October 31, 2016

My Biggest Insecurity: Trying to Face My Melasma in Florida

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor and this post is not medical advice for you. Actually, it's not advice at all, since—as I'm sure will become apparent—I have no idea what I'm doing. So please, be smart, talk to an actual doctor, use your seatbelt, etc. etc.

Second disclaimer: I've linked to several products and companies, none of which have sponsored this post or anything like that. In other words, I'm not getting paid for this. (Although I wouldn't turn you down, if you're offering. Kidding, of course. Mostly.)

Almost two years ago, I posted this post about melasma. If you didn't read it, it's one of those triumphant posts where I tell you that I've defeated this awful little "friend" of mine, complete with a blog-worthy photo of me smiling in front of a red brick wall.

Unfortunately, two years later, here I am posting about this god-awful condition once again. (I'd never make it as a beauty blogger, I know.)

But here's the deal: when doctors say that melasma can't be cured, I guess they really mean it. And so while I was able to fade my melasma for a while in 2014, it's back now and better than ever.

Remind me what melasma is again.

I guess I should back up and explain who my a-hole of a little friend is: Melasma is a condition where your skin (usually on your face) develops uneven pigmentation. This pigmentation usually appears as large, symmetrical blotches on your cheeks, nose, forehead, chin, and above your upper lip, and can be anywhere from brown to sort of a grayish blue. 

The discoloration is due to the overproduction of melanin by the pigment cells in your skin, but doctors aren't positive why this happens. However, they are pretty sure the cause is a combination of several things, including genetics, sun exposure, and hormones (which is why it's common in pregnant women).

And because life is really fair and we have nothing else to worry about, women are way more likely to suffer from melasma than men (only about 5-25% of melasma sufferers are male). Oh yeah, and as of now, melasma is not curable. 

So can you treat melasma?

Now, although doctors keep reiterating that melasma is not curable (as of now), some people do have success fading the pigmentation. The problem is, since we don't know exactly why the skin pigment goes nuts, we also don't have a one-size-fits-all way of treating it.

Back in 2014, two things changed that could've accounted for my spots fading: one, my doctor switched my birth control pill to one with a lower dose of estrogen (since some doctors believe estrogen plays a big role in darkening melasma), and two, the Washington, DC (my home at the time) winter kept me almost completely out of the sun.

To be honest, it's impossible to say which one played a bigger role in fading my spots. But it's also sort of a moot point anyway since I ended up switching back to my original birth control pill (after a fun year of hormonal acne) and moving from DC to, literally, the sunshine state.

Did the melasma come back then?

Yes. And other than giving me more blog material, it has really sucked.

You see, the sun here in Florida is strong, so my melasma came back with a vengeance. My spots became even darker and bigger, and worst of all, new spots starting forming. It's now not only above my lip, but also on my forehead, cheeks, and nose.

If you think that sounds pretty depressing, you're right.

So what are you going to do about it?

I wish I could say I'm just going to embrace it, accept my flaws, and start making motivational posters.

But I'm not that inspirational of a woman, so instead I'm doing my damnedest to make it fade again. So what exactly does that mean? Well, let me tell you:

1. Limiting sun exposure. 
Which is a lot easier said than done, especially in Florida. I'm doing what I can, though, meaning a lot of floppy hats and a good physical sunscreen. (Doctors recommend physical sunscreens, like those having zinc oxide, instead of chemical sunscreens for people with melasma.)

I use this SkinMedica cream that my doctor recommended because it also supposedly protects against infrared light (i.e., heat), which some doctors believe is another influential factor in developing melasma. (And as someone who works out in a non-air conditioned Florida CrossFit gym, I'm no stranger to heat.)

2. Stopping hormonal birth control.
After almost a decade of taking the pill, I quit cold turkey about six weeks ago. Now, if you're reading this and thinking, but Nicole, aren't you worried about breaking out? Horrendous cramps and PMS madness? Getting pregnant?

Well, the answer is yes—but I'm willing to risk it if there's any chance that it'll help fade my spots (which should tell you something about how desperately I want this problem solved).

