

And with that, he’d lumber off again.

Throughout my working life in newspapers and magazines, beauty has played a huge part. In many ways, as an industry, it came of age and matured in tandem with my own trajectory. It took time, but the perception of beauty as something frivolous, only for air-heads subtly changed. In a 1979 interview with The Sun newspaper, Mrs Thatcher remarked, “There’s a nonsense about intelligent women not being beautiful. Most women are far more intelligent than people give them credit for.” The Iron Lady, who came from what she referred to as a ‘soap and water’ household, never allowed soap anywhere near her own skin, and will forever be known for her trademark swept-up power hair-do (and pearls).

Forty years later, Meghan Markle commented: “You can be a woman who wants to look good, and still stand up for the equality of women.”

Beauty has become more important today…for Britain

These days, beauty pages are essential for any magazine and most newspapers, attracting both readers and revenue. Beauty is a major contributor to the British economy, (around £28.4bn annually).  The industry is a significant employer, and an acknowledged incubator for entrepreneurial talent whether in creating visionary new products, or in all related areas (scientific innovation, marketing and sales, design, advertising, management).

Beauty company sales make newspaper headlines, whether it’s Jo Malone to Estee Lauder (1999, ‘undisclosed millions’), Liz Earle to Avon (2010, believed to be around £50m.  Four years later, Avon sold to the US Walgreens for £140m), or – earlier this year – Cult Beauty to The Hut Group for a cool £275m.

Lately, as an industry, beauty has led the way in sustainable work practices and green initiatives. And in the uncertain days of lockdown – notwithstanding face-masks – John Lewis reported a 61% increase in lipstick sales online, while research from Boots showed a rise of 731% in online beauty searches.

These days, beauty is no longer seen as being only for the young, ending somewhere around the menopause.  When she was editor of Saga magazine, Emma Soames gave a talk to CEW (Cosmetic Executive Woman – a networking organisation for women in the beauty industry) in which she described how she’d asked her 84 year-old grandmother what she’d like for Christmas. Without missing a beat, she replied, ‘I’d like a jar of that new cream, darling.  That Crème de la Mer I’ve read so much about.’

Lessons from my mother

I often thought about that quote in relation to my own mother, who died a few years ago, close to her 90th birthday. She came of age at a time when women wouldn’t answer the phone without make-up on, and were advised not to let their husbands see them without make-up if they valued their marriage.

As a child, I would watch her put on her make-up every morning: foundation, mascara, lipstick, powder.  Three dots of lipstick were applied to each cheek and blended in for a healthy glow.

Not just the effect but the ritual

She was never without her make-up purse, even in the convalescent home where she spent what turned out to be her final days. She was known there as ‘the pretty little lady’; every morning, she would dress, sit in the chair by her bed, and start the calming ritual of applying her make-up with the aid of a small mirror perched on the trolley, from which she would later eat her lunch. That daily routine seemed to give her a sense of personal pride, the inner strength to face another day – no matter what it might bring – and gave her a familiar routine to cling to while life as she knew it crumbled around her.

A manicure as moment of connection

One day, I asked her if she’d like me to manicure her nails. I’d never given a manicure before, but as a mani-pedi veteran myself I reckoned I could do it – or at least improvise – from memory.

As I gently filed her nails and massaged in the rose-scented hand cream, I saw a look of bliss cross my mother’s face. She loved having her hands gently held, feeling human and feminine, when everything else was gone. I held firm to the belief that she would recover and return home, but I think her own intuition told her that she was close to the end, and this intimate ritual was both soothing and pleasurable. Not a particularly touchy-feely family, it was an expression of mother/daughter togetherness that I will always treasure.

When I’d finished, the nurses took time to admire her freshly shaped and polished nails. A week or so later, my beloved mother died.

The last glimpse

In that awful time – post-death, pre-funeral – I visited my mother in the funeral home. I was ushered into a chilly room where mum’s tiny coffin lay, an open Bible on a lectern beside her. I don’t think mum would have approved of the make-up they’d given her – eyebrows too heavy, hair combed too low on her forehead. But when I peeped at her hands, neatly folded below the lacy coverlet, there was her beautiful manicure just as it was the last time I’d seen her. It was something simple and heartfelt I’d been able to give her that turned out to be quite profound. She took it with her to the next life, and that gave me comfort.

– Sue Peart


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