Wednesday, December 17, 2008

honey and rosewater, my new best friends

There's plenty more to say about my hair, but since that's not the only thing I'm up to right now, I thought I'd talk about something else first. And today's "something else" is Homemade Beauty Products.

I should say, first, that for the last three or four years, the complete list of beauty products I've bought and used regularly is as follows:

-shampoo (usually Suave)
-bar soap (usually Dove)
-shaving gel (usually CVS brand, which is actually very good)
-razors (my one expensive item: I use Gillette's Venus Divine, because they really are better on my sensitive skin)
-a thick lotion (essential when you're constantly washing hands at work)

I have a small stash of makeup, which I put on maybe four or five times a year. I have a few tinted lip glosses which I sometimes wear in the summer. That's it. Before I gave up on attending to beauty, I would often put on eyeliner and lip gloss on my days off work, but I haven't done that for the last couple of years.

Part of this minimalism is due to economy. Part of it is due to never wanting to spend time on face creams and makeup and all that. Part of it is due to resentment of the vast beauty-product machine, its aggressive marketing and the subtle but persistent idea that these products will buy you love. (Maybe the message reaches other people differently, but for me, with my looong history of unrequited love interests, that's always been it: maybe if I use X, he will suddenly find me irresistible.)

And my gosh, what a sick message that is to have in your brain. It doesn't help that I had it reinforced by a very strong external voice, coming from a person I find it hard to doubt. It was the need to purge that message from my brain, more than anything else, that led me to give up on caring about my appearance. I don't have it all figured out, but I'm smart enough to know that those things we do in a desperate scramble to earn love need to be abandoned if we're going to grow.

This whole project is about moving past the need-driven pursuit of beauty, to some more healthy and fulfilling attitude. And as a second step (the first being the shaved head), I've started making my own beauty products.

The connection probably isn't obvious. In fact, there's no necessary connection at all. But for me, making my own products, at home, out of simple ingredients I understand, has been tremendously empowering. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I just love making things. Cooking, knitting, designing greeting cards, sculpting out of clay-- I'm a dabbler in all manner of crafts. The process of making something with my hands is deeply satisfying to me; the attention to detail and slow, fine-grained physicality of all these crafts complements the mental, imaginative buzzing that most of my life is made up of. So simply the process of making these mixtures is fun and rewarding for me. (Remember when you were a kid, and loved mixing things? I would use all my mom's discarded shampoo and lotion bottles, and make the most awful, messy, weird-smelling concoctions. Happy times.)

The second reason is that it makes me feel independent. Our lives these days are built on such long, long chains of cooperation (my daddy's phrase!) that we barely understand most of the things we use. We are so, so distant from the raw materials and simple concepts that all our products and systems are based on, and sometimes it gives me this very tense, out-of-control feeling. I wouldn't trade it-- the complexity of our socioeconomic order brings profound gifts to us-- but it's nice, sometimes, to go a little simpler. I still may not know where the honey and oats in my shampoo were harvested, but I understand what they are, and I have a theoretic knowledge of how to produce them. Unlike, for example, methylchloroisothiazolinone.

The third reason is that it makes me feel quirky and defiant and self-expressive. I just like swimming a little bit against the cultural stream. I'm not snooty and elitist about it, as I used to be, but I still prefer to keep to a lifestyle that's just... a little bit... different. Buying face cream at a department store does not accord with this preference. Making it out of olive oil and beeswax does.

So, for all these reasons, I immediately became enthusiastic about beauty supplies when I found out you could make your own. I have a big book of recipes-- I've tried about six of them so far, for everything from shampoo to mouthwash. And since using them I've found, what I didn't find before, that there is a satisfaction that comes from using them as well as from making them. Regardless of whether it makes my skin look or feel better (I haven't performed any scientific studies as yet), it feels good to anoint my face with cold cream and astringent. This is probably not news to most women, but it is to me. Before, any time I was engaged on any kind of complicated beauty ritual, it was all about how other people were going to respond to me; now it's about nurturing myself, cherishing my own skin. It's a lovely thing.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

So, um, where did your hair go?

Yes, friends, my first act in this exploration of beauty was shaving my head. In fact, the decision to shave my head came first; it was only as I was writing through my reasons for wanting to do it that I decided to embark on this more general quest to rediscover what it means to make myself beautiful.

