Me, My Mom, and 'Color Me Beautiful'

With this '80s book's guidance, my mother taught me what colors work for me — and when that doesn't matter.
Publish date:
May 6, 2016
books, moms, mother's day

My mother has always had very strong feelings about color. To this day, I can't put on a gray sweater without hearing her voice: "Don't wear gray. Gray makes you look dead!"

I own a lot of gray sweaters. Sorry mom. It's not the best color on me, but I love gray.

When it came to fashion, my mom was pretty laid back. She didn't blink when my high school style changed from hippie to Ginger Spice to a look I called "sporty witch." But color was always a sticking point. At a young age, I knew the difference between orange-red and blue-red — and that I should only wear orange-red.

I blame a book called Color Me Beautiful.

Color Me Beautiful was a 1980s pop-culture phenomenon. Based on your hair, eye and skin color, the book assigned you a "season" and a palette of your best colors.

Color Me Beautiful didn't invent the idea of color analysis, but it was by far the most popular system. The first book was a huge best-seller that spawned a handful of sequels, a makeup line, and a line of color-swatch books. If the book was too confusing, a licensed Color Me Beautiful practitioners could come to your house and analyze your colors in person. When my mother-in-law had her colors done, she discarded all her work clothes and replaced them with her season's colors.

The whole thing was a big deal for women of my mother's generation (well, the white women — the original version barely acknowledged women of color).

Using the book, my mom decided we were both autumns, and clothed me in earth tones: chocolate brown and olive green. As a kid, I usually wanted to dress like a harvest fairy or some sort of viking, so I was fine with this. But we battled continually over black (unflattering), salmon pink (flattering but loathsome), and gray (made me look dead, as we've established).

My mom taught me to pay attention to undertones. But she also taught me to be independent and think for myself. I have an uneasy relationship with rules. I'm not a giant rebel, but I hate being told what to do. When it comes to beauty and personal style, rules are especially troublesome. So many beauty rules are at their heart racist, sexist, classist or fat-phobic.

"Flattering" can be a trap. I like to look pretty, but sticking too closely to flattering is just another way to limit yourself, to deny yourself a fuller range of experience. If we all stuck to flattering, there would be no avant garde, no editorial looks, no goths. If a color speaks to my soul, I'm not going to avoid wearing it. Sometimes, I just want to wear my favorite gray sweater.

But I can't deny that Color Me Beautiful has given me some good advice, especially when it comes to hair and makeup. I loved 2015's pastel hair trend. I envied everyone who dyed their hair pale pink or silvery blue. When Feria came out with their Smokey Pastels line, I stared at those boxes for a long time in the drugstore.

But I knew the truth. There are some trends that just aren't going to work for me, no matter how much I love them.

These days, my mom's hair has changed from brown to bright silver. She dresses in different colors now: melon and coral instead of tomato red. Having a system has helped her navigate the changes in her life with grace and control. We clashed a lot over colors, but I'm glad she taught me what she knew — and how to defy it, when I wanted to.