What would it feel like to go a year without makeup, jewelry, salon haircuts or new clothes? That’s what Phoebe Baker Hyde asked herself in 2007 while she was living in Hong Kong and prepping for a holiday party. Wanting to look utterly fabulous at the fete, she figured a snazzy new dress would do the trick. But despite pairing that perfect dress with the perfect shoes and tying its ribbon belt in a perfect bow, it failed to deliver: the person inside was still an inexperienced parent, an awkward foreigner and a woman trailing in the wake of her husband’s more successful career.
“I looked at my reflection and despaired. As an exhausted young mother I felt ugly and saw that a new dress or face cream would never help. I was at risk of passing on a habit of feeling miserable about my looks to my baby girl – if nothing changed.”
Then and there, Phoebe made a vow: to swear off Beauty and all her trappings – makeup, new clothes, salon haircuts, jewelry, the works – in the hopes of revealing something she had always paid lip service to but never quite believed in… her inner beauty. With that, her radical beauty cleanse began.
In the 13 months that Phoebe’s beauty experiment lasted, her interest in outgrowing the fantasy of feminine perfection intensified as did her desire to remake the mantle of her womanhood in the only size that fits – her own.
As she began further exploring the connections between inner and outer beauty for herself, she also started to wonder: “am I alone in feeling and thinking as I do?” To help her answer that question, she designed a 44-question survey and posted it online from June 30, 2010 to January 4, 2011, along with a shorter survey for men. 470 women and 112 men responded anonymously.
The results of this survey and the personal notes Phoebe took during her year plus in the beauty black hole became the basis for her new memoir, The Beauty Experiment: how I skipped lipstick, ditched fashion, faced the world without concealer and learned to love the real me.
Just released last month, in late December 2012, the book chronicles Phoebe’s quest for self-acceptance in nothing but her own skin. In thoughtful, exquisite prose, she holds up a mirror to all women and shows how perfectionism can keep us from achieving what we really want: happiness, confidence, and serenity.
“When the baby weight didn’t come off as fast as online forums promised, I tried to counteract my hideous rib-cage spreading by wearing a spandex corset five hours a day. I bought thicker makeup and brighter lipstick to disguise the haggard face I met in the mirror. Weekly, sometimes daily, I found myself digging through bins at a street-side sample warehouse near our apartment, believing something at the bottom of the bin would have the power to make me happy, or satisfied, or sexy, or whatever it was that suddenly, inexplicably, I wasn’t.
In February 2007, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I had become a nervous, critical, angry, insecure woman. I was not the woman or the role model I wanted to be, especially in front of a big-eyed baby daughter. I was at war with the world around me and at war with myself—the only self I had. And so I swore off Beauty and all her trappings: makeup, new clothes, salon haircuts, jewelry, the works. I told very few people what I was doing, took detailed but sporadic notes, and had only a vague sense of a goal: something needed to change for the better.”
WOW! We say brava to Phoebe for daring to do what we’re not sure we could do ourselves. We’d also like to thank her for using her own experiences to help other women see that being the fairest of them all just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be… no matter how hard you try or how much time and money you spend in the process.
The Beauty Experiment is definitely on the WYSK Must Read list.
Phoebe Baker Hyde holds degrees in Cultural Anthropology and English from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from the University of California, Irvine.
Her essays and short fiction have appeared in TheLos Angeles Times Magazine, Confrontation, The Chrysalis Reader, High Plains Literary Review and on the website Pology.
She currently lives in Boston with her husband and two children.