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.