The story is this: in the fall of 2006, I cut my hair short. It was a complicated but powerful impulse, and it had almost nothing to do with whether or not I'd like the way it looked. It was part of the greater movement toward eschewing both beauty and femininity; although when I first got it cut I paid a lot of money to get a "really good" cut, I quickly moved to trimming it myself, in the bathroom, with craft scissors. Now, I'm a pretty healthy, well-balanced, emotionally stable person, and even going through a personal crisis I seem to act in a healthy, well-balanced, emotionally stable way. So if I'm going to act in self-attacking ways, ultimately they're going to be very benign. Cutting my own hair became, at times, a kind of self-attack. I wasn't going to actually injure myself, but I was going to act aggressively against that part of myself that had been causing me pain: my femininity, that part of me that is on display for the world, symbolized by my hair. If it got longer than an inch and a half or so, I felt this powerful, visceral need to cut it back again. There was a certain vengeful pleasure in slicing and slicing until it was once again short enough that I could just run my fingers through it.

Well, I'm in a much better place now, and a few months ago I started to feel that something needed to be done with my hair. I considered several different ideas, but when the right one came to me I recognized it at once: "I'm going to grow my hair long again, but I'm going to shave it off first; start from zero."

I've always been curious about what it would be like to shave my head, and have been half-looking for an excuse for several years. Whether or not this could be considered an excuse, I don't know; I do know that it felt all wrong to consider growing my hair out from where it was. There was too much negativity tied up with my current haircut, too much anger and self-hatred. It would have felt like building on a bad foundation. I wanted a fresh start.

I thought it would be nice to time it with the liturgical calendar, so last Sunday (the first day of Advent, very appropriate) my dear roommates helped me raze the head. Coming up to it, I was increasingly nervous about how it would look, but I decided my goal would be to find ways to look beautiful with a bald head, and then later at every stage of hair growth. To this end I bought a few scarves which I could wrap about my head in interesting ways, and knitted several hats. I figured, if I could get started now, finding beauty in challenging circumstances, I'd be well set to find it later, once my hair was all grown out and easy to make pretty.

Of course, my plan backfired slightly, because I think my nearly-bald head looks AWESOME. But more about that next time, as I discuss... The Shaving of the Head: Aftermath.

Monday, December 01, 2008

and now for something completely different

Up until this weekend, this blog has been Chronicles of the Ephemeral, where I write about whatever amusing and trivial things have been happening to me lately. Chronicles will be back again in 2010, but for this year I'm going to be doing something a little different.

It all started... no, I can't possibly trace this back to when it all started. I remember when I was a little girl, I went through a phase when I refused to wear dresses, and then another phase when I refused to wear pants. And whatever was behind both of those phases (I don't remember) is probably a part of what I'm doing now, and that's way too far for me to go back.

Let's just say this: the notion of personal beauty has always been a little bit problematic. I grew up wanting to be beautiful, and I don't think it was because my parents or society told me that a little girl has to be beautiful or she's worthless. I think there's something inherently soul-fulfilling in looking at yourself and being pleased; in knowing that others take pleasure in looking at you. A beautiful person has the same appeal a beautiful tree has, plus that poignant awareness of how close you are to that person, and how distant. When you meet someone, your physical appearances are the first mutual communication you make, and (all else being equal) it is natural and right to want your appearance to be pleasing.

But we all know to what extremes, and what evils, the desire to be beautiful can lead. I'm not going to talk about those generally; I am going to say that, for me, there came a point where I felt I had to eschew any desire to appear beautiful. Rightly or wrongly, in the emotional state I was in, I felt I had two choices: to abuse my body and mind in an effort to please others with my appearance, or to violently reject the notion that it mattered at all whether others found me attractive. I went with the latter course, not so far as to try to make myself ugly, but just to formally and decisively stop caring how I looked. I cared about decency and cleanliness, and that was all. I got to the point where I often felt uncomfortable if someone told me I looked nice.

All well and good, and maybe that's what needed to happen in order for a certain amount of healing to take place. But now it's time to move past that. Over the course of this year, I want to recreate my understanding of what it means to be beautiful. I want to learn how to render unto the body what is the body's, and unto spirit what is spirit's. I have some ideas of how to begin, and I'm looking forward to what I will learn. And I'm going to journal here, to keep a record for myself and to share with others, who may also be struggling with the tension between cherishing their appearance and loving themselves regardless of their appearance.

If you're reading this, I'd love for you to comment and introduce yourself. Whether you do or not, though, thanks for dropping by!