That summer in junior high was unforgettable. In a burst of inspiration, my twin sister and I came up with a system to more meaningfully measure how cute we looked on any given day: Cool Girl, or CG for short. We could certainly never be actual “cool girls,” but we could ape them. With a massive expenditure of effort and beauty goop, we could sometimes achieve a reasonable resemblance to the human swans we so admired.

On a good morning, after I got done with my outfit, hair, and makeup, I’d ask my sister, “Do I look CG?” She’d reply with a rating, usually, a six, seven, or eight, depending on how close I’d gotten to the frizzless, sophisticated, glossy-lipped beauty standard. Neither of us bothered to ask the question on bad mornings; there was no point to rubbing in the unpretty truth. On rare occasions, one of us would hit a nine⁠—never, ever did we assign a ten. That would have meant we looked perfect, and we both believed we never could.

What is most striking about my summer memories is that I wasn’t interested in boys yet. I was a late bloomer who scoffed at people with sex drives well into my college years. I didn’t strive to look like the CGs because they had boyfriends; I couldn’t care less about that. So why so much effort? It was a desire to fit in, to belong, to be liked. Beauty was a key to popularity, not with guys, but with the girl peers whose friendship and acceptance I longed for.

Conventional wisdom assumes that women spend hours every month applying makeup and practicing hairstyles in order to please the infamously demanding “male gaze.” And, no doubt, there’s a biological reality to back that up. Some researchers have gone so far as to try to prove that women wear more makeup when we're ovulating. But sex is not the whole story.

As a grown woman, I am surprised when I look back over my experiences with beauty, both good and bad, and realize it’s women who are still at the center of many of them. Whether that’s my mother, my sister, my friends, my rivals, or even myself.

B is for beauty . . . and bonding

Scholars and feminist theorists refer to the efforts women make to primp and beautify ourselves as “beauty work.” That phrasing reflects that, for many of us, this is work. Hard work. Like having a second job we can’t quit, even when we can clearly sense it’s a dead end. But besides teeth-grinding work, beauty can also be heart-lifting play. And this is never more obvious than when women get together to beautify themselves as a group. They become playmates—teammates, even. And the world of makeup, hair, and style is their playground.

In 1995, feminist philosopher Ann Cahill set up a camera to videotape herself and her four young sisters, Maggie, Mary, Sarah, and Abby, as they got ready for their brother's black-tie wedding. She used the material to write a paper published in 2003 called “Feminist Pleasure and Feminine Beautification.” In the video transcript, Cahill’s sisters are somewhat defensive, although very playful and affectionately tolerant of their researcher-sister’s pointed questions about what they’re doing.

Ann: Men can’t do what we’re about to do.
Mary: Not as well.
Ann: Why?
Maggie: Because all their clothes are the same.
Mary: Their bodies are not as beautiful. They’re not.
Maggie: They’re not as interesting.
Ann: But surely it’s not all biology. I mean, surely the fact that we’re about to get dressed up in glitter and stuff is not just about biology.
Maggie: All right, Ann, it’s social construction, is that what you want to hear?
[Laughter]
Maggie: Okay, it’s a little, but we're reveling in it and taking that and making it our own.

Later, Maggie, who is asked to explain why she is bleaching her leg hair instead of just shaving it, tells her sister, “I don’t know. I'm going to have fun today. Can you say the same?” The sisters burst into laughter again.

Mary, meanwhile, is the family member in charge of hair and makeup. Although she agrees that by beautifying her sisters she is turning them into works of art, she eschews the title “artist” for “facilitator.” She isn’t imposing her beauty vision, after all. Her goal is to create a masterpiece that pleases the woman the face and hair belong to. As she fixes her sister Abby’s hair, Abby lends her support to that theory. The final result of this makeover will be a collaboration between the two of them, she says.

At one point, Sarah tells Cahill, “I don’t do it [beauty practices] for men . . . I don’t do it even for other women.”

This is one line that doesn’t ring quite true. It’s so transparent that the Cahill women, like other women who gather to transform one another into radiant beauties, are doing this at least partly for the sake of each other. It’s an opportunity for physical touch, for sharing their delight in their beauty and the joy of joining in these not-so-little intimacies. After all, the sisters could have done their beauty routines in their own rooms, in solitude, or gotten together to shoot the breeze without adorning themselves. It’s the combination of beauty and supportive girl-only companionship that draws out their love and affection for each other in a way that almost seems primordial.

