BROOKLINE — Phoebe Baker Hyde, 38, admits she’s done some ridiculous things in the name of beauty.
She drank so many chocolate diet shakes she constipated herself. She tried to scrub cystic acne off her back with an abrasive foot pumice. She once broke in a pair of uncomfortable high heels by wearing them with hiking socks and jogging around a parking lot. After her first baby was born and her weight didn’t come off as fast as online forums promised, she wore a spandex corset five hours a day.
Hyde had been a cultural anthropology major at an Ivy League college, 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. It got worse when, at 31, she moved with her new husband to hyper-fashion-conscious Hong Kong. Disoriented and feeling like a marginalized expat, 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,” Hyde said. When she went to the hospital to have her baby, she brought along mascara.
One winter day in 2007, 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” (Da Capo Lifelong Books), which will be published Dec. 25.
The book is part coming-of-age story, part field study, and while Hyde 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.”
She’s a woman who, five years post-experiment, answers the door of her home wearing no makeup, jeans, Birkenstock sandals with socks, and an Indian-style tunic that she said was “edging toward the five-year mark.” It’s hard to believe this petite, fair-skinned, and animated strawberry blonde ever thought of herself as ugly. But such is the power of a consumer-driven world, she writes, “where culture, gender, and economic identities are as jumbled up as junk in a messy purse.”
Hyde’s father was a hotel manager who was transferred frequently, and she grew up all over the country including, from third to eighth grade, a dude ranch in Arizona. Hyde has a visual autobiographical memory, and her childhood recollections surface less as a series of anecdotes than a progression of fashion images. She recalls Vulture Peak Middle School in Arizona as an enclave of girls wearing skin-tight Wrangler jeans and blue eyeliner. She attended boarding school in Connecticut where girls had “straight blond hair . . . and wore very little makeup and extremely expensive winter coats.”
But her first inkling of the outsize role that fashion and materialism can play in the formation of women’s identities came when Hyde was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, spending a semester abroad in Cameroon. She was in a market and saw a shoeless young girl standing in the dust, staring at a vendor’s secondhand Western fashion magazines.
“What upset me was that Glamour, Paris Match, and OK were the girl’s primary connection to Western women, this barefoot, slum-dwelling school-age girl living in a country plagued by AIDS, dysentery, government corruption, nonexistent health care, and rampant witch doctoring,” Hyde writes in her book.
It was an uncomfortable “moment of perception,” she added in an interview. “I didn’t know what to do with it, or how to process it.” But it resurfaced years later when Hyde was in the throes of beauty craziness in Hong Kong, formulating the idea for her experiment. She realized that despite vast differences in economics and geography and opportunity, “there is still a lot of commonality [for women.] Beauty is a part of their struggle and beauty was a part of my struggle.”
Hyde moved to Hong Kong in 2005 with her husband, John Liang, an accountant who’d had a job transfer. With a brand-new baby, Hyde’s adjustment was rocky. A historical novel she’d been working on was going nowhere; she felt isolated, aimless, and self-conscious. She had no family close by to help with the baby, and she was exhausted and ill at ease in a culture where “retail, especially garment retail, pervades every possible urban crevice and rural alley.” (In Hong Kong, she explained, “it’s not unusual to see women exercise in slacks and flats. The general aura of the city is well-dressed and put-together. Casual is something you wear in your home when you are cooking.”)
The situation was a setup for “a perfect storm of self-doubt.” Her self-deprecating inner voice — always present, but sometimes silent — got “really nasty,” said Hyde. Sometimes the voice was contemptuous of her work (“You’re such a failure.”) Often, she carped about Hyde’s appearance. “She’d say things like, ‘That’s not right. You can’t do that. That doesn’t look good. You should be doing it this way, idiot.’ ”
In some ways, Hyde was an unlikely person to feel vulnerable, since she was anything but a fashionista; she described her baseline fashion style as “sexually liberated Annie Oakley on a shoestring.” But research for “The Beauty Experiment,” which included an online survey of more than 400 women about their beauty habits and experiences, indicated she wasn’t alone in seeking material happiness to temper anger and frustration. She believes her struggle is shared by many women at some point in their lives, “often during big transitions or periods of growth.”
For Hyde, that point came in Hong Kong where she obsessed over “getting myself right in every aspect. Over appropriateness and correctness.” Whenever she tried to envision empowerment, she saw herself “wearing a really nice outfit, holding a drop-dead gorgeous leather purse.” She tried it out at her husband’s holiday party: She bought a flamboyant and hugely expensive red velvet designer dress that could have passed, she said, as “Juliet’s red death-scene dress.” In the end she felt so self-conscious at the party she had a miserable time, and went home and cried “because I was stupid, vain, heartbroken, and ashamed of all of it.”
Swearing off beauty was tricky, since there were a lot of gray areas. Should she give up tinted ChapStick? Shampoo with conditioner? Deodorant? She hammered out a set of basic guidelines: She could use nail clippers but not nail files; shampoo but not hair mousse; dental floss but no lipstick, razors, night cream, hair elastics, or brushes.
She cut 14 inches off her hair and got a manly haircut. When she got used to that, she pushed the experiment further, and tried dressing deliberately badly. She wore mismatched clothes, pairing, for example, a red tank top with a pink skirt and sneakers. This experiment backfired. “I looked cooler than I normally would have, like I belonged to some underground art scene,” Hyde said. She tried wearing drab olive green with “olive-er green” but “just felt sick. I understood how color really matters to my mood. I was a total failure on that front.”
The hardest part of the experiment was ending it, she said. “I think the way I had been doing things before the experiment and during the experiment — both were untenable. I had to forge a new way of dealing with these issues a little bit at a time.”
She saw that she’d been conflating looking great with empowerment, and realized beauty was less about what she wore than how she felt, about having a sense of calm well-being and a good night’s sleep. Once she stopped fussing over her looks, she stopped obsessing about them. “I’d had bad hair for so long that a ‘bad-hair day’ meant nothing to me,” she writes. “My face without makeup now said ‘face’ to me, not ‘hideous problem.’ ”
Hyde moved back to the United States in 2009, and a lot has changed since then. She spends just 10 minutes in the morning getting ready. She gets more sleep. She’s chucked her makeup, except for a few items that were gifts. She shops more carefully. She still likes to dress up from time to time, but no more Juliet death-scene dresses. She doesn’t buy fashion or beauty magazines, because “they just make me cross and yearning.” She also realized that if you stop shopping, “the coveting goes away.”
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.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.