Friday, July 22, 2011

What is Beauty To You? (Bien Dans sa Peau)

'Endless Summer' hydrangeas from my garden
So far, I have written primarily about makeup on this blog, but I have been thinking more holistically about what beauty means to me and how my idea of it has changed in the last fewyears. As much as I derive pleasure from looking at beauty in nature, architecture, fashion, the seaside, and other equally gorgeous things, more and more I realize that to truly be beautiful, I need to feel something more than the ball of stress that lives in my belly, to feel a sort of beauty emanate from the inside out—not in a vain or woo-woo, crystal-wagging way—but in a bien dans sa peau way, which for me means being comfortable in my own skin whenever and wherever I am.

I have been lucky, and I have had a nice life so far, but I often find myself swept up in life's sense of urgency (an urgency that seems especially prized in the US Northeast) and I endeavor to remind myself to slow down. However, I always manage to convince myself that I will, just after this next thing I need to do. Once I do that thing, I can finally let myself relax and enjoy whatever. So it's pretty clear to me that the person most to blame for my lack of peace is me.

So how do we make more time for ourselves? I can't be the only one who sees the irony in the many 'helpful' tools invented the last several decades, which are supposed to save time, but which instead compel us to do more, use up more of our time, and which even contribute to a sense of frustration that we might not be doing enough. For example, one reason I avoided Twitter for so long (which is every bit as fun as I knew it would be) was because I did not want yet another online medium that sucked away even more of my time, time where I could be recharging  my reserves by just sitting quietly, reading a book with a cat in my lap. I am starting to find it really sad that each passing year sees me spend less and less time enjoying my 3D life.

Photo credit: Apple
How often do I enjoy today—right now, this very minute—my beautiful surroundings, the ones I worked so hard to create? Not very often. Don't I gulp my espresso while feverishly scrolling through Google Reader so I can race out the door to work? Aren't I always doing three things at once to save time (e.g., giving myself a manicure while flipping through a magazine and watching something on TV). Aren't my gardens parched and weedy because I am too "busy" on the computer? No wonder time goes by so fast, and no wonder I enjoy/notice so little of the beauty that surrounds me. I'm going through life with blinders on.

So what is the resolution? When do I get my reward for all this hard work? The answer is when I give myself permission. Stress, frenetic activity, and lack of sleep are not beauty enhancers. I often think about cultures whose simplicity and practice of mindfulness allow for more down time—the way an Italian will sit in a café with a small cup of coffee, not take a giant travel mug to go. Or the beautiful simplicity of a Japanese meal, arranged perfectly on the plate. I think about how, growing up, my family sat at the dinner table every night, without fail, unless someone was away. My mother set the table with the good china with paper napkins (were weird WASPs, what can I say) and always lit candles if we ate after dark. Nowadays, it seems that I rush through dinner in front of the computer or while reading a book. It's no wonder I rarely feel satisfied with my food; it's hard to feel satisfied when you're barely aware you ate anything.

Last week, I spent the final six days of my vacation building a private office as a birthday present for Mr. Petals while he was away. As I dug into closets and crawled under the eaves on days where temps soared into the high 90s, I felt shocked and then overwhelmed by the amount of useless detritus I had accumulated in the 8 years since we'd moved to this house. Who needs three sets of mixing bowls? Or two crock pots or books from my undergrad years or baby clothes, furniture and books for that child I am not going to have? Or a dead air conditioner? Or (for god's sake) bag upon bag of empty makeup boxes? Truly, how sad and pitiful is an empty box with all that air and unused space sucking up the energy of my surroundings.

So, as you can imagine, I took that opportunity to ruthlessly clear out, and when I had finished, I could not believe what the end of the driveway looked like on trash pick-up day, not to mention the top of the driveway, which was full of small furniture and bags and boxes for Good Donor, who will appreciate all those clothes, books, shoes, and toys.

 The New York Times
I quickly realized the fastest way I could restore inner peace and outer beauty to my life was to stop being a curator. More choice means more stuff, thus more stress, which means more excess and compounded stress, which leads, once again, to feeling overwhelmed.

Speaking of choice, does anyone over 40 remember when we went to the store to buy jeans there was one kind—dark-rinsed straight legs that had to be washed a bunch of times before they were soft enough to wear? Now there's bootleg, wide leg, skinny, tapered, stovepipe, cropped, capri, natural waist, low waist, high waist ... and then each of those styles comes in a variety of colors!

