Randi Bergman looks back at how our first experiences with beauty shape our identities for life.
A few weeks ago, I was hanging out in my childhood bedroom with my niece—a-just bat mitzvahed preteen on the precipice of having a downright obsession with beauty. Time-frozen because of my parents’ belief in the age-old promise of “I’ll throw it out next time,” the room holds many treasures, including overdramatic diary entries, magazine cut-out collages and a time capsule I made in 1998, when I was the same age as my niece is now. As we were rummaging through the vestiges of my youth, we came across a cardboard box I’d covered with sequins and a printout of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portrait. Inside were the lyrics to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” inexplicably written out, alongside a museum-worthy haul of Y2K-era makeup that included everything from first-generation Beautyblenders to a shimmery-blue Urban Decay eyeshadow to pastel Stila palettes in their original illustration-covered packaging. Some products I barely recalled using, but others hit with an instant zing of nostalgia for a time when nothing other than mastering the perfect smoky eye mattered. My niece was enthralled and would have gladly plastered every single glitter stick onto her face had I not explained the concept of product expiry.
Nostalgia, that ephemeral yet universal longing for the past, really gets you in your kishkes (Yiddish for “insides”). It’s magical, mental time travel that has the power to transport you back to a time that felt simpler, warmer and completely carefree. It’s a rose-coloured view that obliterates the past of details that might remind you that things were not, in fact, perfect—but that’s beside the point. It’s a warm hug that leaves you feeling elated and wistful at the same time. Core memories are permanent, and while none of us realized that hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would forever take us back to the powdery scent of Teen Spirit deodorant filling the locker room before gym class, the two are now inextricably linked.
After I turned my aforementioned time capsule into a viral Instagram account, a podcast, a website and a clothing collection called Capsule 98, nostalgia kind of became my own personal brand. What I can tell you from spending countless hours mining the ’90s and 2000s for content is that nothing will ever compare to the feelings associated with our firsts. When it comes to beauty, this is even more poignant, because, for better or worse, those firsts were what helped shape our lifelong perceptions of self.
The first time my older sister offered to paint my face using her well-worn ’80s sea-green Bourjois eyeshadow and pink blush taught me that my face could be a canvas for self-expression. (The first time I used her bottle of Oxy10 to “oxycute” my first pimple taught me that maybe I should be a little more protective of my skin, but that’s a tale for another time.) That sense of self-expression has been at the core of my beauty routine ever since, and while today it’s less green eyeshadow and more no-makeup look paired with over-the-top fashion, it’s the same sense of idiosyncrasy but in a different, more adult form.
Nostalgia is something that one can experience only after accumulating a few battle scars. The youths are still experiencing moments that will become the core memories they’ll later travel back to—and while that might be walking by someone with lip fillers in the year 2040 and remembering the time they tried to emulate Kylie Jenner’s pout for prom photos, for our generation, it means voraciously reclaiming Barbie pink as an eternal symbol of feminism.
As we move through the highs and lows of modern life, nostalgia is armour that protects us from becoming completely cynical. Because, even with all the turmoil and change happening in the world, when I close my eyes, all I see is 12-year-old me with butterfly clips in my hair, cotton-candy-flavoured Lip Smackers on my lips and a smile full of braces. And for a moment, everything is just right.