3. Getting chemical peels. 
Last winter, I did a series of SkinMedica peels (performed at my dermatologist's office, of course, since no one's got time for chemical burns). It was pretty pricey but I was happy with how my melasma looked when we finished.

Unfortunately, the results only lasted until summer, when all of my spots came right back.

Now that it's winter in Florida (i.e., sort of hot instead of oppressively hot) and I'm no longer taking hormonal contraception, I thought I'd give the chemical peels another shot. Only this time, the aesthetician I've been seeing recommended a little bit of a stronger peel, the VI Peel with Precision Plus. (I had my first one done four days ago, so the jury's still out.)

Now, to be honest, chemical peels make me wary. (No matter what the professionals tell me, spreading acid all over my face doesn't sound smart.) But based on my experience, peels do produce at least some good short-term results. So I'm hoping this round of chemical peels will jump start things while I wait for my no-synthetic hormones, no-sunlight lifestyle to kick in.

4. Taking supplements.
Taking supplements, especially those not prescribed by a doctor, is not usually my cup of tea. But based on the anecdotal evidence from women on different skincare forums, it seems like methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) and pine bark extract could have some positive effects—so I'm willing to give it a try. I found a supplement called Melacor that has both, and while ordering a supplement online feels sort of like a recipe for disaster, so does spreading acid on my face—yet here we are. Go big or go home, I suppose.

So there you have it—a complete breakdown of everything you never needed to know about my face. See you again in two years, when I tell you how the only thing I got out of this was two pine trees growing out of my ears. (Totally kidding. I hope.)

Do you or anyone you know deal with melasma? Has anything helped, or am I stuck with this until I move to the Arctic?

October 24, 2016

Race Day

I've often been told I'm a bit too competitive for my own good.

And, to be fair, it's probably true. I mean, my budding relationship with my now-husband almost didn't make it through a few particularly heated games of HORSE in college. So yes, when HORSE almost destroys your marriage, you might have a problem.

But in my defense, I get it honestly. (You think these presidential debates have been bad? You've never seen my family play any sort of board game.)

So looking back on it, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised with how the bike ride with my mom last weekend turned out.

I guess I need to back up, though.

You see, my mom has recently gotten into bike riding, ever since she went on her company bike ride this past summer. And when I said "get into," I mean get all the way into. Fanny packs, bike racks, GPS attachments—she's all in.

So when my mom picked me up from the airport last Saturday, I asked her if she was planning on doing some bike races.

"No, Nicole. Do I look like someone who would do a bike race?!" she said before waving me off dismissively and stepping on the gas to pass the guy to her right. ("Where do you think you're going, Buster?!")

So I asked, "How about a less competitive race? A bike riding league or something."

"Nicole, I'm just doing this for fun! For leisure!" she said. And that was that.

So leisure is what I was expecting when I agreed to go on a ride with her Sunday morning at the NCR Trail in Pennsylvania.

Of course, knowing my mom, I don't know why that's what I had expected. I mean, sure, she said it would be leisurely. But she also said I absolutely needed to wear a helmet to "avoid traumatic brain injury," something that is generally not a risk when you're enjoying some leisure.

She also told me to bring snacks. Which, okay, could've been a good sign. However, the Pilgrims were probably also told to "bring snacks," and look how that one turned out.

Basically what I'm saying is that the signs certainly didn't point toward leisure, particularly coming from someone who has hand-written "extended guidelines" on the rules of our family's game of Clue.

So as you may have guessed, the ride was not leisurely.

By mile one, I had already taken off my jacket. By mile two, I could barely see my mom in the distance. At mile three, my mom (who had stopped and waited for me to catch up) told me that I could "change gears if it was too hard, you know."

At mile four, I realized exactly what I had gotten myself into.

We ended up stopping after eight miles at a cafe, my mom bouncing with endorphins and me slithering around on the ground in exhaustion.

But to be fair, even though I was woefully out of place among the serious, fanny pack-clad neon windbreakers on the bike trail, the ride was still pretty fun.

And as a bonus, it provided some solid DSLR-material. I mean, when you have a new camera, what more can you ask for than autumn leaves and old country buildings?

So I guess the moral of this story is this: Don't go bike riding with someone who has a fanny pack. And if you do, wear a helmet.