I hate to feel unsettled and restless in my own home, a place that should be a relaxing haven, because of the self-imposed chaos and clutter from empty UPS boxes, piles of paper on every horizontal surface, a mountain of unread magazines that I swear I'll get to, items that belong in other rooms, shoes everywhere, clean laundry that needs to be put away (where a laundry basket stands in for a bureau), makeup and camera equipment scattered all over the place, and so on. And it doesn't help that my job often demands 60-80 hours a week because there always seems to be yet another deadline. Not to stumble too far off track, but what happened to our work life? When did working more than 40 hours a week become a given, a badge of honor? It's a very sad state of affairs, indeed, for we salaried workers, where overtime is unpaid time. Blame the 80s.

Henceforth, I have renewed my commitment to making a concerted effort to slow down, to be happier with less, and to be mindful of what I have and what I experience. When I take the time to appreciate, to put things in their proper place when I have finished using them (not to mention actually having a place to put them away), my surroundings feel much more beautiful, and I feel that beauty radiating from within.

As I worked through the house last week like the Tasmanian devil, I found myself weeding out every place I touched. Everything is in its right place, and I feel so much better—even (and especially) the way I pamper myself. That had gotten out of hand, too, and I found ways to edit that, as well.

Thankfully, I do not have a skincare obsession, and my routine and products have always been relatively minimal. I did take this recent opportunity to edit it down to just a few items, tossing out all the rest. Here's what remains:

  • Caudalie Foaming Face Wash. I use this in the shower each morning. Because it is so gentle, it does not require any added moisturizer after, and I get what little sunscreen I need from my makeup.
  • Bioderma Crealine H2O Ultra-Mild Non-Rinse Face and Eyes Cleanser. I love this at night in warmer months. Nothing takes off the day as well as this, and so gently. In colder months, I switch to the more creamy Avene Extremely Gentle Cleanser.
  • Baltic Collagen, a serum that acts as primer, moisturizer, highlighter, and treatment. Love it.
I love the simplicity of using so few products, as well as not having to add moisture back to my skin since I am not stripping it. My face has rewarded me by being less oily and less reactive. All good.

My closet has been pared down to only the pieces that make me feel great, and it's so much easier to get dressed when I know where everything is (and that it all fits). No longer do I give closet space to that chic thing that will look great after I lose those X pounds.

Hermes Les Jardins d'Armenie
I no longer hang onto tee shirts for years just because they are still in good shape. I spend the most I can afford on fewer items, such as a camelhair coat, cashmere blazers, merino sweaters, and so on. I live in neutrals (shades of soft pin-tinged grey and clear blues are my best friends), so I add color with accessories like scarves, shoes, and handbags. This works for me as long as I adhere as best I can to my new one-in-one-out rule.

To help me make wiser, more thoughtful and discerning purchasing decisions, I had a "seasonal" color analysis done, mostly to confirm what I already suspected about my coloring and tastes, but also to get the swatches!

From top, counter clockwise: Chips for my eyes, hair, and skin
My chips matched the colors in one of my mother's scarves
(I don't do florals outside the gardena)

Many sartorial experts (and also makeup artists) claim that anyone can wear any color, and while that may be logistically true, why would I want to look good when I can look great? For example, everyone says blue eyes should wear brown eyeshadow for contrast. My eyes are blue, and I get this advice all the time. I even have an amber starburst around my pupil, which makes my irises appear olive green, so I would think this brown-with-blue recommendation is especially true for me, but I look hideous in browns, almost all browns, and especially warm browns. And so despite my gut feeling for what looked good, I'd become confused by the conflicting information, so I went to a place where my skin, eyes, and hair were analyzed, which felt the tiniest bit more scientific and less woo woo.

My True Summer fan deck
The analyst fed the ID for the matching chips into the computer, which returned a result with my season and a recommended swatch book. It's just a guideline, and I like to think I am more creative and intuitive than having to consult a swatch book when I go shopping, but it was interesting to have some of my favorite colors confirmed and just as interesting to see other favorites tossed aside when I realized that those were wearing me. Nothing compared to seeing the transformation of my skin when the color people draped a minimal set of different colored fabrics on me. I had always suspected I was a "Summer," and I was right.

