by Phoebe Baker Hyde (DaCapo)

At the beginning of The Beauty Experiment, Phoebe Baker Hyde describes a fairly typical modern lady experience. She spends too much money on a dress for a stupid holiday party, looks and feels bad in it, and is left feeling disgusted by the amount of work she’s expected to do to herself just to look acceptable, especially since she feels inadequate all the time anyway. We’ve all been there, but most people don’t take that pain and anger and make something from it. It’s always interesting to see what happens when someone does.

Hyde is a white American woman living in Hong Kong with her Chinese-American husband and their new baby. As it turns out, her frustration wasn’t just about the bad dress. She was angry with her husband for playing the important businessman while she spent most of her time alone with a baby, trying during naptime to write a novel. Furthermore, it had dawned on her that things like under-eye concealer served to, well, conceal the truth about her mental and physical health, which took a beating after the birth of her daughter. She wanted to be her authentic self, to live a life that felt more fulfilling and less frustrating.

So she dropped out. For one year she would use shampoo, deodorant, soap, a toothbrush and a hairbrush—the most basic tools for social appropriateness—but no makeup of any kind, no jewelry, no hair styling equipment, and no depilatory for the removal of body hair. In a less systematic way she also scaled back on her clothing options and, in a frenzy that might have seemed less crazy if it had been rendered in blank verse and included in the Ariel sequence, covered every mirrored wall in their fancy apartment with wrapping paper.

In addition to reporting on her personal experiment, the author conducted an informal survey of around 450 women on their sense of obligation toward maintaining appearances. The resulting book is by turns insightful, troubling, and really rather useful.

So what did Hyde learn? To a certain extent she saw that, by bending the rules of social behavior in her group, she cast herself outside of it. Without chit-chat about shopping and spa treatments, she soon found she had little to say to her fellow striving expats. Worse, there was one impeccable woman who shunned her for seemingly no reason other than Hyde’s unfussed-over appearance, her outgrown Sun-In streaks and hairy legs.

(Then again, rebellion has its own pleasures. “I’d never guessed that skipping the mascara could be so subversive, but it felt the tiniest bit like lying down in front of a tank and singing ‘Kumbaya.’” p 113)

The Beauty Experiment is about femaleness, of course, but it’s also about some of the places where gender overlaps with race, class, culture, and circumstance. Part of Hyde’s problem is cultural dislocation: As a broad-boned white person attempting to buy clothing in Hong Kong she can’t find much that fits, let alone flatters her, and her sense of herself as appropriately “feminine” is constantly challenged.

She also begins to map her pettier personal problems onto the more troubled female realities she sees around her. In the space between the modern high rise she lives in with her family and the auto body repair shop next door, she encounters a homeless woman living in a little structure made out of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and tire retreads. This woman, dubbed Blue-Flower Shirt, wears the same clothes every single day. Taking note, Hyde hatches a plan to use the money she’ll save on beauty treatments (or beauty “work,” as she sometimes calls it) on charitable giving instead.

Hyde is an engaging, bright writer with a good sense of humor and a novelist’s gift for depicting social nuances with precision and wit. On the day of a pish-posh house party the aforementioned mean lady opened her door to Hyde and feigned delight, “her eyebrows trying to climb her face in dismay, but being held down by hostessing willpower.” Hyde’s reaction? “Half-moons burned under my eyes where concealer should have been.”

Her observations are keen, becoming only more insightful as her experiment deepens. For instance, it’s only after several months of staying away from clothing stores that she can identify the “mania” at the heart of the shopping-as-entertainment ritual.

But as deft as she can be, some of her descriptions of herself are so harsh it isn’t enlightening or even cathartic to read them, just painful. At the beach, comparing herself unhappily to a young teenage girl playing volleyball with her family, she describes herself as “…less a fertile woman in a bikini than a human coat rack with an assortment of damp towels, discarded sand toys, and an ‘I’m busy’ sign hanging off me.” Then again, it may hurt to read this because it’s so near the bone; ultimately, Hyde’s true project is documenting an inner voice of shame, self-criticism, and cruelty, the same one that lives inside the mind of every woman you know.

At the outset of her experiment Hyde seems unaware of the full extent of the pain she’s in, and how like self-abnegation that experiment is. In one memorable early scene she goes to a unisex Hong Kong salon called Squiffy with the stated purpose of getting a “man-cut” that would require no upkeep, but more likely because she secretly wanted to make herself look ugly to herself: At home later, she “savagely” cuts off the sideburns the hairdresser had left with a pair of nail scissors, nicking her ear. Unexpressed pain and rage keeps seeping through her prose, making her suffering seem impotent, and the reader worries that she won’t gain anything from her experiment but more hurt.

But that’s just in the first half of the book. As if working through the stages of grief, Hyde grapples with the loss of her public identity. She gets deep, even turning the chastisements of her inner voice into Zen koans, and has an honest-to-goodness spiritual moment by a little manmade pond, a glimpse of the sublime.

By peeling back the outer layer of her ambition and competitiveness (e.g., her longing for a beautiful, expensive handbag) she gets a closer look at her real desires and goals. In this way the lesson this book has to teach us poor, manipulated citizens of consumer capitalism is a genderless one, though a male version — an experiment in casting off the outer layers of learned “masculinity” — would be just as useful and no doubt equally fascinating.

By the book’s end Hyde earns a truer understanding of beauty, the most obvious result of an experiment like this. But she also finds peace by rejiggering her own priorities, and learns to appreciate ritual and myth and their functions in the larger social sphere we’re all a part of, whether we like it or not. It’s a fine transformation to watch. You could even call it beautiful.