slater sitting
Photo: Chris Crisman
Over decades of crushing depression, Lauren Slater had let certain of life's luxuries—like clean clothes and regular showers—fall away. But when her unkemptness grew bad enough to land her in the hospital, she took a radical step: She bought a few new outfits, went to the salon, and learned how deeply transformative a little sprucing up can be.
My depression has been with me for so long now, I know it like a friend. And like a friend, I can remember the day we met, when I was only 5—bright white with summer heat, the roses burning on their bushes, the whole world suddenly flattening out, and colors draining from their forms, leaving behind etched outlines of things that before had been vibrant. I don't have a why, a pinpoint, a reason. I only know that as time went by and I grew up, so did my depression, moving around in my body, making lead of my legs, filling my head with fog. Now, as I near 50—face lined, body carrying many more pounds than it should—my depression, it seems, inhabits my heart and, despite my considerable bulk, takes the shape of a slim speckled stone worn smooth by my body's currents, its contours changing over time while its essence stays the same. My depression does magic. Poof! Each day it disappears at around 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon and then—slam!—returns at dawn, sapping my energy, stealing color from trees and leaves and socks and spoons, everything still and silent as if under some spell.

I'm not complaining, or if I am I don't mean to be. Thanks to antidepressants I reliably have seven hours, more or less, of good clear time, and I strive to use it well, ticking off items on my to-do list, trying to tie up my business so that when the fog comes, at least things will be in order. Still, seven waking hours is not a lot, less than half the 16 or so most people have. Last year I bought a large clock that I hung in the hub of our house—the kitchen—right where I can hear it best. My kids complain about the hourly clang, the audible ticks, the absurd (in their opinion) clock face made from an "upcycled" trash can cover, but I've come to count on the constant reminder of my dilemma and its demands.

Given my daily timetable, it should come as no surprise that much in my life falls by the wayside. My taxes, for instance, are always late. My children's doctor and dentist appointments are missed, rescheduled, missed again. I shop for their clothes flying through Target as fast as I can, ripping from the racks the pants and skirts that society demands they wear. For many years my own wardrobe was not nearly as nice; on a typical day the best I could do was a pair of pajama pants, the elastic gone loose at the waist, and a gray shirt stained with various seepages and spills. My hair was two-tone: the bottom an anemic yellow, the roots wiry white. On the windowsill in the bathroom sat a box of dye, on its front a woman with hair seal-smooth and swinging. I kept meaning to color my hair, but I never found the time. I could not indulge in frippery and frills, in long soaks in a tub full of bubbles or beads.

The truth of the matter is, I was a schlump, a frump, my clothes secondhand and utterly without style, dirt under my fingernails, the nails themselves without shape, their excess hacked off every few months, making my already stubby fingers look still more so. I'd never had a pedicure and couldn't see why I ever would, what with only seven productive hours to my day. My husband, who is himself a bit of a slob, was nevertheless somewhat sobered by my lack of grooming and tried, on occasion, to motivate me with gifts that did me not much good: petite bottles of perfume I never used or earrings in a box tied up with red ribbon. His offerings were shy and hesitant, at odds, he felt, with his feminist leanings but speaking to some deeper desire within him: to have a wife who looked, if not good, at least good enough.

The story I'm telling here is in part a confession, a way of coming metaphorically clean—to make up for the fact, perhaps, that in real life, for so long, I rarely had the time or energy to shower. Because of this, some months ago I developed an abscess at the base of my spine, where the coccyx is. At first I thought I'd bruised the bone, but as weeks went by the pain only increased, and when I reached my hand around I felt a hot hard lump weeping fluid. My physician told me I had what is called a pilonidal cyst—a bad one and an infected one to boot. The next day, I lay on my belly on a surgeon's steel table as the cyst was drained, a procedure so painful it lies beyond language, the surgeon, employing no anesthetic beyond a useless slug of Novocain, slicing into the boil and then squeezing its contents so hard I heard the spurt and saw, smeared on a large white cloth, blood and pus and a shocking amount of green goo, the smell fetid and wrong. The surgeon stuffed gauze and a wick into the wound and told me to keep myself clean and come back in two weeks to have the wick removed. On the way out he handed me a prescription for OxyContin, which I immediately filled and took four of, even though the label capped the dose at two. I lay on my bed and watched the air eddy and swirl.

