Life Balms — Vol. 1: Hannah Giorgis on Cooking and What It Means to Be Beautiful

The Ringer special projects editor Hannah Giorgis talks healing through food, desirability and work, and the glory of Fenty Beauty.

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I was a fan of Hannah Giorgis long before we became friends. I’ve always loved her work: as a blogger, at first, and now, as a writer and editor. But what drew me most to Hannah are the ways in which she moves through the world, mindfully and with grace, aware of and receptive to worlds that exist beyond her own. The first time I met her IRL — I’m Toronto-based, she’s New York-based — it already felt like I’d known her for a lifetime.

When I decided to do this series, she was one of the first people I thought of interviewing. Hannah Giorgis is the mother I never had, she’s the sister everybody would want, she’s the friend that everybody deserves. I don’t know a better person. (Sorry Mama, sorry sis — it’s a joke!)

Catch us talking communal beauty practices, Fenty lips, and the catharsis of feeding the ones you love.

Amani Bin Shikhan: So, first things first: What was your 2017 like?

Hannah Giorgis: My 2017 was a [bleep] mess. Even before the inauguration, the political climate felt absolutely bleak. It only got worse as the year progressed, and that affected every part of my life.

I definitely started stress baking and cooking right around the election, and that continued well into 2017. I started setting aside time on Sundays to do more project-y cooking and baking, things like ambitious soups or sauces or cakes that I knew I couldn’t get done in 45 minutes after work on a Tuesday.

AB: Post-inauguration took us into a sort of flurry of “coping” mechanisms or routines: skin care, baking, painting videos, slime-making. A lot of [bleep] that helped people disconnect. Why do you think that helped so much? Sidenote: Were you always a cooker and baker? Or did you pick it up?

HG: I’d always been at least vaguely interested in cooking and baking (insert oldest immigrant daughter joke here), but it definitely became a source of comfort after the election, largely because it was a means of creating that allowed me to lean into the visceral rather than the intellectual. As a writer and editor, I’m in my head all the time, even when I think I’m not.

The beauty of making a seven-hour oxtail ragù isn’t just that I get to eat it or share it with friends after. It’s also a lesson in patience, a chance to use my hands to produce something tangible, an opportunity to flex sensory muscles I don’t prioritize exercising throughout the workday.

AB: Where do you see beauty in your world? How do you nurture it? What does it mean?

HG: The two places I most often find beauty aren’t unusual, but they’re still remarkable: in art and in or among people. I really cherish my relationships with my friends, family, and the community I’ve been able to find and build in New York. I never feel like I’m alone, even as this political climate and, y’know, capitalism insist that we are all isolated from one another, that all our concerns are uniquely our own.

To be reminded constantly that that’s not true, that people can and do share love and pain and beauty with one another, is humbling, and I try not to take it for granted. I’m also forever in awe of all the writing, music, visual art, and so much more I get to consume on a regular basis by virtue of working in a creative field and living in New York. These things shouldn’t be luxuries, but in some ways they are.

AB: How do you practice beauty? What do you think of beauty? Do you value it? Or rather, is it something of value?

HG: I try to remind myself that beauty isn’t just a shallow, aesthetic pursuit. That generally means giving myself permission to both invest in myself and my appearance without questioning my feminism or radicalism or whatever — and also understanding how beauty and beauty standards can never fully be not apolitical.

I want to do a lot more research on ways that women outside North America have conceived of and practiced beauty, especially in communal settings. I know that’s something you and I have talked about a lot, too. (Writer’s note: Hannah and I often talk about what beauty looks and feels like as black — specifically as African, even more specifically, as Ethiopian — women.)

I think of scenes like bridal gatherings as such poignant examples of when women back home or in the diaspora assert beauty as something shared, something we collectively bestow upon one another. And to answer the question about value specifically, I think that changes on any given day, and on whether the question is about my internal perception or my response to an external one.

Creative fields are definitely driven by perceptions of beauty in some ways, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t affect me. Do I want to be perceived as beautiful? Yes, I think so. Do I need to be? No. And I’m trying to find out what’s in the gulf between those two questions.

AB: I think that’s a really real place to be in: the strange gray space that makes itself apparent when people — and in our cases particularly, black women — unpack desire. What we want from it and what we want to refuse from its allure. What do you associate beauty with? We’ve talked about community, desire, the good feelings that come with good stuff and with good people. How do you grapple with superficial beauties, too?

HG: Ooh, that’s tough. I think having conditional access to superficial or conventional beauty as an adult, which I definitely didn’t growing up having — [laughs] trust me! — has definitely shown me that beauty grants power, socially, professionally, etc.

And so I try to think of it the way I think of a lot of privileges and power: This trait can be an unearned advantage, so how do I account for that as I move through the world? But it’s really hard to think of beauty outside specific contexts.

AB: What are your beauty routines? How have they changed as you’ve gotten older?

HG: I’m starting to actually care about “Skin Care™” now that I’m “in my late 20s”! I used to be terrible about that and never do any makeup beyond eyeliner and lipstick (aka, Habesha mom specials).

Last year, I learned how to actually put on foundation. Even as I write this out, I’m aware of the fact that I haven’t had to toil for some of the most common benchmarks of “capital B” Beauty. My skin is fairly chill. I don’t have to worry about much beyond some hyperpigmentation and the occasional zit.