And now for the best part! Even though I wear a relatively full face of makeup when I leave the house, I use a fairly light hand and choose neutral colors that can be found within my body, mirroring the concept of Ellis Faas (using a fair number of her products). Other favorite brands that are always in rotation are Chanel, NARS, Chantecaille, and Laura Mercier. I still get some use from a few Shu Uemura eyeshadows from the older collection (before the brand was pulled from US retail locations). I used to wear makeup to look older, more sophisticated. Now that I am older, less makeup makes me look younger and more rested.

Just like wearing only specific colors for my apparel, I wear only clear blue-red, deep pink, or mid-toned rose lipstick, so that simplifies my choices, and I can put my makeup on each morning in under 5 minutes. Shopping is also made simple, since there are colors I never even consider (peach, coral, brown, bronze, orange-reds, and so on). But even before the color analysis, which also recommends makeup colors by brand,  I had my own technique to see if a color flatters me: I try the item on with no other makeup on my face, and if it is face/eye brightening, it is a keeper. If it creates shadows, or pulls redness or makes my skin look sallow, out it goes. I wrote about my unscientific technique here.

I think that's enough of this hugely long-winded post, so if you are still with me, congratulations! I am curious about what beauty means to you and how you manage it in your lives. I hope I didn't put you all to sleep.

All photos mine except where noted in caption


  1. I have always liked simplicity and sleek, elegant lines in my environments and such. I try not to accumulate too much stuff - just useful items. Of course, I still end up with too much stuff!

    I think so long as you have a definition that suits you and makes you happy, it should work out! I often agree that we need to take some time out to breathe, especially with a good book and a cup of tea, or whatever that may be. I was hesitant with Twitter for the same reasons as you, but oh well, c'est la vie, yes?

  2. "...I think the answer is when I give myself permission..." - How true, how true!

  3. I agree with so much of what you said! As a mother of 3 with a full-time job and a blog, my life sometimes seems like nothing more than a frantic blur, passing me by without me even noticing. I have to stop once in a while and force myself to breathe and enjoy what's happening around me instead of simply pushing through.

    I'm trying to declutter my life (my house is another matter) and concentrate only on things that are within my control and things that bring me happiness. I've made a concerted effort to stop focusing on the negatives and instead take note of the beauty around me in all its incarnations. I've made a lot of progress in that area, but I still have a ways to go.

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post!


  4. Such a brilliant, insightful post! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    I'm still in the process of figuring out what beauty means to me. But I suspect it has a great deal to do with genuineness, and with the freedom to choose your own joys. :)

  5. I always have minimalist Martha Stewart type ambitions. However, the reality is quite different! I do feel really great when I clean out, but I've learned to accept that I have way too many interests (and too little time) and my apartment won't align with my vision =P.

    Speaking of getting your colors done, I was intrigued so I looked it up. I'm pretty sure I'm a winter. I like the idea of choosing colors that fit me, as a way to streamline my collection. I should do more research on this---- do you have any good site recommendations?

  6. My cats are the epitome of beauty to me and when I look at them the myriad complications and disappointments of life just disappear.

    I might not put it like that during a 3 am 'hairball episode' though...

  7. This is one great article, Zuzu. You've summed up neatly many feelings that I have. I remember the days when you were on vacation, it meant no one could reach you. Now, with all the technology, you are always reachable.

    Beauty changes for me but underneath it all, I think contentment and serenity is beautiful. When one isn't serene or content, you can see stress on a face, frownie lines, the big number 11 between the brows, downturned mouth, all signs of inner turmoil expressed outwardly. I think a calm visage is a beautiful one. Maybe one day, I'll have it.

  8. Larie, I adore sleek, elegant lines in my environment, too. My home decor is rather eclectic, but I lean toward the simplicity of Shaker lines in furniture. No overstuffed sofat and ottomans, here. I prefer shutters over curtains (unless they are sheer, billowy muslin or linen), and everything is small scale. If I had a giant house, I'd fill it with bigger things, but I grew up in such a house, where most of the rooms went unused. It was nice to have an entire section of the house to hide out in, but I purposely chose a small Cape for my first house, so that every room was used and loved.

    I do have my own definition of what suits me, but I also get sidetracked very easily, and that's when the clutter happens. Remember when people predicted that e-mail would be the end of paper? Ha ha. Now we print more than ever before!

