Michelle Tea Isn't a Beauty Writer, But I Love the Way She Writes About Beauty

She understands the transformative power of glamour, and her books reveal new spaces for glamour to burn.
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She understands the transformative power of glamour, and her books reveal new spaces for glamour to burn.

In Michelle Tea’s books, life is painful and beautiful. Tea and her characters stand outside the conventional narrative of what women should be. In her memoirs and novels, she’s written about poverty, sex work, and San Francisco’s sex-radical queer grrls. Her work draws heavily from her life, to the point that it can be a little hard to remember what parts are fact and which parts are fiction.

So when you’ve lived a life on the edge, how do you grow up? In Tea’s case, it involves running, fashion magazines, and a surprising devotion to skincare.

In 2015, Plume published Tea’s fourth memoir, How to Grow Up, a conversational collection of stories about her meandering path to adulthood. How to Grow Up is fiercely personal; the book’s structure might not make sense to anyone besides Tea herself. But her writing is vivid, and her insights are powerful.

At the start of How to Grow Up, Tea is 38 and single after the end of a long, rough relationship. She’s also sober. 

Vanity is underestimated as a motivator for getting sober,” she writes. “My first encounter with a pack of sober alcoholics left me flabbergasted. Their skin was so good … I wanted what they had—nice skin, a face that glowed and smiled.”

She continues, “Caring for my body had a very practical purpose: to coax it back to where it would have been if I hadn’t spent the last two decades tearing it down. But it was also a metaphor, a ritual, a physical affirmation of self-love. I’m worth caring for, and I’m capable of doing it. It’s a reminder that beauty matters, that beauty and I are not separate, and I do not need to banish the concept from my heart.”

I love Michelle Tea’s books for many reasons: she’s an excellent writer, and her work is exciting, even when it’s flawed. But my favourite thing is how she embraces the idea of beauty. She understands the transformative power of glamour, and her books reveal new spaces for glamour to burn. 

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In the novel Rose of No Man’s Land, teenaged Trisha is stuck in a go-nowhere family that expects nothing from her. A chance encounter with a weird girl named Rose bursts Trisha’s life open. Trisha is compelled by Rose, and follows her down the rabbit hole into a world of sex, drugs, and terrifying possibilities.

In this world, beauty is a life-affirming force. No one is immune, not even butch working-class girls who have no interest in makeup or clothes. They simply find other beauties to enthral them.

Rose of No Man’s Land is a novel about youth, and how beauty can pull you down a path that changes your life. How to Grow Up is a gentler book about subtler things, a meditation on aging, self-love and sobriety. But getting older hasn’t dulled Tea’s response to beauty. 

“Since getting sober, I’d found the most interesting things could get my body, desperate for intoxication, a bit high: spectator pumps, Mark Rothko paintings, the color orange …”

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If you’re a regular xoJane reader, you probably know about Michelle Tea’s quest to get pregnant. Her son was born in 2014. After finishing How to Grow Up, I wanted to check in with Tea and see how motherhood had affected her relationship to beauty.

When we talked, Tea was charming and sleep-deprived. 

“The baby kept us up all all night laughing and babbling. It’s really cute, but it’s also really horrible.”

I asked her how motherhood had changed the beauty practices she describes in How to Grow Up. 

“It’s a weird moment,” she admits. “A lot of my clothes don’t fit me, and I’m in this weird limbo of, do I buy new clothes? I don’t want to buy new clothes if they’re not going to fit me. Do I just wait for my old clothes to fit me? Meanwhile, I’m shopping at Target, which is kind of horrifying. And yet, they do have some cute stuff. But do I want to be a person who’s wardrobe is built only of things from Target?”

Like most new parents, Tea is short on time and money, as well as sleep. 

“When I was single, if I had extra money, I felt really great about spending it on fashion or beauty products, because what else is money for, you know, besides beauty products and books? But now, with the baby, not only are there additional expenses, but I also want to splurge on things for him. I want to buy cute baby clothes for him, and it’s a lot more of my focus on making him look cute.”

But as usual, Tea is able to find a glittering moments of joy inside the grind. 

“I understand that this can be kind of a trap. Mothers can put all of their energy into their kids and forget about taking care of themselves. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a joyful thing.”

  • Have you read any of Michelle Tea’s books? 
  • Has vanity ever motivated you to change your life?