“If we see beauty as something we need to be freed from, we miss how people are experiencing it.”
— Hannah McCann, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne who specializes in beauty culture
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Kristi Cooper, a 51-year-old administrative assistant, cannot wait to get her roots dyed as soon as pandemic-ly possible. But Karen Parker, the 62-year-old director of the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Project, is going to continue to let hers grow out. After all, she’s already managed to get through eight weeks of the awkward phase. “I’m anxious about it,” she said, “but I think the time is now.”
During quarantine, Parker began to notice all of the time and expense she was channeling toward her monthly touch-ups. “Instead, I could be outside, I could be hiking, I could be in my garden, I could be reading,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What are your real priorities in life?’”
But for every Karen Parker, there’s a Kristi Cooper. “I’m not going to lie,” said Cooper, “I can’t wait to get back into that salon chair and feel normal again.” She has dyed her hair every three weeks for 30 years.
As hair turns gray and the final flecks of pedicures chip away, we are coming face to face with what lies beneath all that beauty maintenance. For some, it’s become a time of experimentation and fun. For others, it’s been an unwelcome reminder of the lost access to beauty products and services.
Women are especially impacted since the pressure for bodily perfection has always weighed more heavily on women than men.
“There’s so much social currency around appearance,” said Elizabeth Daniels, a professor who researches body image at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “It’s not like women opt into it. It’s just in the air that we breathe.”
But if past crises have taught us anything, it’s that most beauty regimens will bounce right back.
Geoffrey Jones, author of Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry, explained that beauty was considered so vital during WWII that the U.S. government deemed lipstick a wartime necessity. “It was like armaments or something, a necessary good,” he said, adding that vibrant lips kept morale high.
Even during economic downturns, people don’t stop buying beauty products, they just start buying more affordable ones instead. During the financial crisis of 2008-9, it was sales of nail polish and mascara that spiked. During the Great Depression, it was lipstick.
Beauty products “make people feel happy,” Jones said. “It makes them feel much better about themselves at a very difficult economic time.”
Jones doesn’t know what the big hit will be during our current plight, but he is pretty sure it won’t be lipstick. “Lipstick is going to do particularly badly because everyone is going to have these masks on, right?” he said. Although some women may brighten their lips for Zoom meetings, Jones pointed out that there were also the hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers who were unlikely to be using the video conferencing app for work.
During such a fraught time, concern about appearance can be viewed as vain and frivolous, but Hannah McCann, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne who specializes in beauty culture, said it’s important for preserving normalcy. “Maintaining your beauty rituals is a way to feel like you are in control and not losing yourself,” she said.
McCann has been keeping tabs on trends online and has seen a surge in searches for home beauty tips, such as the DIY Banana “Botox” video, which provides instructions on how to make pantry products into a facial that will purportedly tighten the skin. (It was, for a brief time, the top beauty video on YouTube.) Hair tutorials offering guidance on cuts and styling have also seen a steady rise on YouTube.
More strikingly, McCann has noticed — besides the booming loungewear aesthetic — people doing beauty on their own terms: being playful, self-deprecating, and connecting with others online over their mishaps and successes. “People are being much more experimental,” she said, noting the vast use of brightly colored hair dyes. “The chains have been let loose of what you’d ever be willing to ask your hairdresser to do.”
“If we see beauty as something we need to be freed from,” McCann added, “we totally miss the picture of how people are experiencing it.”
Even if beauty standards relax, this is not likely to remain the status quo once quarantine is lifted, said Caren Shapiro, a psychologist based in New York who specializes in women’s issues. She predicts that beauty businesses “are going to come in heavy-handed and bombard us with messaging that is going to undermine being OK in our bodies.”
In fact, under these unusual circumstances, Daniels, the body image researcher, thinks some of the unrealistic beauty ideals could even worsen. “I see so much anxiety about weight gain in quarantine,” she said. “People talking about ‘the Covid 15’ and so on that I think the pandemic is actually reinforcing expectations for thinner bodies.”
Virgie Tovar, a body positive activist known for her work combating weight discrimination, said she has experienced a significant increase in health trolling and fat-shaming on her Instagram account since quarantine began. At a time when many people are feeling extra anxious about their own weight gain, she’s not surprised to be targeted by an uptick in fatphobic comments. “People have always turned to weight-loss as a way to feel like they are in control of factors that are largely outside of their control,” she wrote in an email.
Other academics are hopeful that the pandemic will cause women and men to cultivate a more compassionate view of their bodies.
As health and economy are imperiled, people will start prioritizing community, friends and family, and that can have a positive effect on body image. “When we are in that mode of wanting to help, it tends to suppress that more appearance-focused side of trying to look good in other people’s eyes,” said Allison Kelly, the acting executive director of the Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment at the University of Waterloo.
Focusing on what our bodies do for us can also help shift priorities: “Getting connected to what feels good in our bodies instead of how many calories we are burning,” she said.
It helps that celebrities are weighing in, revealing their bodily truths on Instagram. Among them, Sarah Silverman, Kelly Ripa and Tracee Ellis Ross have all claimed their grays. “There is so much power that comes from seeing other people exposing these things that in ourselves we would have viewed as flawed,” said Kelly, the acting executive director at the mental health center. “It invites more vulnerability in all of us and the possibility that we’ll be more comfortable with how our bodies look without all the work.”
Today’s In Her Words is written by Mara Altman and edited by Francesca Donner. Our art director is Catherine Gilmore-Barnes, and our photo editor is Sandra Stevenson.