Next: The experiment that changed everything
Photo: Chris Crisman
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
I nodded. Hair. We would start there. Dianne made the arrangements—some fancy salon, the type I'd never of my own volition set foot inside.

The appointment was for 10 o'clock, smack in the middle of my daily despair, so when the day rolled around I could barely drag my carcass from my sleep-warmed sheets. I heard my doorbell ring and then "Yoo-hoo? Yoo-hooo?" accompanied by the clickety-clack of Dianne's stilettos as she came to haul me out of bed and into the stylist's chair.

The salon was all spiral staircases and dizzying racks of dozens of different shampoos, conditioners, curl creams, mousses, gels, sprays—the air scented, water falling from a bank of rocks into a pool lined with luminous stones so smooth and pearly I wanted to touch one, to hold it against my heart, as if I might somehow palm my own pain, and in doing so shape it or erase it.

I was ushered toward a changing room, told to take off my top and replace it with a crinkling black gown that snapped shut and, for good measure, tied at the waist. The gowns were made for slender women; my bulk strained the snaps so the fabric pulled at my chest and left visible gaps I wanted to hide with my hands. But "Yoo-hooo," Dianne called, tapping on the door of the dressing room, so out I stepped, into the misty, sweet-smelling, humid air.

My stylist was Andrew. He looked about 60 years old. "He's the best here," Dianne whispered. Andrew stood behind my seat and looked at me in the mirror. He then walked around to face me, knelt, and almost reverentially took my cheeks between his hands, moving my head left, now right, studying me. I felt embarrassed, as if he could see past my skin to the dull nothing inside. As though to confirm that this in fact were true, Andrew nodded crisply, sprang to his feet, and without asking what kind of cut I wanted, picked up a pair of scissors that looked preternaturally huge, like something out of a storybook, clack-clacking as he aimed them at my hair.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Wait, wait"—and so Andrew stopped in midmotion, the huge silver scissors frozen and glittering. I said, "Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"

"You don't know what you want," Andrew said. He was correct. I had no idea what sort of style would suit me. "Let me take care of this," he said. "I've been cutting hair for 30 years." And then he went to work. He dove into me, lifting me up in layers, splicing me sideways, long wet hanks falling onto the floor as I eyed them with rising fear: Would anything be left by the end? Snap, snap, said the scissors again and again, dark and dripping hanks continuing to fall as Andrew muttered thickly a remark about my head or my hair, I wasn't sure which. He circled, spun me around in my seat, pumped me up, then down, and then, suddenly, with no slowing, he stopped. My hair, which had before fallen past my shoulders, now came in close to my neck, which for the first time in years was bare to the air and touched by the breezes of many people moving past, the mist in the air landing lightly on me, so dewy even my arms were moist. Andrew circled me slowly, with great ceremony, moving me around until at last I fully faced the mirror, my hair still damp but drying now, released from the weight of its long length, all cowlicks and curves, my bangs gone, my face in a frame of waves. "You like?" he asked, and then, without waiting for a reply, he stood in back of me, leaning in and down so our faces were side-by-side in the mirror.

"Listen to me, Lauren," he said.

"I'm listening," I said. He was so close I could smell his cologne, a tang of pine and winter.

"Lauren," he said again. "You have heavy hair."

I nodded. Dianne, standing a little way off, nodded, too.

"All that weight," Andrew said.

I suddenly wanted to weep. It was as if he knew about the stone inside me, as if he were speaking not to me but to it.

"I've released you," he said, "from all that weight, and now"—he bobbed back up like a jack-in-the-box—"and now, look what we have here," and he cupped the back of my head while tweaking a curl, pulling it past its kink and then letting it loose so it fell back into perfect position. "I'll bet you never knew how stunning you were, under all that weight."

"She is stunning, isn't she," said Dianne, smiling, her arms folded across her chest.

"Stunning?" I said. That was impossible. But improved—that could certainly be. Weight weight weight, that word weight kept going through my head. And then it was as if everyone disappeared. I lost the sounds of the salon, the hot hair dryers and women whispering. Now there was just me and my mirror, which I leaned into, the curls so curly, the anemic yellow chopped off, my hair ash-brown and veined with glossy whites, the look light and alive, my face indeed framed, the pink seam of a new side part making my nose and my mouth and my eyes seem somehow softer, with sparkle. I blinked. Still there. Cautiously, I touched my hair. Then I pressed my hand down, hard, to see if I could squelch the sudden spirals; they bounced back. They would not be banished. I gave Andrew a $20 tip.