On a good day, my morning routine takes 10 to 15 minutes max. I’ll wash my face with some cold water, then apply sunscreen, NARS concealer, and Laura Mercier powder under my eyes and around my lips, Beauty Bakerie brow gel, Stila liquid liner, and some lipstick (lately I’m obsessed with the three Fenty Beauty shades I have), and a little highlighter.

At night, I’ll take my makeup off with Trader Joe’s micellar wipes, wash my face with Mule Hill tea tree soap, tone with some witch hazel, and moisturize with some Alaffia EveryDay Coconut nighttime cream.

About once a month, I’ll use Dr. G’s peeling gel or do a turmeric face mask with my roommates and maybe a sheet mask too, if I have one lying around. I also get eyelash extensions, which are $65, about once a month, and those make it easier for me to roll out of bed fresh-faced in the morning and still feel somewhat put together.

AB: Oooooooh. Which Fenty Beauty lips?

HG: The Mattemoiselle in Griselda and Ma’Damn and the lip paint in Stunna, of course.

AB: I love this song. The Fenty Beauty lips are so good. Fenty Beauty is so good. We give thanks.

HG: Yes! I also adore Trophy Wife. I thought it’d be too cool-toned for me, but it really works.

AB: We love a black girl in gold! I feel like your routines have gotten more extensive since the last time we talked beauty. Are you getting into the back end of the beauty world yet? Or are you still relying on recommendations from beauty aficionados? If so, who are you getting recommendations from?

HG: I want to get some of the foundation too, but I know damn well I don’t wear foundation often enough to justify it. I definitely have a handful of bloggers I follow, but mainly I’m still noting what my friends and former co-workers are into, and also picking from my favorite brands.

I’ve loved Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer since college, so when I wanted to try a powder, it made sense to test theirs. I can’t even remember where I first heard about NARS Creamy Radiant Concealer, because it feels like every black girl stans [is a fan of it], but it was probably either from Jackie Aina or Cocoa Swatches.

I also live for Habesha makeup artists who don’t intentionally make their clients look lighter (no shade, but also…). I take note of the products they use on their clients regularly, too. Fifi Tesfatsion, aka mua_fifi, is the one who put me on to Estee Lauder Double Wear foundation, and that’s now my go-to event makeup.

AB: I often think about how important it is for black women, particularly, to have those types of spaces to talk products and beauty that really works for us. To think about beauty as an expansive thing with its own histories and significant practices. What do you think of the “skin care discourse”?

HG: I’m not terribly invested in the larger Conversation about skin care, because I still feel like a bit of a noob even though I read about it a fair amount. I think whenever other people notice that something has captured a lot of women’s attention, the ensuing discourse can immediately trivialize its impact. But skin care isn’t frivolous, even if it can be expensive.

AB: I think that I go back and forth on the topic — I love skin care and would consider myself to be an intermediate-level stan of all the acids, oils, masks. But it can be hard for me sometimes to separate it from capitalism, or an unattainable beauty politic, or even just as a new means to cope. Do you ever feel the sort of back and forth? Or do you find that you’re divorced enough from it to enjoy it, but not become immersed?

HG: Oh absolutely. Whenever I see someone rave about a serum and realize it costs the amount I spend on groceries in a week, I do have a moment of “Oops… def not for me!” And you know what, that particular serum isn’t for me at this point in my life.

But I view skin care the way I do fashion: Capitalism is always going to affect this domain in such a way that makes it feel incredibly stratified, but there are amazing things to be found at a very broad range of price points. If you’re willing to do the research, to split things with friends, etc., there are ways to make it accessible and useful to you even if the primary conversation is being led by people who have the resources to ball out on Sunday Riley.

It also makes me want to really dial down on understanding my skin and what it needs rather than giving in to product junkie-ism. Spending $100 for a consultation with a black woman dermatologist feels like an intense upfront expense when I first thought about it, but the longer I considered the idea, the more I realized that understanding what my skin needs will help me craft a regimen tailor-made for me without wasting money on products that are being raved about by people who have very different skin concerns. I’m giving myself that consultation as a birthday present, I swear.

AB: Wow, I’m giving it to myself as a belated present!

HG: OMG, I love us.

AB: Girl, same! All right, so to wrap: Where do you feel or find yourself to feel most comfortable in your body?

HG: I think I feel most comfortable in my body when I’m at home, which necessarily means around the people I love and trust. I feel most beautiful when I look like my mother. These people, who hold me and care for me and let me feed them the food I make when the day has worn me out and cooking is the only way I know how to channel that energy, are my balm. Practicing and performing beauty can be either healing or burdensome, depending on the day. Some days, it feels like both.

AB: What makes you come back when you feel like it’s burdensome?

HG: Hmm, I try to remind myself why I care, or of how I feel when I do take the time to invest in myself that way. It’s generally about just getting over that initial hurdle.

AB: To getting over more hurdles. Amen, ameen.

Hannah’s Life Balms

  • A Dutch oven, the best kitchen tool — as mentioned on Twitter: “I wish I could bottle the feeling of closing my Dutch oven lid on an elaborate ragu and knowing it won’t need me for another 4 hours. Is this what dropping kids off with a babysitter feels like?”
  • Vicks VapoRub: It reminds me of home, my mom, and my mom’s stories about boiling eucalyptus leaves back home.
  • Ethiopian/Eritrean vegetarian combo platters, which are delicious and comforting despite not being terribly hard to make (and again, remind me of home).

Like Hannah’s thoughts? Follow her journey on Twitter and Instagram.

Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Follow her on Twitter. Photo by Asmaà Bana.

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