October 19, 2016

Big Exciting News

Big blog news today, guys. Big news.

You're looking at the owner (okay, the blog of the owner) of a brand new DSLR camera.

If you're like Derrick, this means absolutely nothing to you. But if you're a blogger, then you know exactly what this means: pictures for days.

Now, normally, when a blogger promises "pictures for days," she's promising pictures of blog-worthy type things. You know—festivals, doughnuts, festival doughnuts, floppy hats, smiling babies, etc. etc. Unfortunately, I don't have any of those things at the moment.

What I do have, however, is my parents' home in Maryland, where I am spending a few days this week. (I'm up this way for a few work-related things in DC.)

So while I don't have any doughnut picture for you guys (yet), I do have pictures of my parents, my dog, and me, almost nailing the self-timer thing:

Also, a very artful picture of this hose:

In other words, very important things going on around here. And that hose is only the beginning.

October 17, 2016

Should You Change Your Name After Marriage?

For many women, getting engaged is like opening the floodgates to an ocean they had never known existed, much less given serious thought.

One issue that I personally hadn't given much thought before getting married was the tradition of taking your husband's last name—a topic that turns out to be a pretty heated issue, at least throughout the wedding blogging community. (But then again, so are place cards, so take that for what it's worth.)

It does make sense, though: there are many factors—some merely practical, some based on deep-seated personal beliefs—a woman might consider when deciding to change her name. So it's not surprising that this issue can become a divisive one.

As someone who has only recently dived into this particular ocean, I find the whole thing particularly interesting (and, of course, relevant). So I'll admit, while I didn't really mean to stumble down this rabbit hole, I'm not doing much to get myself out. The more I read, the more I'm fascinated by what women on both sides have to say.

So if you're interested in coming down the rabbit hole with me, let me give you a crash course: here are some of the things you can expect to hear while you're down here with me.

Reasons women are against name-change

"I don't like the history."
For a lot of women, taking their husband's name symbolizes a history that they're not pumped about honoring.

For example, in the U.S., this tradition can at least partly be traced back to the doctrine of coverture—a legal doctrine where married women had essentially no rights. (Basically, coverture dictated that a married woman was a dependent of her husband, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings.) It actually wasn't until 1972 that a woman's right to use her maiden name in whatever ways she pleased was legally confirmed in the U.S.

Understandably, some women find this a bit—well, gross. So for many, keeping their birth name is their way of slapping a big fat "nope" on that chapter of history.

"I don't want to give up who I was."
Another reason women have for keeping their birth name is that they are really happy about who they were before they were married, and they don't want to "lose" that.

I put quotation marks around "lose" because different women seem to view "losing" their identity in different ways. For example, for some women, it is more of a symbolic thing; losing their birth name feels like losing the woman who owned it (and they want to keep her around).

Other women, though, feel they would be literally losing their identity by changing their name. And (especially in the age of the internet), this makes a lot of sense; if all of a woman's accomplishments—career achievements, athletic recognitions, etc.—are tied to her birth name, changing her name risks losing a large chunk of her portfolio to people not making the connection to her married name. This is a risk a lot of women, particularly those established in their careers, don't want to take.

"It's too complicated."
Last but not least, some women opt to keep their birth name to save their sanity. Because, sure, dealing with the Social Security Administration isn't always that bad... but that's only the beginning. Legally changing your last name means you also have to change your name on things like your passport, bank accounts, credit cards, leases, insurance policies, utility bills, student loans, retirement plans, voter registrations, even your subscription to Cosmo.

Of course, getting married is a lot of work too, so if a married woman wants to change her name, this generally isn't going to stop her. But for some women on the fence, this huge snowball of paperwork and seemingly boundless hassle is enough to tip them over the edge.

Reasons women are for name-change

"I like the tradition."
While some women don't take their husband's name because of the tradition's history, some women are able to separate the tradition today from the tradition's historical meaning. To these women, changing your name today has no more to do with coverture than engagement rings have to do with Pliny the Elder, who gave his bride a ring to signify her binding legal agreement to his ownership of her.

