Mehrnoush Shafiei's grandmother Hamdam Farahani was the youngest of five daughters growing up in what is now part of Tehran, Iran. Born with blond hair and blue eyes, she was considered the most beautiful girl in the village – so beautiful that her mother took her to the public bath at night in order to dodge the evil eye from neighbors. Now in her 70s, Maman Hamdam has passed on a lifetime of Iranian beauty tips to her Canada-born granddaughter. Mehrnoush fills us in on her grandmother's medicine-cabinet secrets and superstitions.
"In the old days, you weren't supposed to wax anything until marriage. They grew up believing that a bit of light, soft body hair was attractive. Who actually has a bit of light, soft body hair? When it's finally time to remove it, waxing or threading is most common. I once had my entire leg threaded in Iran by four women at the same time. So much pain in so little time!"
"According to my grandmother, even eyebrows are supposed to be really thick until you're married, when they're finally shaped. If you over-pluck them, she suggests taking a straight razor – there's a thinner version than what men use, made specifically for brows – and shaving along the top of the eyebrow. The tiny hairs that are shaved off should grow back thicker. Her biggest rule, though, is not to color them in. My grandmother used to say that darkening brows makes the hairs sparse. Eyebrows are fickle. They won't grow back. My mom taught me from a very young age not to get Tweezer-happy.
"When I was 15, all the girls in school had done their eyebrows and mine were almost touching. There was a famous Canadian hockey player called Tie Domi who had a unibrow. One day some kid called me by his name. I had no clue who he was, so I actually had to go out of my way to find out – it was devastating when I finally did. I asked my dad if I could get my eyebrows shaped and he said no, so I plucked one myself and came down for dinner. My mom cried. She told my dad, 'She's going to ruin her eyebrows and it will all be your fault!' I'll never forget it. She cried so much that my dad gave in. In Iran, having a strong eyebrow is like having a strong handshake."
"If a baby is born with thin eyelashes, my grandmother's generation would cut them with scissors to encourage them to grow back thicker – not something I'd recommend. No one has thin eyelashes in Iran, but if you do, it's stressful for everyone."
"Henna is big in Iran, and women my grandmother's age consider it the ideal deep-conditioner. You apply it once a year to the tips, which get a red tint for a couple of washes. It actually looks pretty cool. Another tradition is to mix a bit of honey with your shampoo, though that's typically reserved for women having serious hair issues.
"Today, hijabs in Iran are worn pretty far back on the head, which means the front section of the hair shows. You can leave the back bit and just fix the front. Women make sure it's teased, curled, dyed, permed. You'll even see punk styles. I remember a few years ago the 'melon look' was in: a big updo that looked like girls were hiding giant melons under their hijabs. There was something really erotic about it. Whenever I visit my cousins with my untreated hair, they tell me I look like I came from the village. It basically means I'm simple."
"Every night before she gets ready for bed, my grandmother does 50 'mouth crunches.' She contorts her mouth to work out her neck and define her cheeks. She'll pray – simultaneously keeping one ear to our conversation, ready to correct us – and then get up to 'exercise.' She does look amazing."
"My grandmother has a funny thing about noses. If she sees a kid that she thinks is going to end up with a big nose, she'll go up and tell the mother to gently pinch the ends of it each night. It's mortifying but she does it all the time. I tell her it's pseudo-science and she counters back by telling me that she did it to me! When I point out that I don't have a tiny nose, she says, 'It could have been worse.'"
"My friend Anna's Iranian grandmother, who is otherwise pretty conservative, says to date as many men as possible. It's the best way to look younger and feel better about yourself. I wish someone had told me that sooner."
MacKenzie Kassab is the editor-in-chief of A Magazine.