Inheriting beauty

Besides making me wish I had four sisters, reading Cahill’s work reminded me of a deeply moving poem by Gladys Cardiff called “Combing.” In it, a woman arranges her little girl’s orange curls as the child sits patiently, head bowed, and with a quiet face. The woman remembers back to her childhood when her mother did the same for her in the dark early hours before school. She then recalls how her mother, as a child, brushed her own grandmother Matilda’s hair with a piece of bone⁠—a primitive comb reflecting just how many generations this tradition of hair care has passed through. The last stanza reads in part,

A simple act
Preparing hair. Something
women do for each other,
plaiting the generations.

There’s a reason why beauty techniques are often tagged as beauty “secrets.” Like a secret, they can be shared with a woman who is close enough to receive the special knowledge that marks her as “one of us.” In a very real way, beauty practices can become inherited traditions that connect generations of women together.

Holly Fulger, a writer and veteran Hollywood actress who has a new digital project called True Beauty Discovery in the works, knows this firsthand. “We are all part of one tribe or another, and those ideals are ingrained,” she says. “My mother had this thing about being ‘classy,’ which I know was born out of growing up in the poor areas of Cleveland . . . I will always remember her red lipstick. To her, it was classy and a statement that she was, too. She never left the house without it, and I loved how it would brighten her face. To this day, I love red lipstick. It is part of my look, and I know it was influenced by my mother and her desire to tell the world she was a chic and classy woman.”

This phenomenon has been highlighted in research, too. In spite of the popular belief that the media controls women’s approach to beauty, statistics show that women themselves attribute greater influence to role models and friends they have in real life, not the endless stream of celeb imagery on TV or Instagram. Apologies to Kim Kardashian.

Beauty can be ugly

But even as beauty is a force women can use to bond and connect, to care and be cared for, it can also be used as a weapon. For contending with, controlling, or punishing other women, beauty has almost no equal.

As Fulger puts it bluntly, “Women are taught to compare and compete.”

Consider the Snow White fairy tale. The evil stepmother is a gorgeous queen, but she’s so insecure about her status among other women that she compulsively asks her mirror to verify her position. Most of us check our reflections to scrutinize our own beauty, but “magic mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” is a request for a ranking with every other female in the universe. This beauty contest is about comparisons between women, not about impressing a man.

Snow White grows up to be too pretty, and her stepmother decides to kill her. This seems like a major overreaction, but maybe not so much if you consider how fraught with meaning this competition is. Snow White escapes the first assassination plot, and the wicked queen tries again, deploying beauty tools as murder weapons. In the traditional Brothers Grimm telling, the stepmother disguises herself as a peddler and offers the unsuspecting Snow White some colorful corset laces. She proceeds to tie the corset so tightly that the poor princess can’t breathe and nearly dies. Next, the stepmother appears as a comb seller and brushes Snow White's lovely hair with a poisoned comb. It’s an evil inversion of the imagery in Gladys Cardiff's “Combing.”

The Disney version flattens the plot into a simple twentieth-century cautionary tale about accepting yummy food from strangers, but the original story is just as much a warning about the dangers of unquestioningly embracing beauty culture⁠—especially when urged to do so by another woman.

Sometimes the very intimacy that beauty practices engender among women can be used against them. In her book, You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, author Deborah Tannen recounts a study by sociologist Donna Elder, who recorded the following argument between two sixth grade girls:

Tami: Why were you combing Peggy’s hair yesterday?
Heidi: I didn’t.
Tami: Yes you were!
Heidi: I was not.
Tami: You were feathering it back.
Heidi: I was not.
Tami: You were too.
Heidi: I was not. You can go ask Peggy.
(Peggy walks by)
Peggy, was I combing your hair yesterday?
(Peggy shakes her head no.)
See! What did I tell you?
Tami: Whose hair were you combing?
Heidi: I wasn't combing anybody’s hair.
Tami: Who was combing Peggy’s hair?
Heidi: I don't know. (Pause).

As Tannen comments, “All this talk about who’s combing whose hair sounds almost comically absurd, until you realize that what is at stake is the most precious commodity in these girls’ social lives: the lines of friendship that girls at this age (and perhaps at any age) continually negotiate.” Engaging in beauty practices with another woman is an extraordinary display of intimacy and friendship. If you see a smiling selfie on Instagram of your best friend getting mani-pedis with another girl, you might feel jealous, threatened, or hurt that you weren’t included. Who is this interloper sticking her freshly-polished toes in your friendship?