And in some ways, this makes sense: many of the today's customs have unsavory pasts, but they've evolved over time to simply be a tradition that we enjoy taking part in. I mean, not many people today wear Halloween costumes to "ward off roaming ghosts." No, we do it because, hello, costume contests.

"I want to have the same name as our children."
An obvious reason many women change their name after marrying is that they want to have the same name as their spouse. And it seems this is even more common when children are involved, since children often take their father's last name.

And this makes total sense to me: sharing a name with your family is a visual reminder that you are a unit and a team. (Plus, making DIY pinecone wreaths saying "The Joneses" is a lot easier than wreaths that say "The Joneses and Betty Garfunkel," if you know what I mean.)

"I like his name better."
Finally, one reason that many women seem to have for changing their name is surprisingly unsurprising: they just like their husband's name better. So cheers to you, Betty Jones. We all had a hard time spelling "Garfunkel" anyway.

Obviously, this rabbit hole has a lot more twists and turns than what you might've imagined. This decision can become a lot bigger than just what letters you have monogrammed on your beer coozies, after all. And what's more, I've only traveled down the rabbit hole relating to heterosexual couples; the name game for same-sex couples can be even more unclear.

But the good news is that it's a decision where you can't really go wrong: if you choose what feels right to you, then you've made the right choice.

What do you think about this? If you're married, did you change your name? Why or why not?

October 10, 2016

Liriodendron Fall Wedding: Getting Ready

I don't want to pick a part of my wedding that was my favorite—that'd be like picking a favorite child. But since all parents probably have a favorite child anyway, I'll just do it: getting ready for my wedding may have been one of the best parts of the entire day.

I decided to do things Pinterest style and get my girls robes to get ready in. But if you're wondering if we are always sitting in a Pinterest wedding pin, the answer is no.

You see, our photographer only came to the wedding venue (i.e., he didn't come to the hotel where my bridesmaids and I had spent the night before and had our hair and makeup done the morning of). Actually, a few hours before these pictures were taken, I was sitting on the ground of a La Quinta suite, eating a steak sandwich from Panera surrounded by the remnants of a six-girl sleepover.

But since I didn't ask our photographer to come to the La Quinta, he didn't capture that—or our amazing hair stylist and makeup artist transforming us from regular mortals to, well, what you see here. Instead, he only got shots of us fully made-up in the Liriodendron mansion dressing room, hanging out in robes looking like we owned the place.

I'm not upset about that, though, and I'm sure my bridesmaids weren't either. (No one really needs a picture of them eating Panera takeout on a La Quinta floor anyway.)

Speaking of my bridesmaids, I actually didn't hire models from Brides magazine. My friends really are just that pretty. The three blondes are my best friends from high school (Erika, Hannah, and Andrea), and the other two are my sister/maid of honor (Sam) and my best friend from college (Steph). We make a great group because we were able to get 80% of a good picture together, 100% of the time.

Actually, I take that back—we were able to get a few pictures where none of us were blinking or appearing to have a seizure. It only really happened when we were drinking something, though.

The big thing about getting ready in the Liriodendron was that the guys (including Derrick) were also getting ready in the other room. This was a "big thing" because Derrick was adamant about the fact that the first time he saw me would be when I walked down the aisle—which meant no first look, no passing each other on the way to the bathroom, no nothing.

This wasn't a huge deal, but it did become a little inconvenient when I wanted to take pensive photos of me in another room (like the ones below) since I couldn't walk from room to room without sending someone out ahead to survey the hall.

You will all be glad to know that Derrick's wish was granted, though, and the first time he saw me that day was when I was walking down the aisle towards him. Which was great, of course, except that I really wish he could have seen exactly what went into me looking the way I did.

Aside from having some extremely talented women do my hair and makeup, getting dressed in itself was quite the ordeal (at least for someone who spends 95% of the time in yoga pants).

The real MVP of the day, though, was actually Sam. You see, the lady at the bridal boutique told us that in order to button the approximately 485 million little jewel buttons on my back, we would need a crochet hook—just like the one we all forgot to bring to the wedding venue.

Sam and her feisty little fingers saved the day, though, and managed all 485 million little jewel buttons sans crochet hook.

