The Beauty Experiment by Phoebe Baker Hyde. Da Capo Lifelong. 218 pp.
Witness a true rarity for me: I read a work of nonfiction! No, really.
Phoebe Baker Hyde’s The Beauty Experiment grabbed my attention right away. Its tagline is “How I skipped lipstick, ditched fashion, faced the world without concealer, and learned to love the real me.” This intrigued me on many levels, but I think I came to this book a little differently than most women might. You see, I already don’t wear makeup. Weddings and special dinners out are the only times I find myself getting made up, and even then, I don’t wear foundation or blush or eyeliner or lipliner. My idea of “putting on my face” is using a pressed powder, eyeshadow, mascara, and fairly-neutral lip gloss. And I do it for myself. How do I know this? Every time I wear makeup, my husband says, “You look nice, but I actually prefer you without any makeup.” In the moment, it stings a little bit to hear him say that, because I feel pretty and here he is, telling me that he likes me better in a way that’s…well…not this. But overall it’s nice, because I don’t have any pressing glamour expectations from him, and it lets me know that anything new I decide to try is really because I want to, and not to impress him.
That being said, I put unnecessary pressure on myself sometimes. I look at a woman with a flawlessly made up face and think, That’s a skill I don’t have, one that maybe I should have learned at some point. I know it’s silly, but I sometimes feel like less of a woman because I don’t know how to apply eyeliner and am willing to go out in public without “improving upon” my face. And this makes no sense. I’ve made a conscious decision not to buy makeup (and I love how inexpensive and brief my morning prep is!), and yet I sometimes feel badly about this decision.
In The Beauty Experiment, the author refers frequently to her “inner voice,” the often-critical one that sounded in her mind, comparing her to other women and seeing how she measured up (or, more often, fell short). Members of this blog tour were asked to choose from a list of activities and reflections instead of writing a typical review. I chose the following prompt:
Draw a timeline chronicling the development of this inner voice, adding all the influences that have combined to form it over the years. Start as a tiny girl and go all the way to now. What “injuries” or setbacks has this inner voice suffered?
Here we go (ages are estimates, of course):
- 3 years old, maybe 4: My grandmother sent me a new dress. It was blue and white, with polka dots, and I loved it. Our town fair was coming up, and I knew that this would be the dress I wore. When the day came, I put it on — and, to my dismay, it was too big…and the day was cooler than anticipated. I insisted on wearing the dress anyway, with a long-sleeved shirt underneath, and I spent the entire day adjusting my outfit because the dress kept slipping off my shoulders. This is the first time I remember anticipating a certain look and being disappointed. No inner voice at this age, really, just a feeling of sadness that my outfit wasn’t working the way I’d wanted it to.
- 7 years old: I got my hands on a comb, shut myself in the bathroom, and combed my hair until it looked (I thought) exactly like Ariel’s swooshy bangs in The Little Mermaid. Thinking back on this, I can guarantee that I didn’t look like Ariel; I have naturally curly hair that would never agree to do anything as reasonable as cooperate. That day, however, I was pleased as punch with my work and headed off to show my new look to my brother and cousins. I got laughed at.
- 11 years old: At a friend’s pool party, while changing into my bathing suit with the other girls, I noticed that some of them already had breasts, hips, and (gasp!) pubic hair. I was still gangly and hair-free and thought, Should I have developed more by now? When will puberty come for me?
- 12 years old: I got braces. And, truth be told, I was happy about it. In my mind, braces were for teenagers, those older, more glamorous creatures. Of course, when I couldn’t eat for two days, the metal in my mouth seemed far less glamorous than I’d anticipated.
- 14 years old: I hated my braces and couldn’t wait to get them off. Super self-conscious about my teeth (and whether or not there was food stuck in my brackets), I only smiled closed-lipped in pictures until my braces were finally removed.
- 15 years old: Acne. Need I say more?
- 16 years old: My butt got huge, seemingly overnight. Still no boobs (actually, at thirty, the only boob sighting I’ve had was when I was nursing my son…they promptly disappeared when I weaned). Thankfully, this was the late ’90s and Jennifer Lopez was all the rage. Even though I took up much more room on the couch than I had the year before, I didn’t feel terribly fat because of my new ass(et).
- 20 years old: I remember college as a stream of years of feeling badly about myself — which is silly in retrospect because I was in the best shape of my life, had a full-tuition scholarship and a great part-time job, and was getting kick-ass grades.
- 22 years old: As a ballroom dance teacher, I got to (well, had to) wear skirts and dresses to work. This eliminated the grief of wearing ill-fitting trousers (tight on the butt, gaping at the waist, and too long for my short little legs) and made me feel better about myself overall. It wasn’t just the clothing, though; it was the ability to do something I loved every day and to help other people feel more comfortable doing it, too.
- 27 years old: My wedding day. I didn’t diet but still felt slim enough. I wore enough makeup to enhance my face without hiding it. My hair looked fabulous. My skin was still a little flawed, but overall, I love the way I looked on that day.
- 29 years old: Pregnant. Heavier than I’d ever been, but my round stomach was beautiful to me (and my husband) because it held my growing son. Miraculously, after my first trimester my skin cleared up, and it’s still looking pretty decent. (I’d like to shrink my pores a bit, though.)
- 30 years old: I’ve lost almost all of the pregnancy weight, but my stomach still feels stretched out. My yoga pants are my most forgiving articles of clothing, so I wear them more often than I should. I know I should exercise, but I choose to read instead. I feel badly about myself when I see a young mom that’s in shape. I feel guilty about my lack of dedication but don’t do anything about it.
So that’s my timeline. The recurring theme I see is that, whenever I compare myself to other people, my opinion of myself suffers. The times when I was willing to just look at myself — to think, Here I am. This is me. I’m doing what I want to be doing, and I’m happy with my life overall. — I seem to stress less about my appearance. When I’m surrounded by other people, I do that competitive weighing-myself-against-others thing, and I always lose. Here’s the thing: I weigh 120 pounds. I know women that would kill to effortlessly be 120 pounds, and I’m unhappy with it.
I think it all comes down to setting reasonable expectations for myself and then working to attain them. I don’t judge my career, income, or relationships based on other people’s, but I do judge my appearance based on other people’s. That needs to stop.
Thanks to TLC for the chance to be part of this tour, and thanks also to Phoebe Baker Hyde for making me think about some important things.
Phoebe Baker Hyde has written on self, place and culture for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and The Wall Street Journal. She holds degrees in Anthropology and English from the University of Pennsylvania and Master of Fine Arts in writing from University of California at Irvine. She currently lectures and teaches in Boston.
Find out more about Phoebe at her website, connect with her onFacebook, and follow her on Twitter.
Monday, January 20th: Overstuffed
Wednesday, January 22nd: One Frugal Girl
Thursday, January 23rd: Breezes at Dawn
Friday, January 24th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Sunday, January 26th: Diamond Cut Life
Monday, January 27th: Evolution You
Tuesday, January 28th: Jenny Ann Fraser
Wednesday, January 29th: guiltless reading
Monday, February 3rd: The School of Smock
Tuesday, February 4th: You Can Read Me Anything
Tuesday, February 4th: Imperfect People in love with a Perfect God