The Year of the Highlight isn't over.
Four short years ago, I was a lost, straw-haired 18-year-old, coming down off coke and giving up an eating disorder in the rooms of AA.
They say you're supposed to pick a sponsor who "has what you want." Naturally, my inborn vanity drove me to pick a woman who was the physical polar opposite of my fried, yellow, scarecrow hair, 10-foot radius of cigarette stench (an essential in early sobriety), and face full of "activity," thanks to years of substance abuse and bulimia.
My first sponsor, Meg, was an esthetician of ethereal beauty who floated around on a cloud of AA serenity and sexy perfume that came in a fancy bottle with filigree decorations. She was covered in beautiful tattoos and wore red lipstick. I was a recovering addict-alcoholic-bulimic-Hollister girl who’d never even been inside of a MAC store.
Though nondenominational spirituality is basically the foundation of AA, my motives for sponsor selection had nothing to do with spiritually--only hotness. Fortunately for my liver--and my esophagus too, I suppose--I was willing to take basically any suggestion she gave me because I was convinced that if I did, I might someday achieve her level of tattooed fairy-princess gorgeousness.
I guess getting sober and giving up my daily ralphing sessions was cool, but more importantly (at least for xoVain purposes), Meg taught me game-changing beauty lessons that only a former heroin-addict-turned-makeup-and-skincare-guru could.
She believed in good skin and brows the way some people believe in running barefoot. She was way into it, and for good reason. She’d worked at MAC, Lancôme, and various other sleek beauty counters, so not only was she a skincare expert, but she was also an incredible artist.
Throughout our years working together, she challenged my long-held beauty beliefs about brows, foundation, and good skin. I came to Meg one day early in my sobriety with cystic, white head-y, horrific acne--probably some toxic skin purge of five years’ worth of coke and PBR bacteria--nearly in tears. She kindly proceeded to tell me the rules I now live by.
(Unfortunately, I don’t have any gnarly before photos that show truly awful my skin was, because the only photos from this phase of my life that have lived to see the light of day were Photoshopped into oblivion ages ago.)
SOY IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
When Meg asked me if I’d been eating a lot of soy, I realized my years of noncommittal vegetarianism/sometimes-veganism had brought soy into my diet by way of soy milk, soy creamer, and various types of meat alternative. She advised that I replace as many of these items as I could with soy-free products.
Soy contains phytoestrogens, which makes eating a lot of it is kind of like being on your period forever. It can foster hormonal acne--the kind that typically sprouts its nice little growth forests around your chin and mouth.
Replacing soy in the kitchen was pretty easy. My coffee addiction was, and still is, the biggest complication in trying to adhere to this rule. It’s hard to find a shop that makes lattes with anything other than cow-mommy juice and soy milk. Luckily, I live in Portland, where the indie shops usually stock hazelnut milk, oat milk, rice milk, the milk of free-range virgins, etc. but there’s also Dutch Brothers, where you can get any standard drink made with coconut milk.
Sorry, East Coasters, Dutchie’s only locations are sprinkled randomly throughout the Western states. Your best bet is probably to be that obnoxious person who keeps special coffee creamer in the fridge at work. I know a lot of people just drink regular milk, but I’m not even going to begin to address the effects of dairy on skin in this post.
BLUE LIGHT THERAPY IS EVERYTHING
The ANSR:BEAM is the most bizarre and magical beauty gadget I’ve ever used. Meg has the skin of a newborn unicorn, so she nonchalantly handed down the one she’d gotten on gratis from the makeup boutique she managed like it was an old, holey sports bra from Marshalls.
The contraption itself is a small white disc that emits UV light in five-minute increments. The blue light kills bacteria while the red light increases cell turnover. It’s horrifically expensive, which is why, four years later, I’ve yet to repurchase even though I now have to press the button over and over while mine emits light in five-second spurts.
