There’s a very high chance one or more of your parents has had soft-focus sexual thoughts about Cheryl Tiegs. The model, who in the 1970s defined the fantasy of the blonde, blue-eyed, fresh-faced, white girl-next-door, appeared on high-fashion covers and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues alike, yielding those coyly revealing pinups lazy set designers use — along with Farrah Fawcett’s iconic poster — to tell you a show or movie takes place in the 1970s. She was an early exemplar of a model meriting the “super” prefix, and her popularity was such that in 1980 she wrote (or “wrote,” as a fine-print co-author credit for Vicki Lindner suggests) a book, The Way to Natural Beauty, published by Simon & Schuster and found on women’s bookshelves throughout the decade.
Sometime in the 2010s, I was perusing one of the $2.00 book racks outside of New York’s Strand Book Store, when tucked between outdated design guides and airport novels, I saw Tiegs’ wholesome, freshly scrubbed face beckoning to me. My ’70s fashion-obsessed self simply couldn’t resist. The moment I became aware of the book’s existence, I simply had to know what the cover girl could teach me, and so my slow, uneven path to natural beauty began.
The Way to Natural Beauty may seem like a long-forgotten artifact, as relevant today as a Chia pet or a hair crimper. After all, Tiegs was hardly unique in the endeavor: In the ’80s, as aerobics and the concept of the career woman were taking a hold on the culture, celebrities ranging from iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren to Dallas star Victoria Principal to Tiegs’s swimsuit model contemporary Christie Brinkley all published lifestyle tomes featuring likely interchangeable advice. Today, a quick scroll through Instagram reveals lithe bodies and faux-effortless beach snapshots. Influencer culture, with its embrace of so-called “wellness” is just another page in the literary canon Tiegs represents. So perhaps a book like Tiegs’s, so seemingly of its time, could offer something to me, a millennial woman.
The first thing that stands out about Tiegs’s book is its impeccable branding. The endpapers are plastered with her many covers. There are pictures of her — Cheryl at the beach! Cheryl exercising! Cheryl with an elephant! — scattered throughout with casual yet calculated poise. The section headings work hard to give her a nickname and establish the “C.T.” trademark: “C.T.’s Minute-to-Minute Guide to a Slim Figure,” “C.T.’s No-Mayo Fish Salad” (yes, of course there’s a section of tragically bland sounding out-of-date recipes with low calorie counts), and my personal favorite, “C.T.’s Recipe for a Sensuous Bath.” Tiegs prescribes low lights, a favorite record, and some “topsy-turvy champagne” sipped while bathing in a mix of herbs and bath oil. Tiegs’s advice to “Take the extra time to make your bath a real luxury, the snug and watery cradle wherein you gather your thoughts, read a book, write a poem, or hum a favorite tune” is classic #SelfCare.
The “C.T.” seal of approval is all-important, giving a sense of authority as she doles out morsels of advice that seem just doable enough to suggest: Swimsuit Models! They’re Just Like Us. Over the course of 284 pages Tiegs offers (ostensibly) tried and true tips of varying usefulness, with chapters covering diet, exercise, hair, makeup, and fashion. Tiegs isn’t a nutritionist or a doctor. Her credentials are directly tied to her cover girl status: Cheryl Tiegs knows how to be beautiful because she is. C.T.’s constant tautology.
The fashion chapter, “Life Is a Dressy Occasion: How to Get It Right” is the best one, and features this unforgettable description: “One of my favorite outfits for a champagne evening (which you can have either with or without the champagne) is a pair of tight turquoise velvet jeans that I wear with my shameless purple fox fur.” This is poetry to me. I want a champagne evening, and I want to believe that I could wear an outfit that fabulous and pull it off. I feel validated when Tiegs admits dry-cleaning is a scam, and called out when I answer yes to the majority of her questions trying to figure out if I have poor posture (“Are your shoulders sometimes tense and all hunched forward?” “Do you always have a pot belly, no matter how thin you are?”).
There’s common sense to be found throughout The Way to Natural Beauty, just as you can find some reasonable tips in most lifestyle publications today. Eating mindfully, exercising, and having fun with makeup and fashion are all solid ideas that mostly seem within reach. Things get dicey when Tiegs’s cover girl credentials are confused for medical knowledge. She recommends calorie counting and a 24-hour fast (or, in today’s parlance, a “cleanse”) as needed. Tiegs personalizes her advice by discussing her past struggles with binge eating in lurid detail, implying that if she could overcome that and become a supermodel, we should at the very least be able to believe all her tips really work.
If beauty is natural, it might just be good for you.
One of the hallmarks of 21st century fame is an overreliance on celebrities to tell us how to live our lives. The public expects famous women to create an illusion of intimacy through social media and PR-friendly statements on feminism. Celebrities are always telling us what to do, even as they’re mocked for being out of touch, in a cycle that’s intermittently amusing but never really goes anywhere. The most obvious example is Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle behemoth Goop, which frequently elicits eye rolls by recommending women steam their vaginas or buy $900 yoga pants or don’t vaccinate their children. With its holistic approach and freshly scrubbed blonde avatar whose celebrity bestows an illusion of authority, Goop directly follows The Way to Natural Beauty.
In the world of Goop, to admit too readily that you want to look beautiful is considered unbecoming. The ideal consumer of Paltrow’s brand is already conventionally attractive, and products recommended for building up natural beauty are meant to be part of some holistic wellness journey, rather than in the service of pure aesthetic. In Tiegs’s world, even if she says otherwise, beauty always comes first. There are more pictures of her than there are actual usable lifestyle tips, which considering her supermodel status might make the whole thing more honest. After all, the world still wants me to be beautiful, no matter how strongly anyone insists it simply wants me to be empowered, and there is a relief in admitting that sometimes I want that too.
It must be acknowledged that “Natural Beauty” is a loaded term. It has a slight feminist sheen — admitting to wanting “artificial beauty” is considered gauche — but is vague enough to feel non-threatening, almost comforting. If beauty is natural, it might just be good for you. It’s beauty that, once achieved by following The Way, you don’t have to work for. The opening line of Tiegs’s book is a humble brag for the ages: “I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or seen myself described in print as a ‘Natural Beauty.’” She goes on, over the course of nine chapters, to describe all the different work a woman can do to achieve some semblance of natural beauty. The premise is perversely appealing: Will reading this book about natural beauty written by a model make me into a model? The answer, of course, is no. But it’s a nice possibility to consider, and the underlinings in my used copy are curiously poignant. Women before me have tried to live the C.T. lifestyle and and in 2019, when everything else has failed, it honestly seems pretty appealing.
Nearly 40 years later, women are still constantly being fed platitudes meant to make us feel both better and worse about ourselves. The focus has supposedly shifted from how you look to how you feel, and “diet” has become a dirty word. But Tiegs writes that “just about anyone can be attractive” and praises women who, thanks to their self-confidence (and likely not feeling the need to read her book) have “the glamour of their own identity.” Whether it’s C.T. or Goop or some juice-swilling Instagram influencer with washboard abs selling us this philosophy, the question remains: What the hell is the glamour of our own identity anyway, and what does it say about me if I fail to even find that? Time is a flat stomach, and the way to natural beauty continues to circle back on itself. I’m still trying to track down some turquoise velvet jeans for a champagne evening, though.
Abbey Bender is a New-York based writer with bylines in The Village Voice, The Washington Post, Nylon, and other publications. She has a MS in Library Science, with an Advanced Certificate in Archives.
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