As the coronavirus pandemic shut down cities and cloistered people indoors around the world, images began to circulate online of what appeared to be nature retaking territory it had previously ceded to humans. In Japan, deer wandered into transit stations looking for food. In Venice, another post claimed, swans alighted on the normally traffic-clogged canals, the waters of which were clear enough to spy fish below the surface.
Some of the photos were hoaxes—the deer were real; the clear canal waters, less so. Nonetheless, people seemed fascinated with the idea that the world humans have created for themselves could begin to fade so quickly. But many of us don’t need to look to faraway cities on social media for proof that our grip on the natural world is faltering. We can simply look in the mirror.
Quarantine cuts people off from their daily life in ways that are both immediately obvious and imminently catastrophic. Millions of people lost their livelihood, their social-support systems, or both in the course of only a few days. As isolation becomes normal, though, its toll begins to emerge in more subtle ways, including on the body itself. Suddenly barred from hair and nail salons, waxers, barber shops, clothing stores, and Sephora, people have found it much more difficult to maintain the routines that structure their appearance.
The last luxury I allowed myself before committing to an indeterminate period of isolation was getting my roots colored. It felt deeply silly to be concerned about my hair, among all the other, more pressing fears I had about food supplies and job stability and the safety of my elderly parents and asthmatic brother. But as I talked with friends and watched strangers on social media in the days after my own salon trip, I found they were doing similar things: going to the barber, getting acrylic nails filled in or removed, making one last appointment to get their eyebrows threaded, buying clippers to fend for themselves.
The commonality of the compulsion to beautify cast my own graying temples in a different light. If so many people are so concerned with their appearance, then perhaps that concern goes far deeper than vanity. The care of a human body ties people to the physical, social world they’ve been abruptly forced to leave behind. Stuck inside, people are left with just their existing tools and skills, trying to maintain their sense of self, or at least their eyebrows. With people’s faces, so go their identities.
For people whose identity is heavily dependent on their life outside their home, not looking like the people they’ve long understood themselves to be can be a serious stressor on top of more concrete fears about health and safety. “If you get your identity with work and you can’t work now, or you don’t have your friends and that social status and power, I think that’s going to affect you tremendously,” Amy Flowers, a psychologist who specializes in stress management and body image, told me. Flowers used herself as an example: She can dress down for only a few days at a time before she needs to put on a skirt and hosiery to tap back into the sense of order she’s used to. For others, that might mean curling their hair, putting on eye makeup, or keeping their CDC-approved mustache tidy. For many people, Flowers said, these little elements of daily life are the building blocks of psychological well-being.
Even in normal life, some people think beauty routines are a waste of energy and resources. In a pandemic, you figure out which ones are worth the trouble. Sarah Sessler, a lawyer in Cincinnati, is holding on to a sense of normalcy via tinted moisturizer. “Completely abandoning my makeup and hair routine and wearing sweats all day literally makes me feel kind of like I’m already sick,” she told me in a Twitter message. “A little light makeup is weirdly … grounding?” Sticking to elements of her routine prevents her from fretting over her rosacea flare-ups, which are worse during periods of high stress. For some, tending to hair or body issues checks an easy, satisfying thing off their long list of worries. “The first thing I did was wash and deep condition my thick, curly hair and then spend two hours detangling and braiding it into four huge cornrows,” Jacqueline McCrief, a recently laid-off retail worker in Seattle, said in an email. “I don’t have to worry about it drying out and just wear a scarf over it most of the time.” A week into quarantine, McCrief is experimenting with her usual routine. “I don’t wear makeup anymore but sometimes I put on a full face for absolutely no reason,” she said.
When people try to improvise in the face of disrupted routines, things can go sideways quickly. Matt Raz, a podcast and radio producer in New York City, normally has a standing appointment every three weeks to get his head shaved and beard trimmed. Last week, he missed it by a day when his barber shop closed. “I’m probably safer for it, but not being able to go out to get my hair cut made me anxious and had me ready to take matters into my own hands,” he wrote in an email. Raz, now clean-shaven, does not recommend the results, and neither does Nate Youngblood, a data scientist who also lives in New York. “I have had a short beard for probably almost ten years at this point, and had been wanting to recall how my face looked without it but was reluctant to take the leap until now,” Youngblood wrote in an email. “Turns out I look like a cross between my late mother and a boiled dumpling, so I will not be repeating this little experiment.”
People dealing with mental-health issues deeply tied to appearance can face physical and psychological stakes higher than those who have never dealt with similar problems might realize. Eating disorders, for instance, thrive in isolation; anorexia in particular can be downplayed or dismissed as an effort to conserve personal food supplies. Quarantine can also cause a break from healthy routines for people dealing with gender dysphoria or body dysmorphia. “I’m no stranger to working from home every day, but I was still going out to meet up with friends and go on dates” before the COVID-19 pandemic, says Katelyn Burns, a freelance journalist and trans woman in Washington, D.C. “I don’t have those occasions anymore, so I’ve noticed that when I let things go too long, it really flares up my dysphoria.” She says that videoconferences can also be stressful—in normal conversations, people are not asked to look at their own face and mannerisms while talking with others.
When the COVID-19 pandemic eventually abates, physical maintenance will be an easy way for people to start to feel like themselves again—or to mark the end of a painful era. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a lot of clients booking appointments for big changes for post-pandemic haircuts,” Rubi Jones, a hair stylist in New York City, wrote in an email. She’s one of thousands of stylists, nail technicians, and barbers whose businesses have ground to a halt because of the pandemic. “I have a feeling we’ll all want to shed some of the heaviness of this time off our heads,” Jones said. Flowers, the psychologist, seconded this prediction. “A lot of people change their appearance when they have a change of situation,” she told me. “It’s a task, it’s a mission, and that makes us feel good.” Across social media, you can see indications that’s already happening: Instead of worrying about haircuts and coloring, lots of people appear to be shaving their head for quarantine.
Cutting all your hair off might seem dramatic—as might worrying about how you look at all during a global pandemic—but Flowers said that fretting over these things and doing what you can to assert yourself is a natural and predictable response in the face of enormous stress. “It’s about people trying to control what they can, because the reality is, we can’t control this virus,” she told me. Boxed hair dye and YouTube beauty tutorials are not the way to solve a global crisis. But maybe, while that global crisis rages on, you can solve your hair.