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Take a Beauty Break!

Phoebe Baker Hyde is the average woman. She wants to look nice, feel nice and feel admired. Surprisingly, in order to actually feel all of those things, she spent a year away from makeup and fashion and came away with a book — and a better soul sense of self.

Before she took the ultimate beauty plunge, she admits she’s done some ridiculous things in the name of beauty. As a cultural anthropology major at an Ivy League college she was actually trained to recognize self-destructive and ritualistic behavior in other cultures. But when it came to what she calls her own “beauty craziness,” she couldn’t fight back.

This craze worsened, at 31, when she moved with her new husband to hyper-fashion-conscious Hong Kong. Disoriented and feeling rejected, she resorted to retail therapy, shopping incessantly, trying all the expensive samples at the cosmetics counters, changing her jewelry constantly, and having “a lot of mirror meltdowns,” she said. When she went to the hospital to have her baby, she even brought along mascara.

One winter day, she caught sight of herself in a fancy shop window. To her horror, the woman who stared back was an exhausted young mother, decidedly ugly and utterly beyond hope. “A little inner voice said to me, ‘You look like crap!’,” said Hyde, who is anything but ugly, and now lives in Brookline with her husband and two children, ages 6 and 3. “That was the day I said, this is absurd.”

It was also the day she decided to swear off beauty — for a year. That meant no new clothes and jewelry. No more expensive salon haircuts, just a simple, short cut like a man’s. She tossed her makeup, night cream, hair mousse, razors, and nail polish, and packed away her blow dryer, hairbrush, and 38 pairs of earrings. She covered up the mirrors of her apartment.

Hyde chronicled her experience of living “outside of the sucking black hole of consumerist desire“ in a new book, “The Beauty Experiment”. The book is part coming-of-age story, part field study, and while Phoebe acknowledges the experiment didn’t fully cure her, the woman at the end of the experiment was different than the one who started it.

Today, she said, she is a woman “who finally knows how to respond with wisdom and compassion to the voice of beauty craziness in her head.”

take a beauty break


Phoebe sat down with Victoria Clayton of VIV Magazine to chronicle the days of her beauty hiatus:

VIV: I know from experience that new parenthood and being a work-at-home writer can be a lethal combo. Yet most of us don’t focus on beauty/fashion as the problem. Why did you go in this direction? 
Phoebe Baker Hyde: I was dealing with body issues, having recently been pregnant, and I was in Hong Kong where there’s quite a saturation of glamour and fashion images. But, really, dealing with my beauty and fashion regimen — the surface — served as a way of getting at much bigger issues underneath.

VIV: In the book, a couple of your friends said that they thought your problems weren’t so much associated with beauty, but more with your marriage, the expat lifestyle or even postpartum depression. Did you end up agreeing with them?  
PBH: They helped me in some ways understand why I was doing what I was doing. But nonetheless I believed then and I still believe now that there’s a beauty industry message that’s damaging and I wanted to fight against it. I needed to get something right with me in terms of my attitude toward that industry and this was the best way I could do it.

VIV: Did nixing concealer, lipstick and new clothes really do something positive for you?
 PBH: Absolutely! Many of us put on a mask of “OK-ness” and beauty had helped me put on that mask too. So taking it off for a little bit was uncomfortable, but it also helped me examine some underlying issues and helped me work on them.

VIV: For example?
 PBH: My sleep situation. I was very sleep-deprived and didn’t appreciate how it was affecting me. I actually think sleep deprivation is an unrecognized issue with many women. Makeup helps us conceal how we really feel. Also, I probably wasn’t eating healthfully. So here I was putting energy into buying the right beauty product and I really needed that energy for other things. It’s hard to say skipping eyeliner was a direct link to solving some of my problems, but getting rid of the beauty obsession sort of cleared my plate for other work.

VIV: Are you anti-beauty now? 
PBH: Not at all. I’ve had to find a middle ground. I’ve had to figure out how to be a person in the real world where appearances do matter. So, for now, I wear makeup on special occasions like going out with my friends.

VIV: But you didn’t wear makeup when you appeared on Katie Couric’s show?
 PBH: I would’ve normally worn makeup on television, but Katie asked me not to. It was part of the show. She didn’t wear makeup and neither did anyone in the audience.

VIV: You won’t wear just any cosmetics now, though?
 PBH: The content of the cosmetics has become really important to me. I feel pretty strongly that putting something on your skin is almost like swallowing it. So I’m tough on the products we have in our home. I buy from stores that vet their products, like Whole Foods, and I always check ingredient lists. I try to avoid phthalates, petroleum and parabens; I also watch out for fragrance. The Environmental Working Group’s website Skin Deep has really helpful information. But I still have to work on my husband. He likes to buy the cheapest and biggest product no matter what’s in it.

VIV: How have you made peace with fashion?
 PBH: I experimented with the idea of a uniform — dressing the way my husband does. He wears a suit every day. So that says to the world, “This is not about personality. I’m my brain.” It’s an interesting approach. There’s a reason to wear a uniform and get rid of individuality, but it was not the right choice for me. I had to understand myself. I love dressing up. I’m interested in the language of clothes. It’s something we all speak. There’s clothing that’s the equal of poetry, and clothing that’s equal to newsprint. But I want to figure out what I want to say, as opposed to what I want to mimic. Being fashionable, to me, is being able to say what I want to say.

VIV: How to you handle this decision with your daughter? PBH: Well, I’ve worried at times about my seriousness — but mostly because of my 6-year-old daughter. I wouldn’t want her to see me as really severe and practical about makeup and clothes all the time. So I’ve been mindful to introduce her to getting dressed up for nice events. I want her to see me enjoying dress-up and having fun with clothes and makeup. I think adornment – even frivolous adornment — can be a wonderful human impulse. We all want to be goddesses sometimes.

VIV: You talk about beauty revenge spending. What is that?
 PBH: Sometimes women feel unloved, ignored or angry so they buy “beauty love” for themselves. I dabbled in that because my husband had a crazy schedule that didn’t work for our family life. Thankfully, that’s changed. But beauty revenge spending comes from a place of feeling powerless. It’s an underhanded maneuver. An overhanded maneuver would’ve been for me to say, “If we are partners in this, I’ve decided to spend X amount on child care.” Or “I’ve decided to book a sitter once a week because we are not spending enough time with each other.” I think there’s a fair amount of beauty revenge spending because our society undervalues caregiving. We aren’t measuring correctly how much caregivers are contributing to our economy. Oftentimes, we are doing all this stuff at home so that someone else in the family can go earn the coin.

VIV: Do you suggest other women emulate you and go on a beauty diet? 
PBH: Only if they feel beauty or their regimen is getting in their way or making them unhappy. There are a lot of women out there who are already where I ended up. I applaud them. There are some who still struggle as I did, though. They are trying to substitute prettiness for purpose; they’re looking for good grooming to supplant self-confidence. And many women may not realize that they’re doing all this grooming out of fear instead joy and fun. But my story was simply me working on myself. Every woman has to write her own beauty story.

The main legacy of Hyde’s experiment was this, she writes: “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see wrinkles, anxiety, zits, or exhaustion, although they are all there. Instead, I see a face, a person, a personality, a life. If someone asked me if I felt beautiful I would have to answer honestly: yes.”

This interview was originally posted via Viv Magazine.  Click here for the entire article.

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