    Anyway, there's not much more beautiful to me than finally siting down at night, in my prematurely distressed leather armchair (thanks, India and Ivan!), with a hot drink or glass of wine, and preferably a big puddle of purring pussy in my lap. ;)

  9. Bob, you very quickly picked out the most important part of the entire epic! I'm the only one holding myself back, but I have years of practice at it, so it takes some undoing.

    This last weekend, I shall spend clearing up the last bits of my big project last week, and then all will be right in my world again.

  10. Shannon, I read your comment and feel so sheepish. I have no children, and I cannot imagine the time that takes, especially from those of you who work full time. In fact, I often comment on it and wonder how people who have work like I do manage. I am sure if I had kids, I would push back on the demands from the rest of my life.

    You also said something that resonated with me about negativity. If I want to improve my life, I try to change my thoughts. It's harder than it would seem because I am not even aware of all the thoughts that process through my subconscious. So to start, I began a daily practice of gratitude, with the hope that if I can be grateful for all that I have, I will feel less drive to continually seek whatever it is that I have been looking for (e.g., that elusive perfect taupe eyeshadow, ...). I want to believe that everything I need is already inside me because I have found that external acquisitions do not fill that hole. In fact, as some of you have probably already guessed, I quickly tire of the New Shiny Thing or become resentful of it and its ilk because I soon feel overwhelmed from the burden of having too much stuff, most of which I never use, such as yet another item added to my makeup collection.
    And that word in itself is very telling. A makeup collection? Just like my friend, Veuve has said, "I'm aiming for a well-edited, luxe little stash." I am starting to believe that in order to do that, I MUST be grateful for what I have and to remember and honor all the good that touches my life on a daily basis. When I feel grateful, I will feel beautiful.

  11. Mia, thank you for your comments and your kind words. I could not agree more that beauty is interpreted by the individual and, like you, I also suspect it has much to do with genuineness. I spent too many year of my life being a people pleaser--it was expected of me, as being agreeable and polite was highly valued in my family--but it cost me my deeper sense of self, as well as my confidence. So now I seek the freedom to choose my own joys that you mention, and stand firmly behind them.

  12. Dovey, I used to admire MS and her minimalism until I saw a show where she was making lemon poppyseed muffins and told us how she used poppy seeds from her own garden and her lemons from her Meyer lemon tree. It was then I threw the remote at the TV and relized I would do that, too, if I were rich with a huge staff waiting on me hand and foot, lol!

    Reality is, indeed, different! I'd be slim and fit if I had a cook, too!

    As for getting color analyzed, it was an interesting experience and worth doing. I will pull together a list of resources today and post them. Note that as soon as DH wakes up, I am finishing the last bits from last week's house project, so if I forget PLEASE remind me--and/or e-mail me at theeverydabeauty at gmail dot com.

  13. Munichjoolz, I agree! I cant' feel sad or burdened when I watch my cats play or groom one another. DH and I wanted to start a web site called Cow Love (we have two cow kitties) but it was taken. We have plenty of cute overload videos to upload, though.

  14. Ammie, YES! I remember when vacation was a way to get away from work. Now people leave contact info before they go, as if the fact that they CAN be reachable means they should. Not me, never. Not even if I am staying at home, like I did for my recent vacation. I earned that time off, and it is sacred.

    I agree with you about serenity and contentment. If you aren't content, it shows in your face, posture, attitude ... I am sure we all know at least one person who's sole purpose in life is to complain and be critical. Is that person beautiful? I don't think so. So I also think a calm (and kind!) visage is a beautiful one. Like you, mine does not come naturally, but it will be easier when I manage to slow down.

  15. Nice post, Zuzu! It is so easy to get lost in the current U.S. culture of things, noise, and especially shopping. There are an awful lot of people who are really sick and tired of this, though-- perhaps an offshoot of the Voluntary Simplicity movement of the 90's (not quite so hairshirt, though). I recently read a review of a book on finance by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter and it seems that the upshot of it was-- "get rid of what you don't need so that you can have what you *really* want." Figuring that out seems to require slowing down and turning off the noise machine. I'll let you know if I ever get a clue! ;)

  16. Veuve, getting rid of the things I don't need is also extremely emotional, as I am hanging onto much of it for the memories. I decided last week to photograph it and all the good stuff can go into a memory photo album when I am done.

