About a month after I had my baby, I FaceTimed my best friend, Bee, from my new office. By “new office,” I mean the rocking chair in my bedroom where I spent 80% of my time breastfeeding. My shirt was always half-open, my chest and stomach clammy with old milk. My upper back was sore from the weight of my daughter, her endless need to be held.
Those calls were my touchstone of normalcy, a connection to my previously childless life. We’d chat about Bee’s career drama, her travel plans, and the interesting new restaurants she’d been to. I tried to stay fully present, mostly to prove to myself that I could carry on a full conversation without either a) falling asleep, or b) bringing up things like diaper cream and spit-up.
I held the phone with one hand, tilting it upward so I could have an adult conversation with my neck and face while feeding my baby from the chest down. “Renae,” Bee said, her eyes darted below my face, below my neck, and then back up. “It’s not a big deal, but I thought you should know I can totally see your left nipple.”
We both laughed about it. It was funny, objectively. But it was also another moment in a stack of too many moments that reminded me I now lived a different life, in a different body. This new body was unpredictable (hello, leaky boobs), raw with the pain of a third-degree tear, and exhausted from the overwhelming responsibility of keeping a tiny, helpless human alive.
At that time, I lived in New York City, and my bedroom window looked out onto a busy residential street on the Upper East Side. From my rocking chair, I could see out that window and people-watch. Observing other New Yorkers who had not stepped off the earth’s rotation, who had somewhere to go outside the 800 square feet of their apartment, provided another touchstone of normalcy.
One night, from the rocking chair, I saw a woman strutting down the block, laughing with a couple of friends, and completely owning an orange-red lip, big curly hair, and a cobalt sequin minidress. I almost teared up as she walked away. I wished I could bottle that joy, that confidence and down it like an antidote to all the weeks of stretchy pants and spit-up stains.
I missed it. Not makeup or dresses or a taught under-eye area, bright with sleep. I missed the feeling of it: of being dressed up, on my way somewhere fabulous with friends. The fluttery anticipation. The hot flush from cocktails and unadulterated laughter. The hint of perfume and warmth inhaled from a goodbye hug.
That, to me, is beauty: feeling like yourself, comfortable in your own skin. It creates a confidence, an ease that affects your style of being and the way you experience the world. Have you ever noticed that, when you’re feeling great about yourself, a lick of ice cream tastes sweeter? An embrace from a friend feels warmer?
I didn’t always understand it that way. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles where the beauty industrial complex has a stronghold over too many young girls. I thought of beauty as something elusive, ephemeral.
I wondered at the girls I went to school with. They were winning a race I never trained for. How did they all know to show up after sophomore winter break with spray tans? When did they all start straightening their hair?
It didn’t help that YouTube was not a thing yet. And that my parents offered little in the way of guidance. If this provides any indication: my mother, a self-described ex-hippy, told me not to worry about shaving my legs until I turned 20.
But I did worry. I got whiplash trying to keep up with the rules. I bought low-rise jeans (because: early 2000s). I blow-dried and flat-ironed my thick, curly hair into submission. I lived in fear of a little surprise rain, getting too sweaty in yoga, anything that would expose my untamable, frizz-prone hair for what it was.
By the time I reached my twenties, I learned to wear my beauty like a costume, to say something with my choices. My signature look said “desirable, twenty-something woman who has her s%&! together.” The formula involved a flick of eyeliner, a pair of jeans that actually made my butt look like a peach emoji, and yes—straight hair.
The formula worked. It helped me fit in, or at least hide the parts of myself I did not want exposed. (Like the reality that I very much did not have my s%&! together.) But I never considered myself in that equation. I never explored the clothing, makeup, or rituals that brought me joy.
Then: motherhood. If the nipple story tells you anything, it’s that motherhood is not about fitting in. It can’t be. With fewer than three non-consecutive hours of sleep per night and maybe 30 waking minutes to myself each day, I barely had time to wash my hair let alone blow it out.
I gave up on beauty. Instead, I searched for some semblance of normalcy. I focused on what I needed most in this season of my life, what would help me feel more like myself. And what I actually had time for.
I took better care of my skin. I tossed the concealer I’d layered on like a mask every day for years. Instead of just looking dewy and hydrated, I figured, why not find products that actually do hydrate and refresh my skin? Vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, AHA, and SPF became a regular part of my skincare lexicon.
I found a dance cardio workout that helped me forget about my softer postpartum body and just enjoy moving. I felt self-conscious at first, following the combination of 80’s aerobics and pop video moves alone in my living room, while the baby napped. But then: endorphins.
I put away my straightener and got one of those curly, layered bobs. I invested in a line of products that work with my hair as it is—which, it turns out, is not so untamable and frizz-prone when I just let it be itself, without constant heat exposure.
I settled into a new routine, started work again, and found a reliable babysitter. I even got out for an occasional brunch or drink with a friend.
On one of those occasions, my husband took the baby a full hour before I had to leave the apartment. A rare occurrence. I used the time to get into a hot bath with a cup of tea. For a precious few minutes, I relaxed my tired muscles. I watched the steam bloom off the surface of the bath, enjoying the gentle warmth of it in my lungs.
I left the house with my hair in a bun, still wet where the bath water met the nape of my neck. In my previous life, my messy hair, my lack of makeup would’ve made me self conscious. Instead, I only noticed the pleasant tingle of my freshly exfoliated skin. The buttery-soft texture of my sweater. The way I walked a little taller in my suede, over-the-knee boots.
Something had shifted. In the quest to acclimate to this new body, this new life, I learned how to take care of myself. I knew my body better, its calls for movement and rest, its hunger cues. I learned to dress and do my hair in a way that brought me joy, that felt more like an extension of myself than a costume. Honoring those things made me feel whole, more like myself than I ever had.
I moved through the world differently, when I gave myself the care and attention I craved. I enjoyed my family and friends more thoroughly, laughed with greater abandon, listened more deeply.
I’d thought my beauty depended on my ability to follow an arbitrary set of rules, centered on my appearance. It felt good to fit in, and to get noticed for it. (Why do the compliments suddenly pour in when a curly-haired girl gets a blowout?) But that feeling came and went like a trend that fizzles out in one season. I was forever chasing it down.
The chaos of new motherhood forced me out of that race, when it made those rules unachievable. It forced me to stand still, to find a more sustainable definition of beauty that had less to do with other people and everything to do with my own needs.
My beauty formula looks different now. I take care of myself. Sometimes that means putting on a red lip and serving strong Audry-Hepburn vibes via my favorite LBD. Other times, it means taking a long bath and getting in bed before 10 o’clock.
I realize the specifics of this formula will change, perhaps many times over, as my life does. Have you ever seen an older woman who has that confident glow, who’s leaning into the wisdom and beauty of her age? (If you haven’t, you MUST check out Advanced Style on Instagram.)
That’s my new beauty aspiration: to continue to listen to myself through each season of life, to take care of my needs, to know myself. When I do those things, it allows me to step into the world as the best version of myself. And when I do that, I feel beautiful.
Renae Hilary Getlin lives in Los Angeles where she writes, works, cooks, and creates space for her little family to thrive. She writes about food, identity, motherhood, career, and all the ways they intersect. See more of her writing on renaehilary.com or find her on Instagram @renaehilary.