Fashion & Beauty

Baby Steps

January 8, 2023



By Valerie Monroe

For nearly 16 years Valerie Monroe was the beauty director at O, The Oprah Magazine, where she wrote the popular “Ask Val” column.

If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at

Can’t get enough Valerie Monroe? There’s more at

I AM, AS USUAL, watching my 3-year-old granddaughter’s shenanigans from my spot on her living room floor, gazing out from the iPad. (I’m in the US and M lives in Japan with her parents, my son and daughter-in-law.)

“Let’s play princess and the prince who comes to save her from the bad guys,” she tells her father. She is wearing a black turtleneck, a sprawling rainbow tutu over black leggings, and a cockeyed, bejeweled plastic crown.

Reader, can you hear the sad “plink” of my heart hitting the bottom of the empty feminist wishing well?

But then: “Daddy, you be the princess,” M instructs her father. “I’m the prince who protects you.” As my brawny, 6-foot-tall son cries, “Help me! Help me!” in his best princess voice, M bravely brandishes a long cardboard tube, slicing away at the imaginary enemy. The princess is saved, as is a shred of my hopefulness about the future of little girls.

Baby steps, I think. The princess still needs saving, but at least M identifies with the prince.

I was thinking about baby steps after a friendly exchange with beauty culture journalist Jessica DeFino. She writes the incisive newsletter The Unpublishable, in which she recently took issue with the late Nora Ephron’s essay, “On Maintenance.” (Ephron wrote it for O, The Oprah Magazine, during my tenure there.)

It’s an essay I’m particularly fond of and I tried to explain why. The basic thrust: For aging women, it takes increasing and increasingly consistent grooming to be able to pass as a thriving member of society. Jessica objected to the many ways she found Ephron reinforcing damaging beauty standards, especially as they relate to class. I saw Jessica’s point—it was an excellent point—but continued to defend my affection for the essay, a sweet-tempered, antic collie to me but a snarling Doberman to her. Finally, Jessica wrote: . . . [It’s] just that I’m DYING for content that says “I’m fucking with my face and I know it doesn’t work to solve the underlying issues I’m dealing with and it’s also effectively turned me into an agent of the state, promoting the same standards that keep us all down, but what can I do? If I don’t fuck with my face, the quality of my life suffers for it, and it’s all too much to bear so I guess I’ll stick a needle between my eyes every four months until I die.” Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

I laughed ruefully when I read that. Then I thought, Wait a minute, Jess. That’s me.

And maybe you, too? You don’t have to be sticking a needle between your eyes every four months to be acquiescing to the demands of an oppressive beauty culture. You may be dyeing your hair; straightening or whitening your teeth; having your eyebrows shaped or your lashes extended. You may be doing sit-ups or walking three miles a day to keep your weight down. We’re all (many of us anyway) subjects of the beauty Matrix and plenty aware of the ways—overt and covert—it oppresses us. And worse, the ways it oppresses those who aren’t capable for one reason or another of “passing.” Jessica’s point, with which I agree, is that there are many more women who are completely unaware of how they’re manipulated by the culture, their mental or physical health consequently suffering. (You can read a conversation I had with Jessica a few months ago here.)

Those of us who’ve chosen the red pill? We’re learning to live with ambivalence. Sit on our hands as we watch our face steadily accrue signs of a life well-lived (or just lived)? Why? Or rather, why not? Tinker with a neurotoxin or filler here and there? Why not? Or rather, why? Bite the bullet and bear the blade because you’ve had it up to here? Each choice casts a shadow that might make us feel stuck in an either/or paradigm that says participation is defeat.

But most of our choices aren’t either/or. I believe we can keep evolving even as we play the game. Both submitting to neurotoxin injections twice a year and railing against the culture that pressures us to feel like we need them; spending on little luxuries that give us pleasure and refusing to subsidize companies selling products that don’t work or that poison the environment; investing in our appearance and helping younger women understand what we may have learned late: that appearance is not a good stock in which to throw all your funds; it has a predictable payout and you will lose most of what you put into it one day.

Fully aware of the traps and the limits—ambivalence or resistance duly noted—we do what we can to change the rules and make the play that suits us best, for now. Like M, we too can be the prince, in our favorite rainbow tutu and cockeyed crown, vanquishing the bad guys one baby step at a time.

One thought on “Baby Steps

  1. Stephanie S Cavanaugh says:

    oh rabbit holes….I so love Nora Ephron. She reminds me of how ridiculous it was growing up in Manhattan and what I considered the absolute norms of existence, recognizing a Gucci bit from a block away, and sniffing at copies (even though I didn’t have the shoes myself), wearing sun glasses at all hours, indoors and out (though the result is an eye doctor not long ago saying my eyes are those of a 50-year-old when I won’t see 70 again–and crediting the sunglasses), not knowing how to get to Brooklyn, never mind New Jersey. Being told I could be a model if I just dropped 20 pounds (I had a 23-inch-waist around then, hard as that is to imagine now). The wonderful arrogance of her makes me smile. I also feel bad about my neck and black still goes with everything, as long as it’s black.

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