Zadie Smith’s 15-minute mirror rule for her daughter highlights unfairness


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Author of On Beauty Zadie Smith has revealed that she limits her seven-year-old daughter Kit’s “mirror time” to just 15 minutes.

As The Times reported, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the weekend Smith, who is, it must be noted, a very beautiful woman (more on that later) said of her house rule:

“I explained it to her in these terms: you are wasting time, your brother is not going to waste any time doing this. Every day of his life he will put a shirt on, he’s out the door and he doesn’t give a shit if you waste an hour and a half doing your make-up.”

[A pause for people to wonder why a seven-year-old would be applying make-up, again, more on that later].

She continued, “From what I can understand from this contouring business, that’s like an hour and a half and that is too long.”

“It was better than giving her a big lecture on female beauty, she understood it as a practical term and she sees me and how I get dressed and how long it takes.”

The thing about beauty though, it is both a privilege to care about it and conversely, to not care about it.

On one hand, you have the slovenly Seth Rogens of the world able to bag the most beautiful women at the flicks and the fact that while leading men age, their female love interests do not. What a joy to not have to care about, or have your position in the world queried, with your dadbod or having a woman playing your mother that is actually younger than you!

Then there is the fact, shown in so many studies, that attractive people generally have a better time of it and snaffle all the perks.

Pretending that beauty doesn’t matter, or as Naomi Woolf put it in The Beauty Myth, that our attitudes and behaviour around beauty doesn’t matter, is a little redundant. 

I love Zadie Smith, but her beauty is undeniable. To be blithe about the problem with the world’s fixation on beauty (and it is a fixation) or to not acknowledge that women are penalised by a make-up tax (i.e. the godawful amount of time women spend applying make-up because the world isn’t really ready for make-up free faces that don’t look like Smith’s) ignores the privilege of beauty.

As Moya Sarner notes in The Guardian, a 2016 study found that the average British woman spends 38 minutes putting on her slap in the morning. Over a lifetime of wearing make-up this equates to two whole years spent curling one’s eyelashes and trying to figure out contouring.

But as The Atlantic pointed out in 2015, despite the world/men saying they prefer women to look “natural” (a fact that Amy Schumer perfectly parodied in her skit Girl You Don’t Need Make-up showing what men really think when they realise looking natural actually takes a lot of work) studies show that women are seen to be more attractive and, worse, competent, when they’re wearing make-up.

Then think of an exchange that Smith wrote in On Beauty:

“This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies – it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”

We are at the tyranny of the billion dollar beauty industry, one that sells us solutions to problems we didn’t know we had and promises self-esteem in a bottle (and note, there are “sharp increases” in the use of cosmetics among tween girls). We are at the mercy of our own self-disgust when we look in the mirror – whether it is for 15 minutes or 55 minutes.

So how to be free of it?

It’s not easy. As Lena Dunham wrote in her Lenny newsletter this week, even her profound – and famously so – sense of self was impacted by the onset of rosacea and acne in her 30s. Until then, she had enjoyed that privileged and rare position of not really caring about beauty.

In the article, titled My Perfect F—ing Skin, Dunham admits that, finally, she caved. To the insidiousness of the pressures of the beauty industry and Hollywood and being tagged in photos on Instagram and comparing her looks to that of others. 

“I had to conclude it was none of these: I had finally found my vanity. Seven years of being treated in the public eye like a punch line about female imperfection may not have felt like it was wearing me down, but it had actually forced me to rely emotionally on my one area of fully conventional beauty: my perfect f…king skin,” she writes.

“They could tag me in a picture of a beached whale. They could call me a bag of cottage cheese. But they couldn’t take away the fact that I was able to eat seven slices of pizza, a wine spritzer, and three quarters of a chocolate cake and still look like my face was kissed by sweet, sweet angels when I woke up. I wasn’t just mourning my easy skin-care routine or my “No filter? No problem” lifestyle. I was mourning a life raft that had kept me, silly as it was, bobbing above the fray.”

For most of us are bobbing somewhere between feeling fine about putting on lipstick, and feeling resentful about it. Liking our looks and hating them. Comparing ourselves to others.

We can try and limit mirror time or revel in the political act of “letting ourselves go”, but it’s probably a temporary solution to a problem that will always exist – beauty, or the lack of it or the want for it.

All we can really do is to try and make our way, and to be honest about the enthral of beauty, that at times will ensnare us. And learning to not  judge others or impose standards of beauty on others – whether they’re make-up free or fully dolled up, dashed out the door in five minutes or spent an hour getting ready, is one way of eking out some freedom. 

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