On Identity, Looks, and Impressions

Posted on January 5, 2015


We’re told from an early age not to judge a book by its cover, but we do anyway.  Oh, how we do.

I read with interest Phoebe Baker Hyde’s article, “My Year Without Makeup.”  In it, she starts out by detailing “This is who I am,” followed by a long list of roles she has filled in her lifetime, much of it defined by appearance.  My first reaction was – whaaaat?  This is how you define “who I am?”  An identity always bounded by appearance, by clothing, by the expectations of others, or by your relationship to someone else?

But that was the whole point.  As she goes on to tell us, her slavishness to the beauty routine that others seemed to expect – or at least, that seemed to be the norm surrounding her – all got to be too much.

“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… and had only a vague sense of a goal: something needed to change for the better.”

Ms. Hyde closes her article with the observation that her “experiment” did not really change her “beauty craziness” all that much.  But, comparing it to before-and-after makeover pictures, she tells us:  “The difference is that the woman in the ‘before’ shot is forever looked at.  In the after shot, the woman in the picture is the one seeing.”

Ms. Hyde has penned a book of her experience, The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World without Concealer, and Learned to Love the Real Me.   It apparently resonates with other women; it’s getting excellent reviews on Amazon.  The topic resonates with me, too, but sort of in reverse.  Contrary to Ms. Hyde’s experience, I have always had a very strong sense of identity, and never felt defined by external things.  I have never been one to wear makeup or get manicures – those things were time-wasters, a hassle, I had other things I’d rather be doing or thinking about.

And yet… and yet.  I do have a sort of mental image of myself, and gradually, what I see in the mirror isn’t matching it.  I am still pretty athletic, but my hair has faded… and of all things, my eyebrows, which used to lend character and expression, have faded along with it.  My hair is not gray, exactly, just not as vibrant as it used to be, and my brows are not as defined.  For the first time in my life, I’m “wasting time” with 10-minute hair color and a smidge of eyebrow pencil in the morning.  And you know why I do this?  Because I worry about eventually becoming one of those invisible older people.  Already, I have two strikes against me in the first impression others have of me:  first, I am female, and women are often assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise.  Second, I am… petite.  Very petite.  And shorter people are seen as less competent than taller people.  And now, the bloom is off the rose; I will sooner or later have ageism to deal with, too.  Bam.  Triple whammy.  Estelle Getty, here I come.

While Ms. Hyde tells us of her “beauty craziness” which has infused much of her life, I wonder now if I will become afflicted with my own version, in reverse, and for a sort of reverse reason, as well:  while Ms. Hyde was conforming to social expectations, I never did… but now, since society “expects” people of my physical description to be soft, incompetent little beings, I want to defy that expectation, too.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have been told that I have a big presence, that I am arrogant (okay, that’s not great), that I can be intimidating (um… also maybe not great); but still, I have plenty of experience being underestimated upon first impression, and believe me, that can get tiresome.  Can’t change my gender.  Can’t change my height.  And that just leaves a probable future of “beauty craziness.”  Let’s just hope it doesn’t get too crazy.

Have a great week, all.  I am off to sharpen my eyebrow pencil.


“Femme qui se mire,” by Frederick Carl Frieseke

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