The surgeon had explained that the cyst was caused by dirt working its way under my skin. I realized, even in my stoned state, that my self-neglect had gone past the point of acceptable. I was now getting infected. Depression or no, I needed to change my ways. I'd have to start devoting some time to grooming, as they say, like a normal person, stepping into the shower in the morning and coming out wrapped in a soft, fluffy towel. I thought of a study I'd read a long time ago, so long ago I could no longer recall the paper or book from which it derived, but the gist of which had stayed with me: that mood is influenced by outward appearance. This had seemed odd when I'd read it and still seemed odd now, mood so deep and internal, so unrelenting and unyielding; how could clean hands and hair possibly shift that behemoth? And yet studies show a strong link between improved "ADL" skills—activities of daily living, such as showering, combing your hair, attending to your skirt and shirt—and a lessening of the symptoms of depression. I thought of a lake I'd seen the previous winter, its surface completely sealed with ice through which a lone fisherman had drilled a single hole and was hauling up huge trout that flapped and flopped on the frozen surface. The blood, the slick fish, the skidding sunlight—it made an impression on me for the way it seemed to suggest that surface and interior were intimately linked, and that one could not exist without the other.

A psychologist by training and degree, I decided to construct an experiment. I was a schlump, a frump, due to my depression, which robbed me of the time to spruce up and the motivation as well. Was it possible, though, that if I spruced up, my mood would follow suit? What would happen if, during my downtime, my depressed time, I put on makeup? What would happen if I got some style? Beauty, after all, is not some trifling effluvium; it's a sought-after state in every culture we know of, this in itself proof of its power. I'd seen photos of Burmese women who adorned their necks with heavy metal rings that, over time, pushed down their collarbones and compressed their ribs, all for the coveted look of a lengthened neck. Nowhere in the world does the concept of beauty not exist.

Being a middle-class American, I knew what beauty meant for me—a well-washed body, nice hair, smooth skin, silky skirts and shirts—and so I set off to pursue it. My plan was to dress myself up every day for three weeks and see whether I really could alter the inward me by changing the outer me. My resolve to follow this path increased when I saw in our town circular an ad for a woman named Dianne who called herself a beauty consultant; for a small fee she would come to your house and teach you how to put your best foot forward, covering everything from makeup to clothes to shoes to hair.

I couldn't help thinking divine providence had placed the ad in my way, and so I called Dianne, a peppy-sounding person who three days later pulled into my driveway and hauled two bulky cases from the trunk of her car. From my kitchen window I could see she was impeccably dressed, with a black furze of curls and reddened lips, her slacks fluttering in the wind, her floral tunic scoop-necked with a big bow in the back. I watched her come up my walkway, the bulky bags swinging in her hands, and I thought, "Oh no. What is in those cases?" Was she some dolled-up version of the Avon Lady hawking a brand of makeup no one had ever heard of?

With falling faith I opened the door and said, "What's in the bags?" and Dianne said, extending her hand, "Hi, I'm Dianne." Chagrined, just a little, I shook her slender paw, noting the lustrous pink of her nails. She set the cases on the floor and said, "These? These are before-and-after photos, from clients I've worked with." I sat with her in the living room, I with my weeping boil and my dumpy clothes and she in a cloud of lilac scent, as we flipped through the photos and designed my personal program, Dianne standing up, stepping back, scanning me from tip to toe, and then pronouncing, after several moments of consideration, one word: hair.

Next: Releasing the weight


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