In all honesty, the only part of getting ready that I wasn't too thrilled about was the waiting. We were ready at least 30 minutes before the ceremony began, which was mostly spent continuing to spy on our guests from the upstairs window.

That being said, looking back on it now, I would love to relive every single one of those 30 minutes, drinking Moscato from a plastic cup in a mansion with my best friends. I was nervous to get down the aisle in one piece (and then, you know, marry the love of my life), so I was anxious for the waiting to be over at the time. But now, with my friends back home, scattered across the country, I realize how special it was to have them all in one room with me.

But I guess you live and you learn. Plus, I would get to enjoy plenty of time with my friends anxiety-free later in the night.

But that, my friends, is for another post.


And now comes the part where I link to all of the lovely things you see here, in case you want these things too.

Photography by Patrick McGuire. || Makeup by Beauty by Anna. || Hair by Natalie Curry. || Flowers from Flowers by Katarina. || Dress from here. (This is the dress.) || Shoes found here. || Earrings found here. || Robes found here.

October 06, 2016

And Now Introducing: Penelope P. Hedgehog

Everyone, I'm pausing my wedding recap extravaganza for the time being so I can talk about someone very important to me today: my friend, my roommate, my other half—Penelope P. Hedgehog.

I've mentioned Penelope (or "Miss P," according to my mother-in-law) before, but I've never properly introduced her until now. (She's very cautious about posting too much of her personal information online.)

Penelope will be one in November and frankly, she's having a bit of a quarter-life crisis already. I told her she's being ridiculous (domestic hedgehogs live 4-7 years on average), but Miss P can be incredibly stubborn.

And when I say stubborn, I mean two-year-old in a toy store, dig in your heels stubborn.

For example, she refuses to eat anything other than cat food and mealworms. I've tried to feed her other foods—chicken, eggs, vegetable, fruits—but she will have none of it.

Actually, "having none of it" is sort of Penelope's M.O. You see, she will have none of most things: people other than me, sometimes me, the large koala bear in her cage, bright lights (she's nocturnal), loud noises, soft noises, things that look like they might make noises, and above all, baths.

Basically, Penelope would be much happier if we brought her food and then just left her alone (which is why I think she and I connect on such a personal level).

Other than Penelope's seven siblings (who Glenda the hedgehog breeder brought along to the Culver's parking lot where we "adopted" her last January), Penelope is the only hedgehog I've ever met. That being said, I'm not sure if all hedgehogs are as anti-social as Penelope, or if she just takes after me.

Of course, when I'm talking to someone I'm not interested in, I at least try to enjoy the small talk. Penelope, on the other hand, couldn't care less about manners; if she's not into you, she curls up into a vibrating, spiky ball for as long as necessary, until you either leave her alone or bring her more food.

And if you still can't take a hint? Well, Penelope has no problems with simply bouncing.

So I guess she might take after me, after all.

October 03, 2016

Barcelona Honeymoon: Day One

In my last post, I went over all of the newfangled internet-age details of our wedding, which were a serious priority to me as a sometimes blogger. So today, I thought I'd talk about our second most serious priority: our honeymoon.

(Of course, the honeymoon happened after the wedding, which I do plan on writing about once we get all of our pictures back. My deepest apologies, however, if you're a little confused—and/or not impressed—by my jumbled timeline.)

Anyway, as anyone who follows me on Instagram knows, Derrick and I made the decision to skip your typical beach resort honeymoon for a trip to Barcelona. On one hand, this was sort of sad because this is 26 years running now that I don't have a picture of me kissing a dolphin.

I do, however, have this picture of me with a European pigeon. So I guess life does balance itself out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Today's post is not about the day I posed with a pigeon; today is about Day One.

Now, technically, I guess Day One was the Sunday we boarded the plane to Barcelona, at least if you had asked the two teenagers four rows ahead of us who were snickering about being "in international waters." (Then again, I'm not sure they were to be trusted, based on their snickering and the fact that we were not, in fact, in international waters.)

But that would be a lame post consisting mostly of me not crying (okay, crying) during Me Before You and sleeping (okay, trying to sleep) for about 36 minutes before arriving (eight hours of flight plus six hours of time difference later) at the Barcelona-El Prat Airport around 9:00 AM Monday morning. So I'll skip that and fast forward to the real Day One, beginning at the moment we arrived at our home for the trip, Hotel Bagues.

