The Beauty Experiment

The Beauty Experiment

I was contacted a few months ago by a book publisher who wanted to send me a copy of The Beauty Experiment.  I love reading and jumped at the chance to dive into a book I would not have picked for myself. The book tells the story of Phoebe Baker Hyde, a new mother who finds herself living in Hong Kong with an overworked husband who often leaves for long periods of travel.

One afternoon she spends a large sum of money on a dress for her husband’s holiday party. While in the dressing room she thinks she looks glorious, but the evening of the party she realizes that her fashion choices were horribly misguided. She is devastated by this realization and decides to undergo a makeover of sorts. Believing that she’s obsessed with her looks and appearance she throws out all of her make-up and refuses to purchase any new clothes.

The first half of the book focuses on her struggle to deal with this drastic experiment. She doesn’t just stop wearing makeup. She chops all of her hair off and stops shaving her legs.

I’ll be honest I found parts of this book quite frustrating. I don’t think a woman needs to stop shaving and get a man’s haircut to stop obsessing about her looks. In fact, her actions were so dramatic that they forced her to focus on her appearance more than ever before. She worried about what people thought about her, why she couldn’t tell others about her appearance and how the culture of Hong Kong could not deal with a woman who didn’t discuss new department stores and fashion.

I believe the undercurrent of this book has absolutely nothing to do with her beauty experiment and almost everything to do with the author’s place in life. She was a new mother, struggling to raise her daughter alone as her husband frequently left the house for extended work trips, she lived in an unfamiliar country and had few friends and family members to help out. When I read the book I immediately thought she seemed rather depressed.

In the final chapters she final digs into the real problems in her life. I suppose the author felt the need to provide chapter upon chapter of details about her beauty experiment in the book before reaching this realization, but really I wish she would have skipped a few of those middle chapters and landed more quickly at this realization.

As a stay-at-home parent the author details how she felt left out of the financial equation with her husband. She also felt that her work at home was going unrewarded and believed spending money on spa packages, hair care and luxury goods would boost her self-worth. She termed this beauty-revenge spendingpassive aggression and survival technique.

Near the end of the book she points out that her husband was also experiencing pain. As a stay-at-home mom of an infant I remember thinking that everything had changed in my life, but my husband’s life had remained virtually unchanged. One day I looked up and realized my husband was suffering alongside me. His issues and troubles were slightly different, but he was struggling nonetheless.

Despite getting frustrated as I read chapter after chapter of this book I did like the place the author landed. By the end of the book she recognizes that there are more important things in life than appearances. I love this paragraph:

And I think: it’s fear that so often leaves us feeling empty – fear that causes empty hearts and sometimes empty philanthropy jars as well. Some of us buy diversions and delights, hoping to cheat time and forget death. Others sit on savings forever, budgeting for imagined wolf at the door. All we can truly assess ourselves is the quality of our daily, hourly, minute-by-minute calculations: how nimbly we count life’s riches; how skillfully we fill our emptiness so we may sum to joy.

I never wear much makeup myself. In fact, I didn’t start consistently wearing eyeliner and mascara, (the only makeup I wear), until just before my son was born, but after reading this book I underwent my own beauty experiment. I spent two weeks without wearing any makeup at all. It didn’t bother me much not to wear it. The only real difference I noticed was feeling more tired. As I looked in the mirror I noticed that my eyes didn’t sparkle quite the way I expected and that looking at my tired face made me feel more exhausted then ever. I don’t need makeup to feel whole, but I will admit that I have a happier attitude when sparkling eyes are looking back at me from the mirror.

7 thoughts on “The Beauty Experiment”

  1. I read the same book and came to the same conclusions although I didn’t recommend it at the end. My short review is here.

    Frankly, she annoyed me.

    I don’t feel bad not wearing makeup or wearing makeup, or dressing up or not dressing up. I prefer to be put together and pretty but it doesn’t bother me if I am not.

    She didn’t need to go to such extremes and that’s where it bothered me the most because it’s like everything was tied to her sense of ‘beauty’ when in fact it was just a construct of her own internal thoughts / pressure.

  2. That’s interesting that the extremes are also what bothered you. I did like the end of the book, (at least she came to some good conclusions), but I certainly thought it was lacking quite a bit in the middle. I don’t dress up often, I’m simply impossible to find clothes that fit my 6’1” frame, but I second your comment; I can take makeup or leave it.

  3. I haven’t read the book, but I totally got the paragraph where you say that you feel like everything has changed for you but not for your husband. I remember having the SAME thought early on. My husband and I have discussed it since then, but he agreed with me – he has some added pressures and complications but my life turned completely upside down.

    I go through phases where I have to remind myself to change out of my pajamas all day – I’m just going to get puked on so it can be hard to justify looking nice. But I do feel a lot better when I look presentable, and that kind of makes it worth it.

  4. I experienced PPD, beginning about 9 months after my daughters’ birth. Her acknowledged feelings of passive-aggressiveness and big, sweeping changes to her lifestyle (and decision to write a book about it) are big red flags. If she happens to read your blog review, she should know that she is not alone. The book “This Isn’t What I Expected,” which is about recognizing and coping with PPD, has really helped me.

    Childbirth and motherhood can wreak havoc with one’s self esteem, but most women actually look different after having a baby. Our bodies change a lot, even if we can fit in the same size. Changing my look — new clothes to better fit my changed post-twin body, new cosmetics to suit my changed skin tone and fatigue, new lingerie, and new shoes for my larger, wider feet — was essential.

  5. Ellen K – Thanks for your very honest comment. I think a lot more women (and men) suffer from PPD. You often hear about the extreme cases of this, but I believe there is a spectrum (from light to severe) that probably impacts more parents than we would ever imagine.Thanks for the book suggestion.

    Also, I completely agree with the difference in body shape after childbirth. Being 6’1” I was always hard to fit, but since the birth of my son it’s become even harder. I am actually wearing a smaller size, but nothing seems to fit quite right. Things have shifted into all sorts of strange places šŸ™‚


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