White Rain And Poison: What Beauty Looked, Sounded, And Smelled Like In The ’90s
“Sweet Kentucky girls are still the wonder”
In Places and Faces, writers explore the ways in which the aesthetic peculiarities of the places where they grew up defined their sense of beauty as they move throughout the world. Below, Leesa Cross-Smith explores what it was like to grow up in Kentucky in the '80s and '90s.
I was a tween growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the neon, Ronald Reagan, aerosol-hairspray 1980s. My memories smell like White Rain, Exclamation, and Love's Baby Soft perfume; the mall, a shoebox full of Avon lipsticks. They sound like Michael Jackson, Culture Club, Lionel Ritchie, and Poison, too. I was a black girl raised in a mostly white neighborhood, although several of our closest neighbors were black. I was a black girl hanging with mostly white girls, watching Molly Ringwald movies, all of us crowded around the bathroom mirror, trying on bright blue eyeliner and fizzy pop-flavored lip gloss. I hung with girls who tried to get their hair as big as possible and wanted to name their future daughters after the women on Days of Our Lives. Girls who watched Headbangers Ball—a show that played all the music my Southern Baptist church taught me was from the devil—and girls who were super-preppy, side-ponytailed cheerleaders, too.
I was a teenager in Louisville, Kentucky, in the Winona Ryder, Jodeci, Prince, NKOTB, Kurt Cobain, flannel-grunge 1990s. Those memories smell like Camel Lights, CK One, and the same rose water-colored bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo every other girl was using. I hung with girls who, like me, wore overalls and Mary Janes and Guess Jeans. We slung our backpacks over both shoulders instead of carrying purses and pierced our ears once, twice, three times.
I loved smudgy black eyeliner that looked like it'd been slept in and Debbie Harry-level glossy lips (two things I still and will forever love). I liked how my hair looked when I got it chemically relaxed and straightened, and I liked it just as much when I wore it kinky-curly and natural. I was into supermodels like Gail O'Neill and Cindy Crawford, all the rest of the girls in George Michael's “Freedom! '90” video. I loved girly-girls in combat boots and long, floral slip dresses over T-shirts. All of those looks, with the Kentucky touch of being a bit behind the more stereotypically stylish East and West coasts when it came to trends.
I wasn't usually around other black girls who dressed like me or wore their hair like mine, and this was pre-internet, pre-Tumblr, pre-Pinterest, pre-Instagram, so I had to make up a lot of this on my own or get it from magazines and TV. I had Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable, who was so jaw-droppingly beautiful, effortlessly cool, and unique. Also, Tatyana Ali and Karyn Parsons as Ashley and Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I remember cutting out the pictures of Joy Bryant and Veronica Webb that I saw in magazines, hanging them on my closet door, inspired. In real life, I had my mom, who took me to the Clinique counter and taught me everything I know about skin care and makeup, and who still to this day texts me about makeup, and buys me expensive perfume for my birthday.
Both what I considered beautiful and what I wanted to emulate regarding my own beauty included a wide range of women, because I grew up believing so many different types of women were beautiful—I've always had an easy, loose view of beauty. Fat, skinny, long- or short-haired, dark-skinned, light-skinned, pale, everything outside and in between. I love big noses and ears that stick out and all sorts of qualities we can sometimes find fault with. I grew up thinking my dark-skinned, Nigerian, wide-eyed cousins and girlfriends were beautiful, and my pale, strawberry blond, country, freckle-faced girlfriends, too. My mom is a light-skinned black woman with bright green eyes, my dad is dark-skinned with brown eyes, my brother and I fall in between. My family is a pretty mix of everything.
Most of my friends were shorter and curvier than me. I was tall and thin, not completely flat-chested, but close, with an ass that didn't quite stick out the way I wanted it to. I wore contacts because I didn't think boys liked girls with glasses. I came from a place of privilege, never really being teased about my looks. I had typical American teenage girl insecurities, although, on the whole, I was fairly confident.
I was confident enough not to feel the need to try and fit in with the white girls, and there weren't many black girls like me around; I was okay with standing out. I was free to be me, to wear what I wanted: dresses over jeans, my hair crimped, pulled back with a bow, white Keds like Baby from Dirty Dancing. I grew up loving the country side of me, my family from Alabama, cowboy boots and country music. Down here we dress up for church and go all out for the Derby, and it's no surprise when the women at the coffee shop are just as pretty as Miss Kentucky. Kentucky women are beautiful.
The group of girls I ran around with, we got our clothes from The Gap and Value City, got too-big wool sweaters from Goodwill. We dressed way up for church on Sunday mornings and returned for the evening service in ripped jeans and Birkenstocks. So much about us was the same and so many things about us were different and it really did feel like somehow, all of that together could be beautiful. Like a United Colors of Benetton ad. We were beautiful, simply because we were. Like Ricky Skaggs singing: "Sweet Kentucky girls are still the wonder.”
I grew up playing in ditches and going to modeling school too, containing multitudes. I took a lot of beauty cues from my mom and my girlfriends, as well as supermodels and celebrities. Finding beauty in things regular and fancy. Ugly, even. The step-by-step braiding and makeup sections of Teen, YM, and Seventeen were my YouTube tutorials. I supplemented growing up in a place without as much diversity as I wanted, with my imagination and the rocket-transportation of fashion magazines. Sassy made me feel blessed to be a girl—to be part of a collective, worldwide, bloody, manic heartbeat of young women, to learn about Riot grrrls and alt-culture, to feel free. To open my mind even more to what beauty was and could be.
Imperfections could be beautiful, too, and so could confusion and sadness, in its own way, because it was honest and honesty was beautiful. Juliana Hatfield started out “Universal Heartbeat” by singing “beauty can be sad,” and that was somehow true, too. (A pre-cursor to some heavy Lana Del Rey vibes.) And being raised by a preacher, I also was brought up to believe that humans created in the image of God were beautiful, period. I've never been very picky about beauty. I'm more of a hippie about it. Believing it's there if I want to see it.
Now I'm in my 40s and a mother of two. And I still love being knocked out by all sorts of different kinds of beauty—the people around me and also my own, as more of my hair turns gray, as I add more moisturizer and retinol to my skin-care routine. I am grateful to have grown up in a place and time where I was able to relax about beauty and stubbornly go easy on myself and everyone else about it. Ready for it, looking for it, however and wherever it decides to show up.