In the past month I’ve had two opportunities to talk about The Beauty Experiment– and the years that have surrounded it–to a live in-person audience. As a writer I’m often secluded in my attic office, with only my tea and my inner editor to keep me company, and it seems I’ve forgotten how exhilarating it is to connect with living humans via eye-contact, laughter, and questions! I spent nearly every semester during high school and college in rehearsal for some theatrical creation or other, often writing my own monologues for the experimental shows. In graduate school I taught sections of several different courses, sometimes calling up my then boyfriend, now husband John to tell him how well my 39B section on Parody went that day.
Of course my kids know all about my performative side; they see it on a daily basis, but the universe of adult behavior frowns on silly walks and loud singing in public. Just yesterday my daughter was apalled by an elderly woman belting it out near the granola in our local grocery. Granted, there were other markers of unusualness in this woman, but Hattie’s reaction made me realize how narrow the strictures of public behavior are, and how a healthy dose of skepticism toward them is something I want my kids to have. The larger-than-life self is a very useful tool for everyone, not just the property of professional performers.
We’ll be watching more flash mob videos on YouTube, I think.
I’m reading Katie Roiphe’s book of essays “In Praise of Messy Lives” and her literary criticism has me feeling, all at once, the thousands of reading hours I’ve lost in the past 7 child-rearing years. I suppose the solution is in reading now, and in praising my messy life that preventind all that page turning, but I get the feeling Roiphe would not allow that domestic mayhem within an ordinary marriage is truly, properly “messy.” I probably should have had dealt with substance abuse/had an affair/had children out of wedlock/ published a scathing cultural commentary . Oh wait, I did that last one, marginally disguised as a self-help book. But whoops, Roiphe’s got me there too, in a different essay—trite confessional memoir masquerading as plotline. I can’t win.
In losing, perhaps, I score? Maybe I will not recommend this book to other mothers who already score themselves too often.
Chapter 8 of The Beauty Experiment is entitled “Pretty Mind.” It was a difficult chapter to write, not for reasons of exposition, but because achieving psychic equilibrium–and maintaining it even in the midst of life’s chaos (read holiday madness) is damn hard. I’m very honored to have a selection from Pretty Mind excerpted in the excellent online journal At Length:
For those who don’t know At Length it’s a cookie jar of prosy, poetical, and musical delights, and perfect for when you need to slip away from the crowd for private media consumption. Enjoy!
Everyone knows about hanging wreaths and lighting candles, but there’s another holiday tradition that gets less press: Desperately Shopping for a Perfect Holiday Dress. This is no Millenial female habit either; Virginia Woolf’ wrote a searing short story The New Dress back in 1925, one I wish I’d read before hitting the mall, but I didn’t read, and I did shop, and so here’s a pic of the dress I bought in Hong Kong –the one I write about in the first chapter of the beauty experiment, the one that started the whole thing.
The holiday parties in HK were epic (new car giveaway anyone?), but I also bought this frock because I hoped its fabulousness would make me feel that everything was right with the world–and with me. To my horror and surprise, the dress failed me utterly— for some reason it just couldn’t solve all my problems between cocktails and dessert. Huh.
Sometimes, sparkly holiday lights can illuminate life’s imperfections. But what makes this season special isn’t the festivities as much as the warm fuzzies: you can’t beat a month of culturally-sanctioned kindness, generosity and untempered hope. It’s a feeling that’s probably better amplified by another classic holiday garment: the nutty sweater. When you wear something moth-eaten, weird, cozy and possibly bedazzled, you can’t help but showcase your inner beauty. So if it gets rough in the aisles of Nordstrom’s or TJ Maxx when you’re trying to nab a marked-down gold lamé gown, smile at your fellow shoppers and remember you can always:
- Borrow a friend’s dress
- Add a Santa hat to your LBD
- Wear a turtleneck under a sundress and trust in the universe’s sense of humor
- Learn a few elf jokes and show up in full regalia.
Wear ‘em if you got ‘em!
When my friend related the contents of a study she’d read linking high self-criticism to artistic and intellectual achievement we both groaned. We had the first in spades, but didn’t seem to be reaping any of the other. When I mentioned said study to my husband, he scoffed openly. “You really need a study to prove that?” His tone set off a bracing round of marital bickering about genial intellectual discussion, but within ten minutes I came around to embrace his point, if not its delivery.
Self-criticism gets an astonishing amount of bad press in women’s media. We worry about it causing eating disorders, self-hatred, bad haircuts, unnecessary plastic surgeries, poor role modeling, servile attitudes, passive-aggression and chronic depression. Self-criticism makes me think of teary confessions on daytime talk shows while, for my husband, it calls to mind “the practice of protecting and enhancing best assets in the current business model of paranoid self-reflection.” Self-criticism, according to my husband, is the best thing a project or business can have going for it. “What about a person?” I’d like to ask him now, but he’s not here.
I suspect the problem lies in the way many women think of themselves (or feel thought of) as product-project—physical selves inherently connected to external actions or work. Whether this is a gender-specific trait or an effect of acculturation or neither or both doesn’t matter. The question stands: what would happen if women thought more about what self-criticism could do for us instead of to us?
This would require a few things.
First, we’d need to recognize self-criticism for the firehose it is: Stand in front of it and it can kill you. Wrangle it expertly and you can keep your own house and business from burning down. You can save lives even, if you know what you’re doing and get there soon enough.
Second, women might need to draw a few more lines in the sand demarcating what is and is not fair game. Job choices, financial decisions, social or romantic alliances and injurious habits might be, whereas the shape of a nose or a taste for harp music might not. Health concerns do ride this line problematically, in men’s lives as well as women’s, but men seem more comfortable deciding: if it’s not killing me, I’m not going to sweat it.
Thirdly, if the positive psychologists are right and focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses truly makes us happy, then we might need to take a more Buddhist approach to happiness. Is happiness what we want in all corners of our lives? Affirmations and self-love alone will not free us from obesity, bad relationships, bad habits, weak prose (see above) or unrealistic expectations. Better decisions will. Nor will scathing self-criticism free us from irrational fears, insecurity, sadness or history the way a positive self-image will.
Today’s affirmation then:
My ability to spot weaknesses is one of my greatest strengths.
I vow to always use this power for good.
I’ve been reading Ariel Gore’s new book Bluebird, the Psychology of Women’s Happiness (FSG, 2009). In it she investigates the positive psychology movement—Seligman, et al– and passes along one of its biggest claims: that there are several major actions proven to increase the sensation of happiness in your life. (This is opposed to changing life circumstances in the hopes it will increase happiness, a less effective strategy, surprisingly. Lottery winners, for example, are briefly thrilled and then return to the same level of happiness they had before. ) So the actionable actions for increased happiness sensation are thus:
Be more grateful
Learn to focus on strengths rather than shortcomings
Have positive relationships
I think these merit singular investigation, so in the following notes I’ll take them one at a time.