What Living Makeup-Free on a Remote Island for a Week Taught Me About Vanity

Updated 08/22/18

Do you ever feel completely sick of your own face? Not self-loathing, not all-out conflict with your image, just a general sense of exhaustion surrounding having to look at yourself all the time. I know I do. In our social media– and appearance-centric era, when everyone is a minor public figure in their own right, we seem to be putting more attention on what we look like—on performing our image for others and seeking their approval—than ever. "Selfie" was the Oxford English Dictionary's official word of the year in 2013, and since then, vanity seems to have become a bona fide lifestyle.

As someone who works in the beauty industry, who's not only seeking likes via selfies on her personal account but also has to talk about and publish photos of her face on the internet as a job requirement, the focus on appearance has gotten to me. After all, who I am is not what I look like, and my appearance is hardly the best I have to offer. Sometimes, though, it seems like that's all our culture wants to see, and over the past year, it's put a strain on my happiness.

Middle Finger
Stocksy

According to Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, vanity can be a sign of a deeper self-love issue, and it can definitely go too far. "It is natural to want to adhere to personal hygiene and look reasonably good when you leave your house … [but] take an honest, painful look within and ask yourself why you spend so much time and energy focusing on external appearance," she offers. "Is it a preoccupation with caring how you are viewed by others?

… Everyone has insecurities. But come a certain age and level of maturity, most of us learn to accept ourselves as imperfect beings."

The problem is that in a culture that basically forces you to scrutinize your appearance more than you might otherwise want to, those insecurities can linger or bubble back up in unhealthy ways. At a certain point, one craves the option of stepping back—of detoxing. After all, when you go through a phase of drinking too much alcohol, it feels good to have a dry month. When you find yourself eating too much sugar, it's reasonable to go on a cleansing week of no dessert. What I needed was a vanity detox—a week of taking no selfies, of wearing no makeup, of doing the bare minimum on my looks so that I could focus on other things, like my internal happiness.

Girl with a palm leaf
Stocksy

Earlier this summer, my family had a trip planned to the Galápagos Islands off the coast of mainland Ecuador. For a week, I'd be living on a small boat, hopping from island to island. There'd be no cell phone service, no Wi-Fi, no full-length mirrors, and no time in between kayaking and hiking to concern myself with makeup and hair products. This seemed like the perfect setup for my vanity detox. And after all was said and done, I can say with confidence that it was. Below, I've listed five major benefits I took away from forgetting about my appearance for a week. Of course, escaping to an exotic archipelago whenever you need a break from Instagram is not totally realistic.

So thanks to Walfish, I've got some useful advice on how to detox from your own face in everyday life, too.

1. Taking photos without worrying about likes results in better photos

Amanda Montell: Vanity Detox
@amanda_montell

When I'm taking photos on a trip, I have to admit, I'm either consciously or subconsciously thinking about how they'll play out on Instagram. On some level, I am considering things like how good my body looks, if the photo coordinates with the rest of my grid, if it aligns with what's trendy on the app at the moment. But when Instagram isn't even an option, you can focus on taking photos that represent the beauty of the actual experience. The lack of vanity simply reorients your perspective of why we take photos in the first place. I only have two selfies of me from that entire Galápagos trip.

The rest are photos of me backdropped by a breathtaking setting or laughing, truly candidly, alongside my family. In the end, I'm so much happier to have those photos.

2. Focusing on what your body can do, rather than how it looks, relieves self-consciousness

Travel: Beach Vacation
@amanda_montell

There was not a single full-length mirror on board that boat, and in fact, the one small mirror in my room was angled such that I could barely even use it at all. This made focusing on how my body looked in my athletic gear and swimsuits an impossibility. Not only that, but I was so distracted by the demanding schedule of the trip (wake up at 5 a.m., kayak, snorkel, hike, repeat) that I didn't even have time to worry about how I looked. My only option was to worry about pushing my body to paddle around the next bend, to climb to the next peak.

It's incredible how focusing on the feats your body can accomplish will make fretting about something as inconsequential as cellulite or a not perfectly flat stomach seem like a total waste of time.

3. If you surround yourself with people who don't care how you look, you'll stop caring, too

Family Photo
@amanda_montell

Working in online media in Los Angeles, I am constantly surrounded by people who are invested in their image and social media presence as a part of their profession—which is totally fine. It's a job! But it can also warp your ability to judge how important your appearance really is. Being on a boat with my family (two college professors, a computer scientist, and a lawyer), in addition to a dozen or so other travelers with entertainment-unrelated jobs, took the pressure off of "looking cute" and "getting content" all the time.

With priorities and self-esteem, you are the company you keep, and it was a relief to have that reset of perspective.

4. Not wearing makeup saves you more than just the time it takes to put it on

No makeup selfie
@amanda_montell

Ironically, there seems to be a direct correlation between how much time I put into my hair and makeup and how much time I spend thinking about whether or not it looks good. Wearing a bare face and air-dried hair for a week gave me this general "screw it" attitude. With no exertion spent on my appearance, there was no risk that the effort hadn't been worth it, allowing me to focus on more productive things. This is something I've definitely carried with me, post–vanity detox: When you want to feel minimally self-conscious, pare down your hair and makeup routines as much as possible.

That way, you'll save minutes if not hours of time being distracted by thoughts of your foundation looking blended, your lipstick smearing, your curls being in place.

5. The longer you go without putting effort into looking "perfect," the more used to your natural appearance you'll get

Amanda Montell - Selfie
@amanda_montell

I genuinely do use makeup as a fun form of self-expression, but I'd be lying if I said I don't also use it to cover up my flaws—to camouflage my dark under-eyes and blemishes, to fill in my weirdly shaped eyebrows, to bring color to my dull complexion. Before this trip, going 100% makeup-free had been a private endeavor. I hadn't gone a week without so much as concealer and tinted lip balm since I was a kid. Because of that, I almost felt like my bare face was somehow unfit for public consumption.

This vanity detox reacquainted me with my real face so that by the end of the week when I opened my front-facing camera and took this imperfect, makeup-free selfie, I didn't cringe at what I saw.

So what can we do to re-create this vanity detox experience in normal life? "Although it may be too scary for some to go on a 'vanity detox' cold turkey, one way to begin is to significantly reduce your vanity routine down to a bare minimum," Walfish suggests. "Try a fresh new complexion-cleansing and moisturizing routine where you showcase young, clean, and shiny skin wearing face cream, tinted sunblock, blush, and light lipstick only. Retain eye makeup for evening wear only. You will soon get used to seeing your sweet smile shine without the decorative bling while enjoying the extra free time you save on your vanity!"

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