Next: The damp early darkness of winter giving way to a warm spring
At home, alone at last, I headed for the bathroom, where I turned on the shower and stood under its spray, clearing my neck and back of prickles. And then, instead of stepping out, I turned on the tub, shut off the spray, and before long was standing ankle-deep in wet warmth. Slowly, so slowly, I lowered my heft into the filling cavern, the water roaring as it spilled from the spigot. When had I last taken a bath? And why was I taking one now? On the way out of the salon I had purchased bath beads of every color. Now I poured the beads in. Careful not to wet my hair, I leaned back and planted one foot firmly on the tub's tiled wall so that my leg was out of the water. Using my husband's razor, I, for the first time in years, shaved my legs, discovering as I did that, despite my weight, I still had the curve of a calf, the soft silk of an inner thigh. I stayed in that tub a long, long time. Then I toweled off carefully and put on a dress. I felt lovely. And where was my depression now?

My husband would be home soon. I went downstairs to wait for him in the kitchen, barefoot. When he came through the door, he said, "What happened to you?" I cocked my head coquettishly and looked at him. I liked the way his eyebrows arched up and his eyes went wide. I walked over to him and, using my first finger, tilted his chin downward. I gave him a kiss, a good kiss, a real kiss, the kind of kiss a woman with a headful of curls could give. He responded in kind. This kiss went on for maybe a minute. I felt infused. I felt as if we were exchanging vitalities. When it was over we smiled at each other in the secret way that couples do when sex is sure to follow. "I got my hair cut," I said. "Did you ever," he replied, and then, simply, "Wow."

The next week Dianne took me shopping and I got my face done at a makeup counter. I bought a plum lip liner that, when I used it, announced my mouth, plus a matching lipstick that filled in the announcement and gave it some substance. I liked most of all my nut-brown eyeliner and the silver and almond eyeshadows, all three colors working in concert to give me a deeper, dreamier look. By the time we left the store, I had also purchased a long gray skirt, a peasant blouse with a ruffled neckline, and espadrilles with straw wedge heels and ribbons that crisscrossed the legs. The season was changing, the damp early darkness of winter giving way to a warm spring, the rhododendrons blooming early.

At first it felt funny—no, it felt hard—to arise each morning and dress up, applying my new makeup carefully, leaning in to line my eyes and then, with the miniature pad, sweeping silver across my lids, taking the tweezers and plucking my brows into slim little arcs. While some women, maybe many women, find this process fun, I did not enjoy it, my head heavy with sleep. It was a discipline, forcing myself to flick through the new outfits I'd purchased and pick one for the day while my insides were dreary and dark. Dressed, then, I'd make my way downstairs and pour myself a glass of juice, and this, too, at first was hard. But after several days of dolling up, I began to notice something strange. I'd pour myself a glass of orange juice, lifting it to my lips to sip, and the orange would intensify until it seemed to glow in the glass, until it seemed it had been squeezed not from fruit but from gems, the liquid vivid and ice-cold even as it flamed at my lips and went down clean and pure.

In the wall-size windows in my kitchen I started to notice my reflection, my lines leaner and flowing, my skirt so long it puddled past my ankles and swished when I walked into my study and settled the glass of glowing juice on my desk. I'd pull out my chair to start work. It felt odd to be so dressed just to write. I had no power lunches or afternoon meetings or presentations to attend; it was just me and my computer, and yet, as the days passed and I showered and put on outfit after outfit, brushed blush across my cheeks, my work started to change. Prior to dressing up I had been a plodding sort of scribe, but now words were coming to me more quickly and people rising up out of the page and populating my stories with their authentic idiosyncrasies; these fictional characters were often accompanied by people from my past, and they, too, came up out of the blank page to meet me—because, I could only think, I was finally dressed for the occasion.