    It can still be hard to throw out gifts that are from someone you love, whether they are still with us or now. Tossing the item is a little big like rejecting them. My parents are at an age where they could leave this earth at any time, and my mother is so worried about HER things, like what will happen with her dining room set. I tell her what she wants to hear so she can have peace of mind, but truly--what will I do with all that formal Williamsburg-type furniture? Our generation does not entertain the way our parents do, and I don't even have a dining room. I live much less formally, and much more comfortably. I am not going to freak out if a guest tracks grit or mud into my kitchen, yanno?

    So beauty is also about relaxing and not being uptight. I only want to take the best parts of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's New England Nun. ;)

  17. Zuzu, don't feel sheepish about anything! I have a full-time job, but I'm lucky because it is with the school system--therefore, it is typically a 40-hour work week (as opposed to your 60-80 hours) and I have a lot of breaks.

    I think the point we all need to remember, regardless of our circumstances, is that when there is too much clutter, be it physical or emotional, it's impossible to live a balanced, grateful life. Culling some of the unnecessary things in my life (from both areas) has allowed me to appreciate the things that are truly worthwhile.

  18. Great post & lovely photos - your hydrangeas are beautiful :) Thanks for sharing your color analysis swatches--I've always been interested in finding out what my best colors might be! I can totally identify with the comments about lack of time and the desire for greater simplicity. Beauty is found when our thoughts our focused on the present moment and we take time to fully appreciate whatever simple and random pleasures might come our way throughout our days(easier said than done). Spending time in nature and around animals helps when I feel overwhelmed with all the excesses (and information overload) of modern life.

  19. I agree on so many things. I struggle with clutter and I always feel lighter inside after a major clear out. I do try very hard to embrace the space clearing ideas of one in one out and not hoarding but sometimes it is hard. I'd love to have a major clear out at the moment but it's finding the time.....and yes, I really ought to tear myself away from the computer to do it. ;)

  20. I admire you being able to purge like that - in theory I would love to do the same but it reality I find it really hard to part with things! I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have a much better chance of getting a shot at Hoarders if I keep up my current pace! ;-) Seriously though I really need to do the same kind of evaluation and get rid of some of the outer (and inner) clutter!

    Best, Lisamarie

  21. "So I quickly realized the fastest way I could restore inner peace and outer beauty to my life was to stop being a curator."

    Zuzu, I have found this to be true for me as well. My entire house and office [at work] are almost completely organized with excess crap banished to Goodwill or given to people it can delight. Not only do I have more time, but I feel more at peace. At the same time, I am actively ridding my mind of the "crap" that takes up a lot of real estate and limits my joy of life. Because, to me, that is what it is about.

  22. I really enjoyed reading this inspiring post!!! Ah, yes! We all need to slow down and enjoy the beauty around us, right?!

  23. What a thoughtful post! I can relate to everything you wrote about. I feel my home is a bit chaotic and I know I need to spend the time to organize it as best as I can so I can feel a bit more at peace rather than stressed when I see all the clutter.You've given me a lot to think about!

  24. Hi there, I read this article a while ago and was reminded of it when, tonight, I started dialing my mom's number on my mobile, then put it on speaker and set it on the table so I can read something on my TouchPad while talking to my mom AND watching a TV show marathon on my laptop! When did we become this manic?

    1. I wish I knew, but the smartest thing I did for myself recently was to move my laptop to my office and leave it there. I no longer have it near my armchair where I read and/or watch TV. I am less distracted by multiple activities, and I even spend less money! I was surprised when I realized how easy I had made it on myself to pull my laptop up at any whim and order something! Usually beauty products I really don't need.

      I still do too much at once and often feel overwhelmed, but I am making progress. Baby steps. :^)

  25. I've just found your blog, and already this post has managed to verbalise the unrest I was carrying around within myself, one that I suppose many people experience, i.e. clutter-related stress. After reading this, I feel so much more motivated and energised to do something about it and I'm determined to follow your advice about keeping your dwellings and possessions minimal, and making sure what you own is what is right for you. Also, what you said about your mother lighting candles for dinner seems to have struck a chord with me; as a person, I am very prone to regrets and feeling like time is passing me by at an uncanny speed, and I'm only 25. However, I refuse to let regret develop into something that will eat away at me to an increasing extent, and so, I will henceforth make my meals (and beauty routines) into something I enjoy. Thank you for this post!


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