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.
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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.