In one week's time I wrote two short stories and two essays. I grew giddy from the fruits of my labor. In the evenings, in the bathtub, my skin slippery from soap, I could feel what lay beneath—tibia, femur, deltoids, the bands of muscles and bundles of fibers, the tendons taut in my neck—my surface conveying the suppleness and strength of everything it sheathed. I looked up skin in the encyclopedia and confirmed that, sure enough, it is the body's largest organ, a fact that suggests our surface is critical to who we are, not just as the gateway to physical or spiritual depths but as a profoundly important webwork of cells in and of itself. When you touch your surface in a pleasing way, you alter the hormonal environment of the body beneath; skin receptors signal your brain to release a chemical called oxytocin, which stimulates feelings of happiness, connection, love. My new clothes caressed my body and beat back depression while I drank down the juice of gems.

Next: Find more love in you than you knew
Wear a tired, frumpy face and chances are pretty high that the world will give you its tired, frumpy goods, its gray silt and stones. On the other hand, dress up for the day, insisting on optimism, and you'll find that you have more love in you than you knew. My long-lost libido returned; it was more tempered than it had been when I was in my 20s, somewhat hesitant and shy, but as my husband fumbled with the many buttons and zippers and snaps of my new clothes, these barriers to bare skin increased our arousal and pointed to yet another reason to engage in self-adornment.

Not since I was a teenager had I taken such care in how I looked. I was not able to completely dress my depression away, but when it—slam! bam!—returned each day, it had to tussle with a woman whose heels hoisted her high, who could confidently kneel and cup the faces of her children in her hands, who knew how to tend others because she tended herself. I washed my daughter's bleeding knee with the same cloth I swept each morning across my own dream-creased face, kissing her wound and leaving on it an impression of my lipsticked mouth, a mark, a stamp, proof not only that I was here but that I could care.

There are something like 148 species of large land mammals populating our blue ball, and none of them, excepting ourselves, so decorate their faces, their flesh. That we are the only animal that "dresses up" might suggest the action lies outside nature and is therefore somehow twisted, but I doubt that this is true. The Neanderthals are thought to have colored their bodies with red ocher pigment as far back as 164,000 years ago. Long before Clairol or Revlon or Clinique, the human animal was driven to decorate his surface, her surface, understanding that the sheath we wear suggests the soul beneath.

It's too soon to know whether my newfound belief in the power of beauty will become a way of living. But I can say, for sure, that entering into beauty did not in any sense diminish me as a woman, an artist, a mother, a wife. I did not become all preen and polish, with nothing of substance to offer. I look people in the eye. I dream I am 12 feet tall.

One day a friend suggested we hike Mount Caesar, not far from where I live. Previously I would not have accepted such an invitation, worried that depression would drag my steps down, but before I could even consider that as a possibility I found myself saying yes. Yes. So we went. And we made it. Huffing and puffing and streaming with sweat, we made it to the top. The wind blew. There was an old rusty trash can and a peeling picnic table and ground gone gold with pine needles. There was a rocky escarpment we crawled out on to look down into a lake so pure and blue it seemed to possess some sort of living intelligence, a huge eye of water beaming back at us. "Swim?" my friend said. It was a warm day, the temperature well into the 80s. My friend, who is thin, stripped off her clothes and, suddenly, even though I was fat, I followed suit, because I had some chutzpah now. That's what it came down to. Chutzpah. Dressing up gave me the confidence to dress down, to strip. My friend dove first and I dove second, feeling my body arc out over the escarpment and sluice through the summery air and enter the water as fast and fierce as a spear driven downward, everything gone green, and then finning fast upward and breaking the surface with a gasp and a shout: "Oh, my God!" We laughed and laughed. And then we treaded water silently and swam around. I could see the top of the mountain from where I was and also a field of wildflowers, lilacs and lupines in every imaginable color and great white wheels of daisies amid emerald spikes of grass, and it occurred to me that beauty is not outside nature; it is nature, the way the world is meant to be. As the sun started to set we climbed onto the shore and clambered back up the rocks, our clothes in sun-warmed heaps; we dressed ourselves and started back down the trail. Even though we were sopping wet we didn't shiver, our shirts and shorts still soaked in sunlight, the chocolate bar I'd stored in one of my pockets completely melted now so when I thrust my hand in, searching for the necklace I'd removed before I dove, I felt a thick warm gush and, laughing, lifted my smeared fingers and licked, savoring the flavor, grateful I could taste this good.

Lauren Slater is the author of several books, most recently The $60,000 Dog (Beacon).

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