Now, I'd like to say that we are composed world travelers who do not lose our sh*t over moderately upscale destinations. But, guys, Hotel Bagues was really effing cool. And we lost our sh*t.

The hotel was right on La Rambla, one of the major "touristy" roads in Barcelona. Think Magnificent Mile in Chicago, only with more intricate architecture and without the random whiffs of urine. Our room overlooked the Parroquia de la Mare de Deu de Betlem, a church that we didn't actually go inside but did spend a good amount of time staring at from our window. Because, well, look at it.

The best thing about the hotel though? The huge, white terry cloth robes "for us to enjoy during our stay." And enjoy we certainly did.

If it were up to me, the first four hours after arriving would have been spent lounging around the room, terry clothed and comatose. However, we had no time for terry clothed lounging because Derrick had booked a tour that morning of Camp Nou, the stadium where FC Barcelona plays.

Derrick was absolutely thrilled about getting to see the stadium and I was still alive, so despite it being five AM Florida-time, we were doing okay. Actually, the only thing we would've changed about the tour is that the stadium was, you know, open.

Unfortunately, however, it was not. Even more unfortunate was that the lady at the stadium ticket counter spoke Catalan.

Derrick tried to figure out why the stadium was closed, but after he finished speaking with the Catalan woman, he had the look of someone who's just read an IKEA furniture manual: maybe he knows what's going on, or maybe his brain is oozing out of his eyeballs.

Either way, we didn't get the tour. We did, however, get this solid, only marginally photobombed shot of us in front of a picture of the stadium.

Once we got back within Hotel Bagues's free wifi range, we learned that the stadium was closed because FC Barcelona was playing in a Champions League game there the next day. And after giving me a brief overview of the history, regulations, and cultural impact of the Champions League, Derrick informed me that going to this game would be a once in a lifetime opportunity that we absolutely could not miss. 

Now, normally, I wouldn't be pumped about the idea of a soccer game on vacation, let alone our honeymoon. But I'm a married woman now, so I understand the dynamics of a healthy relationship.

In other words, strategic bartering.

So I agreed to go to the soccer game if I got to choose where we ate for dinner the other four nights, which Derrick somehow miraculously agreed to.

So while Derrick napped, I did some intensive Yelp research on dinner that night. Eventually, I decided on Alcoba Azul, which, according to Keith P.'s raving review, had "pretty good food" and a "cool interior." Even better, Google said that Alcoba Azul was only a five-minute walk from our hotel through the Gothic Quarter.

What Google didn't tell me, however, was how incredible that five-minute walk would be.

The Gothic Quarter is apparently the center of the "old city" of Barcelona, where it's easy to stumble across something as amazing as the Barcelona Cathedral above. (We came across it by accident and it literally took my breath away.)

I would have stayed all night taking pictures of it if it hadn't been for the strange woman dressed as a ghost (who wouldn't stop deliberately photobombing and subsequently demanding money for said photobombs).

Actually, normally, I might have stuck around anyway. But, as you can tell from the pictures, Derrick and I were both running on fumes at that point and had no patience whatsoever for photobombing ghouls.

Instead, we continued through the tiny Gothic alleys until we found Alcoba Azul, the smallest, darkest, most glorious little place I had ever seen. We sat inside next to a group of Scottish teenagers (who were surprisingly helpful when Derrick and I were determining if and how to tip abroad) and enjoyed the best Spain had to offer: me with some pork and fig jam pâté, and Derrick with some nachos.

(As you can tell, we have some differences in opinion when it comes to trying new foods.)

What we did agree on, however, was that the pitcher of sangria was delicious and deserved to be finished, a decision that may have affected the rest of our evening. (For example, our spur of the moment decision to be roped into the not-blog-appropriate "Erotic Museum" on the walk home, which offered a free glass of champagne and an extremely questionable gift shop.)

When I went to bed that night, I was legitimately worried that we had peaked too soon. You know, that the first day was so good, things could only go downhill from there.

I was wrong, of course. But that's a story for another day.