This is one of those gifts that you ask your entire extended family to pitch in on for a birthday or Christmas. The reviews on Amazon speak for themselves. There are also online reviews claiming that similar products by TANDA, Verilux, Bright Therapy and Sirius elicit the same results. I’ll be asking for one of them this b-day (August 25, ‘cause you asked). They’re still expensive, but about a quarter to a half of the ANSR:BEAM’s price. I will write a review if and when I get my new blue light machine, and this time I’ll take before photos!
CHANGE YOUR PILLOWCASE
I recently saw this mentioned in the comments section, and I got really excited that other Vain ladies have begun doing this as well.
You smother face grease, slobber, and whatever other oils from your hair all over your pillowcase while you sleep. Do you want to re-smother all that crap back onto your face the next night? No.
I try to use one side each night, and change the case every other night. I only own about three pillowcases, so I usually just steal my boyfriend’s cotton T-shirts and pull them over my pillow.
While you’re at it, change the towel that you use to dry your face, too. Designate a face towel and a hand towel, and tell your boyfriend you’ll smother him with it while he sleeps if he ever dries his disgusting boy hands on your precious face towel.
EXFOLIATE WITH CHEMICALS, NOT GRIT
This one is tough. I love scrubbing away at my “impurities” (are impurities even a real thing?) so much that I once rubbed my nose with a loofah until it was super raw, like the way I imagined the skin of the Voldemort fetus-thing in the train station when Harry kind-of dies in HP and The Deathly Hallows, and I had to skip school.
Meg convinced me that chemical exfoliators are more effective because they typically don’t have the same potential to give you a tender Rudolph nose, and most are formulated to work both on and below the skin, unlike scrubs, which only work at the skin’s surface.
I use AHA+ from Acne.org, which is super-gentle but also makes me really glowy when I use it consistently. This brand in general is pretty incredible when it comes to acne, despite having the lamest name in the entire skincare game.
This is kind of a duh rule, but I’m still disgusted by how gnarly the rag gets when I wipe all the popcorn crumbs and grease off my work keyboard. I eat popcorn at work all the time. Anyway, Meg instructed me to do this as often as possible, if not daily.
Lysol wipes, makeup remover wipes, Simple Green and a rag--whatever’s handy. Wipe down your laptop and/or desktop keyboard, mice, all sides of your phone, light switches, doorknobs, and any other surfaces that you might be unconsciously touching a lot before transferring loads of coffee-table, purse-bottom bacteria to your face.
These were the skincare tips from Meg the esthetician. Below, our saga continues with beauty tips from Meg the makeup artist.
INVEST IN A GOOD BLENDING BRUSH (OR TWO)
Before I’d ever seen Meg do makeup, I used the same stubby dome-shaped brush and my fingers for all my eyeshadow needs. Meg’s super-fancy vanity was covered in cups full of brushes of all shapes and sizes. She even had duplicates(!!!) of some varieties.
My favorite was her MAC 217, which is THE blending brush. I use it to fill in my crease, or just to blend everything together.
Another duh-seeming trick that Meg taught me is to keep one of your blending brushes product-free, and use it to smooth everything together once you’ve finished applying shadow.
For these photos, I used two shades from the Urban Decay Naked Basics Palette W.O.S., a matte peachy nude, all over my lids, and Naked2, a matte taupe, in the crease, with a Soho crease brush before blending it all together with my MAC 217 brush (see above).
LESS IS MORE WITH EYELINER AND MASCARA
Meg was all about super-thin eyeliner and “separating” mascara, and I’d been in a sick abusive relationship with overly thick eyeliner and clumped-together mascara since my early tweens. I used to line my entire upper lid with thick black Makeup For Ever Aqua Eyes, and then do what I thought was a “light line” of the same on two-thirds of my lower lid, BELOW the lash line.