Personally, I had one of these moments a year ago when I was visiting my mother with my toddler daughter. As we prepared to drive away, my mother suddenly said, “Hold on!” She ran back in the house, reemerged with a comb, and slid into the back of my sedan, next to my daughter’s car seat. It was all I could do to not shout at her to get out of the car. For one thing, I was instantly reminded of my hair experiences with my mother in my own childhood. They were painful for us both, but infinitely more painful for me, since I and my unruly curls were on the tooth end of the comb. But most of all, I did not care for the gall of my mother plopping down to fix my daughter’s locks. I had an immediate sensation of anger at her impudence.

My next sensation was embarrassment; my daughter’s hair isn’t my personal territory, after all. Yes, as the mother of a not-entirely-verbal toddler, I should be asked before her head is touched. But I was offended on my own behalf, and by the implication that my mom had as close a relationship with my little girl as I did. I am her mother, I thought. I am the hair authority in her life.

There is a dark side, too, to the beauty inheritance women receive from each other. Experts say that girls receive much of their beliefs about body image from their mothers. As they watch their moms frown at the mirror or listen to them make cutting remarks about how their own bodies look in swimsuits, young women can internalize attitudes that negatively impact them for the rest of their lives. One study found that the largest percentage of girls have their first tanning bed experience in company with their mother, and those same girls start tanning younger and go more often than those who were introduced to the habit by a friend. Amy Sedaris played her family tradition of tanning competitions for laughs on the Late Night With Seth Myers show, although the melanoma such practices can lead to is not funny. This is to say nothing of more extreme beauty customs passed through families like foot-binding or female genital mutilation.

In my case, beauty traditions were significant in that I didn’t have any. I’ve always felt it was a real problem that I had no one to induct me into the rites of wearing eyeshadow or choosing cute clothes. My mother was missing in action as she struggled with alcoholism and mental illness, and watching other girls go shopping or have spa days with their mom made my heart shake.

As a woman with ultra-fine, curly hair, the lifelong task of finding products and tools that my mane will tolerate approximates the experience of mopping a restaurant floor only to have a patron immediately spill a Diet Coke all over it: frustrating and seemingly futile. Once I bought a serum, advertised as miraculous, called “John Frieda's Frizz Ease.” It eased neither my frizz nor my teen-aged sense of personal ineptitude. Salons and spas and the beautiful people inside intimidated me, and even in my twenties when new neighbors asked if I had a favorite stylist in town, I changed the subject. I didn’t want to admit that I alternated between Great Clips and Best Cuts. For a $12 trim, no one there would judge my terrible hair.

I had a breakthrough when I found a little hair place called “Selah Salon.” I am a sucker for alliteration, but what attracted me most was the slogan on the sign: Hair + Beauty + Grace. That last part, “grace,” was what I seemed to be missing in my beauty experiences. I discovered that the owner, Jessalyn Hollopeter, was a woman who knew where I was coming from. “I’ve been in this industry for about eighteen years total. It can be a very intimidating culture, for consumers AND staff,” she told me. “Even places I have worked in a long time ago, I felt as if I wasn’t as ‘perfect’ as they wanted and I didn’t measure up.

“I love being a part of something that changes the way a person feels. A part of them that was unhappy and aching for something, and changing it to something that makes them feel like a better version of themselves. Helping make that happen . . . is an honor.” That’s grace, indeed.

With my hair under control, I also became determined to teach myself to paint my nails. Piecing together advice from magazines and Google, I finally learned the importance of base coats and topcoats. Looking up from my laptop to observe real life, however, I noticed that when women did each other’s nails, they literally held hands with their mother/friend/manicurist. Peering down at my own fingers under a desk lamp just wasn’t the same and seemed to me to symbolize what I was missing in my relationship with my mom.

I’ve consciously chosen to do things differently with my daughter. I’ve taken her to the dollar store and let her choose the wildest shade of bright red glitter polish; I’ve held her tiny fingers and dabbed dots of paint on her mini nails; and, I let her do the same for me, even though her inexact technique means my hands wind up looking like I’ve been finger painting with sparkly ketchup.

As I was writing this piece, I complained to my sister about how I’d missed out on that kind of loving “beauty touch” with our mother. “That’s why older ladies are so dedicated to their nail appointments,” she retorted. “Their husbands and children are gone, and it’s a chance to actually have human contact.” I was dumbfounded. I tried to think of any women I knew who could possibly fall into that category. Of course: my 68-year-old mother, herself. I called her to make an appointment to give her a manicure, and I look forward to holding her hands and admiring her nails. In more than one way, it will be a moment of beauty.

Beauty itself is a light and lovely term, but in English, we frequently pair it with serious words like ritual, regimen, and culture. Perhaps that lingo is a backhanded way of acknowledging how important and central beauty is in the lives of women. What we don’t often notice, and what I didn’t realize myself, is how important and central the women in our lives are to beauty.

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