Looking back, Phoebe Baker Hyde calls it a perfect storm.
In 2007, she was a new mom with an unfamiliar mom-body, thrust into an expatriate lifestyle when her husband was transferred from San Francisco to Hong Kong. The day after arriving abroad, she and her family met with a team of relocation specialists in silk scarves, bejeweled shoes, blowouts and Chanel suits. Hyde - who lived a "low-maintenance" lifestyle until that point - listened intently to their advice, from how to dress to which women's club to join.
Soon, she was dressing up for lunch dates, wearing foundation to the grocery store and sampling hundred-dollar cosmetics as she shopped. Her actions were spurred largely by feeling like a marginalized expat and struggling with a "professional question mark" as she trailed in the wake of her husband's more successful career. While he stayed busy with an accounting position that required frequent travel, she remained at home with their daughter. She resorted to retail therapy and recalls numerous "mirror meltdowns."
[See: Survey: How We Feel About Beauty.]
"I went out and bought a lovely red dress for my husband's work party," says Hyde, 38, who now lives in Boston. "I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn't. And that was a big surprise to me. I thought: What if I stop playing this game? What if I try to look my insecurity or lack of self-esteem in the face, and figure out what it's really about?"
So she decided to swear off beauty - for one year. In her recent book, "The Beauty Experiment," Hyde chronicles what happened next: She gave up makeup, fancy creams and scrubs; didn't wear jewelry; chopped off her hair and bought no new clothing. Throughout the experience in Hong Kong, she kept notes on how she felt, what she learned and how others responded.
"At the beginning, I was very interested in my self-consciousness and how I felt without makeup," she says. "When I didn't have concealer to cover up the fact that I was exhausted, I would make journal entries like: Why am I so exhausted? It was sort of a direction toward health ... I think makeup is very often a crutch to try to make us look 'normal.'"
Hyde's husband, John, helped her shape a concrete plan for what to ditch and what to keep. "I pegged my hygiene routine to what he did," she says. Basic grooming was in: She showered (with shampoo, a comb and a tad of hair gel), brushed her teeth and wore deodorant. She also continued to use sunscreen and moisturizer. But she threw out her razors and let her hair grow everywhere except her face and lower legs.
Perhaps the hardest part was cutting her long hair into a short, men's-like style. "I went in there feeling very tough, and then I went home very quickly," she says. "I didn't like the cut, so I went at it even further with scissors." Her apartment was lined with mirrors, and that didn't help. Hyde covered them for the remainder of the experiment.
She dressed the same because she didn't want to buy new clothing - "I had adequate stuff, I suppose," she recalls. But when she ran simple errands, she saw women dressed head-to-toe in Chanel as they perused the produce aisle at the grocery store, fully manicured and wearing kitten heels. "I knew that was something I couldn't do," she says. "I didn't have the budget for it, I didn't have the time for it, I didn't have the taste for it. And so I think a large part of this experiment was having a temper tantrum aimed at a certain shape of womanhood. Because in the end, it wasn't sustainable or healthy, but it was something I needed to do. Just like when a little kid has a temper tantrum - they have to get it out and express it."
[See: How Safe Are Your Cosmetics?]
Indeed, Hyde, who majored in cultural anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, had long battled beauty demons. She remembers drinking so many chocolate diet shakes that she became constipated, and breaking in a pair of uncomfortable heels by wearing them with hiking socks and jogging around a parking lot. When her baby weight didn't come off as quickly as she hoped, she wore a spandex corset for five hours a day. "I carried with me a very teenage sense of insecurity because I had been slightly overweight as a teenager," she says. "And I always had that feeling of, 'Oh, if only I could fix that, everything else would be OK.'"
Hyde and her family moved back to the United States in 2009, and today, nearly six years post-experiment, she spends about 10 minutes getting ready in the morning. Since she no longer fusses over her looks, she doesn't obsess over them, either. She enjoys dressing up sometimes and wears "fun earrings" when she goes out with friends. But that nagging voice, the self-critical one telling her she doesn't look good enough, is gone - reprogrammed through a lot of work. "It was a real catfight all the way through," she says. "It was bloody. But there was a change, and I think it had to do with writing - with actually looking at the issues underneath the beauty and thinking about them."
Now, Hyde is confident she can teach her two children, ages 6 and 3, to believe in inner beauty - she can show them by example. And she hopes other women learn from her experiment too. "I hope they get a laugh, and maybe some compassionate mindfulness," she says. "When our habits make us miserable, it's great to take a step back and look at them. Frankly, I can't say makeup is good or bad for self-esteem. It's a really personal thing. But I do think there's a power in not doing something. Sometimes things that feel like a requirement are actually choices, and those choices can be very powerful ones."