One night, a few of Meg’s other sponsees and I came to her apartment to get ready for a “soga” (sober+toga) party (I know). She did our makeup, and I had never felt so sparkly and glam, in an 18-year-old Cleopatra in modern-day Portland way. Instead of using eyeliner to line my lower lids, she lined them with a flat brush dipped in a dusty rose-colored shadow and changed my life forever. You could actually see my eyes, AND I looked hot! It was a combination I’d never thought possible before. This is how I line my eyes every day now.
Notice how, in the before photos above, my eye color doesn’t even register? All you see are little spiky black almond shapes floating below my eyebrows. In the photo below, my eyes appear super-bright green because they aren’t being drowned by product.
For these photos, I lined my upper lid with a super-thin line of Prestige Soft Blend Kohl Eyeliner in Jet Black, and the lower lid with a flat brush dipped in Faint, a matte beige-y nude, from the Urban Decay Naked Basics palette. I also curled my lashes and used Maybelline Lash Stiletto Voluptuous Waterproof in Very Black.
WEAR SOME DAMN BRIGHT LIPSTICK
Wearing bright lipstick is one of those things that, once you start doing it, you can’t believe you lived your life without it for so long. Kind of like alcohol and cocaine.
Anyway, Meg wore all kinds of lipstick all the time: red, red-orange, pink, hot pink, purple… She could rock it all, probably just because she had great skin and kept everything else minimal. I’d drifted through life with flesh-toned, undefined lips (again, see before photos) never realizing what I was missing. I thought that if I wore lipstick, my lips would look thinner.
Well, they don’t. From my own experience, lipstick brightens my face, makes my eyes pop, and makes me look like I actually tried on days when I wake up 30 minutes before I have to be at work.
In these photos, I’m wearing NARS Funny Face, which is one of my all-time favorite brights. It goes on satiny but if you prefer matte, a few blots with a tissue will take away any shine and make it a little more long-lasting.
For me, the scariest part was knowing where to start, but it’s really all trial and error: go to Sephora; grab a tissue and spray it with alcohol, wipe down a pretty shade, put it on your lips, repeat. When you find one you like, set it with powder and wear it for the rest of the day. If you’re sad when it starts rubbing off after lunch, go buy it. REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT. Repeat until you have a flourishing lipstick library that you wear in rotation with pride.
BONUS HAIR TIP: YOU'RE ALLOWED TO AIR-DRY
Whenever I’ve gone to the local chain barbershop where 80% of the hot tattooed rockabilly chicks in Portland work, I somehow always end up telling the stylist that I air-dry at night and style in the morning, then she looks at me like I just told her that I’ve been putting mineral foundation in my morning smoothie to clear up my skin.
I’m the kind of person who eats ice cream with a fork when all the spoons are dirty. I’m lazy. My attempts at a blowout typically end with my arms giving out, or when I’ve become so sweaty that my roots are wet again by the time it’s done.
On one of the many occasions when I visited Meg at her shop, she asked me how I styled my hair, and I proceeded to tell a lie involving a blowdryer and a round brush. Alas, as my sponsor, she had a knack for seeing through my lies, and explained why Mada Beauty Hair Styling Balm was a perfect product for air-drying.
I tried it, and she was right: it was good enough that I could wash in the morning, squish some product into my hair, and move right along, the way a lady’s morning should be.
Since then I’ve branched out to other post-shower products, but right now I’m really hooked on Josie Maran Argan Hair Oil Serum. It makes my hair super-shiny and sleek. Obviously, it’s not perfect the way it would be if I were to spend hours blowing it out, but it’s smooth and pretty and not sloppy-looking, and now I don’t have to go to bed on a pillow that feels like a cold wet towel.
I’ve fully adopted all of these tips because they work for me. They might not all work for you. There’s a saying in the rooms of AA—“Take what you like and leave the rest.” Let’s do the same here, shall we?
Does anybody know where you can get coconut milk lattes on the East coast? Do you want to know more about Acne.org products? Do you think I’m dumb for telling you to blend cause you totally got it down already? Do you have a beauty mentor? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter!